Contemplating Freud’s holy trinity

Elon Musk’s apparent amorality got me thinking, not for the first time, about morality.

A convenient way of looking at morality is through Freud’s conceptual triad of id, ego and superego. So I pulled out both my Latin-English dictionary and the psychiatric one for solid definitions of these metaphysical entities. The psychiatric dictionary gave me some surprisingly poetic, even witty phraseology:

Id. “…the obscure inaccessible part of our personality…” “…chaos, a cauldron of seething excitement.”

Don’t you like that seething cauldron image? Still, let’s just call the id our unconscious drive, our instinctual being, a dark, wordless inner mess with which we are born. But there is hope for us because, as we grow up, we develop an ego (literally, “I”;) the conscious self, “the mediator between the person and reality.” “The ego is the executive organ of the reality principle…”

That “executive organ” has a ton of jobs I won’t list here. The ego has “organization…is not chaotic…” So the ego is the CEO of our psyche.

Then we have the superego, literally “above the ‘I'”. The superego is the conscience,”the representative of society within the psyche…and also includes the ideal aspirations…”

Like the ego, the superego also has a lot of jobs. To me, the major one is making sure we have within us knowledge of good and evil. If our choice of action is not good, a robust superego should stab us with guilt and shame; a solid superego will warn us before we do something wrong.

The superego is our morality, our empathy, our bond with other creatures. The ego, the “I”, stands alone; the superego gives us commonality with others.

Years ago, a psychiatrist described the man I was involved with as having “holes in his conscience.” I was struck by her description. I’d never thought of a conscience as a kind of scarf with, say, moth holes. I’d always thought you had a conscience or didn’t.

I really took to this frayed scarf notion, and to the Latin from which it derived: lacunae in the superego. Imagine the classical satisfaction of describing an ex-boyfriend as, “He had lacunae in his superego.”

Freud’s holy trinity phased into more hamishe language with transactional analysis, which had the added benefits of being utilitarian and amusing. Id = child, ego = adult, and superego = parent. I, for one, learned how useful it was to get my triad talking among themselves. Once, when I (the child part of me) was being moody and fussy, the parent in me asked, “What’ll help you feel better?” and the weepy reply was, “Bananas and sour cream with sugar.” I complied with my wish and felt better.

Years ago, I began wondering whether someone who had developed a conscience in his early life could lose it due to personal circumstances (like accumulated great wealth). I think so. After all, a conscience can be an annoying restriction. If a life situation presents a convenient way of discarding this irritation, a person might discard it for the freedom to act solely for himself.

The other day I read a Times article about Senator Ron Wyden and his son, Adam, who is a hedge fund manager.

Ron Wyden is an exemplary senator and, as the article describes, has been working for years on appropriate taxation for the ultra-rich. How painful it must be to him that his son choose to discard concern for his fellow man in favor of the profit motive.

Although the article doesn’t note one particular part of Adam Wyden’s heritage, I will. He is the great-grandson of the founder of The Strand Bookstore, which his mother, Nancy Bass Wyden, inherited and runs. So this guy who perhaps grew up playing in the aisles and shelves of the Strand became a hedge fund brat?


But in the article, Adam Wyden has revealed a new, one-word way of describing the amorality of rich people.

…Adam Wyden, has come out as a vocal and vociferous critic of the tax increases being pushed by the committee’s chairman, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon — his father.

…Adam Wyden, 37, made it clear he does not want to push his familial dispute too far.

“The issue is bigger than my father. I’m not interested in discussing anything personal,” he said in a brief phone call before declining to go further. He said he was “not a Trumper” and “not an Ocasio” — referring to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, an icon of the Democratic left. He is a libertarian, he said…[My bolding]

“Libertarian.” That’s the word.

So whenever we see a rich guy behaving like a rotter and labeling himself “libertarian,” we can understand he is openly declaring that he is missing the last and most important part of Freud’s holy trilogy, his superego. His conscience.

Fuck ’em all.




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