Modern-day science believes that we humans
are evolved beasts, driven by primal, narcissistic needs
and feelings. What can we truly expect of creatures obsessed
with survival of the fittest? What can we really look forward
to for the future of the human race?
In this fascinating essay, Simon Jacobson
dissects our current view of the human psyche, and offers
a fresh psychological model that will revolutionize the
way you think about yourself and the world.
As always, your comments, rebuttals and
insights are deeply welcomed.
This is also part of our ongoing series
discussing our search for purpose and meaning in life --
our mission statement. This week's article addresses one
of the greatest challenges facing us as we search for meaning:
The challenge of temptation. How do deal with the material
forces that seduce us? If you would like to receive earlier
parts of this unique series, please e-mail
In Honor of the 206th Anniversary of Yud Tes
Kislev and the 2143rd Anniversary of Chanukah
It is commonly accepted
that the age of modern psychology began at the end of the 19th
century. The way we understand ourselves today is very much defined by the
thinking of William James, then Sigmund Freud, who some call the Father of
Psychology, followed by Carl Jung, BF Skinner and other great psychologists
of the 20th century.
I would like to submit
that the Father of Psychology is actually a man who lived a century earlier,
and has yet to be recognized as the true pioneer of modern psychology.
That man was Rabbi Schneur
Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), and he offered the most sophisticated and comprehensive
view to date on the nature of the human psyche and its struggles.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s
(also known as the Alter Rebbe) immense contribution can be appreciated by
contrasting it with the prevalent view on the psyche.
The big issue facing psychology
is of course the human struggle between our conflicting drives. On the lowest
end of the spectrum is our selfish need to survive and experience pleasure.
On the next rung, our practical need to co-exist, to love and be loved and
live productive lives. Then we have our ethical values and our conscience.
And finally, our higher, spiritual and transcendental dimensions.
Human anxiety is a result of our conflicting voices. How
we treat and mistreat others is determined by which force
controls our behavior. Vulnerable and impressionable children,
of course, are the first to suffer the consequences and
are hurt the deepest by our clashing drives colliding with
each other. And we all begin our lives as children. Then,
these children grow up and have to pick up the pieces, try
to heal from their wounds and rebuild their lives.
The rest is history –
your history and mine, the history of every person alive today struggling
with the disparate forces that shape our personalities and define our life
choices. A vicious cycle indeed.
Plaguing thinkers from
the beginning of time is the million-dollar question: Who is the real you?
Or more precisely: Which of our drives is the most powerful one? Which is
The prevalent theory –
which can be coined the Darwinian-Freudian model – argues that the most powerful
and most basic human drive is selfish survival.
Humans are fundamentally no different than other creatures,
and indeed have evolved from the same ancestors. According
to Darwin's theory of Natural Selection, variation within
species occurs randomly and the survival or extinction of
each organism is determined by that organism's ability to
adapt to its environment. Another name Darwin (1809-1882)
gave Natural Selection was "the preservation of favoured
races in the struggle for life."
Darwin did not speak in psychological terms. Indeed, he
avoided applying his theory to the social and religious
arena. It was apparently British philosopher Herbert Spencer
(1820-1903) who first used the term "survival of the
fittest" as a central tenet of what became known as
"Social Darwinism." He applied (or some say misapplied)
Darwin's idea of natural selection to justify European domination
and colonization of much of the rest of the world. Social
Darwinism was also widely used to defend the unequal distribution
of wealth and power in Europe and North America at the time.
Poor and politically powerless people were thought to have
been failures in the natural competition for survival. Subsequently,
helping them was seen as a waste of time and counter to
nature. Rich and powerful people did not need to feel
ashamed of their advantages because their success was proof
that they were the most fit in this competition.
In the psychological realm, Freud (1856-1939) posited that
the most basic of all human instincts is the "Id,"
the primal, unconscious source for satisfying all mans'
basic needs and feelings. It has only one rule: The "pleasure
principle:" "I want it and I want it all now."
The id wants whatever feels good at the time, with no consideration
for the reality of the situation or the good of others.
Then there is the "Ego," the rational part of
the mind that relates to the real world and operates via
the "reality principle," recognizing that you
can’t always get what you want. The Ego realizes the need
for compromise and negotiates between the Id and the Superego,
which might be called the moral part of the mind. The Superego
is an embodiment of parental and societal values. It stores
and enforces rules. The Ego's job is to get the Id's
pleasures but to be reasonable and bear the long-term consequences
in mind. The Ego denies both instant gratification and pious
delaying of gratification.
Freud described the human personality as being: "...basically
a battlefield. He is a dark-cellar in which a well-bred
spinster lady (the superego) and a sex-crazed monkey (the
id) are forever engaged in mortal combat, the struggle being
refereed by a rather nervous bank clerk (the ego)."
Thus an individual’s feelings, thoughts, and behaviors
are the result of the interaction of the id, the superego,
and the ego. This creates conflict, which leads to anxiety,
which in turn generates all types of defense mechanisms.
Though Freud may not have directly correlated his theories
to Darwin's, it's irresistible to avoid the parallels, and
how each complements the other. If humans are merely "billion
year old bacteria" and essentially no different than
any other animal fighting for survival, then it would make
absolute sense that our most dominant drive is fixation
on our own needs and pleasure, even at the expense of others.
"Survival of the fittest."
Obviously, there are many
variations of this theory. There are also many opinions that fundamentally
disagree with Freud. Still, despite the differences, the prevailing view tends
to lean toward the Darwinian-Freudian model.
One of the sad consequences of this viewpoint is the lack
of expectation we can have of each other. If our most natural
self is the need to survive and the narcissistic pursuit
of pleasure, then what can we really expect of people?!
Can we really be disappointed if someone ends up hurting
others in his/her own driving need for pleasure? Can we
even blame the person? After all, we are sophisticated "bacteria"
just trying to survive in a hostile environment... Yes,
we can expect of humans to create superimposed rules, like
"red lights" and "green lights" so that
we can coexist and not destroy each other. But that is superimposed,
not our natural state.
It’s interesting to note, that the original German for
Freud’s Ego is “ich,” yet another manifestation of the "self."
So even as the Ego negotiates between the Id and the Superego,
it still is fundamentally self motivated. [Superego, Uber-ich,
can be translated as a dimension that is above – that transcends
– the ego. But it can also mean a superman, ultra ego].
If you take it tothe anarchist extreme, one can even question
our entire justice system. Are we really expecting people
to be better, or are we just trying to keep the "store"
intact so that we don’t self-destruct. In other words,
if the "cat were let out of the bag," anarchy
would prevail. So we need subjective, arbitrary rules to
No wonder fear is the most commonly used tool in education,
and punishment is the most popular deterrent to crime. Since
people are essentially animals, with an ominous Id lurking
within, never knowing when it will strike, we can't depend
or trust that people will just do the "right thing"
and "rise to the occasion."
That sure sounds harsh, doesn't it?! And indeed, I amplified
certain points in order to crystallize the issues, but I
have not distorted any of them, and the description above
more or less describes contemporary psychological theory.
No doubt that many of us are surely repulsed by this dark perspective on human nature. You may wonder:
What about the soul? What about the beautiful acts of nobility and heroism
we witness time and again? What about all those people who paid heavy, selfless
prices for their beliefs and for protecting others?
How does all human virtue and dignity fit into the Darwinian-Freudian
And what about the inner voice that resonates so deeply
in most people that good must prevail? And the disturbing
feelings we feel when innocent people are hurt? Is all that
yet another evolutionary aberration -- a quirk -- that is
inconsistent with the cardinal law of "survival of
the fittest"?! Or is it the other way around: Perhaps
the good in humans is the most dominant force, and the current
"low-end" model may be flawed.
These are excellent questions. Indeed, these and other
vital questions are catalysts that compel us to recognize
that there is a serious gaping hole in the Darwinian-Freudian
After all, no one has ever seen the human psyche. By definition the unconscious defies conscious
human observation. Let alone the soul. So, basically all theories about the
psyche are as subjective and arbitrary as the people positing these theories
and their own life experiences.
No one is blaming Freud or other psychologists. But all
they really could offer us is based on their personal psychological
experiences. Perhaps some of them were surrounded predominantly
by Id-like experiences, which informed their observations
and conclusions? Had they truly experienced the selflessness
of the soul, they may have incorporated other theories into
All that is speculation. Let's get back to history.
Preceding all these thinkers, was Rabbi Schneur Zalman's
psychological model, which is defined by three revolutionary
1/ Human self-control
is inherent, not acquired.
2/ The essence of a human
is good and Divine; the Yid, not the Id.
3/ Even mans’ intrinsic self and selfishness ("itness")
is rooted in the Essence of the Divine Self.
Here’s a brief overview
of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s model.
A person carries two voices, two souls: The animal soul
and the Divine one. In the words of Ecclesiastes, "The
human spirit ascends on high; the spirit of the beast descends
down into the earth." They are in constant struggle,
with the animal soul seeking instant gratification and pleasure
(like the Id), and the Divine soul seeking transcendence
and unity. The animal spirit wants to be "more animal,"
hence more self-ego. The Divine spirit wants to be "more
Divine," more selfless.
The domain of the animal manufets in the impulsive emotions,
while the domain of the Divine spirit rests in the reflective
mind, which can control and temper impulsive reactions.
A young child for instance, is controlled entirely by emotion,
and yells out "I want it and I want it all now."
Similarly the animal within us selfishly barks "give,
give." As our minds develop we gain the ability to
reflect, repress, temper or channel our impulses.
The question of course is, as mentioned earlier, which is our most dominant force?
The answer is the Divine soul. The inner good in man is
the most dominant force in our lives. Yet, this force is
locked in battle with the animal soul. We have the freedom
and the ability to overcome any temptation if we so wish
through self control ("moach shalit al halev,"
the mind’s dominance over the emotions).
An argument can be made that self-control is an acquired
skill that comes later in life, and is superimposed over
the inherent impulses of the heart. And as a rule, an acquired
skill will never be as powerful as an inherent one. It can
dominate for a while, but when "push comes to shove,"
and survival is at stake, we will gravitate to the inherent.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman categorically rejects that argument, and unequivocally states that the power of self-control
is natural and inherent to the human being. We are born with that quality. But like other talents, kit takes time for it to emerge in our lives. As our
mind develops, it brings out our inherent self-control.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman actually supports this with a verse in Ecclesiastes, which equates the dominance of
the mind over folly [of the impulsive heart] to the natural dominance of light
over darkness. Unlike fire and water, two equal adversaries, which have the
power to extinguish each other, light naturally dispels darkness.
-- Incidentally, this is the essential theme of Chanukah, when we light the flames at sundown and
facing the street, to demonstrate the victory of spirit over matter, quality
over quantity, and the few over the many.
The Essence is Good
True, we have an impulsive
animal spirit. But even more powerful than the animal is the Divine Image
in which each human being was created.
Yes, we have an inherent primal, unconscious force that
shapes all our behavior. But the deepest force within us
is not the Id, but the Yid, the "pintele yud,"
the Divine spark (like the Hebrew letter Yud, which looks
like a dot).
Fueled by our (inherent)
self-control, behavioral discipline helps us access our inner good and bring
it to the surface.
So, in Rabbi Schneur Zalman's model, behavioral change goes hand in hand
with internal work.
The Human Self Below is Rooted in the Divine Self Above
One can argue that all vice (greed, selfishness, corruption
etc.) is rooted in the inherent "itness" of our
ego, the sense of self-containment that feels as if it has
no source and is utterly independent of anything except
itself. The self is driven to survive and distinguishes
us from others. If we felt, for instance, that we were integrally
connected to a higher unity and to other people, like limbs
of one body, we would never hurt each other, just as one
limb doesn't hurt another in a healthy body.
This would lead us to conclude, that ethical and spiritual
goals must include some form of "self" sacrifice.
As long as the self-contained self is intact, the basic
drives of self-survival will continue to impede spiritual
According to this way of thinking, the ego is the root
of all evil, and the independent "self" is an
illusion and a distortion that must be eliminated.
Hence, all spiritual disciplines
include measure to tame and even nullify the ego.
Enters Rabbi Schneur Zalman with a radically different
approach -- which may be his greatest contribution of all.
He explains, in perhaps one of the most powerful philosophical
declarations ever made, that our sense of "self,"
the feeling that we are "self-created," with no
source preceding us, is rooted in the Divine "Self"
whose existence is Self-generated, with no other source
True, we must do everything to sublimate our egos, but
the ultimate goal is not nullification of the ego but transforming
it into recognizing that it is a manifestation of the Divine
Self. The "yesh hanivra" becomes united with the
"Yesh haAmiti," the human ego unites with the
Divine Ego; the created "it" (self) below is rooted
in the true "It" (self) Above.
So in addition to our inherent self-control and goodness,
even our Id ("it" in English, "es" in
German) is ultimately rooted in the true "It."
All of the basic ideas in contemporary psychology about
the struggle and battle between different forces within
us are included in Rabbi Schneur Zalman's model. Yet, with
a critical additional dimension of the inherent Divine spirit,
that accounts for mans' sublime nature, and thus radically
alters the way we look at a human being and his/her potential.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman also recognizes human inherent selfishness
(the Id). Yet he doesn't stop there, and sees deeper dimensions
even beyond that. Rabbi Schenur Zalman's picture is simply
a bigger and more encompassing one.
Perhaps Divine choreography arranged that Rabbi Schneur
Zalman's model be introduced at the end of the 18th
century (1796 to be exact), as a type of "cure preceding
the illness" phenomenon. His model served as a pre-emptive
prelude to the psychological and scientific revolution that
would rock the world and our notion of human nature.
All systems of knowledge, if I may, evolve. As new discoveries
are made, arguments and counterarguments serve the role
of crystallizing ideas. Through trial and error, and the
sincere search for truth, every theory undergoes refinement,
"reality checks" and "market corrections."
Certain details may be discarded in the process, as the
idea matures into fruition.
Freud and the other thinkers of the 19th-20th century opened may new doors of inquiry
and deserve the credit for recognizing deeper truths about the human condition.
Rejecting any of their conclusions in no way rejects their contributions.
It’s ironic that the Enlightenment
and the psychological – and all other scientific – advances in the last few
centuries were followed by the most blood-shedding century in history: The
Two World Wars.
The turmoil of the last hundred years -- and the upheaval
today, both personally and globally -- provides us with
a unique opportunity to revisit our psychological models.
With all our so-called psychological insights, and with
a thriving therapeutic industry -- as well as unprecedented
dysfunctionality in family life and in religious life --
we can learn much about how to define, or not to define,
the very nature of what it means to be human.
208 years ago Rabbi Schneur Zalman presented us with an invaluable model of life that can be appreciated
now more than ever.
It would be wise to explore his teachings, which provide us with a most
comprehensive blueprint for modern life, uniting faith and reason, spirit
and matter in our struggle with physical life.
Freud and his colleagues may be the fathers of psychology today. But the Alter Rebbe is the true father
of the psychology of tomorrow.