The Consensus on Human Nature
Do we even have a consensus?
Sat May 13 2023
What is the consensus on human nature? It is TBD but there have been two main perspectives that keep coming up. The philosophers Plato and Aristotle had opposing views that mirror the psychologist Sigmond Freud view compared to modern psychologist Steven Pinker. Here we will explore these perspectives.
Plato is to Aristotle as Freud is to Pinker
Plato, Aristotle, Freud, and the modern psychologist Steven Pinker are all renowned for their insights into the human mind, but they differ significantly in their understanding of human nature.
Plato divided the human soul/ nature into three parts: reason, spirit, and appetite. Whereas Aristotle divided human nature into the rational and the irrational. Similarly Freud had his three part division of the psyche, the id, ego and superego, whereas Pinker just wrote a book called “rationality” that pleads for people to be more rational. With the underlying assumption that we are either rational or irrational and for the sake of progress we need to be rational.
It’s easy to boil things down to being rational and irrational, it makes everything black and white. Who doesn’t want to live in a simple world?
- “I am right and you are wrong”,
- “I am rational, you are irrational”
- “That one time I was wrong, I was irrational but now I am back to being rational and you are still irrational”
- “We are not making progress because we are irrational and we need to be more rational”
But what if there is more to the story than human nature simply being rational or irrational?
What did Plato mean when he divided the human soul into three parts?
Reason (Logos): This is the part of the soul that loves truth and seeks to learn about the reality of the world. It’s rational, logical, and concerned with the most profound and abstract matters. Plato believed that this part of the soul should be in control, guiding the person to live a good, virtuous life.
Spirit (Thumos): This part of the soul, according to Plato, is associated with emotions, passions, and desires related to social standing and honor. It’s the part of the soul that feels anger, indignation, and a sense of justice. It’s spirited and often comes into conflict with the appetitive part of the soul.
Appetite (Epithumia): This part of the soul is related to desires, appetites, and physical needs. It encompasses all the primal, fundamental drives such as hunger, thirst, sexual desire, and other bodily urges. Plato saw this part of the soul as the most base and potentially destructive if not properly controlled.
What did Freud mean when he talked about the id ego and superego?
- Id: The id represents the instinctual part of the mind. It operates on the pleasure principle, seeking immediate satisfaction of basic drives like hunger, thirst, and sexual desire, without considering social norms, morality, or practicality. It is present at birth and forms the basic substrate of the personality.
- Ego: The ego is the ‘self’ that we are aware of and can control to some extent. It operates on the reality principle, mediating between the demands of the id, the realities of the external world, and the moral standards of the superego. The ego is responsible for decision-making and problem-solving, and it seeks to satisfy the id’s desires in a socially acceptable and realistic way.
- Superego: The superego is the moral part of the psyche, often seen as the ‘conscience’. It internalizes societal rules, moral standards, and values, usually from parents and significant others during childhood. The superego strives for perfection and judges the actions and intentions of the ego, leading to feelings of pride, or conversely, guilt and self-criticism.
|Reason- rational, logical, and concerned with the most profound and abstract matters||Ego- operates on the reality principle, responsible for decision-making and problem-solving|
|Spirit- associated with emotions, passions, and desires related to social standing and honor||Superego- moral part of the psyche, internalizes societal rules, moral standards, and values|
|Appetite- all the primal, fundamental drives such as hunger, thirst, sexual desire, and other bodily urges||Id- instinctual part of the mind, operates on the pleasure principle, seeking immediate satisfaction of basic drives|
For Plato, a just and virtuous person is one who balanced the three parts of the soul, with reason in control, guiding the spirit and the appetite. If reason fails to control the other two parts, it can lead to an unbalanced soul and unethical behavior. For instance, if the appetite dominates, it can result in hedonism or greed; if the spirit is dominant, it can lead to a pursuit of empty honor or excessive pride.
Freud suggested that mental health and adaptive functioning depend on a balanced interaction between the three parts of the psyche. For example, an overly strong superego could result in a person being overly moralistic and judgemental, while a weak superego could lead to antisocial behavior. Similarly, if the id becomes too dominant, it can lead to impulsivity and disregard for social norms, while an overly dominant ego could lead to excessive rationality and coldness towards emotional and instinctual needs.
It’s also worth noting that these constructs operate across different levels of consciousness, with the id being largely unconscious, the ego operating at the conscious and preconscious levels, and the superego operating across all three levels (conscious, preconscious, and unconscious).
By historicair - Structural-Iceberg.png by Jordangordanier, Public Domain, Link
This could explain why people like Pinker endlessly call for people to be more rational. Our rationality is dealt with on a conscious level whereas our morals and instincts are not always conscious or top of mind.
It’s an oversimplification to label decisions people make as rational or irrational. Instead of dishing out that binary label, poke at that iceberg and find out what is underneath. Aristotle and Pinker see it as a 2d world but Plato Freud and 9takes see a 3d world where there is so much to explore. Join 9takes and get curious.
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