Friday, October 27, 2006


In dreams

The beastly and savage part (of the mind) ... endeavors to sally forth and satisfy its own natural instincts.., there is nothing it will not venture to undertake as being released from all sense of shame and all reason. It does not shrink from attempting to have intercourse with one's mother, or with any man, god, or animal. It is ready for any foul deed of blood... and falls short of no extreme of mindlessness and shamelessness... there is in every one of us, even those who seem to be most moderate, a type of desires that is terrible, wild and lawless.

While one might confidently assume that the preceding passage was written by Freud, it is startling to discover that it was composed by Plato two and a half millennia ago and appears in his masterpiece The Republic ( 1). Freud paid Plato appropriate homage by calling him "divine," but interestingly asserted that his knowledge of Plato was fragmentary. Bergmann,( n1) however, has demonstrated that Gomperz's Greek Thinkers, with its extensive sections of Socrates and Plato, was cited by Freud as one of his favorite books. Further, Freud translated into German, John Stuart Mill's 1866, 67-page article on Plato. Freud, like many original thinkers, is not alone in denying intellectual ancestors and as a final convincing piece of evidence of the link between Plato and Freud, Bergmann juxtaposes a quotation from Plato with one from Freud. In Phaedrus ( 2) Plato states:

I divided each soul into three--two horses and a charioteer; and one of the horses was good and the other bad:... the right-hand horse is upright and cleanly made; he has a lofty neck and an aquiline nose; his color is white; his eyes dark; he is a lover of honor and modesty and temperance; and the follower of true glory; he needs no touch of the whip, but is guided by words and admonition only. The other is a crooked lumbering animal.... he has a short thick neck; he is flat-faced and of dark color; with gray eyes and blood-red complexion; the mate of insolence and pride, shaggered and deaf, hardly yielding to whip and spur. Now when the charioteer beholds the vision of love, and has his whole soul warmed through sense, and is full of the pricking and tickling of desire, the obedient steed, then as always under the government of shame, refrains from leaping on the beloved; but the other, heedless of the pricks and blows of the whip plunges and runs away, giving all manner of trouble to his companion and the charioteer. (pp. 253-254)

In The Ego and the Id ( 3), Freud wrote:

In its relation to the id it is like a man on horseback, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse: with the difference that the rider tries to do so with his own strength while the ego uses borrowed forces. The analogy may be carried a little further. Often a rider if he is not to be parted from his horse, is obliged to guide it where it wants to go; so the same way the ego is in the habit of transforming the id's will into action as if it were its own. The ego represents what may be called reason and common sense, in contrast to the id, which contains passions. All this falls in line with the popular distinction which we are all familiar with.... (p. 25)

Bergmann suggests that Freud's term, popular distinction, can be used as a denial of the Platonic origins of this metaphor. Notwithstanding Freud's abjuration of any debt to Plato, it is clear that this ancient Greek philosopher anticipated the creator of modern psychodynamic theory when he articulated in The Republic a conflict model of the psyche in which instinctual drives represent a constant threat to rational behavior.

Some years ago, Simon ( 4) demonstrated the presence of three main models of mind in ancient Greece, elements of which remain with us in contemporary psychotherapeutic and psychiatric practice. The first of these conceptual models Simon labeled the poetic (mainly Homeric). In the Homeric model there is no clear idea of mental structure, and, as in many preliterate societies, mental illness is viewed as something "sent" by wrathful gods from outside the individual. To some extent this would correspond with our contemporary sociocultural model of mental illness originating in external pathogenic forces impinging on the individual. It is also one, shorn of its animistic elements, that is used by contemporary family therapists, among others, in their therapeutic endeavors.

The second model found in classical Greece is the Hippocratic, the comparatively unmodified ancestor of our current biomedical model. A classic example of this ancient Greek biological model of mental illness occurs in Hippocrates' discourse on epilepsy:

It is thus with regard to the disease called Sacred; it appears to me to be nowise more divine nor more sacred than other diseases, but has a natural cause from which it originated like other afflictions. Men regard its nature and cause as divine from ignorance and wonder, because it is not at all like other diseases. And this notation of its divinity is kept up by their inability to comprehend it. ( 5,pp. 334-335)

In the Corpus Hippocraticum, the brain was recognized to be the source of the emotions:

And men ought to know that from nothing else but thence come joys, delights, laughter and sports and sorrows, griefs, despondency, and lamentations. And by the same organ we become mad and delirious, and fears and terrors assail us, some by night, and some by day, and dreams and untimely wanderings, and cares that are not suitable, and ignorance of present circumstances, desuetude and unskillfulness. All these things we endure from the brain when it is not healthy. ( 5,344)

The third ancient Greek model of the mind and the one germane to this essay is the Platonic or philosophical model. Simon observes that "It is fair to say that much of Plato's philosophical activity was involved in the task of defining and characterizing the nature of the psuche (mind)." And further "we can look at Plato as the one who defined the abstract and the rational as equivalent to the moral good. He equated self-knowledge with self-restraint, and proclaimed that knowledge is virtue.... Lack of knowledge and the irrational, were equated with moral evil, and then, with madness." Plato divided the psuche into three parts, the rational, affective, and appetitive and again Simon observes that "here conflict is conceptualized as a struggle between the rational and the appetitive portions with each trying to enlist the affective portion on its side." Thus we have an early tripartite view of the mind that echoes Freud's later structural model of ego, id, and superego. Plato saw mental illness as a consequence of an imbalance whereby the unbridled instinctual part gains the upper hand. Treatment is through the Platonic dialogue, a precursor of the psychoanalytic dialogue that brings the conflicting parts of the mind into harmony and reasserts control over the irrational part of the psuche. The philosophical dialogue, however, differs radically from the psychoanalytic dialogue, by attempting to discard the emotions, whereas in the analytic dialogue emotions are at the center of the treatment.

Jonathan Lear, a philosopher and a psychoanalyst, has drawn parallels between philosophy and psychoanalysis in his book Open Minded: Working out the logic of the soul (a title that is itself derived from Plato). Lear states ( 6):

Psychoanalysis, Freud said, is an impossible profession. So is philosophy. This is not a metaphor or a poetically paradoxical turn of phrase. It is literally true. And the impossibility is ultimately a matter of logic. For the very idea of a profession is that of a defensive structure, and it is part of the very idea of philosophy and psychoanalysis to be activities which undo such defenses. It is part of the logic of psychoanalysis and philosophy that they are forms of life committed to living openly--with truth, beauty, envy and hate, wonder, awe and dread. The idea of a profession of psychoanalysis or a profession of philosophy is thus a contradiction in terms. Or to put it bluntly, there is no such idea. (p. 5)

He further comments:

It is only to say that a certain activity which Plato called "giving a logos of the psyche" has all but disappeared. An everyday way of rendering the Greek is "working out the logic of the soul." In the twentieth century it has become difficult to understand this phrase because the remarkable advances in formal logic since 1879 have so colored our understanding of what logic is. We lose sight of Plato's project, laid out so beautifully in the Republic, of giving a nonformal but rigorous, not-quite-empirical yet not nonempirical account of what it is to be human. Plato, one might say, is working out the very idea of what it is to be minded as we are. And he does this in the light of Socrates' exemplification--a life spent showing--that one of the most important truths about us is that we have the capacity to be open minded: the capacity to live nondefensively with the question of how to live. (p. 8)

Lear notes that in The Republic, Plato invents psyche-analysis though he posits that Plato is more concerned with the vicissitudes of narcissism than Freud ever was. Lear also suggests, rather extravagantly in my opinion, that Plato invents object-relations theory: he

understood that the human psyche is in dynamic interaction with the cultural-political environment, and that both are fundamentally shaped by the movement of meanings from polis to psyche and back again. He works out one of the most insightful accounts of psychosocial degeneration ever formulated. Contemporary object-relations theorists, if they go back to Plato, will study his account of psychopathology with awe. For Plato, the influence of polls on psyche or of psyche on polis is largely unconscious. And human life is, for the most part, lived in the midst of illusion. In Plato's famous image of the cave, we are, unbeknownst to ourselves, strapped to a wall and forced to watch the projections of images onto the opposite wall which we mistake not only for reality, but for ourselves. We are, on this account, strangers to ourselves. But for Plato as for Freud, there is therapeutic potential in pushing hard at contradictions inherent in the illusions themselves. Every image is a shadow, a distortion of something bearing more reality than it. In focusing on the distortion we can painfully and slowly work our way toward what the distortion is a distortion of. Once again Plato plants the hope of avoiding despair. ( 6,p. 10)

It should be noted that Simon ( 4) has a highly original interpretation of Plato's cave and its shadows:

If we review [Plato's] lists of the characteristics of the baser and higher parts of mind and now consider the last proposition--Plato's denigration of sexual differences and intercourse as a method of begetting and creating--a rather simple but remarkable construction occurs. Consider the items in the list; flux; sleep and dreaming; conflict; begetting, being born, and perishing; and heterosexuality--do these add up to any one simple unifying construct? I propose that they do, and that we can best see that unity by thinking in terms of a particular childhood experience and its fantasy concomitants--a primal scene fantasy... "one of the central allegories in (the Republic), the myth of the cave, is, of course, built around the contrast between shadowy darkness and bright light... [I]nterwoven with the imagery of night and the imagery and theme of sexuality." (pp. 171, 172, 176)

In Plato's proposal that children must not know their biological parents, that the state regulate intercourse and conception, Simon feels that "here we have the most dramatic kind of confirmation of an unconscious primal scene fantasy 'ordered regulated intercourse,' not 'in the dark' is the aim and, as far as possible, intercourse should be dissociated from biological and social parenthood" (p. 177). Finally, Simon concludes that the allegory of the cave with its contrast between light and darkness, the plight of the prisoners when they enter the world of sunlight and realize they had been living in a world of illusion, has its parallel in the child's experience of "the darkness of the bedroom, seeing the shadows and hearing the echoes of parental intercourse."

In Socrates' famous dictum "the unexamined life is not worth living" and with the development of the Socratic method, Lear ( 6) feels we have the ancestor of the psychoanalytic method:

After all, he fashioned a method of cross-examination, designed to elicit conflicts which had hitherto remained unconscious inside the interlocutor. Like the cathartic method, this inquiry was meant to be therapeutic. His was not a abstract inquiry into, say the nature of piety, but a practical attempt to help the "analysand" live a better life. For Socrates, "How shall I live?" is the fundamental question confronting each person; his peculiar form of examination was intended to help a person to answer it well. That is why Socrates had his own fundamental rule: state only what you believe. The "analysand" was not allowed to try out a debating position, but had to bring his own commitments to the inquiry. If the inquiry led to contradiction, it was not reductio of an abstract position with no putative owner, but of the "analysand's" own commitments. That is also why Socrates, like a contemporary psychoanalyst, disavowed knowledge of how the "analysand" should answer the fundamental question. The point of Socratic examination was to help people to be able to ask and answer the question for themselves. (p. 56-57)

Lear observes that the dictum was among the last words Socrates voiced at his trial for both heresy and corrupting youth. Since he was found guilty and sentenced to death, Lear, somewhat mordantly, suggests that in this instance the Socratic method was "a psychotherapeutic disaster." As Lear notes, Socrates' "cross-examination was meant to make people better, but it provoked the demon to act out its murderous impulses." This is the crucial point of departure for the psychoanalytic method and the Socratic dialogue. In psychoanalysis, the emotions and their primeval instinctual roots are at the center of the dialogue, especially in the cauldron of the transference, whereas in the Socratic dialogue there exists an ill-founded belief that rational thought will transcend the irrational. Perhaps this countervailing belief in rationality arose because of the ubiquity of the irrational in Greek culture (see Dodds below). In his ideal republic, Plato would abolish those visceral esthetic elements that pander, in his opinion, to irrational emotionality, such as music and poetry, but, as we unfortunately well know from the horrific history of the 20th century, the primitive irrational elements of the individual and collective psyche are always ready to erupt into action. Only through acknowledging and addressing their omnipresence can we have any hope of containing them. This understanding is the great contribution of psychoanalysis to the human condition.

There always exists the reductionistic danger of making an isomorphic connection between the thought of ancient Greece and that of our own day. This is parallel to the adultomorphic fallacy in psychoanalysis--that of assuming we understand the childhood world of a patient based on our knowledge of their adult thoughts and fantasies or that the mental life of the child can be reconstructed from our analysis of an adult and the residues of his or her infantile neurosis. The mental world of 5th to 3rd century B.C.E. Greece was radically different, even alien, from ours as the great scholar E.R. Dodds has brilliantly demonstrated in his work The Greeks and the Irrational ( 7). He shows that Euripides' horrifying description in The Bacchae wherein Pentheus is torn apart by the maenads who are in a state of ecstatic exaltation is "not to be accounted for in terms of "the imagination alone"; that inscriptional evidence reveals a closer relationship with actual cult than Victorian scholars realized; and that the maenad however mythical certain of her acts, is not in essence a mythological character, but an observed human type" (p. 278). Dodds quotes Diodorus: "... in many Greek states congregations of women assemble every second year and the unmarried girls are allowed to carry the thyrsus and share the transports of the elders." Thus Dodds concludes "this strange rite described in The Bacchae and practiced by womens' societies at Delphi was certainly practiced elsewhere also." And further: "there must have been a time when the maenads really became for a few hours or days what their name implies--wild women whose human personality has been temporarily replaced by another" (p. 271) and "that there once existed a more potent, because more dreadful form of this sacrament, viz., the rending and perhaps the eating of food in the shape of men; and that the story of Pentheus is in part a reflection of that act" (p. 278). This speaks to an important aspect of ancient Greek society that has parallels not with the religious practices of the modern West, but with esoteric religious practices that are the domain of the cultural anthropologist, e.g., Vooduun in Haiti and Santeria and its equivalents in the Caribbean and Bahia.

Dodds examines Homeric thought and concludes: "To ask whether Homer's people are determinists or libertarians is a fantastic anachronism: the question has never occurred to them, and if it were put to them it would be very difficult to make them understand what it meant" (p. 7). Dodds notes, with regard to "a people so civilized, clear-headed and rational as the Ionians (Homer's Greeks)" that "I doubt if the early literature of any other European people--even my own superstitious countrymen, the Irish--postulates supernatural interference in human behavior with such frequency or over so wide a field" (p. 13). Socrates in Phaedrus states that "our greatest blessings come to us by way of madness." He went on, as Dodds observes, to distinguish four types of "divine madness" which are produced "by a divinely wrought change in our customary social norms." Dionysian madness of the ecstatic bacchanal was "to satisfy and relieve the impulse to reject responsibility" an essentially cathartic phenomenon whereby repressed irrational conflicts could be relieved in a ritual outlet. Dodd's remarkable analysis of Greek culture through a close reading of its extant literature and his own sophisticated cultural anthropological understanding demonstrates quite clearly that classical Greek society was far removed from ours. Nonetheless the anlage of many of our most cherished "rationalist" ideas are to be found in this antique world so permeated with magical and "irrational" beliefs.

The truly original Greek ancestor of the psychoanalytic enterprise was to be found well before Socrates and Plato. It was the inscription on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the home of the Pythia, the prestigious divine oracle who became possessed by the god and spoke his words directly. (Another example, as Dodds points out, of the power of the irrational in ancient Greek society). The inscription read "Know Thyself" Socrates advanced this admonition with his declaration: "Knowledge is virtue." The radical revolution of 18th century Romanticism, as Berlin ( 8) has explicated, undermined this central pillar of western culture: "It seems to me, first, that certain among the romantics cut the deepest of all the roots of the classical outlook... namely, the belief that values, the answers to questions of action and choice, could be discovered at all... and maintained there were no answers to some of these questions, either subjective empirical or a priori." And further: "Thirdly, my thesis is that by their positive doctrine the romantics introduced a new set of values, not reconcilable with the old, and that most Europeans are today the heirs of both opposing traditions. We accept both outlooks, and shift from one foot to the other in a fashion that we cannot avoid if we are honest with ourselves, but which is not intellectually coherent" (p. 175).

As I have suggested elsewhere ( 10), this Romantic thesis provided the forum for object relations theory in psychoanalysis through its emphasis on individual subjectivity, the centrality of emotional experience and the potential transmuting power of the relationship between self and object. Object relations theory has its intellectual roots in Romanticism and not, as Lear would suggest, in Plato's delineation of the individual psyche's relation to the polis. Nonetheless, the classical ego-psychological model of psychoanalysis, like so much of our intellectual worldview has its origins in the extraordinary innovations and advances in human thought that the ancient Greeks wrought. The therapeutic power of psychoanalysis and psychodynamic psychotherapy based on the healing power of both the word and the therapeutic relationship was eloquently anticipated in Plato's Charmides (11):

If the head and body are to be well, you must begin by curing the soul--that is the first essential thing. And the cure of the soul, my dear youth, has to be effected by the use of certain charms, and these charms are fair words, and by them temperance is implanted in the soul, and where temperance comes and stays, then health is speedily imparted, not only to the head but to the whole body. (p. 181)

( n1) A psychoanalytic reading of Socrates and a Socratic reading of psychoanalysis. Presented at the 5th Delphi Symposium, Greece, July 2000.

(1.) Plato. The republic, Book IX, pp. 334-335, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1987; B. Simon (Transl.) in Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 8, 43, 1972.

(2.) Plato. Phaedrus, Vol. 1, pp. 233-285, B. Jowett (Transl.). New York: Random House, 1937.

(3.) Freud S (1923). The ego and the id. Standard Edition, Vol. 19. London: Hogarth Press, 1961.

(4.) Simon B (1978). Mind and madness in ancient Greece. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press.

(5.) Hippocrates. The sacred disease. In F. Adams (Ed.). The genuine works of Hippocrates. New York: William Wood, 1929.

(6.) Lear J (1998). Open minded. Working out the logic of the soul. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press.

(7.) Dodds ER (1971). The Greeks and the irrational. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

(8.) Berlin I (1997). The sense of reality. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

(9.) Buckley P (1997). Psychoanalysis and its romantic rebellion. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 45, 577-587.

(10.) Plato. Charmides. In D. Watt (Transl.). Early Socratic dialogues. London, New York: Penguin Books, 1987.

By Peter Buckley, M.D.

Professor of Psychiatry, Albert Einstein College of Medicine; Training and Supervising Analyst, Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research. Mailing address: 336 Central Park West, New York, NY 10025.Copyright of American Journal of Psychotherapy is the property of Association for the Advancement of Psychotherapy. The copyright in an individual article may be maintained by the author in certain cases. Content may not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder's express written permission. However, users may print, download, or email articles for individual use.

Source: American Journal of Psychotherapy, Fall2001, Vol. 55 Issue 4, p451, 9p


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