Freud & Faith: Part 3, Sex and Aggression

Beyond positing a distinction between the conscious and the unconscious, Freud also described various psychic structures that he believed interacted with each other, mainly unconsciously. These structures were called the Id, Ego, and Superego.

The Id is the primary psychic structure and, thus, the most primitive (i.e., animalistic). The Id operates according the the pleasure principle, seeking somatic pleasure, release and gratification. In short, Freud posits a hedonic view of motivation. Similarly, many Christians describe temptation in largely hedonic terms. For example, hedonics are implicated in the very first sin:

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.
Also note the hedonic formulation from 1 John:
For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world.
According to Freud, the Id, as the primary and original psychic structure, dominates a child's motivational psychology. That is, a child only knows gratification or frustration (i.e., thwarted gratification). Consequently, Freud had a low view of childhood. Children are basically selfish and pleasure-seeking. A child's behavior is primarily regulated by the external environment through rewards and punishments. That is, the child has yet to develop a conscience. Thus, following up on Part 2 in this series, children are similar to animals in that they have yet to internalize a "knowledge of good and evil" and become neurotic. Like animals, children don't mind nudity or urinating in public. One has to remind children to put some clothes on or to close the door to the bathroom.

From a theological vantage all this looks very Augustinian and Calvinistic, a modern spin on original sin and human depravity. And I think that connection is valid.

Digging deeper, if gratification is the goal of the Id then we need to specify the exact nature of the "pleasure" being sought. Freud specified the motives of the Id by positing two drives toward gratification: Sex and aggression. Freud believed that sex and aggression were the two principle motives of human psychology.

That seems like a pretty grand claim. So I like to pause at this point and ask my students the following questions: What do you think about sex and aggression between the two fundamental impulses of human motivation? Specifically, ask yourself, how much of TV or movies or entertainment can be explained by an appeal to sex and aggression?

Take, for example, going to a Dallas Cowboys football game here in Texas. What interests us about this game? Well, there is a lot of aggression:

And there is also a lot of sex:

Now, you might counter that sex and aggression better describe male Sunday NFL psychology. But an examination of media and entertainment that targets females is also full of sex and aggression. The conflict and sex might be different in manifestation and nuance, but it's still there.

In short, Dr. Freud wasn't crazy in highlighting sex and aggression. Sex and aggression are everywhere. For example, sex and aggression are implicated at the very beginning of the Biblical story. As noted in the last post, the first symptom of the Fall of Adam and Eve was the onset of sexual self-awareness ("they realized they were naked"). The very next sin is murder, when Cain kills Abel. Sex and aggression, the first two marks of the Fall. Plus, how much sex and aggression is in the Bible overall? A lot.

Of course it would be ridiculous to reduce all of human psychology to sex and aggression. Even if we appeal to the sublimated manifestations of sex and aggression: Love and work. But I think Freud should get some credit for boldly making the claim that, despite civilized appearances, sex and aggression infuse workaday existence. And if our media and entertainments are diagnostic of what catches our fancy, attention or interest, well, Dr. Freud seems to be spot on.

Next: Nurture

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

8 thoughts on “Freud & Faith: Part 3, Sex and Aggression”

  1. Richard,

    A few observations about Freud from my love/hate relationship with his writings:

    1) Feminists would generally state that the categories of "sex" and "agression" are primarily male and that Freud (and his "Platonic" religious precursors, Augustine, Luther, and Calvin) are chauvenistic and neglect the nurturing and communal urges. Like many Victorian males, Freud generally discounted women and children.

    2) Freud's "low" view of childhood is accurate and generally characteristic of late 19th and early 20th century moralizing "Victorian views"--children are to be seen and not heard, spare the rod, etc.. Like Augustine, Victorians imposed their adult perspectives--both brutal and sentimental--on children's behavior which is largely self-protective, inquisitive, and expressive rather than selfish, sexual, or aggressive.

    3) The Fall is virtually internalized among us Westerners. But the Genesis is a story about adults not about children. Cain and Abel after the Exile is about adults, not children. To rework Freud--sometimes a Jewish morality tale is a Jewish morality tale.

    4) According the Genesis 1-2, the first sin is about not having sex: be fruitful and multiply. Adam and Eve simply did not have sex or children in Eden. She probably had a headache and he probably quickly lost interest.


  2. @Cooper
    ~I dont buy your argument about Genesis. Plenty of scholars see an underlying sexual tension in Genesis 2 between the snake, Eve, and Adam. So patently say that there its not about "sex" is not a justly verified position. Who is to say that Adam and Even didn't have sex? The poem in chapter 2 that Adam says is pretty provocative. "bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh"? Erotic stuff if you ask me.

    ~I'm also wary of your third statement about "the Fall" being about adults and not children. I'm just not buying it. Cain and Abel clearly show a propensity to live in the sin of their parents and it never says how old they are. Why? Because age isn't point. Adam and Eve are never described by age. They could be teenagers for all we know. Heck, they could be adolescents since "technically" Adam doesn't "know" Even until after the so-called "Fall."

    My point is (and this is to Richard too) to place a lot of metaphysical weight on the so-called "silence" of scripture is to invite epistemic disaster upon yourself. To say that there is even a "Fall" to begin fits into this category.

    ~Good post. Not a Cowboys fan but eh...

    ~Sex and aggression...I wasn't sold at first but when you asked the question about my experience I bought it hook, line, and sinker. And +1 on the sex and aggression in the Bible. True story. Cain, Lamech, Ham, Shechem, Levi/Judah, David, Hagar, Ruth...its all there. Except Jesus of course....

  3. Grimm,

    My experience is that many scholars, especially Jewish ones, do not make the assumption that the relationship among the snake, Adam, and Eve is sexual. Walter Brueggemann, a Christian Old Testament scholar, contends:
    "Popular tradition concerning fall, 'apples and snakes,' is prone to focus this narrative around questions of sex and the evil wrought by sex. It is possible that in the pre-hisotry of this text the serpent is derived from a phallic symbol and that 'knowing good and evil' refers to sexual knowledge. And there is also mention of nakedness. (2:25, 3:7) But to find any focus on sex or any linkage between sex and sin is not faithful to the narrative."

    And Brueggemann again: "The text is not interested in theoretical or abstract questions of sin/death/evil/fall. The usual abstract questions of the world (e.g. origin of death and sin, meaning of the 'fall') are likely to be escapist questions."

    It seems to me that Brueggemann helps bring clarity about how to read Biblical stories. Chapter 2 of Genesis does not mention the snake. "Bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh . . ." continues with the meaning of the story: "This one shall be called woman, for from man was this one taken." (Alter's translation)

    Chapter 3 of Genesis does not mention sex, only awareness and shame at being naked. Sex--like, as you put it, the "so-called Fall"--is eisegesis and inferred. Brueggemann's abstract escapism.
    There is no 'fall' in the story. There is expulsion or exile, after which explicit sexual activity.

    Chapter 4 states explicitly, for the first time, that Adam and Eve knew each other sexually so as to have children. It also uses the term "sin" explicitly for the first time, referring not to sex but to aggression.

    As to the adulthood of Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel in the story--Adam and Eve are gardeners, Cain is a farmer, Abel, a shepherd. These are adult vocations. None is driven by instinct. Adam, Eve, and Cain choose to follow their desires to the harm of self and others.


    Interesting that both football and cheerleaders are "objects" largely, though not exclusively, of male interest.


  4. George & Grimm,
    I can't weigh in on the biblical issues of sex and the first sin. My interpretation is wholly my own (although scholars may or may not agree), but I've always equated the shame at their nakedness to be the onset of sexual maturity, a recognition that they were sexual creatures (had sexual urges). True, they don't seem to have acted on those urges. Not much privacy with God wandering around and all...

  5. George wrote: "Feminists would generally state that the categories of "sex" and "agression" are primarily male and that Freud (and his "Platonic" religious precursors, Augustine, Luther, and Calvin) are chauvenistic and neglect the nurturing and communal urges. Like many Victorian males, Freud generally discounted women and children."

    Wow! This generalization seems to reflect a one-sided reading of Freud. Rather than discounting women and children, Freud seemed precisely to focus upon them and their problems through his case histories. His concerns were extended through the work of women like Karen Horney and Melanie Klein. Freud was so concerned about treating women and children that he worked to maintain free clinics (see the book: "Freud's Free Clinics: Psychoanalysis and Social Justice" by Elizabeth Danto). Also, there is another good book on this issue: "Freud on Women: A Reader" by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl. Here's a quote from the introduction: "In the passages presented here, Freud shows a good deal of sympathy for how girls and women, caught in intolerable, domestic situations, resort to the only weapon they are familiar with-illnesses." To be sure, there is a good deal to be critical of in Freud, but one-sided generalities seem uncharitable.

  6. Kip,

    I am aware of and appreciate the work that Freud did in helping with free clinics. Freud made significant contributions in a variety of areas have to do with psychology, analytical methodology, medicine, literature. A good deal of what he did and wrote is helpful and has expanded our understanding of human emotions and drives. But because Freud focused on children and women in his case studies doesn't mean that he did not "discount" them or operate out of a "sexist" perspective. Both Horney and Klein--strong and sophisticated women but not feminists--accepted most of Freud's assumptions--including infantile sexuality. It is possible for men and women to be sympathetic to women and children and still minimize their experience. Freud, e.g., unlike his French mentor Charcot, almost universally refused to accept the reality that children, primarily female, were ever actually sexually abused by their fathers or other older males, attributing it to the child's or adolescent's fantasy.

    I, too, am wary of one-sided readings. I don't think mine is. There are Freudian feminists (even male ones), but they have to go through a lot of mental gymnastics to get there. But based on my reading of Freud, he sees women and children through the eye of patriachy.

    Nonetheless, I count myself a critical admirer of Freud and appreciate what he has done for the history of thought even as I appreciate what Nietzsche (a chauvinist also) has done for the history of thought.


    I agree with you that Freud deserves a lot of credit for opening up vistas regarding irrational emotion and motives. Your iceberg illustration is excellent. Sex and aggression as used in our entertainment and media is a diagnostic. But I think the appeal is largely to male audiences. Romance novels and soaps seem to appeal largely to female audiences.

    Sexual awakening in Gensis 3 can, I think, be inferred as a message of the narrative but, personally, I wouldn't push the inference beyond that.

    By the way, Girard has some good things to say about Freud.


  7. @Richard

    Eh. I know what Brueggeman says but if he is all you are reading for biblical interpretation then branch out a little. Brueggemann is not a textual scholar but a quasi-theologian (and not a particularly good one at that). Check out Phyllis Bird or Trible on these and see what you think after that.

    I am not at all saying that sexuality in Genesis 2-3 is explicit. Clearly it is not. The point is, scripture is silent on all this stuff so you can't really draw any conclusions. Who is to say that shepherding and farming are "adult" jobs? Even today in Israel children shepherd! Heck, even David was a shepherd. Its not coherent to base substantive claims on the silence of the text. What is explicit and what is implicit are fairly fluid concepts in ancient Hebrew narrative. meta-concepts like the "Fall" seem to be non sense but to say that just because the text doesn't make it explicit means it didn't happen simply isn't true. With all due respect to Brueggemann, I am going to disagree.

  8. Grimm,

    Richard is not "guilty" of including Brueggemann. I did that, and not to cite him as absolutely authoritative, to honor his point: do not push the narrative where it does not go. My reading your last post is that you and I are headed toward the same perspective on the text. I absolutely agree that "metaconcepts" are problematic. My guess is that ancient Hebrew hearers of the text didn't assume that the characters were kids. I suspect Trible would agree.


Leave a Reply