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Freud’s Pleasure Principle – Missing the point of spiritual healing?

Sky Diving Sigmund Freud

Archie McPhee Sky Diving Sigmund Freud via Flickr

Sigmund Freud believed that human beings begin life by seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. This “pleasure principle” initially takes the form of relieving instinctual tensions generated by the id through activity or hallucination.

When one grows older and the ego matures, one normally advances to the reality principle, where gratification through childish activity or hallucination is replaced by socially acceptable behaviors.

This new behavioral repertoire is, ideally, appropriate to the various demands of the entire inner and outer environment.

But for Freud it’s not a happy solution. Freud had a pessimistic outlook, seeing mankind as the “walking wounded”—that is, forever saddled with psychological complexes never fully resolved nor surpassed.

Had his model included the idea of grace, Freud might have appreciated how God can touch us and heal our wounds. But as an atheist, Freud’s model is severely limited and limiting.

Elton John was probably talking about romantic love in his classic song, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” But even so, God doesn’t always beam us directly from above. God’s love often comes through other people, by way of friendliness, physicality, intercession or some combination of thereof.

But these cuts I have they need love to help them heal¹

When I was young and just beginning university I found Freud liberating. Here was a guy who had seemingly opened the door to the unconscious. To my youthful self, Freud had given us a map to make sense of our anxiety, shame and pain. But soon after, upon discovering Carl Jung, and having experiences better explained – at that time – within a Jungian framework, Freud’s model suddenly seemed sort of small and dark.²

Sigmund Freud by Max Halberstadt via Wikipedia

I remember talking with a guy in a New Age bookstore about the two theorists as I was purchasing books by Jung for my PhD studies, upon which I was just embarking. The bookstore guy summed up my feelings nicely:

Freud will drive you crazy. Jung won’t.

I laughed and went my merry way.

Now, many years later, I’ve come to appreciate Freud again, but within the context of acknowledging a pioneer who, for whatever reasons, could only go so far.³

And Jung, well, as I’ve said elsewhere, to me he seems like a kind of kindergarten mystic. But this is not the place to elaborate on that!


² I’ve taken several courses dealing with Freud. The best one-volume summary I’ve encountered is Charles Rycroft’s A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1977. This entry owes much to that, especially p. 121.

³ For more, here are a few highlights I made with LINER.

Pleasure principle (psychology) – Wikipedia


Epicurus in the ancient world, and Jeremy Bentham in the modern, laid stress upon the role of pleasure in directing human life, the latter stating: “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure”. Freud’s most immediate predecessor and guide however was Gustav Theodor Fechner and his psychophysics.


Freud contrasted the pleasure principle with the counterpart concept of the reality principle


Maturity is learning to endure the pain of deferred gratification.


Freud argued that “an ego thus educated has become ‘reasonable’


In his book Beyond the Pleasure Principle, published in 1921, Freud considered the possibility of “the operation of tendencies beyond the pleasure principle, that is, of tendencies more primitive than it and independent of it”. Through an examination the role of repetition compulsion in potentially over-riding the pleasure principle, Freud ultimately developed his opposition between Libido, the life instinct, and the death drive.



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Epicurus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Epicurus (c.341-270 BCE) was a Greek materialist philosopher, born on the island of Samos who founded a school at Mitylene in 310 BCE. In 305 BCE he opened a school of philosophy in Athens, leading an exemplary life of simplicity and temperance.

From a few extant letters and fragments, we learn that Epicurus believed that happiness was the highest good and that life ended at the point of death. This was not the path of wanton hedonism, as some medieval Christian opponents suspected, but rather deliverance from pain and worry.

The Christian disdain for Epicurus, aside from his disbelief in the afterlife, was exacerbated by some of his followers who advocated sensual pleasure-seeking as the highest goal in life. While Epicurus did see pleasure and pain as standards against which to measure a successful or unsuccessful life, he also advocated restraint. And his understanding of pleasure was more akin to the notion of tranquility than a succession of ephemeral thrills.

Related Posts » Epicureanism, Epicurism

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picture of a wallpainting in a laotian temple,...

Wallpainting in a laotian temple, depicting the Bodhisattva Gautama (Buddha-to-be) via Wikipedia

In Hinduism, the Rig Veda depicts kama as lust, or sensual desire and pleasure.

Desire is portrayed as the force that leads the undifferentiated Absolute to begin the process of cosmic creation.

Later in the Arthavaveda, Kama is elevated to a creator god. And in the Brahmanas, he becomes Kama-Devi, a figure not unlike Cupid, the Roman god of love.

Although Buddhism reacts against some of the more ritualistic and caste-based aspects of Hinduism, it essentially agrees that kama is to be avoided. In the Pali Canon story, the Buddha is said to renounce kama (i.e. sensual desire) on his path to enlightenment.