In his significant book, Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Carl Trueman pinpoints the work of Sigmund Freud as a turning point in Western thought. While others, notably Rousseau, had made psychology the centre of the human self, Freud made sex the centre of psychology. For Freud, the well-spring of all human action, the key driver of the human self is our sexual appetite. Trueman quotes from Freud’s Civilisation and its Discontents,
‘Man’s discovery that sexual (genital) love afforded him the strongest experiences of satisfaction and in fact provided him with the prototype of all happiness, must have suggested to him that he should continue to seek the satisfaction of happiness in his life along the path of sexual relations and that he should make genital erotism the central point of his life.’ (Civilisation and Its Discontents, 56)
As Trueman summarises, ‘If happiness is the desired goal of all human beings, then for Freud the pleasure principle – the quest for pleasure focused on sexual gratification – is central to what it means to be a self. The purpose of life, and the content of the good life, is personal sexual fulfilment.’ (Rise and Triumph, 205) This means, Trueman says,
‘Freud has…provided the West with a compelling myth – not in the sense of a narrative that everybody knows is false but in the sense of a basic idea by which we can understand the world around us… That myth is the idea that sex, in terms of sexual desire and sexual fulfilment, is the real key to human existence, to what it means to be human…thinking of human beings as fundamentally defined by their sexual desire is now virtually intuitive for us all.’ (Rise and Triumph, 204)
As a description of our culture, Trueman’s analysis seems indubitable to me. That sex is at the bottom of our motivations is an idea so deeply rooted in our thinking that it has become very difficult to imagine what it would be like to view the world in any other way. I’ve noticed that many recent historical dramas, especially those set more than a hundred years ago, often insert some kind of romantic and sexual element into a story in which it is otherwise absent. The impression being that modern scriptwriters think that the characters must really have had a sexual motivation for their actions and that their declarations of being driven by honour or truth or even less virtuous but non-sexual impulses are simply a cover for what’s really going on underneath.
Yet, as Trueman shows, Freud’s ideas are barely a century old, scientifically debunked, and only much more recently popularised. This raised the question for me, how would someone living pre-Freud have understood sexual desire and its relation to human satisfaction? Was it a simple question of ignorance, that as Larkin wrote ‘Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three’? This led me to the figure of Augustine who, more so than many historical figures, is honest about his sexual appetites. Indeed, he speaks of his ‘habit of satisfying with vehement intensity an insatiable sexual desire.’ (Confessions, VI.xii)
Yet, for all the power of this desire over him, Augustine does not view, even in his pre-Christian days, sexual, physical pleasure as the purpose of human life. Early on in his Confessions, he describes a key turning point in his life, during his time as a student in Carthage, in which ‘all around me hissed a cauldron of illicit loves.’ By that Augustine does not indicate merely sexual loves, rather he means all kinds of human desire. He wanted to ‘distinguish myself as an orator for a damnable and conceited purpose, namely delight in human vanity.’ But he is pulled up short by a book called Hortensius by Cicero, that exhorts the study of philosophy. ‘The book changed my feelings’, Augustine tells us, because it advised him to ‘love and seek and pursue and hold fast and strongly embrace wisdom itself, wherever found.’ (Confessions, II.iv) Cicero lifts Augustine’s desires above merely material and social goods to immaterial ones, namely wisdom. It will be a long time before Augustine becomes a Christian, indeed his sexual appetites will continue to have an iron grip upon him, but he tells God that at the reading of this book, ‘I began to rise up to return to you.’
The point of telling this story is that for Augustine, and for Cicero, the highest human purposes are found beyond the merely sensory and physical. This is because, at that time as in most times, human societies believed that human beings possessed a soul. That is to say, they believed human existence is not merely a physical affair. Thus, the highest goods that the world offers not merely physical but immaterial, like truth, beauty and wisdom. Such has been the consensus of most people at most times of human history.
Thus, for Augustine and Cicero and their contemporaries, Freud’s analysis would seem exactly backwards. In positing that human beings make ‘genital erotism the central point of…life’ Freud is suggesting that it is the physical and material that offer the zenith of human existence and is therefore the fundamental driver of human behaviour. But a moment or two’s reflection reveals that to be unlikely. Physical things have their pleasures, but it is the immaterial qualities that capture human desire more fully. Beer is good. A beer in the company of friends is better. And who, if they really had to choose, would consciously decide beer over their friends? Behind my house are the Belfast hills. Every morning, when the sky is clear, I see them and admire their beauty. Of course, the hills are as physical as you can get, soil, rock and grass. But the thing I enjoy, that lifts my heart as I take in the view each morning, is their beauty. That beauty cannot be weighed, measured, or otherwise detected by purely physical analysis. It is immaterial. Even in the realm of sex, the same rule applies. For as much as Freud has influenced our society, if people are asked whether sexual pleasure in the context of a deep, profound, loving relationship is to be preferred to sexual pleasure derived from casual, meaningless, anonymous, encounters, most will choose the former over the latter.
This, then, is the reason that, however we relate the two, most people have understood humans to possess a body and a soul and the soul to be where true human purpose and significance is located. Even now, in a society so fundamentally shaped by materialist thinkers like Freud, we intuitively know this to be true. And that is what makes signing up as a society to the ‘myth’ that ‘sexual fulfilment is the real key to human existence’ as Trueman describes it, so disastrous. Physical sexual pleasure can only be that: physical. It cannot feed the soul. Thus, we find ourselves part of a parched, hungry, irritable community, lacking the satiated peace of those that have eaten well. Rest comes after mealtime, and to find that rest we must find a meal for our souls. No wonder a culture led by the voice of Freud finds itself so restless, since as Augustine says to God, ‘you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until it rests in you’. (Confessions, 1.i)