In After Virtue, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre wrote that as humans are a “story-telling animal,” and goes on to say, “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”
Over the last week, I’ve written a lot about my experiences and the experiences of my friends. In different ways, each of those stories grappled with its relation to the larger Christian story. Through those stories, I’ve tried to sketch some part of the range of gay experience, from anonymous hook-ups to highly idealized unrequited love.
Many Christians are suspicious of experience. They think that in our present fallen state, we are far too likely to be misled by our sinful desires, and that the only reliable source of moral judgment is found in the Bible or (for Catholics) in the Church’s teaching.
Pope John Paul II offered a more nuanced view. The Theology of the Body is a collection of addresses given by Pope John Paul II in the late 1970s and early 1980s and addressed to understanding the body and human sexuality in light of the Gospel.
In a footnote to General Audience 4 (September 26, 1979), he examines the relationship between revelation and experience. He correctly points out that we know of our resurrected state only through revelation: our experience is limited to our fallen state. But he denies that this difference means that revelation and experience are radically opposed:
We therefore have the right to speak about the relationship between experience and revelation; in fact, we have the right to raise the issue of their relation to each other, even if many think that a line of total antithesis and radical antinomy passes between them.
And this is born out in experience. Autobiographies of conversion, like Augustine’s Confessions or C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy, reveal the sometimes complex interplay between revelation and experience. Ultimately, conversion necessarily involves contact with the transcendent God. But often the ground for conversion is prepared through various experiences, which give us some insight into the truths revealed in the Gospel (see also Romans 2:14-15).
In this post, I want to turn from my own experience and that of my friends, and think instead about the larger frames of thought that shape the way Christians think about sexuality. It is, I realize, a much denser, more difficult post. However, I think that it lays an important foundation for understanding why contemporary Christian culture has struggled so much to articulate a coherent and compelling response to the sexual revolution more broadly, and to the gay rights movement more narrowly.
The Heart: Condemned or Called?
Beginning in General Audience 44 (October 15, 1980) of the Theology of the Body, Pope John Paul II asks whether we should hear these words of Christ as an accusation directed against the human heart, or as a call directed to the human heart, inviting it toward the good? The Pope’s answer is that these words are an invitation and a call. To help the reader to understand, in General Audiences 46 (October 29, 1980) and 47 (November 5, 1980), he contrasts the approaches to desire taken by Freud and Plato.
In this post, I will expand on the Pope’s discussion by comparing and contrasting two ways in which Plato and Freud think about desire in the human psyche. Both thinkers offer a tripartite account of the psyche: Plato’s myth of the Charioteer and Freud’s theory of the id, superego, and ego. Human action, according to each thinker, emerges from the interaction between these different parts of the psyche. For Freud, this interaction is always more or less conflicted. In the Republic, however, Plato suggests that the interaction can be either conflicted or harmonious.
Freud: Id, Superego and Ego
On Sigmund Freud’s view, the human psyche consists of three “parts,” the id, the superego, and the ego.
The id (German: Es) is composed of two instinctual drives, the desire for pleasure, particularly sexual pleasure, and the desire for destruction, or the death-wish. The id, according to Freud, is “the dark, inaccessible part of our personality… it has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle.” (Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis: The Standard Edition, ed. James Strachey (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990), p. 91-92.)
New-born babies are completely dominated by their instinctual desires, wanting their immediate impulses gratified with no concern for either consequences or morality. As children grow up, however, their parents train them to resist some impulses while gratifying others. Freud believed that this leads children not only to resist the satisfaction of forbidden impulses, but to repress them, so that they are no longer available to conscious awareness. Thus, to say that many of the id’s impulses are unconscious is not just to say that we are often not aware of the ways our instinctual drives shape our behavior. It is to say that we are unconscious of them because they have been repressed. (See Note 2.)
Of course, we often are aware of the promptings of the id: from time to time, all of us experience conscious desires for objects and actions that will bring pleasure, and also feel conscious impulses to destruction or self-destruction. But Freud believes that these conscious impulses are just the tip of the iceberg. The vast majority of our instinctual desires have been repressed into the unconscious, leaving a socially acceptable remnant, and those impulses which evade the mechanisms of repression to impose themselves on our consciousness.
Initially, the impetus for repressing the id’s impulses comes from our parents and from society. We seek to gratify a forbidden impulse, and are scolded or punished. As we grow older, however, we internalize these expectations, so that we learn to automatically repress our instinctive impulses without being told to do so. This internalized self-censor Freud calls the superego (German: Über-Ich). On Freud’s view, we not only repress our instinctual desires, but also repress the awareness that we are doing so. Thus, the operations of the superego, like those of the id, are also often unconscious.
The superego is a kind of idealized vision of the self, the image we are always trying to “live up to.” It is an internalized father-figure who represents both the child’s idealized vision of his or her father, and plays the father’s role as disciplinarian. When we fail to live up to this ideal, the superego inflicts feelings of guilt. As with the id, we are sometimes consciously aware of our superego, but our conscious moral deliberations and conscious feelings of guilt represent only a small part of the influence that the superego exerts on our mental processes.
Conscious awareness, on Freud’s view, resides in the ego (German: Ich), though some parts of the ego are also unconscious. The ego is the reality principle, the part of the psyche which helps us to understand and relate to the world around us. Since a baby starts out as wholly driven by the id, the ego can be characterized as the part of the id which has been modified by contact with the external world (The Ego and the Id, pp. 18-19).
The ego has to negotiate the conflicts between the instinctual impulses of the id, the demands of the external world, and the censures of the superego. This relationship is, on Freud’s view, one of inevitable conflict.
In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud argues that there is an inevitable conflict between our instinctual desires and the demands of civilization. Regarding our desire for pleasure, we may desire sex with someone who does not reciprocate our desire, or we may find ourselves in competition with another person who desires the same pleasure we desire. Or, pursuing our desire for pleasure may interfere with our other social duties, or involve betraying our commitments to others. The death instinct, which inclines us to violence, is even more obviously in conflict with the needs of a stable civilization.
On the one hand, civilization enables human beings to satisfy their desires much more effectively than they could do if forced to struggle for survival alone. On the other hand, because of the inherent conflict between our instinctual desires and the requirements of civilized life, we find ourselves locked in an inevitable conflict, and condemned to the inevitable frustration of our desires.
One of the ego’s strategies for managing the conflict between the id, the superego, and the demands of civilization is to rationalize satisfaction of the id’s “base” desires by pretending that they are “higher” or “nobler” than they actually are. So, for example, when a person tells himself that he is drawn to the beauty of another person, Freud would say that this is really only a disguised or displaced desire for the pleasures of sexual intimacy.
In General Audience 46 of the Theology of the Body, John Paul II quotes Paul Ricoeur’s description of Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche as “masters of suspicion.” If Freud is right to see nothing more than base lust behind even apparently “noble” human desires, then Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount can only be an accusation directed against the human heart, which is, at its core, dominated by lust and the desire for violence (see Theology of the Body footnotes 54 and 55).
Plato: The Myth of the Charioteer
In General Audience 47, John Paul turns from Freud to Plato. Unlike Freud, Plato believes in the afterlife. This has an important effect on how he views human happiness. For Freud, the only possible human happiness is that which is found in this life. Death inevitably ends all possibility of satisfying human desire. For Plato, on the other hand, it turns out that all human desires are ultimately directed to a consummation only possible beyond the sensible world we now inhabit. In order to get a deeper understanding of this point, we turn to Plato’s Myth of the Charioteer, found in the Phaedrus.
As an aside, although Plato’s belief in the afterlife brings him closer to Catholic belief, his view is at odds with the Catholic view in at least two ways. First, Plato believes in a form of reincarnation (see, for example, Phaedrus 256b). Second, as John Paul II argues in General Audience 66, the Christian doctrine of the resurrection suggests that the body is not merely a prison for the soul, as Plato thought, but that the human person exists in the union of body and soul. Still, the Pope believes Plato’s view is worth examining in some depth, and devotes General Audience 47 to this task.
Like Freud, Plato presents the soul as having three parts: two horses, one black and the other white, guided by a charioteer. At first glance, the parts seem to correspond rather directly to the three parts in Freud’s picture. The black horse, like the id, is indecent, quick to lunge toward pleasure, deaf to the commands of the charioteer, and barely willing to yield to the horsewhip and goad combined. The white horse, on the other hand, loves honor, modesty, self-control. He needs no whip, and is able to be guided by verbal commands alone. He corresponds in a certain way to the superego. And finally, corresponding to the ego, the charioteer, who must try to manage the conflict between the two horses.
As we delve more deeply into the myth, however, we come to see that the differences are more important than the similarities, and that Plato’s way of thinking about desire opens up the possibility of understanding Christ’s words not merely as a condemnation of the heart’s desires, but an appeal to lift the heart’s desires up to their true object.
I have already pointed out what we might call the “psychological” traits that Plato attributes to the two horses. However, in the dialogue, Plato actually describes the horses’ physical appearance first. The description of the white horse evokes beauty: he is “upright and has clean limbs; he carries his neck high, and has an aquiline nose, he is white in color, and has dark eyes” (Phaedrus 253d). The black horse, on the other hand, is not just badly behaved, but ugly: “crooked, heavy, ill put together, his neck is short and thick, his nose flat, his color dark, his eyes grey and bloodshot” (253d-e; see also 246b).
This connection between beauty and goodness, ugliness and evil, is not accidental for Plato. He thinks that reality has two levels: there is the world of appearances, which seems to us to be the “real” world. However, beyond the heavens, there is another level of reality, invisible to the eye, without color, shape, or solidity, and only capable of being grasped by the mind. Here is found something Nehamas and Woodruff translate as “a being that really is what it is,” or, in Fowler’s translation, a “truly existing essence” (247c). This is the realm of the Platonic Forms.
For Plato, we are what we are because our form is copied from the Forms themselves. We only exist by participation in the Forms. The highest human fulfilment, he thinks, is to perceive the Forms directly in the mind. Such a “vision” would give perfect understanding of the eternal principles behind all of the flux and change of this world, because the Forms reveal the essences of things.
Plato thinks that if something is beautiful, it is so because it participates in the Form of beauty itself. Plato thinks we perceive beauty more easily than we perceive other Forms like justice or self-control. Beauty is “on the surface,” so to speak, while those other forms are more “interior.” This makes beauty particularly well-suited to draw the human mind up into contemplation of the realm of the Forms, because it is the Form in which the transcendent Beauty of the Forms themselves is presented most directly to our human senses (250a-b).
When one perceives another person’s beauty, Plato thinks, “his whole soul is warmed by the sight, and is full of the tickling and prickings of yearning” (253e). However, this vision also can spark an intense conflict within the soul. The black horse “springs wildly forward, causing all possible trouble to his mate and to the charioteer, and forcing them to approach the beloved and propose the joys of love” (254a). Thus far, the black horse’s reaction is quite similar to what we would expect from the Freudian id: the sight of an attractive person stirs an intense desire for sexual pleasure within it.
The white horse and the charioteer, meanwhile, at first “pull back indignantly and will not be forced to do terrible and unlawful deeds” (254a). As the black horse continues to insist on pleasure, however, the other horse and charioteer “go forward with him, yielding and agreeing to do his bidding. And they come to the beloved and behold his radiant face” (254a-b). Here, the white horse seems less resistant than the Freudian superego; however, the charioteer’s reaction seems like that of the Freudian ego, resisting the black horse (id), but also trying to negotiate the tension between the two horses.
As the charioteer is dragged toward his beloved, however, he beholds his beauty and “his memory is borne back to the true nature of beauty, and he sees it standing with modesty upon a pedestal of chastity, and when he sees this he is afraid and falls backward in reverence, and in falling he is forced to pull the reins so violently backward as to bring both horses upon their haunches, the one quite willing, since he does not oppose him, but the unruly beast very unwilling” (254b-c).
Plato has written that the human soul existed prior to taking on a body, and that in that state it obtained a vision of the forms. In this life, we recognize the Forms in objects presented to our senses by remembering or recollecting our vision of the Forms themselves before birth. (See Phaedrus 249b-250a. The idea in this passage is that the beauty of the beloved causes the soul to remember the Form of Beauty itself which it had perceived before it fell to earth and took on a human body.)
This begins an ongoing conflict within the soul between the black horse, which desires the pleasures of love, and the white horse and charioteer, who desire chaste contemplation of the beloved’s beauty, and violently resist the black horse’s sensual intoxication. They tighten his reins, tear at his mouth, and cause him great pain. “When the bad horse has gone through the same experience many times and has ceased from his unruliness, he is humbled and follows henceforth the wisdom of the charioteer, and when he sees the beautiful one, he is overwhelmed with fear; and so from that time on the soul of the lover follows the beloved in reverence and awe” (254e).
It is quite easy to see a parallel between the repression of sexual desire in the Freudian system and the way that the black horse, after experiencing repeated pain, stops lunging at the beloved. However, Freud sees this leading inevitably to frustration and discontent, while Plato sees it differently. “If now the better elements of the mind, which lead to a well ordered life and to philosophy, prevail, they live a life of happiness and harmony here on earth, self controlled and orderly, holding in subjection that which causes evil in the soul and giving freedom to that which makes for virtue; and when this life is ended they are light and winged …. Neither human wisdom nor divine inspiration can confer upon man any greater blessing” (256a-b). Because the beloved’s beauty causes the lover’s soul to remember the Form of Beauty itself, and thus lifts the mind to the realm of the Forms which enable the mind to understand reality, the experience of love can be the beginning of knowledge and the philosophical life.
On Freud’s view, lovers are in fact acting on the same instinctive desire for pleasure that motivates a cat to lick itself or a dog to mount the postman’s leg. But we disguise this fact from ourselves by wrapping these “base” desires in elevated rhetoric about love. This conceals the true nature of our desires, but also condemns them to inevitable frustration.
On Plato’s view, however, love is actually a response to the beloved’s beauty, which reminds us of the form of beauty itself. This memory is something unique to the human intellect: dogs and cats are incapable of intellectual abstraction because they have never beheld the Forms. They can only respond to sensible pleasure. For humans, however, the desire aroused by the beloved is a desire for something that transcends sensuality. Thus, in disciplining the black horse, the soul is not merely repressing its true desires: it is rightly ordering them, so that sensual desires do not distract the soul from its true end.
At the same time, the black horse is not simply a distraction, for it was the first part of the soul to respond to the beloved’s beauty. Without its passionate response, the soul would not have approached the beloved in the first place. Thus the black horse’s passion is a crucial catalyst for the soul’s ascent to the realm of the Forms, and thus its progress in philosophy. But for that progress to bring the soul to true wisdom, the black horse must be broken of its unruly temper.
Plato: The Healthy City and the Feverish City
In the Republic, Plato explores questions of justice—the nature of the well-ordered city and the nature of the well-ordered soul. In Book II, Socrates compares the just man with the just city, and argues that since the city is larger, we may be more easily able to see what justice consists in if we examine the city. Then, by examining the similarities between the city and the soul, we may come to better understand justice in the soul (Republic, 368e-369a).
Cities come into being because human beings are not self-sufficient. We have a variety of needs, and filling each of those needs requires certain skills and abilities. So we need, among other things, farmers to provide food, builders to construct homes, weavers to make clothes, as well as a variety of other roles needed to create and exchange goods and services. Because different people have different abilities, each of these tasks can be performed with greatest skill and efficiency by someone who specializes in the task they are best suited to perform—each man should have his own art. Thus, a city requires a number of people who cooperate to fulfill each other’s needs (369b-370c). Through such cooperation, a people can live together in harmony, enjoying the fruits of each other’s labors, living long lives in peace and good health, and bequeathing the same to their children. This kind of city Plato describes as the healthy or true city (372c-e).
However, he next considers the feverish city (372e). In this city, the citizens are not content with their possessions but desire further luxuries. The citizens try to take from each other, and the city’s needs expand, to the point that it goes to war in order to acquire land from a neighboring city (373e). The city now needs guardians, who act both as soldier-protectors and rulers. In contrast with the rest of the city’s citizens, the guardians are philosophers who are moderate and ordered. They rule over the rest of the city. In contrast with the prior city, whose citizens order themselves, in this city the guardians order the other citizens who are unable to live by self-rule and moderation.
The images of the soul in the Republic describe two ways that the passion of the black horse in the Phaedrus can relate to the rest of the soul. In the feverish city, the citizens are ruled over by the guardians. Except for the guardians, no citizen is “free,” in the sense that he acts out of his own order and moderation. Rather, he is ruled over by the guardians, who check him if he becomes unruly. The philosopher dominates all other parts of the soul with a kind of hard reason. This would coincide with a charioteer image in which the unruly horse does not learn to function as part of a unified and integrated team with the tame horse and the charioteer. Rather, the unruly horse will always enslave the soul to passion if the charioteer does not keep tight control over the reins. The charioteer keeps the unruly horse on a tight rein, overseeing its every move, and never allowing it to act of its own accord.
The image of the healthy city corresponds with a different charioteer image. Each horse plays a distinct role. The black horse drives the chariot towards the beloved out of passion, but the white horse aids the charioteer in ordering and disciplining this passion, and ensures that the chariot ascends properly. In the healthy city, each citizen plays an essential role in building up the harmony of the community.
For Plato, beauty always has a great power over us. It has the power to enslave us. But it also has the power to elevate us and become a means of transcendence. The dispositions of the soul correspond to these two possibilities. One may become enslaved to beauty through wanton passion, or one may be driven by an ordered desire for this beauty to the realm of the divine. The second option is not as obvious, but is open to each of us.
This section of the Theology of the Body began with the words of Christ: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell” (Matthew 5:27-30).
If we conceive of our deepest desires in a Freudian way—as a powerful libido that seeks pleasure—then Christ’s words in the Sermon on the Mount condemn those desires. Redemption can only be the elimination of our desires.
If, however, we conceive of our desires in the way that Plato does, then the situation is different. Here, our deepest desire is for the other person, not merely for sexual pleasure. The person is desirable because they are an image of something divine. Although Plato’s way of describing this is not precisely the Christian way, the Christian way of understanding God and the human person actually makes Plato’s point stronger.
A human being is a person, created in God’s image. For Plato, loving the beloved lifts the soul’s eyes up to the Forms. For Christians, however, we are drawn first to the image of God, and then to God Himself. Plato’s vague mysticism thus finds much more concrete expression in John Henry Newman’s description of how the rightly ordered love for particular neighbors prepares us for loving the whole human race and for loving God Himself.
Again, if we conceive of human loves in the Freudian way, then we will tend to see all serious friendship as really homosexual, as C. S. Lewis noted in The Four Loves. This leads the world to think that sexual intimacy with whichever sex you happen to be attracted to is an essential aspect of human flourishing, and leads many Christians who want to uphold a traditional worldview to view any intense same-sex relationship with suspicion.
In particular, if my feelings for Jason were really rooted in a Freudian id, then Christ’s words in the Sermon on the Mount mean that it is better to rip them out or cut them off, lest I separate myself from Christ completely. The desires of my heart must be condemned completely.
On the other hand, if my feelings are better understood by some analogy with Plato’s Myth of the Charioteer—and for what it’s worth, I have found that myth to be much better at explaining my experiences than Freud’s theories—then the demand of the Sermon on the Mount that I cut away any lust is not a condemnation of those desires, but a call to purify them.
Thus if I ask, “what ought I to do?” with feelings like those I experienced for my friend Jason, I must know whether the Christian story is more like the Freudian story, or more like that of Plato.
Note 1: This post is based, in part, on a panel presentation I gave at the 2013 Edith Stein Conference at the University of Notre Dame, presenting with Chris Damian, Joshua Gonnerman, and Jake Torbeck. I owe some of these points directly to Chris Damian, and have discussed these ideas with him so often that I can no longer accurately separate thoughts that were originally his from those that were originally mine.
Note 2: The “unconscious” is a technical term in Freudian psychology, referring not to things we just happen not to be consciously aware of, but to mental content which has been actively repressed from consciousness. Thus, Freud reaches the concept of the unconscious from the theory of repression. See Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id, ed. James Strachey (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990), p. 5. For a more complete overview, see Alasdair MacIntyre’s The Unconscious: A Conceptual Analysis, Revised Edition (New York, NY: Routledge), 2004.
Note 3: For the sake of simplicity, I have written as if I was describing Plato’s views throughout this post. In fact, the view I reported is that of the character of Socrates in the Platonic dialogues. For the purposes of the post, I didn’t address the complex relationship between Plato’s views and those of Socrates, or the question of how accurately Plato’s Socrates reflects the views of the historical Socrates.
This post is part of a larger series of posts loosely organized around the question, “What hope can the Church offer lesbian, gay, and bisexual Christians?” To see other posts in the series, click here.