Are We In Control of Our Desires?

Sigmund Freud once said,

“Let one attempt to expose a number of the most diverse people uniformly to hunger. With the increase of the imperative urge of hunger all individual differences will blur, and in their stead will appear the uniform expression of the unstilled urge”.

The essence of this statement is neither new nor surprising for most people who are acquainted with Freud’s ideas. In fact, a large part of modern human society is an advocate of the ‘nothing-but-ness’ of man. After all, either man is nothing but a product of his conditions, situations and environment – or, as concluded from Freud’s statement, nothing but a consequence of his instincts and desires. One thing common in these two ideas is the advocacy of passive nature of man. He is not considered as a single unique individual who consciously acts in accordance with the decision of his independent will and conscience but rather a single unit of a mass population that is always acted upon by different factors, internal and external. The best he can do is to react after these factors have played their part.

These ideologies are in no way a myth. They’re real. As real as cancer, but also as pathological. Especially the former, that man is driven by his instincts and desires without any conscious awareness of it. And more often than not, these instincts and desires are considered to be of a dark and shady nature, as evil as they could get. However, interestingly, these same instincts that are considered to be of dark nature and in control of our minds are, in fact, much more than that. Take, for example, the instincts of sex and aggression. Man is not a prisoner of these instincts. In fact, these instincts are a tool of man’s survival if you look at it from an evolutionary stand-point. Man comes from a world where aggression was a necessity to competently get better opportunities to survive – and sex was a necessity to reproduce and again, increasing the chances of one’s survival.

Ironically enough, the massification of societies that stripped the individuals of their uniqueness and placed more emphasis on mass’s value instead of the individual’s value has, on the other hand, made the survival of an individual much easier. Consequently, world is not as ruthless for an individual’s survival as it was a few centuries ago. Although there are much more disadvantages of this massification for an individual, here we are only concerned with this ease of survival that it has given to an individual. This ease of survival has lowered the need for instincts of aggression and sex but, nonetheless, they have made their way into our psyche through evolution. After all, the scripting of six million years that we have spent on this planet cannot be de-scripted in a few hundred years only.

Thus, the instincts that are considered to make our decisions for us are actually tools for our survival, or at least they had been for millions of years. This in no way means that they determine our future or make our choices for us, or that we are acted upon by them without conscious awareness of it. In other words, we are not the consequence of our instincts and desires. Instead, we have very consciously incorporated them into our psyche, generation by generation and century by century, until they became our very instincts.

Freud maybe of the opinion that when the conditions worsen, there is only a ‘uniform expression of the unstilled urge’ but that’s not what happened in the Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz during World War 2, as Viktor Frankl writes in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. In those camps were people fighting torture, death and starvation. One could only imagine a few worse conditions than what they were facing. Lack of love, lack of food, lack of hygiene, lack of rest, even the lack of basic human dignity. In such conditions, there were people who started eating human flesh from dead bodies but there were also people, although in minority, who preferred giving their last piece of bread to others.

“Thank heaven, Sigmund Freud was spared knowing the concentration camps from the inside,” writes Frankl. “His subjects lay on a couch designed in the plush style of Victorian culture, not the filth of Auschwitz. There, the ‘individual differences’ did not ‘blur’ but, on the contrary, people became more different; people unmasked themselves, both the swine and the saints.”

Thus, one can say with reasonable evidence that this phenomenon is quite real but is self-imposed and self-handicapping. The instincts are real but they are not what one claims them to be. The ideology is a mere justification for post-modern nihilism and hedonism. A means to avoid responsibility of one’s actions and the struggle of facing one’s conscience after one does wrong. If only we realize, man is much more than that. Man has potentialities within himself, and the realization of his potentialities is subject to his decisions but not to his instincts or conditions.

To put in Frankl’s words,

“After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”

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