We all have impulses to do socially inappropriate things, we have sexual fantasies, that if we manifest in public, would be less than ideal. A solution to this plight of ours comes through sublimation, the redirecting of libidinal energy towards socially beneficial pursuits.
This idea from psychology was popularized by Freud, but he was not the only person who had something to say about it.
Imagine a sadist who would have been destined to inflict pain
on his fellow human beings instead becoming a surgeon or a dentist – that is,
to get paid for being inhumane. Or imagine the case of the professional NFL athlete
who knocks people unconscious for a living.
The idea of sublimation has some scientific credibility. A study in 2013
showed that Protestants were more likely to sublimate their taboo feelings into
creative activities, and that people who had sexual problems related to
anxieties over taboo desires were more likely to have creative accomplishments
than those who did not. These studies may be the first experimental evidence
Schreber vs da Vinci
Schreber was a judge who was diagnosed with dementia. Freud
thought that Schreber’s illness stemmed from his repression of homosexual
desires which was first overtly expressed in his quickly suppressed thought
that “it would be nice to be a woman submitting to the act of copulation.” This
repression made him believe that God was trying to unman him and led to
different obsessive thoughts and behavior. This case would not normally be sublimation.
Leonardo’s case is different. He suppressed his homosexual
desires, but this repression led to scientific inquisitiveness and artistic
activities – including his obsession with drawing perfect representations of
the male body. This was a classic case of sublimation.
Leonardo’s homosexual urges were constantly repressed, he
lived an asexual adult life, and this repression gave rise to his scientific and
artistic drives. But the limitation of Freud’s theory is that repression and defense
was used interchangeably, thus blurring the definition of sublimation.
The conclusion here is that as a result of successful psychoanalysis, the unconscious repression of the ideational and energetic components are lifted, but the sublimation that results in scientific and artistic expression involves lifting the repression of the energetic component, but not the ideational component, hence why Leonardo continued to obsess over the male body.
The theory of sublimation is informed by Freud’s conception of id, ego, and superego. The id is primitive part of our personality, and the ego emerges later during childhood – the ego reigns in the id and makes it conform to the demands of the real world. The superego, or the moral arbitrator, constantly strives to make us behave according to higher ethical standards. The ego’s job is to mediate between the id and the superego.
One way the ego can reduce the anxiety created by our primitive feelings is through sublimation – a mature and constructive way for people to manifest these feelings.
Freud stumbled upon the idea of sublimation by accident. He got the it when reading a well-known travel book, The Harz Journey, by the poet Heinrich Heine. The poet recalls meeting a great German surgeon called Johann Friedrich Dieffenbach, who used to be a sadistic little boy – he loved to cut off the tails off stray dogs for pleasure, but as an adult, he transformed into a brilliant surgeon who made pioneering discoveries in his field.
Freud believed that many great achievements in politics, the arts, and the sciences stemmed from a desire for compensation – a politician who campaigns for the poor may be sublimating the greed he felt when he was younger.
Freud notes that far from becoming nihilistic as a result of
our unmet needs, we manage to transform into functional adults – most of the
time. He reminds us that we started out as babies – a time when we believed
that not getting exactly what we wanted whenever we pleased would cause the
world to end. We were self-centered and found it difficult to be generous to
others, but we managed to substitute our narcissistic aims for more ethical ones.
But he did not think that we are ever finished with
sublimation. Often, we find our sexual needs being unmet. We meet people we
want to have sex with but don’t. This energy, instead of disappearing, can get
redirected into creative endeavors, scientific discoveries and humanitarian work.
“The task in sublimation is that of shifting the instinctual aims in such a way that they cannot come up against frustration from the external world. In this, sublimation of the instincts lends its assistance. One gains the most if one can sufficiently heighten the yield of pleasure from the sources of intellectual work” (…) “A satisfaction of this kind, such as an artist’s joy in creating, in giving his fantasies body, or a scientist’s in solving problems or discovering truths, has a special quality. But their intensity is mild as compared with that derived from the sating of crude and primary instinctual impulses.”
Freud has noted the difficulty of separating symptoms from sublimations and similarly, sickness from health – there isn’t a sharp distinction between normal and neurotic people. Neuroticism substitutes for repression and is necessary for the normal transition from childhood to adulthood. In other words, everyone is somewhat neurotic, but what makes someone pathologically so, is having a high number of neurotic symptoms – and only that would justify labeling this person as “ill” or having a “constitutional inferiority.”
who thought everything was about sex, Jung didn’t agree that sublimation was
sexual, he thought that it was more mystical. Jung thought that Freud was trying
to make sublimation fit a rationalistic, scientific worldview when it didn’t,
that Freud invented the idea to save us from our terrifying unconscious.
“Sublimation is not a voluntary and the forcible channeling of instinct into a spurious field of application” (…) “Sublimatio is a great mystery. Freud has appropriated this concept and usurped it for the sphere of the will, and the bourgeois, rationalistic theos.”
For Jung, transformation is a social duty, it is the most important
concept in Jungian psychology and can explain many processes. Freud’s idea of
sublimation was purely materialistic, while Jung recognized the transcendental
potential of the psyche, he saw it as something to be respected – as something
psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan thought that as human beings, we all experience a
vacuum, and we try to fill it with relationships with other people, objects, or
experiences – but never quite getting there. Das Ding (“The Thing” in German)
was a lost object that man was forever chasing after. Sometimes, the individual
might be tricked by his psyche into believing that his needs could be satisfied
in an enduring way by a person, thing, or experience. But one never finds Das
Ding, only its pleasurable associations.
Jacques Lacan has noted the difficulty in properly defining sublimation but Lacanian sublimation is built on the idea of Das Ding. Lacan thinks that these objects, which are philosophical, aesthetic, or credal are representative of Das Ding, and that the pleasure principle leads the subject from one signifier to another, thus relieving psychic tension.
Think of an intellectual moving from one idea to the next, or an artist who paints one canvas after another, or a person who moves from relationship to relationship, constantly trying to satisfy this urge that will never go away. Man creates his own support system; he finds the signifiers that delude him into believing that he has overcome the emptiness of Das Ding
Nietzsche also had views on sublimation. and they may offer insight into the cases of da Vinci and Schreber. Nietzsche thought of individuals as being collections of drives. But most modern humans – members of the denigrated herd, are simply disorganized collections of competing drives, with these drives exchanging superiority at different times.
But Nietzsche’s ideal weaker drives are not suppressed or shackled.
“Overcoming of the affects? No, if that means their weakening and annihilation. But instead employing them; which may mean a long tyrannizing of them… At last they are confidently given freedom again: they love us as good servants and happily go wherever our best interests lie”
The difference between Sublimation and Repression
Sublimation occurs when a drive’s primary aim is substituted
for a secondary aim that allows the expression of the drive in a way that is congruent
with the master drive. Repression is what happens when a drive is denied its
aim, and is split off from other drives in that its aims are not integrated
with the aim of other drives.
In the cases of Leonardo and Schreber, Leonardo’s homosexual drive is redirected towards the secondary aims of scientific (and not sexual) research, and art. This includes the possession of idealized representations of the male body, but not the sexual possession of one. Schreber did not integrate his sexual drive with his life. but tried to isolate it.
Both Nietzsche and Freud saw sublimation as a mark of
health. Nietzsche saw it as a pathway towards a unified self, and while Freud
defined health in utilitarian terms or relative happiness, Nietzsche measured
it in terms of freedom from bitterness and the conflicting urges between drives,
he measured it in terms of abundant expressive energy and self-overcoming.
And Nietzsche, unlike Freud, did not see the need for an ego. He thought we have conflicting drives, but none were regulated by something like an ego.
The paper explains the replication crisis in psychology. But two things occur to me. While Popper criticizes Adler’s theories for not being falsifiable and thus problematic, it is a straw man.
Adler acknowledges in his book Understanding Human Nature that psychology was at a point where alchemy was before chemistry. And he acknowledges that he is describing a philosophy and not something to be followed blindly and without question.
And two, while I understand that if a theory is not testable and is unfalsifiable, it is unscientific, a philosophy can still be valid in that it is functional or socially beneficial. Stoicism is not scientific, it’s a set of ideas, but if people adopt them, they can live more resolutely perhaps in times of anxiety and stress. In that sense, Stoicism offers something that scientific fact cannot offer: an ought, a. value system. The same is true for Adler and Jung.
The problem with Popper’s argument is that he is interested in a different kind of truth, one that can be measured and tested but that is not the only type of truth that exists. Peterson framed it badly in his debate with Harris but his general point is valid. It was the point Carl Jung made in his book, Modern Man’s Search for a Soul. A problem he encountered with many of his patients who otherwise had perfectly good lives was that they suffered from a lack of meaning. To be scientific means to be accurate, but human beings long for something deeper and more fulfilling, at least many do.
Religion and philosophies can help people live better lives, and as long as it helps, then there is no harm in them – it is not a question of whether it is falsifiable.
And before one points to the atrocities that have come about from religion and from philosophy, we should know by now that science is not immune from bad behavior either. Just because something is testable and verifiable doesn’t mean it cannot be damaging. You may argue, for example, that religion is dangerous because it causes people to commit suicide bombings but science is dangerous in that it can lead to nuclear bombs and other killer technologies.
When you bring up Jung people throw Karl Popper’s falsifiability paper in your face as if to say “stop wasting your time, we’ve solved it all” – it as if science has become the new religion. And ironically so, since the purpose of science is to admit ignorance, to say ‘we do not know everything.’ But it seems that is so contrary to the nature of people who cling to whatever is absolute and certain, and since science has usurped religion in this era, they will misuse it. Not unlike what they did to religion in the past.
Reason is nothing but reason and satisfies only the rational side of man’s nature, while will is a manifestation of the whole life, that is, of the whole human life including reason and all the impulses. And although our life, in this manifestation of it, is often worthless, yet it is life and not simply extracting square roots. Here I, for instance, quite naturally want to live, in order to satisfy all my capacities for life, and not simply my capacity for reasoning, that is, not simply one twentieth of my capacity for life.
In Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky describes the psychology of the underground man. He is someone you may relate to, and in the unlikely event that you do not at all relate to him, it is likely that you know people that do.
The underground man is rational, intelligent, and perceptive. He claims to be afflicted with an “acute consciousness”, he thinks too much and does too little. And he hates and envies those men of action who do things without thinking, and without fear.
To him, these men are stupid, and he would not wish to be stupid, but at least they seem happy and content – it is a better way to live than being underground. In the end of the story, he encounters a prostitute. In a cynical effort to yield power over her (something he likes to do with people, even his friends), he convinces her to leave her destitute life and find love. She listens to him, but then, when she goes to his house, she discovers that he lives in poverty. Ashamed of this, and angered by her description of her experience of love, he snaps at her. He confesses his real intentions, that he has no interest in saving her, that he doesn’t care at all about her, or anyone else.
breaks down as a result of all this, but he is unmoved, he takes a sinister
pleasure in it all. After living underground for 40 years, his mind has become
warped and twisted. He only looks for contrasts and asymmetries in everything,
he is afraid of following his instinct, he thinks of himself as superior to
others, but also as an inferior mouse. incapable of any real vengeance, who can
only brood in silence, and grow bitter and resentful. This paradoxical thought,
of wanting to be superior to everyone, and wielding power over them while at
the same time acknowledging his inferiority and cowardice describes perfectly
the predicament of the underground man.
“something” is only reserved for naïve fools…
I could not become anything; neither good nor bad; neither a scoundrel nor an honest man; neither a hero nor an insect. And now I am eking out my days in my corner, taunting myself with the bitter and entirely useless consolation that an intelligent man cannot seriously become anything, that only a fool can become something.
The underground man
understands that it is tragic, the way his life turned out, but he refuses to take
any blame for it. He instead blames the inertia of his acute consciousness. He
thinks of himself as a mistaken creation – as the antithesis to the normal man,
who is not fussed about war, who acts confidently and relishes life. He is instead
like a mouse, cowering in his own corner, and afraid of confrontation.
The normal man is
stupid, but perhaps man should be stupid, there is a beauty to it. Even if
the mouse wants revenge, it will only do so behind the stove, incognito. it
does not believe in its right to revenge, or in the success of its attempts at
man has suffered too, he has done what normal men have done, but when he has
done so, he did it in a self-mocking way. He has experienced the lows of love,
but too self-consciously, he only took it cynically. Direct persons, men of
action are active because they are stupid and limited. Why? because they
mistake immediate and secondary causes for primary ones, and so they convince
other people and themselves that they have found an infallible foundation for their
activity, and their minds are at ease.
What is to be done with the millions of facts that bear witness that men, CONSCIOUSLY, that is fully understanding their real interests, have left them in the background and have rushed headlong on another path, to meet peril and danger, compelled to this course by nobody and by nothing, but, as it were, simply disliking the beaten track, and have obstinately, wilfully, struck out another difficult, absurd way, seeking it almost in the darkness.
He then speaks about
a friend who speaks about how to act in accordance with reason and truth. And
this man will speak passionately and excitedly about the normal interests of
man, and with irony, he will mock the short-sighted fools who don’t know what
is good for them. And then suddenly, within a quarter of an hour, he contradicts
But he does not
blame his friend, for his friend is a victim of what all people are victims of.
The fact is, gentlemen, it seems there must really exist something that is dearer to almost every man than his greatest advantages, or (not to be illogical) there is a most advantageous advantage….for the sake of which a man if necessary is ready to act in opposition to all laws; that is, in opposition to reason, honour, peace, prosperity — in fact, in opposition to all those excellent and useful things if only he can attain that fundamental, most advantageous advantage which is dearer to him than all.
He is speaking here of individuality.
The underground man tells us about a false assumption that we make: by being more civilized, by building and adopting more systems, we will become more peaceful, and softer, but the truth is not so.
Only look about you: blood is being spilt in streams, and in the merriest way, as though it were champagne. Take the whole of the nineteenth century in which Buckle lived. Take Napoleon — the Great and also the present one. Take North America — the eternal union… The only gain of civilisation for mankind is the greater capacity for variety of sensations — and absolutely nothing more. And through the development of this many- sidedness man may come to finding enjoyment in bloodshed.
sticking gold pins into the breasts of her slave girls, and derived pleasure
from hearing them scream. You might think that these were barbarous times but
even today, such barbarism exists. Even though man has become more rational, he
does not act according to science and reason. Paradise will not be built,
because boredom and stupidity will cause man to rebel against reason and turn
Of course boredom may lead you to anything. It is boredom sets one sticking golden pins into people, but all that would not matter. What is bad (this is my comment again) is that I dare say people will be thankful for the gold pins then. Man is stupid, you know, phenomenally stupid; or rather he is not at all stupid, but he is so ungrateful that you could not find another like him in all creation.
What man really wants
is not peace or prosperity, what he wants is simply independent choice, whatever
that may cost, and wherever it may lead. Reason is an excellent thing, but it
Reason is nothing but reason and satisfies only the rational side of man’s nature, while will is a manifestation of the whole life, that is, of the whole human life including reason and all the impulses. And although our life, in this manifestation of it, is often worthless, yet it is life and not simply extracting square roots. Here I, for instance, quite naturally want to live, in order to satisfy all my capacities for life, and not simply my capacity for reasoning, that is, not simply one twentieth of my capacity for life.
Reason can only know what it
succeeds in learning, but there will be many things it will never learn, and
that is cold comfort. Even if we assume that man is not stupid (if man is stupid,
then who is wise) he is still monstrously ungrateful. But that is not his worst
quality, what’s worse is his amorality and lack of good sense.
You can say what you want about the
history of the world, but you cannot say it is rational. The strange thing is
that moral and rational sages constantly turn up, lovers of humanity who make
it their goal to live a good life, to be a light to their neighbors, simply to
show them that a moral and rational existence is possible. But sooner or later,
these people will be false to themselves, as if playing an unseemly, queer
Now I ask you: what can be expected of man since he is a being endowed with strange qualities? Shower upon him every earthly blessing, drown him in a sea of happiness, so that nothing but bubbles of bliss can be seen on the surface; give him economic prosperity, such that he should have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes and busy himself with the continuation of his species, and even then out of sheer ingratitude, sheer spite, man would play you some nasty trick. He would even risk his cakes and would deliberately desire the most fatal rubbish, the most uneconomical absurdity, simply to introduce into all this positive good sense his fatal fantastic element. It is just his fantastic dreams, his vulgar folly that he will desire to retain, simply in order to prove to himself — as though that were so necessary — that men still are men and not the keys of a piano, which the laws of nature threaten to control so completely that soon one will be able to desire nothing but by the calendar.
will do anything to prove he is not a piano key, and even if science proved to
him that he was nothing but a piano key, he would still not become reasonable,
but would do something perverse out of plain ingratitude, just to prove his
feel tempted to cure men of their bad habits and reform them, but do you know
that it is possible to do so? Do you even know if it is desirable? What makes you
so sure that man’s inclinations need reforming?
likes to build structures and destroy them, unlike ants. It is as if he is
afraid of living in what he has created or being too close to it. Maybe he can
only love at a distance. He is a frivolous, incongruous creature,
and perhaps what he enjoys, like a chess player, is the process of the game,
and not the end of it. Absolute certainty is not the beginning of life to him,
but the beginning of death – he is afraid of mathematical certainty.
The underground man concludes that it is better to do nothing, to simply be conscious and to go underground. He envies the normal man but does not want to be in his place.
No, no; anyway the underground life is more advantageous. There, at any rate, one can . . . Oh, but even now I am lying! I am lying because I know myself that it is not underground that is better, but something different, quite different, for which I am thirsting, but which I cannot find! Damn underground!
man knows that the answer does not exist where he is, but he is not certain where
to find it. He then composes a rebuke to his past statements.
“Isn’t that shameful, isn’t that humiliating?” you will say, perhaps, wagging your heads contemptuously. “You thirst for life and try to settle the problems of life by a logical tangle. And how persistent, how insolent are your sallies, and at the same time what a scare you are in! You talk nonsense and are pleased with it; you say impudent things and are in continual alarm and apologising for them. You declare that you are afraid of nothing and at the same time try to ingratiate yourself in our good opinion. You declare that you are gnashing your teeth and at the same time you try to be witty so as to amuse us. You know that your witticisms are not witty, but you are evidently well satisfied with their literary value. You may, perhaps, have really suffered, but you have no respect for your own suffering. You may have sincerity, but you have no modesty; out of the pettiest vanity you expose your sincerity to publicity and ignominy. You doubtlessly mean to say something, but hide your last word through fear, because you have not the resolution to utter it, and only have a cowardly impudence. You boast of consciousness, but you are not sure of your ground, for though your mind works, yet your heart is darkened and corrupt, and you cannot have a full, genuine consciousness without a pure heart. And how intrusive you are, how you insist and grimace! Lies, lies, lies!”
this as if to prove that he is aware of what one can counter with, he has
already thought about it. He is not sure why he writes at all, it may be because
he is a coward, perhaps he imagines an audience to feel more dignified, and
perhaps it is to help.
Again, what is my object precisely in writing? If it is not for the benefit of the public why should I not simply recall these incidents in my own mind without putting them on paper?
it may be that it is more imposing and impressive on paper, he can better criticize
himself and improve upon his style. Perhaps writing is even a form of relief.
And sometimes, writing can help get rid of past memories that seem to haunt him
continuously. And maybe it is because he is bored and has nothing else to do.
Writing is a kind of work, and they say that work makes man kind-hearted and
honest. Maybe writing offers him a chance out.
Valiance belongs to donkeys and mules, not to men. The underground man is proudly a coward. Sometimes, he does not feel like speaking to anyone, and at other times, he feels like becoming friends with some. But he was usually alone. He spent most of his time reading – it was a source of excitement, pleasure, and pain. But it was sometimes boring. Movement was what he craved the most, but he only had reading as a way out.
I had no resource except reading, that is, there was nothing in my surroundings which I could respect and which attracted me. I was overwhelmed with depression, too; I had an hysterical craving for incongruity and for contrast, and so I took to vice.
offered another way out, and they could transport him into new situations.
He looked down on his friends from school, he believed that
they didn’t know anything about real life, that they understood nothing. They
heartlessly laughed at what was oppressed and looked down upon. They favored
rank for intelligence, this was due to their stupidity and bad examples they were
surrounded with during childhood. They were depraved, and even that was
superficial and cynical. And even though there was a freshness to them, it was
not attractive. The underground man hated them, even though he may have been
worse than they were. Yet he did have a friend.
Indeed, I did have a friend. But I was already a tyrant at heart; I wanted to exercise unbounded sway over him; I tried to instil into him a contempt for his surroundings; I required of him a disdainful and complete break with those surroundings. I frightened him with my passionate affection; I reduced him to tears, to hysterics. He was a simple and devoted soul; but when he devoted himself to me entirely I began to hate him immediately and repulsed him — as though all I needed him for was to win a victory over him, to subjugate him and nothing else.
He recalls his encounter with a prostitute
named Liza. They have a conversation, and he tells her about a father who loved
his daughter more than anyone else. He was stingy, but with her he was not. He
said that he could not let his daughters marry for he would love them too much.
The prostitute was intrigued, the underground man felt that his words were successfully influencing her, and continued.
I should worry myself to death; I should find fault with all her suitors. But I should end by letting her marry whom she herself loved. The one whom the daughter loves always seems the worst to the father, you know. That is always so. So many family troubles come from that.”
then tells her about the joys of marriage, and how a husband can give her true
happiness, and how she should change her life.
One can only come here when one is drunk. But if you were anywhere else, living as good people live, I should perhaps be more than attracted by you, should fall in love with you, should be glad of a look from you, let alone a word; I should hang about your door, should go down on my knees to you, should look upon you as my betrothed and think it an honour to be allowed to. I should not dare to have an impure thought about you. But here, you see, I know that I have only to whistle and you have to come with me whether you like it or not.
The prostitute tells him about a
student she danced with for a night, who she has hopes to be with, cheerfully
and naively. But the underground man reacts angrily to this and tells her the
real reason why she came to him.
“I’ll tell you, my good girl, why you have come. You’ve come because I talked sentimental stuff to you then. So now you are soft as butter and longing for fine sentiments again. So you may as well know that I was laughing at you then. And I am laughing at you now. Why are you shuddering? Yes, I was laughing at you! I had been insulted just before, at dinner, by the fellows who came that evening before me. I came to you, meaning to thrash one of them, an officer; but I didn’t succeed, I didn’t find him; I had to avenge the insult on someone to get back my own again; you turned up, I vented my spleen on you and laughed at you. I had been humiliated, so I wanted to humiliate; I had been treated like a rag, so I wanted to show my power.”
of the underground man overwhelmed Liza. Power and sport was all he wanted, he
wanted nothing but to humiliate her, because he is a wretched creature, and he
I hated you already because of the lies I had told you. Because I only like playing with words,only dreaming, but, do you know, what I really want is that you should all go to hell. That is what I want. I want peace; yes, I’d sell the whole world for a farthing, straight off, so long as I was left in peace… Did you know that, or not? Well, anyway, I know that I am a blackguard, a scoundrel, an egoist, a sluggard.
in his dreams his ideas of love were a struggle, they began with hatred and
ended with moral subjugation, but he would never know what to do with his subjugated
And what is there to wonder at in that, since I had succeeded in so corrupting myself, since I was so out of touch with “real life,” as to have actually thought of reproaching her, and putting her to shame for having come to me to hear “fine sentiments”; and did not even guess that she had come not to hear fine sentiments, but to love me, because to a woman all reformation, all salvation from any sort of ruin, and all moral renewal is included in love and can only show itself in that form.
did not hate her, but was so oppressed by the underground world, that he just
wanted to be left alone. Real life oppressed him so much with its novelty that
he could hardly breathe.
And, indeed, I will ask on my own account here, an idle question: which is better — cheap happiness or exalted sufferings? Well, which is better?
never saw Liza again. The underground spoiled his life by morally rotting in
his corner, by divorcing himself from real life and rankling spite.
We are so divorced from it that we feel at once a sort of loathing for real life, and so cannot bear to be reminded of it. Why, we have come almost to looking upon real life as an effort, almost as hard work, and we are all privately agreed that it is better in books. And why do we fuss and fume sometimes? Why are we perverse and ask for something else? We don’t know what ourselves. It would be the worse for us if our petulant prayers were answered.
We think we want independence but even if were given it,
even if our hands were untied, we would beg to be under control once again.
As for what concerns me in particular I have only in my life carried to an extreme what you have not dared to carry halfway, and what’s more, you have taken your cowardice for good sense, and have found comfort in deceiving yourselves. So that perhaps, after all, there is more life in me than in you.
you leave us without books, we will be lost and confused at once. We would not
know what to join onto or cling to, what to love or hate, what to respect or
despise. We are oppressed at being men, with a real body and blood, we are
ashamed of it, so we try to contrive some kind of impossible generalized man.
We are stillborn, and for generations past have been begotten, not by living fathers, and that suits us better and better. We are developing a taste for it. Soon we shall contrive to be born somehow from an idea. But enough; I don’t want to write more from “Underground.”
This book, which was very popular in
Japan, was written by Ichiro Kishimi. The author did for Adler what Plato did
for Socrates. Alfred Adler was considered, alongside Freud and Jung, one
of the three pillars of psychology. Freud and Jung focused on analyzing
the unconscious, an aetiological approach (seeks to determine past causes for
why people behave the way they do), while Adler’s individualistic psychology
was about focusing on what could be done today, regardless of what happened in
Through a Socratic dialogue that
takes place between an anxious, disillusioned youth and a wise philosopher, we
learn about Adler’s approach to psychology as a philosopher. The purpose of the
dialogue was not to give the youth the answers to life, but to open his eyes to
a new way of thinking.
Adler acknowledges that the past
does determine future behavior to some extent. The inferiority and
superiority complex are examples. Everyone assumes that their past
behavior influences how they think about the world, but Adler is saying that it
is not our patterns that control us in the present, but our goals. An addict who
says to himself that he wants to quit and fails can give many excuses, such as
the social group he interacts with, his previous patterns of behavior, and his life’s
problems. But in truth, the addict’s real goal is to remain in his comfort
zone, because change is scary and difficult, and there is no way of knowing
whether things will become better as a result of it. He may outwardly proclaim
that he is trying to curb his addiction, perhaps because he acknowledges its
social and personal repercussions, but it is also a refuge for him, a way to
escape life’s problems.
Everyone feels inferior. This stems
from our childhood experiences. Our parents open large doors for us, they do
things that to us are unimaginably difficult and they are much more powerful
than us, when we are children. This imbues us with a sense of helplessness.
Individuals react to this in one of two ways. Either they try to overcompensate
by working diligently to avoid these feelings of inferiority in the future, or
they shirk away from life altogether, they become recluse, and avoid life’s
tasks of romance, work, and friendship.
To Adler, these reactions are
temporary in that the individual, at any moment, can choose to respond to life
differently. A person, who in the past was a coward, can become courageous in
The philosopher makes a distinction
between a feeling of inferiority and a complex. Feelings of inferiority are
natural, everyone has them. A complex is when pathology is involved. The
oedipal complex is a complex because it is a type of thought pattern that is
antithetical to the flourishing of the relationship between mother and child,
it is a disorder.
An inferiority complex occurs when
the individual becomes so concerned with accumulating power that all their
behavior becomes dominated by this impulse. It is as if they live only to out
compete and subordinate others. This not only causes personal misery but is
often a catastrophe to their community.
A superiority complex happens when
the individual fails at their attempt to compensate for their weaknesses, and
then turns towards shortcuts to elevate them socially. A person who is obsessed
with wearing expensive jewelry displays a superiority complex.
Horizontal and Vertical relationships.
Vertical relationships are hierarchical,
you see others as being either inferior or superior to you. Horizontal relationships
are egalitarian, you see others as your equals. Adler believed that you could
not have both, since the ways in which you relate to others define the way you
view interpersonal relationships.
Adler defined three life tasks: work,
friendship, and love. Some people decide to avoid life’s tasks, they become
recluse, do not work or contribute to society, they don’t try to maintain friendships,
and do not seek love. But these life tasks are essential for psychological
well-being. All of these relate to people, in one way or another. Indeed, Adler
believed that all problems were interpersonal problems.
Ultimately, community is the purpose
of life. You cannot do anything worthwhile without providing value to your
community. But Adler defined community very broadly. He did not include family and
close friends, but all living things – past and future. If you contribute, even
if you feel like you are contributing psychologically, then you will be happy.
It is why wealthy people often do charity work; it is to feel they deserve to
Despite the importance of community,
you cannot be a slave to its whims. If you only do what others want you to, so
that you become popular, or accepted, you will disrupt your personal growth. Pleasing
the crowd is not a sustainable strategy for two reasons. One, they will never
be fully satisfied. No matter what you do, they will demand more. Two, they don’t
pay very much attention to you anyway. Many people falsely believe that they
are constantly being judged and scrutinized by others, but in truth, other
people barely think about them at all. People are far too concerned with their
What you need to foster, ultimately,
is the courage to be disliked. You need to accept that many people will not be
happy with your behavior, but that is okay. Your goal should be to contribute
to the community in your own way, to draw boundaries between your tasks and
theirs, and to be honest with yourself.
The Courage be disliked
Kant had a concept: ‘inclination’ describes
the instinct of craving social acceptance.
Picture a stone rolling down a hill,
because of gravity, the stone will continue its course, it becomes smaller
and smoother and then hits a flat surface. In the same way, the will to
appease others, to belong, to feel popular and liked is akin to a stone falling
down the mountain. Of course, no individual is immune to this feeling, but if
you are not careful and more self-aware, you become like a stone, you become
diminished and smooth. The ideal is not to live to make life people happy
because that is impossible to achieve. But rather, to do what you believe is
right. Many young people feel guilty if they disobey their parents, they feel that
by doing what they want, they are acting selfish, particularly if their parents
expressed outright indignation towards them. But it is not the young
person who is being selfish, but their parents. The parents want to force their
child to conform to their own vision of reality and do not want to consider what
their child wants. That is selfish. It is the responsibility of the parents to
come to terms with their feelings, it is not the child’s responsibility.
Dostoevsky had a term that stated
that money was “coined freedom” but being wealthy does not
necessarily make you free. You can be wealthy and trapped by self-destructive
ideology, and in pathological and limiting relationships. Freedom is not
something you can buy; it is a way of thinking.
It has gradually become clear to me what every great philosophy up till now has consisted of—namely, the confession of its originator, and a species of involuntary and unconscious auto-biography; and moreover that the moral (or immoral) purpose in every philosophy has constituted the true vital germ out of which the entire plant has always grown. Indeed, to understand how the abstrusest metaphysical assertions of a philosopher have been arrived at, it is always well (and wise) to first ask oneself: “What morality do they (or does he) aim at?” Accordingly, I do not believe that an “impulse to knowledge” is the father of philosophy; but that another impulse, here as elsewhere, has only made use of knowledge (and mistaken knowledge!) as an instrument. But whoever considers the fundamental impulses of man with a view to determining how far they may have here acted as INSPIRING GENII (or as demons and cobolds), will find that they have all practiced philosophy at one time or another, and that each one of them would have been only too glad to look upon itself as the ultimate end of existence and the legitimate LORD over all the other impulses. For every impulse is imperious, and as SUCH, attempts to philosophize. To be sure, in the case of scholars, in the case of really scientific men, it may be otherwise—”better,” if you will; there there may really be such a thing as an “impulse to knowledge,” some kind of small, independent clock-work, which, when well wound up, works away industriously to that end, WITHOUT the rest of the scholarly impulses taking any material part therein. The actual “interests” of the scholar, therefore, are generally in quite another direction—in the family, perhaps, or in money-making, or in politics; it is, in fact, almost indifferent at what point of research his little machine is placed, and whether the hopeful young worker becomes a good philologist, a mushroom specialist, or a chemist; he is not CHARACTERISED by becoming this or that. In the philosopher, on the contrary, there is absolutely nothing impersonal; and above all, his morality furnishes a decided and decisive testimony as to WHO HE IS,—that is to say, in what order the deepest impulses of his nature stand to each other.
What Nietzsche is saying is that we all have impulses. These impulses are aimed at different things. We have an impulse to play, to conversate, to fight, to argue, to love, to entertain. Philosophers think that they are being impersonal and objective in their writing, but this is very far from the truth. They are simply reflecting the most dominant impulse within them.
Scholars and scientists can be interested in family, politics, or making money, but still be competent at what they do. In the end, they are just using their minds as a logical apparatus to solve problems. The problem with philosophy is that it gives us the illusion that it is grander and more pure than other things we engage our minds in, we feel that our philosophy is majestic, imperial, impersonal, but in truth, our philosophy is a representation of whichever impulses have won the battle within us. They are nothing but a reflection of who we are, and never an objective description of what the world is.
The term “inferiority complex” was coined by psychologist Alfred Adler. The idea is that each individual is born with a weakness, this may be physical or not. For example, someone might be born with bad vision, hearing, or locomotion. These children tend to develop insecurities about these shortcomings (organ deficiencies) that they deliberately choose to spend their time doing things to make up for them. If they have a hearing problem, they tend to become musical. If they have bad eyesight, they become obsessed with visual stimuli.
In the same way, the birth order of a child can result in an inferiority complex. This is not true for the oldest child but can be true for the second child or the youngest child. The second child will feel that they are in competition with their older sibling and will strive to outperform them, while the youngest sibling, in an effort to prove that they are significant, will work the hardest to become the most competent member of their family. In Biblical and ancient stories, the last born child is often portrayed as the savior of the family.
But what Adler is insinuating is not that any of these people are destined to have an inferiority complex. They may react in this way or they may not, and this will, to a certain extent, depend on their upbringing, on whether their parents endowed them with feelings of self worth or not. But even if they were not given the best treatment as children, the individual, according to Adler, is always free to determine their own destiny. If they choose to, they can overcome their past conditioning and assume a more healthy attitude towards life, to be less aggressive, self-centered, competitive, and envious towards others, to be more friendly, and to enjoy the accomplishments of others.
This is not to say that an inferiority complex is inherently bad. Without a feeling of inferiority, people will never pursue superior goals and ideals, they will never try to improve themselves. The inferiority complex is only pathological when pushed to the extreme.
For Adler, social harmony is the highest good and the danger that afflicts each individual, is to feel that they are not enough, that they must constantly battle with others to deserve respect, even after they have attained a high level of respect. Consider the professional musician who is relentlessly unsatisfied, despite achieving numerous awards and prizes. The pathology is when nothing ever seems to be enough.
If these people are inflicted with an inferiority of complex, a low self worth, they may be inhibit their own growth, be less aggressive, and more defensive, they will turn their aggression inwards and will become recluse. They will avoid social contact and shun society.
These reactions are two different ways of responding to a feeling of inferiority in the world, but in either case, the individual will be miserable. They may attain financial success, they may become popular, but they will never be content with who they are. They will constantly be in pain and in agony.
The ideal is to apply yourself and work hard on your goals, but not to take life too seriously, for nothing in the end is all that important.
Adler was not interested in theories of the unconscious (psychoanalysis) the way Freud and Jung were. Instead, he was concerned with the practical world, particularly the social world. Understanding Human Nature is a book about understanding why people do the things they do, what arbitrary influences they had in childhood, and what attitudes hold them back later in life.
Knowledge of Human Nature
Formal education does not teach us very much about human nature. Children will have to take care of their own personal development outside the classroom, to figure it out for themselves. At this stage, psychology is like the subject of chemistry in the days of alchemy – it has not advanced far enough. The people most suited to study human nature are those who have managed to escape the “complicated muddle of our educational system.” These include reformed sinners, either who have drowned in their mistakes before steering themselves clear, or those who feel they are being drawn into making errors. Others can learn it, if they are gifted and empathetic but the best way to understand human nature is to live through its passion for yourself.
Reformed sinners are therefore as valuable in our day and age as they were in the days when the great religions were first founded. They stand much higher than a thousand righteous people. How does this happen? Picture an individual who has lifted himself above the difficulties of life, extricated himself from the swamp, and learned to take bad experiences and make use of them. He truly understands the good and the bad sides of life.
The Function of the Psyche
We can only understand the psyche in relation to its environment,
we cannot study it in isolation. So, to understand its nature, we must focus on
its goals in the external environment, since there would be no psychic life
without goals. We are always striving towards something, but our goals may change
We first recognize this goal seeking behavior in children. And
we also notice that the way in which this child learns to behave in relation to
his goal during childhood, will be the same when he grows up. This suggests an
important hereditary role, but it is not only biology, civilization plays a large
We need people to survive.
Imagine being alone, without any tools except one’s bare hands, in a primitive forest! One would be more at risk than any other living creature. Human beings are generalists, not specialists. They have neither speed nor power, not the teeth of the carnivore, nor the sharp eyes or acute hearing that warn other creatures of danger. Humanity needs a whole battery of tools to guarantee its existence. Our diet, our physical characteristics and our lifestyle all demand these tools.
has deepened the bond people have with each other, without a society, there would
be no use for language. And speech is very important for the development of the
human spirit, we can only think logically through using language, and we can
only understand our thoughts and emotions in this way. Finally, language is how
we preserve our civilization.
Children, like adults, want to dominate everyone around them. But
because they are helpless at first, they will feel frustrated, so they will
feel a strong desire to become stronger. For some, this becomes their main
purpose in life. The other route they may take is to accept their weakness, and
to call or help. The same patterns can be noted in adults.
But children must be given limits, otherwise, they will abuse
them. A child who tries, to gain attention for themselves, by all means – fair
or foul, will abuse their power. They will lie and cheat to get their parents
to favor them over their siblings. Others will behave like model children,
while some may act lazily and mischievously – all towards the end of gaining attention.
Children who have come into the world with defective vision attempt to translate the entire world into more intense visual images. Children with hearing defects show a keen interest in certain sounds that they find pleasing: in short, they become ‘musical’.
Physical, organ inferiority, and capability inferiority. The visually impaired wants to read, The auditory impaired is drawn to music, those with a frail physique may want to develop muscles. People who were disregarded as stupid as children, and were not taken seriously, will want to become clever.
The mechanism of the striving for compensation with which the psyche attempts to neutralize the tortured feeling of inferiority has its analogy in the organic world. We have seen that those organs of our body that are essential for life seem to become over productive when their normal function is impaired by illness or injury. Thus in circulatory disorders the heart, seeming to draw new strength from the whole body, may enlarge until it is more powerful than a normal heart. In the same way the psyche, under pressure from feelings of inferiority or helplessness, tries with all its might to overcome this ‘inferiority complex’.
We hate failures, because they remind us of our inferiority, and we carry these defeats as residue from our earliest attempts at success. But trying too hard to compensate can lead us in a direction where nothing will ever please us, where we become chronically dissatisfied with life.
When the feeling of inferiority is intensified to the degree that children fear they will never be able to overcome their weakness, the danger arises that in striving for compensation they will not be satisfied with a simple restoration of the balance of power. They will seek to tip the scales in the opposite direction. In such cases the striving for power and dominance may become so exaggerated and intensified that it must be called pathological, and the ordinary relationships of life will never be satisfactory.
Men and Women
Men were not historically repressors of females. In ancient cultures, we find that women ruled over men, but we can hypothesize that at some point, a struggle between the sexes ensued, that resulted in male dominance. But it was far from inevitable that a patriarchal society would have developed. Often, masculine ideals are cherished, whereas feminine ideals are scrutinized. Even women often prefer to be masculine, whereas men would be insulted to be thought of as feminine. This is likely because men defined the ideal according to their own image.
George Sand once described this very tellingly when she said: ‘The virtue of woman is a fine invention of man.’
Women rebel against this situation in three ways, either they become masculine themselves, tomboys who resent femininity, and despise the role of housewife. Or, a second category, where the woman surrenders to her fate as the submissive partner, and she constantly exhibits signs that she is a victim in need of saving. Or a third category, where she only verbally accepts her position of inferiority, but manipulates men into doing all the hard work in a relationship. In this way, she gets her revenge slowly.
The problem between the sexes, and what interferes with them co-existing peacefully, is that both want to dominate the other. In any case where one party seeks to dominate the other, there will be pushback, either through explicit or implicit aggression. The only solution is to negotiate peacefully, to acknowledge the value of one another, and to make concessions, to develop friendship and companionship, rather than rivalry for power.
The Family Constellation
The oldest is the most assured, and often conservative. the second oldest is in competition and may spend their entire lives trying to outdo their oldest sibling, no matter the cost.
They are not only the youngest, but also usually the smallest and in consequence the most helpless. Their brothers and sisters have already acquired some degree of growth and independence and for this reason youngest children usually grow up in a warmer atmosphere than their siblings experienced. Hence there arise a number of characteristics that influence their personality and attitude to life in a remarkable way…No child likes to be the smallest, the least capable, all the time. Such a position stimulates children to prove that they can do everything. Their striving for power becomes markedly accentuated, so the youngest often grows up into a person desperate to excel, determined to be the very best at everything. It is not uncommon for the youngest child to outstrip every other member of the family and become its most capable member.
The youngest child often goes in one of two ways. The first is to aggressively pursue the path towards competence. The other is to withdraws and go around obstacles instead of confronting them.
The youngest child often goes on to become the savior of their whole family. The Biblical story of Joseph is an example, and its exposition is clearer and more informative than what modern researchers can hope to present. The other type of youngest child will try to shy away from attacking their tasks head on, they become the biggest cowards imaginable. They become masters at making up excuses.
and Type B
children are more courageous than Type B children. The former takes the direct
route to their goal, whereas type B children will go on a series of detours. Type
B children have discovered that fire burns, and people aren’t so nice, so they
become afraid of speaking the truth, and afraid of pursuing their goals. Both types
share the same goals but go about them differently.
another way to classify people: how they approach difficulties. The optimists undergo
linear character development. They courageously approach their difficulties and
do not take them too seriously. They believe in themselves and are generally happy.
They don’t demand too much of life, because they have high self-worth, they don’t
feel insignificant. They make friends easily and approach social situations in
a relaxed way.
Pessimists are those who have acquired an inferiority complex as a result of their experiences, and impressions of their childhood. Their attitude is that life is not easy, they always see the dark side of everything because of their personal philosophy, which is a result of being mistreated as children. They are more conscious of the difficulties of life than optimists, and it is easy for them to lose heart. They are always tortured by a feeling of insecurity and are always looking for support – a cry for help is ceaselessly echoed in their behavior, because they cannot stand alone. As children, they are always crying for their mothers, and these cries can be heard even in their old age.
types are abnormally cautious. They are timid and fearful, and always dwell on
the dangers that are around the corner. They sleep badly, and sleep is an
excellent measure for the development of the human being. Disturbances in sleep
are a sign of insecurity and great cautiousness. It is as if these people are
always on guard. They frequently curl up into the smallest possible space, or
sleep with the covers drawn up over their heads.
Aggressive and Defensive Types
is the aggressive-defensive types. The aggressive attacker moves violently, and
when they are brave, their courage becomes foolhardy to show the world how
brave they are, but in this way, they betray their deep feeling of insecurity. If
they are anxious, they try to harden themselves against fear. They play the
tough role to a ludicrous extent. Others do whatever they can to suppress all feelings
of tenderness and gentleness, because they are afraid of being perceived as
weak. Society does not favor these people. Since they are so obtrusive, it is
easy for them to be disliked. Life becomes a series of never-ending battles,
and when they suffer defeats their procession of triumphs ends abruptly. They
are frightened easily, and do not have the stamina for lengthy conflict.
Another type is the defender. These are the ones who feel threatened, and constantly on guard. They compensate for their insecurity not by aggression, but by anxiety, caution, and cowardice. These people don’t become defenders without being aggressive at an earlier point. Sometimes, they succeed by disguising their defection by acting like a useful piece of work will imminently follow their retreat. But these fantasies are a way of avoiding reality. Some, who have not completely lost initiative, may accomplish something of value to society.
Artists often belong to this category. After withdrawing from reality, they build a boundless fantasy world where only their ideals exist. But they are the exceptions to the rule, for these types of individuals usually suffer defeat after defeat and capitulate to hardship. They are afraid of everything and everyone and expect nothing but hostility from the world. Eventually, they lose all belief in the goodness of humanity, and the brighter side of life. One constant of these types is their critical attitude. They are great at recognizing the slightest defect in others and set themselves up as judges of humanity without accomplishing anything themselves. They cannot enjoy the victories of others, but only seek to sabotage them.
There are many ways of categorizing people, to help us understand human psychology. We can even divide them into ‘thinkers’ and ‘doers.’ Thinkers meditate and reflect; they live in a fantasy world and shun the real world. They are difficult to jolt into action. Doers are the opposite, they don’t meditate or reflect, they are busy with an active, down-to-earth approach to life’s problems.
Beyond the Old School of Psychology
But if we subscribed to this old school of psychology, we would reach the limit of our investigations, and conclude that in one type, the power of fantasy prevailed, while in the other, the power of work was better developed. But this material would hardly be scientific or useful. We need to find out how these things happen and whether they had to happen, and whether they can be avoided or mitigated. Even though these types do exist, such superficial labeling does not constitute a rational study of human nature.
Anxiety, Money, Laziness
People who are anxious will feel fear at the onset of any new or unfamiliar situation. It is not that they avoid doing it, it is that their instinct is always ‘flight’, at least momentarily. These people as children violently called for their mother when they were left alone. It isn’t so much fear of being alone, but fear of losing control that these types are afflicted with. They want to make sure that the world still obeys their command. When mother isn’t there, and when new situations arise, they lose that sense of control, and indeed, this may push them to become more masterful, so that they can maintain more control over their lives, but on the other hand, they miss out on new experiences that are necessary for growth out of fear of uncertainty and losing control.
We take it for granted that since greed for money is acceptable.
Since money and power are synonymous, people feel that it is okay to be completely
oriented towards making money. But avarice can also destroy your life, it can
rob you of other things that matter, and it can isolate you from people, in your
quest to become all-powerful. In fact, extreme greed for wealth resembles the human
illusion of wanting to have god-like powers that we see in mystics and fortune
People find ways to make excuses for their behavior. Laziness is a way to get yourself out of personal responsibility, no one is born lazy, we teach ourselves to be that way if it helps us solve problems. Some people feign sickness and weakness, for example, to gain control over others, and maintain dominance.
There are many ways in which people seek to control their destinies, and these are not always for the better. Sometimes, the will to control one’s fate results in dependent behavior, and this may be dangerous to their own well-being. Those who relentlessly pursue wealth want to have god-like powers over their fates, but doing so often comes at a great expense emotionally and socially.
Human beings, Adler tells us, can only be understood through their goals, and if we perceive people in this way, we can see how often self-victimization, excessive greed, laziness, and fearfulness are ways of avoiding happiness, of clinging to what is familiar and known. We assume that people want what is best for them, but it is often the case that they want what is most familiar and controllable, even if it was not good for them at all.
Toxic people are zombies. They are the Walking Dead, the White
Walkers – brainless, but physically present, they march towards one goal, to
convert every living thing in their path to their own ideology – or rather, the
dominant ideology within them. Nietzsche had an interesting idea – that we have
many sub-personalities and that they all compete for ultimate power over the
Ultimately, the most powerful and relentless personality takes control.
It may be the part of you that wants to do nothing but get intoxicated. This sub-personality
is the enemy of self-awareness and the past, it wants to forget about the time it
has wasted, the mistakes it has done, and it tricks you by convincing you to
believe in a lie: that by consuming a certain substance, you are living in the
moment, and being adventurous, when in truth, you are shirking away from adventure,
and unconscious of the present moment.
But the predicament this sub-personality finds itself in, is
that it is competing with its siblings, the other sub-personalities, some of
whom are gym enthusiasts, nymphomaniacs, problem gamblers, foodies, gamers, and
chronic media consumers. The siblings are in conflict, like children vying for
attention from their parents, or more exactly from the decision maker, the
conscious self that is constantly in the act of trying to keep everyone happy.
And yet, as regulator, you are prone to error, for you may favor one of your
children too much, that they grow up to be a tyrant that bullies everyone else.
Your challenge is to find the appropriate balance, and to keep your
children from rebelling violently (if they are too strongly repressed and subjugated).
It is obvious that you should be strict with the self-destructive types, it is
common sense not to over-indulge in bad behavior, but often, even good behavior
must be regulated, your well-behaved children cannot be given full control. The
psychoanalysts have warned us of the consequences this. You should be a competent
boss, but you cannot be a dictator, a process of negotiation is necessary.
Too often, a sub-personality becomes so powerful that it controls
you. And if you think you are not susceptible to losing control, consider situations
where you tell yourself you are going to do something, either to complete a
project, or finish an email, or read a book, and you find yourself
procrastinating. You are not a perfectly coordinated entity – you are in
constant disagreement with yourself. But with practice, you can create a more
Toxic people are those who have given up this fight. They have
let the destructive forces within them take control – the part of them that
only wants to be critical of others, or only wants to gamble, or only wants to
talk about the people and things they hate, has taken over. They become
predictable. You won’t hear them tell you anything you don’t already know,
unless it’s gossip about someone they hate – they are only attuned to
information that appeases their toxic sub-personality.
all zombies, if you let them get too close to you, they will chew you up, bit
by bit, until you become one of them – until they have converted you to their
lifeless cause. And, of course, like zombies, they have no strength as
individuals, they are weaklings when faced with anyone on their own. They only
have strength in numbers. That is because they are slow (pun intended), and they
can only catch you when you are complacent, when your guard is down.
It is not only toxic people that are zombies, but you are also
one, or more accurately a collection of zombies, since your sub-personalities
are all essentially miniature unconscious life-forms all vying for power.
If you haven’t been extremely cautious, it is likely that there’s
a part of you that’s dominant, and if you don’t question whether this part has
your best interests in mind, you can find yourself slipping into an oblivious
state quite rapidly, whether into hedonism or workaholism.
In the Maps of Meaning lectures, Peterson recalls the story of Pinocchio. In the cartoon, there is a scene in Pleasure Island, the place that all the kids that want to escape responsibility go to. There, they are free to do whatever they want. They can smoke, drink, and play games, with no adult supervision. It is a never-ending party. And their underlying philosophy is that they don’t need school – only chumps sacrifice pleasure for learning.
what we learn is that living that way literally turns you into a donkey – a
beast of burden. It is first conveyed when Jiminy Cricket, Pinocchio’s
conscience, sees crates of trapped children being sent off to slavery. And the
second instance is when Lampwick, the demonic child character who thinks he
knows everything about the world already, grows donkey ears, before
transforming completely into a donkey, and Pinocchio only grows donkey ears, he’s
halfway there, but has a small window of hope to save himself. With the help of Jiminy, he manages to escape.
It isn’t that the abandonment of responsibility turns you into a
beast of burden, because being a donkey is your default state, you are born a
slave to your passion, and it is only through discipline and self-control that
you can manage to tame your animalistic urges, and attain the key to personal freedom.
Of course, Pleasure Island isn’t a place, it’s a metaphor. It’s
your ritualistic bad habits, whether smoking, drinking, or using your
smartphone for too long. And most of us think that we need Pleasure Island to
get by, it’s a story we tell ourselves. We also deceive ourselves into
believing that we are above our guilty pleasures, that we have control over
what we do, and we engage in this systematic form of self-deception to live
with ourselves, even though it makes us feel disintegrated and weak. It takes
courage to be honest about your weaknesses, and have an accurate memory of the
past, rather than the distorted version that will let you cheat yourself in the
A list of books referenced by Jordan Peterson in 12 Rules for Life.
Solzhenitsyn, A.I. (1975). The Gulag Archipelago
Based on his experience of being incarcerated, and that of 200
prisoners and Soviet archives, Solzhenitsyn reveals the apparatus of Soviet
Waal, F. B. M. de (2007). Chimpanzee politics: Power and sex among apes
Through chimps’ sexual rivalries and coalitions, and
intelligent rather than instinctual actions, we learn that the roots of
politics are older than humanity.
Neumann, E. (1955). The Great Mother: An analysis of the archetype
Explores how the Feminine has been experienced and expressed
in many cultures from prehistory to our own time
Neumann, E. (1954). The origins and history of consciousness
One of Jung’s most creative
students draws on mythology to show that individual consciousness goes through
the same archetypal stages of development as the collective human consciousness.
Barrett, J.L. (2004). Why would anyone believe in God?
Why believing in God is an inevitable consequence of the type
of brains we have.
Goldberg, E. (2003). The Executive Brain: Frontal lobes and the civilized mind
How our frontal lobe is key to our social and ethical
Keeley, L. H. (1996). War before civilization: The myth of the peaceful savage
Debunks the myth of the noble savage.
Heidel, A. (1963). The Babylonian Genesis: The story of the creation
All the published cuneiform Babylonian
tablets that tell the story of Babylon and Sumer.
Salisbury, J. E. (1997). Perpetua’s passion: The death and memory of a young Roman woman
A young woman’s social martyrdom
Pinker, S. (2011). The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined
Contrary to what the news is constantly
telling you, the world has become more peaceful thanks to modernity.
Nietzsche, F.W. & Kaufmann, W.A. (1982). The portable Nietzsche
A comprehensive study of Nietzsche’s
Nietzsche, F. (2003). Beyond good and evil
Philosophy and religion up to
this point has only been a symbolic manifestation of people’s dominant inner identities,
the only true idea is the will to power (our fundamental instinct).
Nietzsche, F. (1974). The gay science (Kaufmann, W., Trans.)
A discussion of art, morality,
knowledge, truth, the intellectual conscience, and the origin of the logic.
Nietzsche, F. (1968). The will to power
A distillation of Nietzsche’s
ideas on nihilism and morality.
Jones, E. (1953). The life and work of Sigmund Freud (Vol. I)
Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do
How to prevent bullying.
Goodall, J. (1990). Through a window: My thirty years with the chimpanzees of Gombe
An account that shows how closely
chimps resemble humans.
Goodall, J. (1972). In the shadow of man
A study of chimps around the
Chang, I. (1990). The rape of Nanking
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A section from the Brothers Karamazov
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The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck by Mark Manson is not about giving no fucks about anything, it’s about choosing the few things to give a fuck about. A funny book with sharp insights worth remembering.
Seek Out Negative Experiences
Don’t look for positive experiences, don’t chase after pleasure mindlessly, doing that is a negative experience. Paradoxically, doing the opposite, chasing after negative experiences, experiencing suffering and pain, is a positive experience.
The more you desperately want to be rich, the more poor and unworthy you feel, regardless of how much money you actually make. The more you desperately want to be sexy and desired, the uglier you come to see yourself, regardless of your actual physical appearance. The more you desperately want to be happy and loved, the lonelier and more afraid you become, regardless of those who surround you.
This is called the ‘backwards law.’ When you give too many
fucks, when you care about pleasing everyone and being successful and being
happy, you will achieve none of those things. Pursue the negative instead. Go
to the gym, feel pain, improve your body and health. Have honest and painful
conversations to improve your relationships.
Don’t be indifferent. People who are indifferent act like they don’t give a fuck but in truth, they give the most fucks. They are afraid of being judged, so they don’t try at all, they hide behind their sarcasm and cynicism.
Give Less Fucks
You must give a fuck about something, whatever it is. And if
you don’t find something worthwhile to give a fuck about, your mind will
arbitrarily find other things to give a fuck about, that aren’t worthwhile.
The problem is that we are born giving too many fucks.
Ever watch a kid cry his eyes out because his hat is the wrong shade of blue? Exactly. Fuck that kid.
When we’re young, everything seems so important – from what people are saying about us, to whether our socks match, to whether that cute boy/girl called us back. But when we get older, we have less energy, and our identity solidifies.
We automatically give less fucks. We accept ourselves, even the parts we aren’t thrilled about, and this is liberating. We realize that many of our dreams won’t be realized and we make peace with that. We content ourselves with the simple things in life like family, friends, and our golf swing. Amazingly, this is enough.
Buddha’s insight: life itself is a form of suffering. The rich suffer because of their wealth. The poor suffer because of their poverty. People without a family suffer because they have no family, and people with a family suffer because of their family. People who pursue worldly pleasures suffer because of their worldly pleasures. People who abstain from worldly pleasures suffer because of their abstention.
Suffering is not equal, some are worse than others, but everyone suffers in some way.
Sometimes, suffering is good, it makes us change and improve. The creature that is dissatisfied and insecure is going to work the hardest to innovate and survive. This keeps our species fighting and conquering. Suffering is not a bug, it’s a feature.
Pain is useful. It teaches us what to pay attention to, what
to avoid doing, it helps us understand our limitations.
And problems never stop; they merely get exchanged and/or
Happiness is a by product of solving problems. If you avoid problems,
then you will not be happy. People fuck their lives up because they deny they
have problems, or they adopt the victim mentality.
Don’t always trust your emotions.
Decision-making based on emotional intuition, without the aid of reason to keep it in line, pretty much always sucks. You know who bases their entire lives on their emotions? Three-year-old kids. And dogs. You know what else three-year-olds and dogs do? Shit on the carpet.
Everyone wants things. It’s easy to want to be the best. It’s a lot harder to know what pain you want to have in your life – to know what you are willing to struggle for. That is a more important question, because that will more strongly define your life.
People want a great physique, their own business, and a partner.
But not everyone is willing to put themselves through the pain of going to the
gym, of experiencing the uncertainty of entrepreneurship, and the insecurity of
See: it’s a never-ending upward spiral. And if you think at any point you’re allowed to stop climbing, I’m afraid you’re missing the point. Because the joy is in the climb itself.
The Disease of Exceptionalism
Our culture is obsessed with exceptionalism, but it is a statistical improbability that any single person is extraordinary in all areas of life, or even in many areas. Most of us are average but the extremes get all the attention. And yet, no one seems to talk about how this could be a problem. Glorifying the exceptional constantly makes us feel insecure.
We cope the only way we know how: either through self-aggrandizing or through other-aggrandizing. Some of us do this by cooking up get-rich-quick schemes. Others do it by taking off across the world to save starving babies in Africa. Others do it by excelling in school and winning every award. Others do it by shooting up a school. Others do it by trying to have sex with anything that talks and breathes.
People are afraid of mediocrity because they fear they will
never achieve anything and their lives won’t matter, but this is dangerous,
because it will lead you to think that most humans (including yourself) are
The few people who do become exceptional become so because
they are obsessed with improvement, and that comes from believing that they are
not great. Believing you are exceptional will not solve the problem of mediocrity,
it will only make it worse.
Your Values Define Your Life
David Mustaine was kicked out of Metallica but started a great band (Megadeath). Since his success was not comparable to Metallica’s, he didn’t enjoy it. Mustaine’s values defined how he saw life. Pete Best was kicked out of the Beatles, but he got married, and later in life said his change of lifestyle worked out for the best.
When you choose to fight, rather than being forced to fight, you relish the experience, and you are more likely to succeed.
William James came from a wealthy family but was failing badly at everything. His siblings were all successful. He went to the Amazon jungle for vacation, to escape the wrath of his father after failing to succeed in medical school. He nearly died there, and barely made it out, and when he went back home, he nearly committed suicide (he had many physical problems that only got worse), but he decided to change his mindset – to take responsibility for everything that happened for just one year. James went on to become the father of modern psychology.
With great responsibility comes great power.
A short friend who was attractive and smart had decided that
women would never date him because of his height, so he never bothered to try.
“But I don’t have a choice,” he would tell the bartender. “There’s nothing I can do! Women are superficial and vain and will never like me!” Yes, it’s every single woman’s fault for not liking a self-pitying, shallow guy with shitty values. Obviously.
Manson had a delusional dream of becoming a poker player in
college, but realized that the emotional instability that came along with
winning and losing thousands of dollars was not for him. But the experience taught
him a valuable lesson: Luck is an important factor in the game, but what makes
a winning player is decision-making. The more correct decisions you make, the
more likely you are to succeed in the long run.
Life is similar. Everyone is dealt their cards. Some get
better cards than others, and it’s easy to obsess about your cards and feel you
were screwed. But the real game is knowing how to make the best choices with
Change is uncomfortable but necessary.
You are always wrong. You never do things right, only slightly
less wrong over time.
People are hardwired to detect patterns, when they don’t really
Manson’s law of avoidance: The more something threatens your identity, the more you will avoid it.
You can be the artist who is too afraid to become the artist no one cares about rather than the undiscovered artist who never tried, or you can be the guy who wants to drink and chase women all the time. No matter how you define your identity, it will stop you from doing things to improve your life.
Buddhism argues that your idea of who “you” are is an arbitrary mental construction and that you should let go of the idea that “you” exist at all; that the arbitrary metrics by which you define yourself actually trap you, and thus you’re better off letting go of everything. In a sense, you could say that Buddhism encourages you to not give a fuck.
Broaden Your Identity
The benefits of not being constrained to an identity is freedom.
Don’t try to be special and unique. Define your metrics in
broad and mundane ways: a student, partner, creator. If you narrow your
identity, everything will threaten it.
We are conditioned to avoid failure but perfecting your
craft can only come from a multitude of small failures.
Whether you are afraid to have a conversation with a
stranger you are attracted to, or too scared to launch the business you want, you
need to do something. The less you think and the more you do, the more likely
you will find the answers.
During that early self-employment period, when I struggled every day, completely clueless about what to do and terrified of the results (or lack thereof), Mr. Packwood’s advice started beckoning me from the recesses of my mind. I heard it like a mantra:
Don’t just sit there. Do something. The answers will follow.
Russian culture is very different from the west. Russians are brutally honest, because when times are rough, honesty becomes a valuable commodity – you need to know who you can rely on. This honesty is sorely lacking in economically successful cultures where things are going well, where lies seem to be more effective than truths.
You must learn to say no to things before embracing
Love is dangerous and foolish, but sometimes love can work –
only if two people draw the right boundaries and don’t engage in pathological ‘victim’
and ‘savior’ dynamics.
You are conditioned to believe that more money, more sex,
more vacations is what you need. But it is only when you have less, that you
finally become satisfied. It is when you choose your fucks carefully and settle
down that you feel content.
Josh was Mark’s friend, who died by drowning.
Josh, in many ways, had been a person I looked up to. He was older, more confident, more experienced, and more accepting of and open to the world around him. In one of my last dreams of Josh, I was sitting in a Jacuzzi with him (yeah, I know, weird), and I said something like, “I’m really sorry you died.” He laughed. I don’t remember exactly what his words were, but he said something like, “Why do you care that I’m dead when you’re still so afraid to live?” I woke up crying.
The Denial Of Death
Ernst Becker was an oddball who wrote ‘The Denial of Death’, a profound book, where he makes two central arguments. The first is that everyone has two identities, the first is the self that eats, shits, fucks, and breathes. The other is the conceptual self. The problem with society is that everyone gives too much importance to the conceptual self, everyone wants to be remembered post mortem, so that they never really die. The second point is that humans are the only animals that can think about their lives and make value judgements. Dogs never wonder if they’re likeable or tall enough or smart enough.
Becker argues that while we are aware of our mortality, and
we are afraid of it, we try to compensate for it in unhealthy ways. We
construct a conceptual self that is immortal.
This is why people try so hard to put their names on buildings, on statues, on spines of books. It’s why we feel compelled to spend so much time giving ourselves to others, especially to children, in the hopes that our influence—our conceptual self—will last way beyond our physical self. That we will be remembered and revered and idolized long after our physical self ceases to exist.
But when these “immortality projects” fail, our life loses meaning. Trauma, shame, social ridicule can cause this, and so can mental illness. Our immortality projects are our values, they are what define meaning and worth in our life.
What Becker is saying, in essence, is that we’re all driven by fear to give way too many fucks about something, because giving a fuck about something is the only thing that distracts us from the reality and inevitability of our own death. And to truly not give a single fuck is to achieve a quasi-spiritual state of embracing the impermanence of one’s own existence. In that state, one is far less likely to get caught up in various forms of entitlement.
People’s immortality projects are the problem, not the
solution. Rather than try to implement your self-conception across the world,
people should question their conceptual self and be comfortable with the
reality of their own death.
Because once we become comfortable with the fact of our own death—the root terror, the underlying anxiety motivating all of life’s frivolous ambitions—we can then choose our values more freely, unrestrained by the illogical quest for immortality, and freed from dangerous dogmatic views.
The Stoics always kept death in mind, to appreciate life and
remain humble. Buddhism teaches meditation as a form of preparing for death
Dissolving one’s ego into an expansive nothingness—achieving the enlightened state of nirvana—is seen as a trial run of letting oneself cross to the other side. Even Mark Twain, that hairy goofball who came in and left on Halley’s Comet, said, “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”
How will the world improve when you’re gone? That is the truly important question, yet we avoid thinking about it.
The pampering of the modern mind has resulted in a population that feels deserving of something without earning that something, a population that feels they have a right to something without sacrificing for it. People declare themselves experts, entrepreneurs, inventors, innovators, mavericks, and coaches without any real-life experience. And they do this not because they actually think they are greater than everybody else; they do it because they feel that they need to be great to be accepted in a world that broadcasts only the extraordinary.