How to be good

I haven’t read Nick Hornby’s new novel ‘How to be good’, but I am sure it will depict some of the complexity and contradictoriness of the aspiration suggested in the title.

Freud too considered the problem of how to be good in his paper ‘Thoughts for the Times on War and Death’ (1915). Even before the development of the ‘structural theory’ (of ego, id and superego) or his mature theory of anxiety, Freud had a lively sense of the complexity of human development, despite starting from the most reductionist premises.

“Scientific investigation shows… that the inmost essence of human nature consists of elemental instincts, which are common to all men and aim at the satisfaction of certain primal needs.”

“These primitive instincts undergo a lengthy process of development before they are allowed to become active in the adult human being. They are inhibited, directed toward other aims and departments, become commingled, alter their objects, and are to some extent turned back upon their possessor. Reaction-formations against certain instincts take the deceptive form of a change in content, as though egoism had changed into altruism, or cruelty into pity”

“It is not until all these ‘vicissitudes to which the instincts are subject’ have been surmounted that what we call the character of a human being is formed, and this, as we know, can only very inadequately be classified as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. A human being is seldom altogether good or bad; he is usually ‘good’ in one relation and ‘bad’ in another, or ‘good’ in certain external circumstances and in others decidedly ‘bad’.”

“The transformation of ‘bad’ instincts is brought about by two co-operating factors, an internal and an external. The internal factor consists in an influence on the bad – say, the egoistic – instincts exercised by erotism, that is, by the human need for love, taken in its widest sense. By the admixture of erotic components the egoistic instincts are transmuted into social ones. We learn to value being loved as an advantage for which we are willing to sacrifice other advantages. The external factor is the force exercised by upbringing, which advocates the claims of our cultural environment, and this is furthered later by the direct pressure of that civilization by which we are surrounded… “.

But all of us are to some extent only good when it suits us and for the sake of appearances and bad as soon as we can get away with it. The difference between what’s on the surface and what’s underneath makes us all hypocrites.

“It is undeniable that our contemporary civilisation favours the production of this form of hypocrisy to an extraordinary extent….

“For instance, it is noteworthy that all our dreams are governed by purely egoistic motives. One of my English friends put forward this thesis at a scientific meeting in America, whereupon a lady who was present remarked that that might be the case in Austria, but she could assert as regards herself and her friends that they were altruistic even in their dreams. My friend, although himself of English race, was obliged to contradict the lady emphatically on the ground of his personal experience in dream analysis, and to declare that in their dreams the high-minded American ladies were quite as egoistic as the Austrians”.

Translations from Collected Papers Vol 4 (translation supervised by Joan Riviere), and S.E. Vol 14.

Leave a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *