The ego’s good cop/bad cop routine

Yesterday I came upon one of those absolutely brilliant ideas in the Course, the kind that you can find nowhere else, the kind that make you wonder how on earth a mind could come up with this.

In Helen’s original notes, Jesus is talking about Freud’s “pleasure principle” and “reality principle.” The pleasure principle is what drives the unconscious id. It wants to fulfill its basic appetites—like hunger, thirst, sex, and aggression—and it wants them fulfilled now. It’s all about instant gratification.

The conscious ego, however, operates by a different principle: the reality principle. It acknowledges the demands of external reality, the requirements of social appropriateness. And in light of this, it realizes that if it tries to instantly gratify its raw appetites, it may quickly land in jail. So it says to the id, “Whoa, boy. Let’s hold off for a minute there.” The ego, in other words, is all about delayed gratification.

In Freud’s system, then, the pleasure principle and the reality principle are always clashing. And it’s not hard to see where Freud got this idea. This is not exactly a subtle phenomenon in our experience. To a large degree, this clash defines our lives.

This is where Jesus steps in and says we’ve got it all wrong. First, he reinterprets the pleasure principle: “All appetites are ‘getting’ mechanisms representing ego needs to confirm itself.” What he’s saying, in other words, is that the real pleasure we are seeking through sex, hunger, thirst, and aggression, the pleasure within the pleasure, is confirmation of the ego’s reality. “This,” says Jesus, “is the meaning of Freud’s ‘pleasure principle.’”

I think the logic here is that if filling my body with food actually fills me, then I am my body. And that means I am my ego. The ego’s reality has thus been confirmed.

Then Jesus reinterprets the reality principle:

The “reality principle” of the ego is not real at all. It is forced to perceive the “reality” of other egos because it cannot establish the reality of itself. In fact, its whole perception of other egos as real is only an attempt to convince itself that it is real.

In the reality principle, the ego acknowledges the reality of other egos, and the limits placed upon it by their needs. But the real reason it’s doing this, says Jesus, is to confirm its own reality. It says to itself, “If other egos are real, then I’m real.”

Do you see what this means? It means the pleasure principle and the reality principle are not really in conflict at all, not fundamentally. They are the left and right hands of the same project. One confirms the ego’s reality by demonstrating that I am my body. The other confirms the ego’s reality by granting that other egos are real. Sure, the two clash, as they are very different ways  of meeting the one goal. But underneath the clash, they are brothers in a common cause.

And that is because the ego and the id are not really two different things. The id is just another mask the ego wears. Thus, the ego stands on both sides. It bubbles up from the unconscious with wild, primitive instincts. And then it stands on the conscious level, wisely speaking up for the demands of civilized society in the face of raw animal instinct. As a result, whichever way we go, it’s got us.

Aside from this sparking some sober personal reflection, I can’t help but be struck by the mastery in Jesus’ reinterpretation. In this discussion, Jesus says, “Freud was the most accurate ego psychologist we ever had.” Yet here, he makes Freud’s ideas look like the scribbling of a toddler next to the painting of a master.