Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Principle of Opposites and Freud

Freud was a widely read and deeply astute observer of human behaviour.  Added to this he was also exceptionally intelligent.  Consequently he would have been well aware of the notion or theory that the world is characterized by “opposites.”  This contention runs throughout much of ancient Greek philosophy as well as in a lot of ancient spiritualities like that of Taoism.  Even those ancient Greek philosophers who rejected the notion that the opposites should be accorded an important role in describing Reality (e.g., Anaximines) had to at least argue against the prevailing common opinion. Doctrines of “opposites” continued throughout Greek philosophy and medical theory.

Lists of “opposites” that commonly appear in the above mentioned philosophies and spiritualities would be: Hot – Cold; Dry – Wet;  Limit – Unlimited;  Odd – Even;  Right – Left;  One – Plurality;  Male – Female;  Resting – Moving;  Straight – Crooked;  Light – Darkness;  Good – Bad (Evil);  Square – Oblong; Big - Small; Black - White; Up - Down; Over - Under; In - Out etc. (You might like to add your own pairs to this list!)

[However, Greek philosophy showed a considerable predilection for the conflicting nature of these opposites.  Also it is interesting to note that they placed the moral categories of Good and Bad in their list of opposites as well as the neutral categories which simply describe the physical universe.  Indeed some of them like the Pythagoreans thought that all the terms of the Left Hand Side of the above pairs like that on the Right could be grouped together.  Hence, Limit or Limitation becomes the principle of goodness while the Unlimited becomes the principle of Evil.  Note also that the Pythagoreans place ‘male’ (good) on the Left  and  ‘female’ (bad) on the Right. Anaximander saw the universe as a perpetual battleground between opposing warring principles.  We might like to note also that the Persian religious leader Zoroaster, with whom the Greeks sometimes linked Pythagoras, also saw the universe in a similar manner.]

So much for the principle of opposites in ancient philosophy and ancient religions.  The Romantic poets like Wordsworth and S.T. Coleridge also firmly subscribed to this theory or principle of opposites.  Our very own national poet W.B. Yeats referred to this exact same principle as his theory of antinomies.  I'm sure this principle must have been advocated in the German Romantic Movement also.  Hence, our man Freud would have been very well acquainted with this central principle from early on in his studies.

This principle of opposites could also be called, of course, a principle of dualism.  Freud was highly dualistic in his approach believing in opposing forces within the human psyche.  It is here that I wish to describe his two opposing principles, that of the Death Instinct ( or Thanatos) over against the Life Instinct (or Eros).  Dr. Anthony Storr in his wonderful book on Freud is interesting to read with respect to these opposing urges or instincts.  He quotes Freud as emphasising that there is an instinct which is "an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier stage of things."  This earlier stage of things is naturally the inorganic stage.  He goes on quoting Freud in saying that "we shall be impelled to say that 'the aim of all life is death' (Storr, Freud: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford 1989, 2001, p. 66)

Here we have stated clearly Freud's assertion of what he calls the "death instinct", the ultimate expression of the Nirvana principle,that is,  sweet and eternal release from all suffering.  Freud had elaborated what he had always wanted, namely a dualistic scheme in which all phenomena of mental life could eventually be traced to the interaction of or conflict between two drives or two urges or two instincts called Life (Eros) and Death (Thanatos).  Having worked out this overall schema Freud went on logically to deduce other facts from these basic principles or axioms, e.g., he now considered that aggression was derived from the Death Instinct being redirected towards the external world.  Another conclusion that our learned founder of psychoanalysis came up with was that Civilization itself was a giant process in the service of Eros, namely a process pushing humankind towards Unity.

The imprint of this foot in the sand illustrates nicely the principle of opposites - fullness and emptiness. Again I took this picture on Donabate Strand about 1 year ago!

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