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Tender Conscience Rescued From Harsh Superego : FREUD, WOMEN, AND MORALITY The Psychology of Good and Evil by Eli Sagan (Basic Books: : $19.95; 270 pp.)

March 06, 1988|Paul Roazen | Roazen is the author of "Helene Deutsch: A Psychoanalyst's Life" (New American Library). and

George Orwell once began an essay on Mahatma Gandhi by asserting: "Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent." Well-meaning idealism does evoke a kind of cynicism, and since Eli Sagan comes across as a self-proclaimed lover of mankind, Orwell's skepticism about sainthood does seem appropriate to keep in mind as one attempts to evaluate "Freud, Women, and Morality."

Sagan is against cannibalism, racism, slavery, infanticide, and sexism, ethical conclusions with which few of us will have difficulty. But he follows a series of such dubious steps that I think that his argument threatens the values he upholds. For one thing, Sagan adopts a teleological view of the universe; he not only believes in moral progress but defines a historical perspective by means of an evolutionary process, from lower to higher. To put his outlook baldly, he thinks that past ages were cruel and bad, while we are valiantly struggling toward the light. It seems to me, and most historians, that the essence of a true historical outlook means appreciating diversity, as we learn from the perspective of examining earlier outlooks. Sagan insists, however, on looking at the past solely through the spectacles of the presumed superiority of the present.

Although Sagan strikes me as philosophically naive, the center of his book, which criticizes Sigmund Freud's concept of the superego from the point of view of current feminist thought, does succeed in being both serious and stimulating. Sagan regards Freud as the greatest mind of the 20th Century, even though Sagan believes that Freud's thinking about morality, civilization, science and reason was twisted out of an essential ambivalence about women.

Sagan is no sensationalist eager to court publicity by means of Freud-bashing. On the contrary, if anything, Sagan is too credulous in his premise that Freud made discoveries, instead of thinking that Freud's position was one among many possible interpretations of psychological evidence. Sagan is sound, as he explores the ethical implications of psychoanalysis, in arguing that Freud upheld an unduly negativistic position by means of his theories about the superego.

As an alternative to the superego, Sagan proposes the notion of conscience, and while the distinction between the two may seem like a terminological sleight of hand, Sagan is right in searching for some means of softening the harshness of Freud's conviction that values are inevitably in conflict, and that morality can never be defined by any set of health values.

Even if one cannot share Sagan's belief in the existence of a universal human morality, he has performed a service in trying to relate what he calls conscience to the original nurturing situation between the child and its primary caretakers. For Sagan, morality gets defined by love, and the existence of aggression, tyranny, and dominance are seen as secondary defenses against anxiety. He thinks that sexism arises out of a repression of the memory of the so-called pre-Oedipal mother, and that the values of compassion and pity are endangered because of the fear of engulfment by the symbiotic mother. Feminism has to be central to Sagan's thesis since he propagandizes in behalf of those qualities that frightened men stigmatize as "feminine." Sagan also thinks that he can spell out the various stages of moral development as conscience awakens in us.

Sagan's effort to understand the relationship between psychoanalysis and ethics is a worthy one, as is his attempt to work out a psychoanalytic sociology by means of adopting the view that shared values are at the core of any social system. But his approach is, for me, fatally flawed by his assumptions about the alleged existence of moral progress. I think that it is hubris to believe that "you and I are capable of a moral vision more far-reaching than that of Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, and Freud." However emancipated, we might like to think ourselves, the history of ideas should teach us that in some basic sense, there is nothing new under the sun.

The links between psychology and society are more subtle than Sagan likes to hope. One would have thought that the discredited hypothesis from the 1940s tying the swaddling of babies in Germany and Russia to political authoritarianism could not once again be seriously advanced. But Sagan is so eager for reform that he commits himself to positions that are hair-raising. For example, in citing our time as one of spiritual exhaustion he illustrates the sense of transitional malaise by "the current moral disarray of the Democratic Party in the United States." Sagan is writing from the point of view of the left, but in the context of intellectual history that particular example does sound like a movement from the sublime to the ridiculous. The current state of American politics, no matter how important, can not settle anything once one proposes to enter the world of Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, and Freud.

Our continent has not seen enough moral inquiry into how we ought to live, and Sagan's book is a worthwhile attempt to look at where our values come from. But he damages his whole enterprise by the old illusion of moral progress. We are not, despite what he thinks, "tantalizingly close to a real understanding of society," precisely because reality is bound to be defined in different ways by various value perspectives. It is not cynicism, but proper historical humility, that tells us that the future is bound to surprise as well as disappoint, as much as the past should continue to enlighten us. But it is the pastness of the past, the way history gives us distance toward ourselves, which eludes the progressivism implicit in Sagan's thinking.

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