The Idealist vs The Therapist


The Idealist Versus the Therapist


Couch is a series about psychotherapy.

I was giving a lecture in New York not all that long ago. I was talking about ideals. The audience was made up of therapists and therapists in training at the eminent William Alanson White Institute on the Upper West Side. After the talk was over, I was asked a remarkable question. Certainly it was the best-posed question that I have ever gotten at a talk.

The question came from a man wearing an elegant but disheveled suit. It was the end of the day, after all. His tie was loose around his collar. He had an air of friendly exasperation on his face. He was clearly a psychotherapist of some kind. What he said went something like this:

“You’ve been talking to us tonight about ideals and you’ve been trying to make a case for them. You talked about the hero, as he exists in Homer and Virgil. You talked about Aeneas and Hector and Achilles, and described them as three instances of the heroic ideal. Then you went on to talk about what you wanted to call the saint. You pointed to Jesus and Buddha and Confucius. You said they exemplified the compassionate ideal. Then there was one more: the contemplative ideal. And that was exemplified by Plato. Plato, you said, was a figure who tried to get at the whole truth, the eternal truth and nothing but the truth.”

I could see that my questioner was now working a little harder to hold back his impatience. There was something he didn’t like in what I was saying — that he really didn’t like. But he was doing his best to control himself. He wanted to keep matters urbane and he was doing a good job. As to me, I was taking what I thought of as tantric breaths.

My questioner continued:

“And you’re saying that these ideals of yours — courage and compassion and contemplation — aren’t relics of the ancient world. You want us to see them as real possibilities, here and now. You concede that we in the West live in a culture that rewards pragmatism and skepticism. But you think that young people in particular ought to consider arranging their lives around these ideals. This young man might be a thinker; this young woman a warrior; another young person might live for compassion. Is that right?”

I admitted that this was the case. I said that I wanted to use these great works of the past, and the idealist tradition, to help young people (and all people, really) to think about their lives and maybe to change them. I wanted to use what I knew — and all that I knew I knew through others — to help create what the philosopher William James thought of as “living options.”

My questioner was a genial man, clearly. But he was beginning to steam. Now was the moment for him to deliver the bad news.

“If someone came into my office,” he said, “and told me that he wanted to find the enduring truth, or become saintly, or be a heroic warrior, I know exactly what I’d say to him. I’d say, ‘You are suffering from neurosis (at the very least) and you are in need of therapy, the sooner the better.’ For there are no true ideals, only idealizations. Your so-called ideals are merely sources of delusion.”

The room murmured its assent. Actually it more than murmured assent; it all but broke into applause.

O.K., so he really wasn’t asking a question. It was more like an indictment. My talk, and my teaching from which the talk arose, were apparently inducements to mental illness, minor or major. Ideals were myths, and they could lead you into serious trouble. This was Freud’s view, I understood, and though psychotherapy has veered from Freud in many regards, it will not be easy for anyone to find a therapist who will tell you that the best way to overcome your psychological difficulties is to embrace an ideal.

What’s so bad about ideals from this point of view? A psychotherapist might say that ideals make you feel too good, at least at the outset. Embracing an ideal can produce what we might call unity of being. All of a sudden, you know (or think you know) what life is all about. You know what to do in the world. This brings a sense of confidence and purpose. You always know what you are supposed to do. Be brave! Be compassionate! Think and find the truth! You may not live up to these ideals all the time, but knowing what you are supposed to be and do confers an assurance and stability that you probably did not have before.

Most of the time, the descendants of Freud tell us, we are fractured beings. Our various desires move in disparate directions, and often contrary directions at that. For the therapist, we are not one self, but two or three. Psychoanalysts speak of the ego and the id, and also of the superego. These three internal powers desire different results in the world, and they often, to say the least, get in each other’s way. To put it crudely, the superego wants perfection; the ego wants balance and calm; the id wants everything it can get: power and money and sex and maybe a little more sex afterward.

So what’s so bad about a form of belief and commitment that stabilizes the self? What’s so bad about the unity that ideals can bring by drawing all of the individual’s energy in one direction?

To this, psychotherapy has an abrupt answer: It doesn’t work. What you’re calling ideals are really intoxicating untruths. Ideals make you drunk, and the hangover that follows is bitter. To use Wordsworth for a moment: “As high as we have mounted in delight/ In our dejection do we sink as low.” To which the therapist might reply: “As low? I’d say far lower.”

Ideals don’t work, says the therapist. If you follow the compassionate ideal, open your heart completely and say that there is no difference between you and others in the world, people will take advantage of you. And you’ll outrage your own sense of entitlement to the good things in life. You’ll see that your compassionate ministrations don’t do much good for others and that they wear you out.

You’ll discover too that subscribing to the heroic ideal may well get you killed or maimed in a war that is unjust. When you come home, if you come home, people will treat you with indifference and maybe even disdain. What a sucker you were. And the deep motivation of so-called heroes, Freud tells us, is not really courage; it is the narcissistic belief that though others may well be doomed to die, you are immortal.

As to the Platonic desire to know the truth for all time, it is also a form of narcissism, a prideful aspiration. Psychoanalysis even has a name for it: epistemophilia. (Worse than the flu, no doubt.) Though Freud himself may have had a touch of this malady, it is clear that psychotherapy overall considers the claim to know all that is truly worth knowing to be at least on the border of pathology.

Who is right, the idealists or the therapists?

Well, if you judge by our present cultural climate, you would have to say that the therapists are. Though surely there are people who commit themselves to being compassionate, or being brave, or getting at the truth, most people in the West do not. They seek a decent life that is reasonably prosperous and secure and is oriented to family and stability. They try to balance their desires. Even if they don’t use psychoanalytical terms, I think it is fair to say that they try to do a little something every day for the id and for the superego and for the ego. The psyche, says Carl Jung, must learn how to make deals.

The idealist is the one who will not make deals. He puts all his resources on one spot — courage or compassion or truth — and then goes for it. He may triumph. He may crash and burn. He may, in time, do both.

What the great tradition of Plato and Homer and Buddha and the rest tells us is that the measured, modulated life is not for everyone. Some of us need to risk more in order to gain more: “spending for vast returns,” as Whitman said. Certain people who are deprived of the chance to do so will grow weary and sick of life. They need to play for higher stakes than most of their contemporaries.

This game is not for everyone, to be sure. Many of us, perhaps most, need the life of the balanced self. This is the life that therapists have done a great deal to make available to us. But when the therapist says that ideals are a form of pathology, then I think he is overreaching, cutting off chances for people and maybe even contributing something to making them ill in spirit.

I told my perceptive questioner all this, or something much like it. He sat down and smiled a therapist’s benevolent smile, secure no doubt that in time, I would learn.

But then again, maybe he will.

Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, is the author of “Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals.”