Women are Key to Modernity

What's morality got to do with mental health?

Posted Oct 25, 2013

Our species has a moral story to tell.

Eli Sagan’s profound study Freud, Women, and Morality: the Psychology of Good and Evil, was written in the 1980s during a period of cultural anxiety following the second wave of the feminism. Sagan argues morality is central to an individual’s psychic health and to our survival as a race. This, in turn, depends on the recognition of women’s equality.

The moral instrument of the mind is the superego in Freud’s structural theory of the psyche. Sagan shows how the concept of superego was distorted by the historical context of its author, how it constructs an understanding of morality based on the fear of threat and punishment

Sagan identifies the source of Freud’s biased theory of morality in the repression of the preoedipal mother, that sovereign object of the oral, anal, and early genital stages. Boys more than girls suffer from fear of engulfment by the mother he suggests because the male child is vulnerable not only to losing his sense of self, but also his gender identity. What Sagan doesn’t say is Freud’s confusion about morality also arose from his feminized state as a Jewish male living in the height of Anti-Semitism: the chief source of cultural anxiety regarding the Jew being the practice of circumcision, a symbolic substitute for castration. Degrading women defended again a brittle sense of manhood. Libido could only be male. Yet when one feels vulnerable it’s not the time for making sound judgment or creating a balanced theory of morality.

Gender Dream Painting, artist Heather Shelton, oil on canvas

What then makes a society advance? How does Western culture get past the anxiety that defends against progress and is so ferociously roused in its wake? A change in value systems always incites apprehension, collective emotional unrest. This is humankind’s great dilemma, the psychological and political problem addressed by Sagan's book: how to undress a society’s defensive armor.

In the later pages, Sagan reconstructs the psychoanalytic theory of morality based on good nurturing. An authentic moral sense comes not from threat, the fear of punishment or external demands. It is something natural from within, originating in the infant-caregiver relationship. Eros is this desire to give back for the love one has received, an opportune repetition compulsion. “Conscience” is what Sagan calls this affection for others that becomes the essence of morality and source of social progress.

The rudimentary elements of conscience begin with nurturing and identification. At some point the maturing psyche questions parental authority and critically reviews familial values. Sagan invokes Edith Jacobson’s idea of “selective identification,” the ability to choose to be like the parents in some respects and unlike them in others. Capacities of “generalization” come into play. Can one apply one’s familial experiences of tyranny and mutuality to the broader family of humankind?

Men’s involvement in childrearing has been revolutionary in the modern era and alters familial power dynamics, pushing us in the direction of mutuality. It shakes up our gender stereotypes, too, as I recently discovered when reading my 7- and 8-year-old sons: “My Princess Boy” and “William’s Doll.”

Within drive theory with which Sagan is working, morality distills to the question: What do I do with my aggression? Is it funneled into sadistic action, propelling us towards death or is it forged in honor of Eros? When we can mentalize or think about one’s own feelings and those of another we can start to understand how we are all connected in an interactive psychodynamic chain.

While morality and its lines of development take various paths, Sagan gives us solid conceptual ground on which to think about how we build character.


Excerpted from the December 2013 issue of Clio's Psyche: Understanding the "Why" of Culture, Current Events, History, and Society.


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