Does the Human Being Have a Benign or a Destructive Nature?

| June 30, 2012

Although there is much overlap between Freud and Fromm’s theories of personality, they differ in certain respects. Their differential attitudes toward personality components (id, ego, superego), destructive vs. healthy nature of humans and the role of parenting and society vs. sexual drives in the development of psycho-pathology will be addressed in this article.
According to Freud, human beings are naturally motivated by certain bodily instincts that generate drives or tensions when there is a need for satisfaction. The body tries to produce pleasure by satisfying these drives, for instance, through eating, drinking or sexual behavior. Freud particularly emphasized the determining role of sex and aggression in motivating human behavior. He described three components – id, ego and superego – for personality. The id refers to a mainly unconscious ingredient that exists from birth. It is the animalistic part of humans that functions on the basis of pleasure principle, irrespective of reality or self-preservation. It works by changing biological needs (need for food) to psychological tensions (hunger). Seeking and obtaining food will mitigate this tension and yield pleasure. The second element of personality is the ego, that spans across conscious, subconscious and unconscious levels. It begins to develop at about 6 to 8 months of life and works on the basis of reality principle. It delays gratification until an appropriate situation is available. Freud says that humans naturally tend toward aggression and destruction, however this element of personality or the ego tries to sublimate these destructive tendencies. For example a person who wants to beat others, may channel these aggressive instincts into a more acceptable way of playing soccer. The third element of personality is the superego, which begins to develop at 3 to 4 years of age. This process occurs by introjecting what parents dictate and what society standards inculcate in the person (Ewen, 2010)
In contrast to the above mentioned Freudian conceptualization of human nature and personality, Fromm shows an optimistic view of human nature, describing human beings as entities with inner healthy potentials ( as opposed to Freudian concept of murderous and destructive nature of humans). In fact the pathogenic attitudes of parents and society are block these natural healthy tendencies and deviate the child’s character toward abnormality. For example such undesirable parental and societal attitudes as authoritarianism, narcissism, pessimism and physical abuse, may lead to substitution of healthy orientations such as bio-philia, love, and reason by pathologic directions such as exploitation. Similar to Freud, Fromm accepts the concept of unconscious, acknowledging such defense mechanisms as repression, projection, reaction formation, rationalization, and; however, he doesn’t accept the concepts of id, ego and superego as explained by Freud (Ewen, 2010)
In conclusion, it must be reiterated that Freud hypothesizes humans to be destructive and aggressive in nature, while Fromm attributes a benign natural tendency to humans and blames societal harshness for human’s psychopathology. According to Freud if we change the person, there will be no conflict with the society and that is the way to obtain relief. For example Freud proposes sublimation of aggressive tendencies of murder to more acceptable channels such as football. Freud blames sexual drives for psychopathology, whereas Fromm’s theory requires modifications in policies and societal norms to solve the conflict with the benign nature of humans and blames pathogenic parenting and societal attitude for giving rise to psychopathology. In other words, the role of social milieu and unpleasant and traumatic life conditions in the development of mental suffering can be best observed in Fromm’s theory.
Ewen, R. B. (2010). Erich Fromm, The escape from freedom: An introduction to theories of personality (7th ed) pp. 121-135 psychology press, Taylor and Francis group New York
Hernández de Tubert, R. (2006) ‘Social Trauma: The Pathogenic Effects of Untoward Social Conditions’, International Forum of Psychoanalysis 15(3): 151–6.