Paul Ricoeur in his work “Freud and Philosophy; An Essay on Interpretation” comments on the importance of Language in any investigation of Freudian ideas in the following way:
“It seems to me that there is an area today where all philosophical investigations cur across one another—the use of language. Language is the common meeting ground of Wittgenstein’s investigations, the English linguistic philosophy, the phenomenology that stems from Husserl, Heidegger’s investigations, the works of the Bultmannian school and of the other schools of New Testament Exegesis: the works of comparative history of religion and ot anthropology concerning myth, ritual and belief—and finally psychoanalysis. Today we are in search of a comprehensive philosophy of language to account for the multiple functions of the human act of signifying and for their interrelationships. How can language be put to such diverse uses as mathematics and myth, physics and art…? We have at our disposal a symbolic logic, an exegetical science, an anthropology and a psychoanalysis and, perhaps for the first time we are able to encompass in a single question the problem of the unification of human discourse.”
Ricoeur goes on to suggest that “psychoanalysis is a leading participant in any general discussion about language” and reminds us that Freud’s writings after the publication of “The Interpretation of Dreams” had serious cultural intent, ranging over art, morality, and religion. Ricoeur highlights dreams in the context of a claim that “as a man of desires I go forth in disguise” and it is this statement that we are going to explore in relation to the mythical figure of Eros which occurs both in Plato’s and Freud’s writings. A dream is a work of desire. The language of desire is also partly a work of desire and both works require interpretation. This commonality of structure is important when we are confronted with the hermeneutical problems of the meaning of a dream and the meaning of a text like Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”.
Freud was clearly influenced by Plato in his final phase of theorizing in which he refers to the formation of culture in terms of the “battle of the giants”, Eros and Thanatos, and one wonders what the exact source of his inspiration was. Was it the sustained exploration of Justice and The Good in the Republic or was it the speeches given in honour of “Eros” in the work entitled “The Symposium”?
The reports that dreamers gave in Freud’s clinic use a primitive language of desire with a complex structure of double meaning(Ricoeur) which we also find in mythology—the realm in which Eros and Thanatos dwell, although insofar as mythology is intending in its narrative to present a theory of the beginning and end of our world, there is in such language no dissimulation, no going forth in disguise, even if the language involved also has a double meaning structure. The Great Narratives of beginnings and ends, argues Ricoeur deal not with dissimulation but with manifestation and revelation: they deal with what some Greek thinkers would call aletheia. What is being made manifest is the realm of what man considered sacred, the realm of the divine which man without the help of such texts merely glimpses through a glass darkly.
Ricoeur calls the above functions of language, the “symbolic function” and he calls the field of “work” in which symbols emerge, “the hermeneutic field”. The work of the interpretation of symbolic language is a work of understanding and a desire for understanding and it is these two aspects of language I wish to concentrate upon as the key to understanding the language we use concerning the mythical figures of Eros and Thanatos.
In “The Symposium” one of the speakers asserts that Eros is a God. Socrates conjures up a conversation he had with Diotima in which he had proposed the thesis that Eros must be a God. Paradoxically, Diotima uses elenchus on Socrates to demonstrate(“make manifest”) that a God has to be beautiful and All Good.(lacking in nothing) In her demonstration she points to what we know about Eros, namely that he is in mythology a barefooted figure (like Socrates) padding about the city in search of what is divine or sacred: ergo he cannot be an embodiment of the all good and the beautiful which all hold to be divine and sacred. Indeed his origins seem far too anthropomorphic, having being conceived as he was at a party to honour Aphrodite by parents one of whom was drunk and the other extremely poor(Resource and Poverty). This is a dream-like scenario.
Myths and dreams resemble each other for Freud but there are differences. Dreams for Freud are regulated by the Pleasure Principle,i.e. the language we use to report them bear with it the symbolic structure of double meaning and dissimulation: dreams and myth go forth in disguise. They stand in contrast with our desire to understand, which for Freud is the work of the Ego. The work of the ego is in accordance with the reality principle which in turn is responsible for the education of our desire — responsible, in the language of mythology, for the fact that when we talk about Eros we represent him as understanding the beautiful and the Good. Understanding the reality principle is also responsible for Eros communing on occasion with the Gods.
Readers of Freud’s later writings will be familiar with his suggested topographical triangle of desire. We desire or wish for something outside of the circle of our necessary desires, and the world or reality refuses the demand, resulting in a subsequent wounding of the ego which one would expect to lead to a modification of the desire(as falling within the circle of the necessary desires of the body). Yet humans being what they are and being subject to the law of tragedy(tragic beginnings(the drunken relation of Eros’ mother and father) have tragic consequences) the necessary modification of desire in accordance with the reality principle will probably not occur. Ananke is the symbolic figure of the Reality principle for Freud and also symbolizes the fact that human beings will probably never understand the divine or sacred structure of reality. Ananke signifies that the Ego will be subjected to a tormented lifetime of “wounding” in the attempt to strive after the impossible states of affairs that are wished for.
The above discussion seems to many philosophers to fall outside their scope of interest. Logic, they argue is univocal: it can only have one meaning if the principle of non-contradiction is going to have any meaning at all. Was it not Aristotle after all who proposed this principle of logic? Mythology and Freud’s philosophy does not obey the requirement that language has one definite sense requiring logical analysis. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus demanded that every proposition have a determinate sense and logical analysis will help us to understand that sense. As we know he was forced to abandon his earlier position as he looked closer and closer at how we in fact use language. Aristotle also in his metaphysics clearly restricted the role of the logical discipline he invented by declaring categorically that “Being can be said in many ways”.
Freud and Plato, seen through the telescope of Kant’s Philosophy, can be seen to be attempting to answer the 4 major domain.defining philosophical questions, “What ought we to do?”, “What can we know?” “What can we hope for?” and “What is a man?”. The answers they give are: “We ought to act rationally”, “We do not know as much as we think we do(we are not as rational as we think we are)”. Given these two answers, the answer to the third question can only be “Do not hope for too much(do not desire too much). Which of course is unsurprisingly enough in line with at least two Greek oracle proclamations: “Nothing too much” and “Know thyself”. This latter proclamation and the animus of Aristotle’s philosophy probably lay behind the fourth Kantian question “What is man?”. Aristotle’s answer(rational animal capable of discourse) still stands illuminated as a beacon for Philosophy today given the fact that all 4 of these domain defining questions have fallen into the darkness of neglect. The Aristotelian beacon has highlighted the “capable of discourse” component of late and language (the medium of discourse) is seen by many as leading us back to the road of Aristotelian and Kantian Philosophy, and thereby to a discourse about Eros and Thanatos in a Platonic and Freudian spirit.
The Great Myths are, of course, forms of discourse with a “logical” structure which Freud(and perhaps Jung) understood philosophically. They were regarded as rich hermeneutic fields requiring understanding not merely in terms of whether the events signified therein did or did not occur(did Eros’s father get drunk and have sex with Eros’s mother?) but rather in terms of their more universalistic cosmological and humanistic intentions. The language of these myths in talking about events are using these events to carry a deeper signification about, for example, the nature of infinite reality and finite man. Symbolic discourse was also for Heraclitus believed to be the dwelling place for the Gods and a domain he wished to inhabit and believed he was inhabiting toward the end of his days. Perhaps he was the first to believe that he was the son of the Gods, surveying eternal and infinite change from the vantage point of Logos.
One of the great hermeneutical sins is to concentrate on the object of the discourse(the events) and survey this object independently of the intentions behind the text. In other words, the sin amounts to misunderstanding the function of mythical language which is revelatory of the nature of man and the nature of the world he dwells in. In the language of Aristotle mythical language moves in the orbit of the spheres of the theory of formal and final causes. Such theory strives to answer the question: “Given mans nature, what is his telos?” (Can he dwell with the Gods like Heraclitus?). I write “Given mans nature” but our answer to question two must surely force us to admit that only a God can know mans nature and telos. We can only strive or will to know with the help of our theories(for example, Aristotle’s hylomorphic theory of change).
But what, then, are the grounds for claiming that our myths contain “theories”. Well, readers and interpreters of myth will be able to identify assumptions(of, for example, an infinite reality whether it be infinitely continuous or infinitely discrete). Readers and interpreters can also identify the logical consequences of these assumptions. If, for example, reality is an infinite continuum we might be able to dwell like Heraclitus in the realm of the Gods. If not, then we are truly tragic creatures who will need to live forever with their wounded egos continually bruised by the discrete difference between what we wish for and what is possible for us to experience. There are, in myths, also embryonic arguments. Heraclitus is a good guide to follow into this labyrinth. He clearly uses the principle of non-contradiction when comparing a pair of opposites to generate an identity, e.g. “the road up and the road down is the same”.
Myths are filled with seeming contradictions, if we do not interpret the symbols hermeneutically. If we use the correct “theory” many of the proclamations we encounter are both significant and meaningful. Resource, Eros’s father and Poverty, Eros’s mother appear to be opposites at seemingly irreconcilable poles of the spectrum of practical reasoning, and yet they are united at the celebration for Aphrodite, even if it did take some alcohol to facilitate the process.
The text of myth, when interpreted by Greek “theory” calls for thought and interpretation in the spirit of aletheia(un-concealment), the spirit of manifesting or disclosing what is not openly manifesting itself. Symbols are not epistemic entities but entities which have both rational and cultural significance. They stretch over the domains of Metaphysics, Ethics, Epistemology Political Philosophy and Philosophical Psychology: those domains Kant tried to characterize in terms of his 4 questions: “What ought I do?”, “What can I know?”, “What can I hope for?” and “What is a man?”
Paul Ricoeur also explores the function of symbolic language in his work “The Symbolism of Evil”. When we avow the evil we ourselves or others have done this is not done in terms of what he calls “direct discourse”. Symbolic terms, such as “stain” or “spot” are taken from the realm of everyday experience but they are put to different uses in which the everyday experience refers further in a chain of referral to another more universal experience of the subject’s situation in the realm of the sacred or the divine. Ricoeur points out that this is demonstrated by the fact that engaging in the action of spot or stain removal will not solve the existential problem of our relation to evil. Symbols, Ricoeur points out are constituents of literary mythical texts. Some of these myths also contain a reference to poetic experiences of the beautiful and the sublime which range over the domains of the finite(beautiful objects are finitely formed) and the infinite(powers of nature like the power of the sea and powerful waterfalls). Poetry places itself squarely in the language of desire in virtue of the fact that its medium is the language of images. Poetry, Ricoeur maintains, places the imagination at the stage of the expression process where language is at the point of emerging to express desire. Images of the boundless space of the universe, the expansive waters of the oceans whose magnitude is beyond our comprehension and the immense power of huge volumes of water rushing over a precipice in a waterfall may even be beyond the power of language to express and may therefore force a reflective return of the mind attempting to understand such phenomena to its situation in the realm of the infinite. It is patently obvious that we are, here transcending the polarized logic of modern epistemology and logic which require that Being can only be said in one way with a univocal meaning. Aristotle, as we pointed out earlier, questioned this and opened the horizon of Philosophy up to extend far beyond what we can perceive and know. This is, as Kant was able to prove, not merely a rationalistic objection to the empirical worshipping of the idols of perception and method, it is a wider metaphysical iconoclastic project exploring with Socratic and Aristotelian humility the domains of the 4 Kantian questions referred to above.
According to the testimony in “The Symposium” Socrates was loved by many. He was not a physically attractive man, so the desire to be in his presence or be his friend must have transcended the physical. According to Pausania’s speech in this work, love can be both common love for the body or the divine love responding to the character of someone’s mind. The body is a transient phenomenon and will decay with age or illness in front of our eyes over a relatively short period of time but the mind of a good man like Socrates will remain and endure in the realm of eternal things. The mind which is typically loved is the mind that reflects and reasons about its own beliefs and also over doing the right thing at the right time and in the right way. This is the virtuous mind of Greek philosophy. In Freudian terms, this discussion reminds one of the distinctions between the pleasure-pain principle and the reality principle, the former of which appears to be more concerned with the love of oneself than the love of others. The Reality Principle is that which the ego uses to situate itself in the world. It is what is operating in the triangle of desire we referred to above when the wounded ego engages in a reflective work involving a mourning process for the lost object of desire. It is difficult not to see Eros involved in this work. The ego seems to be Eros in the abstract, not a God but a kind of spirit trying to give expression to Eros even to the extent of negotiating with Thanatos whose unnecessary desires aim at the destruction and ruin of everything that has been created and preserved. The Ego appears to be the Freudian embodiment of the virtuous mind reflecting upon one’s beliefs and desires and striving to do the right thing at the right time in the right way, trying to develop realistic expectations of the workings of an externalworld under sovereign Ananke.
The above also reminds us of the Stoic man and the Christian who, as a result of many wounds at the hands of the external world has lowered the level of their expectations to a pinpoint of light in the infinite darkness of the universe of space. Can one love the world in such a state of mind? Dare one take the risk of a love so great that the loss of the object would be simply the end, the death, of the lover. Kant has an interesting choice of words for his philosophical response to the nature of the external world we dwell in: a choice of words which registers the level of his expectations and hopes. He talks about “the melancholic haphazardness” of the events of the world. He imagines Eros padding melancholically about our cities, perhaps with a lantern during the dark nights, trying to find a virtuous mind. This is the image that inspired Freud to answer the Kantian question “What is a man?” with a theory that Plato would have gladly embraced had it not been for the Aristotelian hylomorphic
elements of Instinct, biological homeostasis mechanisms, and a teleological development process of capacities building upon capacities, powers building upon and integrating with other powers.
The strong ego is the best we can hope for in our human condition, Freud argues but even this will not be enough to bring contentment. Man will still be in a state of discontentment with the so-called civilization of the madding crowd and its attempts to build societies that are humanly habitable. Freud is, of course, remembering that the societies with the greatest of human intentions put both Socrates and Jesus to death. So not only the Eros of the Symposium but also the Socrates of the Apology are Plato’s images of what the world does to virtuous men in return for what these virtuous men have done for the world. Speaking about the concept of justice in such circumstances seems a hollow almost irrelevant appeal. The tragedies being referred to here belong in the realm of the sacred and the divine.
In his speech to Eros in the Symposium Socrates searches for truth and knowledge of the good. He picks up an important thread in Agathon’s speech which insisted upon making a distinction between the character of Eros and the effects or consequences of such character. Agathon has been guilty of deifying Eros, attributing to Eros the perfect qualities of beauty and goodness. Socrates uses elenchus on Agathon to force him to agree that Eros or love is the name of a particular kind of relation to an object and that the name better describes the activity of the agent than that of the object loved or desired. This fits in well with Freud’s intuition of the dangers of loving because of the dangers of losing the object of ones love. The loved object can be entirely passive in a process that aims at reciprocity, requiring the fulfillment of two sets of expectations over a long period of time, perhaps over a lifetime. Diotima instructs Socrates that true love transcends a series of stages moving through the love of beautiful bodies, love of beautiful minds, love of beautiful laws to run cities, to the end of wisdom. We sense the movement toward the sacred, toward the dwelling place of the Gods and Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Jesus, and Kant. On his journey, the lover strives after an understanding of the beautiful and the good which they attempt to possess forever. Yet because we know that all men are mortal and that we are men we know we cannot transcend our natures and strive for substitute satisfactions(in Freudian language). We strive to live vicariously through the children and the works we reproduce. The medium for this is sexual desire or desire generally: Eros. Diotima, in the process of Giving Socrates a dose of his own elenctic medicine notices how in the matter of sexual activity all animals become sick with an excitement so powerful that it prepares even the weakest of animals for the fight with stronger opponents in defence of their children or their work. Diotima wisely. Also points to those people who love honour as being “sick with excitement” and who are consequently prepared to risk everything, even their children for the immortality of being famous and the remembrance this involves a remembrance they may never experience. The father of Eros’s father Resource was Invention and Diotima refers to men who are pregnant with forms in their mind that help to create the artefactual world we inhabit, as well as the spiritual/cultural/political world designed and created by men who are loved like Solon and Socrates: men who have devoted their lives to produce beauty and goodness in their love of their cities. Presumably, the Platonic ego will be one in which these three types of forms ) children, works, and ideas are actualized and instantiated in the ever-changing. Heraclitean, infinite, visible world. The objects of these forms were referred to by Adrian Stokes as “good objects” and he pointed to the importance for everybody to experience such “good objects” as part of the task of strengthening the ego.
Freud’s theory of the sexual etiology of the neuroses were controversial during 19th century Vienna. Many commentators have argued over the centuries that Freud was projecting this sexual aetiology into his theory. We do not want to blindly defend Freud against every attack but let us ask in the light of the above reading of Eros and the Platonic origins of the idea whether Freud may have been reasoning in the spirit of Diotima Socrates, Plato and even Aristotle about these matters. Freud probably experienced this “sickness of excitement” in his patient’s reminiscences and their current judgments. His cool and technical language may, in fact, disguise the desires that were being talked about: the pleasure-pain principle creates an epistemological distance here that may be misleading. It seems we just have to characterize both pleasure pain in terms of their objects and causes and this places the behaviour of the patients in the wrong category of substance and its attributes. What we need is a principle that can be characterised in terms of the categories of powers and agency: Eros is an agent with certain powers. Freud’s Ego is an abstract characterization of Eros in relation to other agencies and powers but like Eros is but a messenger of the Gods padding about our cities anonymously and is fundamentally discontented. trying to bear all the losses of a lifetime.
The “sickness of excitement” that Diotima speaks about in the Freudian clinic possessed both obsessive and addictive characteristics which by necessity centre all the agent’s activity narcissistically upon the self. She also refers to the narcissistic and addictive components of our sickly longings after the trappings of power. Freud would have been thinking about these characteristics when he was reading Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The “sickness of excitement “involved in both sexuality and the desire for power are like brothers in the same family. There are, for both Plato and Freud connections between sexual and tyrannical behaviour: both share the telos of an unrealistic striving for immortality in terms of compromise formations, in the one case the formation centres around bodily likeness and in the other the formation centres around the remembrance involved in the reports of the exercise of power on the pages of history books.
Thanatos, son of Nyx, the goddess of night and brother to Hypnos was for Freud hidden in the dark and mute, only emerging into Freudian theory when it became clear that there was something else operating in the mind of his most difficult patients. Freud’s use of hypnosis as an initial attempt to confront the powers and agents operating in his patient’s minds must have originated in his love of the classics. Here we have a Heraclitean clash of opposites requiring a Logos. Freud suspected the presence of the so-called death instinct very early on in his theorizing. As his thoughts matured he searched for this Logos in both the thoughts of Plato and Aristotle. Remember he was working in the field of Biology in his early days. The use of hypnosis proved not to be sufficiently erotic, connected as it was to a reduction in the field of consciousness—almost the exact opposite of the expansion of the field of consciousness Freud was searching for. As early as “The Interpretation of Dreams” Freud clearly saw the connection of language to becoming conscious as did his patients one of which referred to Psychoanalysis as “the talking cure”. Freud also very quickly saw the limitations in relying on a language based association under hypnosis where the analyst was the tyrant ordering the patient to get better whilst he was at his mercy in a diminished state of consciousness. He retained a language of desire which was designed to strengthen the patient’s Ego with resources such as dream interpretation, free association, and rejecting the desires involved in the transference neurosis: the state in which the patient seeks a master to hate.
This hate is attributed to Thanatos and Freud expands the sphere of influence of Thanatos into the regions of violence and destruction, probably as a consequence of the discovery of the self-destructive behaviour of some of his patients. Thanatos is like his mother, like night, the inhibitor of constructive and creative activity: he is like an eternal night without any sun destructive of life and consequently of Eros. Freud also connects Thanatos to Ares, the God of War and highlights the active destructiveness of violent action on the world stage. Culture, argues Freud, is the battlefield upon which Eros and Thanatos and Ares and Ananke do battle for the possession of the world.
Ricoeur argues that the symbols of myths require something more than the theories of Freud if their existential implication is to be revealed and understood. Ricoeur locates consciousness in the practical sphere of our activities and begins a quarrel with Kant over what is required in this task of becoming conscious which is set for man as part of the answer to the question “What is a man?” Ricoeur is thinking about the philosophy of Kant when he says:
“reflection is not so much a justification of science and duty as a reappropriation of our effort to exist: epistemology is only part of that broader task: we have to recover the act of existing, the positing of self in all the density of its works” (Freud and Philosophy p45).
For Plato, the work of living in a city-state and the duty and responsibility of doing the right thing at the right time in the right way is the fundamental work that a citizen must engage in on pain of suffering discontentment with the very condition of his existence. This work is fundamental because the city-state is the arena for all the forms that are reproduced through man’s work and desire: children, artifacts, truth, the good, and justice. Both terms: “work” and “desire” are important components of Ricoeur’s definition of Reflection which is :
“the appropriation of our effort to exist and desire to be through the works which best witness to this effort and desire”(Freud and Philosophy p 46)
There is in Ricoeur’s accusation of Kant a suspicion that Kant is responding epistemologically to both the empiricists and Descartes when he offers his reflections on the question “What is a man? Ricoeur appears here to be basing his claim upon the three critiques and not on the works on politics, history and religion that Kant has also written. Ricoeur’s claims certainly seem to be appropriate to the Cartesian project where the argument is solely epistemological and theoretical: I know that I think. Ricoeur comments upon this project in the following way:
“But this first reference of reflection to the positing of the self, as existing and thinking, does not sufficiently characterize reflection. In particular, we do not understand why reflection requires a work of deciphering, ad exegesis and a science of exegesis or hermeneutics, and still less why this deciphering must be either a psychoanalysis or a phenomenology of the sacred. This point cannot be understood as long as reflection is seen as a return to the so-called evidence of immediate consciousness. We have to introduce the second trait of reflection, which may be stated thus: reflection is not intuition, or, in positive terms, reflection is the effort to recapture the Ego of the Ego Cogito in the mirror of its objects, its works, its acts. But why must the positing of the Ego be recaptured through its acts? Precisely because it is given neither in a psychological evidence, nor in an intellectual intuition, nor in a mystical vision. The first truth—I am, I think—remains as abstract and as empty as it is invincible: it has to be “mediated” by ideas, actions, works, institutions and monuments that objectify it.”(Freud and Philosophy, p43)
Kant stands on the other side of the divide between the will and the “objects” of the will. His claim is metaphysical and man in his philosophy is revealed by reflection not just upon the epistemological question “What can I know?” but on all 4 questions which embrace not just metaphysics but ethics and political Philosophy as well. Being, as Aristotle maintained is revealed in language in many ways.