A New Dimension in Freud's
Structural Theory of the Mind
by George Mashour
The figures of mythology and literature embody a plethora of human facets, and allow us to observe various aspects of our psyches as they stand before us, interact, and live out the implications of their essence. Since Freud's 'The Interpretation of Dreams', psychoanalysis has also employed such a myth: that of Oedipus Rex. The present essay attempts to develop other dramatis personae of the structural mind, elucidating an antithetical relationship of Jesus Christ to Oedipus, and exploring its psychoanalytic and philosophic implications. This exploration brings us to a fuller appreciation of the symmetry of the structural theory, deriving the association of Christ with the superego, and deducing from the structural theory the presence of a Christ complex. By understanding Oedipus as an anti-Christ, we are given access to Nietzschean philosophy, and more explicitly develop the conceptual relationship between Nietzsche and Freud via the figure of Zarathustra.
Christ and Oedipus stand as two mythical kings, with a remarkable and henceforth obscure relationship to one another. From birth to death, we find a number of striking parallels and anti-parallels. Both Oedipus and Christ were born under unique circumstances, with the identity of their parents cloaked in obscurity. Oedipus was taken away from his parents in order to thwart infanticide and the oracle's prophecy that he would slay his father and lay with his mother. Thus was it unknown to Oedipus that his father and mother were king and queen of Thebes. The identity of Christ's parents were also obscured, and in a similar fashion it was initially unknown that Christ's father was the King of Kings, and his mother the holiest of holy. Oedipus and Christ were both unwitting heirs to a throne, and each was destined for a unique kingdom.
Christ and Oedipus ultimately developed an antiparallel relationship to their parents: their respective triads were diametrically opposed. The father of Oedipus realized his mortality at the hands of his son, and his mother Iocaste subsequently had a directly sexual relationship with him. The father of Christ, however, was immortal, and his mother was virginal despite her conception and delivery. Oedipus destroyed the father and achieved union with the mother, while Christ shunned the mother and achieved union with the father. Oedipus destroyed the will of the father in order to inherit his kingdom, while Christ acquiesced to the will of the father in order to inherit his. Oedipus accomplished a worldly kingdom by the assertion of his will, while Christ accomplished a spiritual kingdom by the renunciation of his. We can observe that even the conclusions of each myth are anti-parallel. Oedipus was ultimately punished for affirming his will, while Christ achieved immortality for the renunciation of his. Christ and Oedipus thus appear in a state of dialectical antagonism with respect to one another.
2. Christ contra Oedipus/ Superego contra Id
The relationship of Christ to Oedipus has interesting implications both analytically and philosophically. We may first conceive of Christ as an anti-Oedipus, with particular respect to the structural theory of the mind. Oedipus may be thought to represent the libidinal drives of the id (viz. eros and thanatos), and has achieved satisfaction of these drives despite the socially organizing principles of family. I posit that as Oedipus is associated with the id, so should Christ be associated with the superego. It does not seem controversial to introduce a religious figure as the embodiment of the superego, for it is posited to be a source of our notion of perfection, as well as our moral compass and conscience. Like the Christ figure who strives for union with the Father, the superego too, according to Freud, represents a "longing for the father." In addition to sharing characteristics with the superego, Christ also satisfies a further requirement: as the superego is antithetical to the id, so should the embodiment of the superego be antithetical to the embodiment of the id. Unlike other religious figures, Christ both instantiates the principles of the superego and is antithetical to the id's Oedipus. Thus, dynamic elements of the structural theory may be played out in the personae of Christ and Oedipus.
By virtue of symmetry with the Oedipal complex, we may posit the existence of a Christ complex. The id-affirming activity of Oedipus is anathema to social and familial organization of the external world (in short, the reality principle), and the mythical Oedipus encounters demise because of it. We must note in the myth, however, that Oedipus does enjoy a degree of success and actualization because of his behavior in that he did acquire and serve the kingdom of Thebes his will to power was satisfied. Simply stated, the drives of the id can and do bring about vitality, health, and success. While the superego appropriately counterbalances the drives of the id to achieve equilibrium, it is conceivable that these activities may also function pathologically, viz. one may overcome one's drives to the point of debilitation. The superego may drive an individual to an aberrant point of guilt (wanting, for example, to suffer for the sins of the world), to the idealistic and false notion that one's parents are perfect (my father is a God, my mother is without sin), and to the masochistic impulse that one must be crucified if need be in order to please them.
The Christ figure as a personification of the superego demonstrates a situation in which an individual is so acquiescent to the will of another (in this case, God the Father) that he loses his very life before he will assert his own will. Like the Oedipus myth, the Christ myth also presents heterogeneous results: Christ is punished by crucifixion, but is then rewarded by resurrection and ascension. Considering the "morals" to each myth collectively, we note that some form of balance between these two poles must be achieved, as we would state for the relationship of the id to the superego.
3. Oedipus as Anti-Christ: the Relationship to Nietzsche's Zarathustra
In the previous section we considered Christ as an anti-Oedipus, but now we shall consider Oedipus as an anti-Christ. The concept of an "anti-Christ," as well as the earlier suggestion that unbalanced Christ-like attributes are the mark of pathology rather than perfection, hearken us back to the work of Nietzsche. The antagonism of Christ and Oedipus bears an interesting relationship to Nietzsche's Zarathustra, and suggests a novel Nietzschean interpretation of Sophocles.
Zarathustra's name is a European modification of the ancient Persian Zoroaster, from whom the religion zoroastrianism is derived, a religion that asserts the near equal balance of good and evil gods. Zarathustra was the protagonist of Nietzsche's work 'Thus Spoke Zarathustra', an innovative literary-philosophical treatise published in four parts. Zarathustra, who retreated to the mountains at the age of thirty, has descended ten years later to share his insight with the people. Zarathustra is clearly presented as a quasi-religious figure, and delivers speeches that oftentimes reveal a formal if not substantive unity with those of Christ. Of course, Nietzsche made no secret of his fervent anti-Christian sentiments, and in fact hailed himself as the anti-Christ.
In various respects, Oedipus and Zarathustra stand in opposition to Christ, but what is their relationship to one other? Is there some order to the triad of Christ, Oedipus, and Zarathustra? I posit that these three personae bear a triadic relationship to one another that possesses a formal unity to the three spiritual metamorphoses introduced in the Prologue of 'Thus Spoke Zarathustra'. In the Prologue, Nietzsche describes three metamorphoses of the spirit, which take the form of the camel, the lion, and the child. The strength and the role of the camel is to bear the burden of old values it acquiesces to the value system to which it is heir. The first metamorphosis transforms the camel into a lion, who proves victorious in the battle against tradition's value-laden dragon. The dragon is described as being covered with scales that read "thou shalt," while the lion battles with the "I will." By conquering the dragon, the lion can only create conditions for the creation of new values, but is incapable of creating values itself. This is the task of the allegorical child, who looks upon life freshly, and is able to be the creator of new values.
It is likely that the camel is representative of the Christian (if not Christ himself), who, in Nietzsche's perspective, accepts and bears the yoke of slave morality, as well as the mediocre culture of Christian pity. Nietzsche calls, ironically, for a move forward to the pre-Christian and pre-Socratic value schema, and looks to the Greek concept of virtue, as well as the "master morality" he describes in 'Beyond Good and Evil'. Thus, the camel must metamorphosize into the lion who is able to assert its own will and conquer inherited values, although it may not yet be able to create its own. I suggest that Oedipus is this lion in the desert. "Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt honor thy mother and father" speaks the dragon: Oedipus replies "I will" and is exalted for it. Oedipus has killed the father, and it is this id-like Oedipal spirit that has similarly killed God the Father. "God is dead" announces Zarathustra, and it is the Oedipal spirit of man who is the murderer.
This Oedipal persona, he who has killed the father, is powerful but nonetheless limited. Like the lion of the three metamorphoses, he can slay the dragon of old values but lacks the capability of creating new ones. This deficit derives from the fact that, like the 19th century European intellectual climate of Nietzsche's time, Oedipus cannot face the truth with his eyes open. Nietzsche's fear for European thought is rooted in the terror of man after the realization that God is dead, and that we have killed him. When the metanarrative of scientific truth collapses in a similar fashion, man is destined for nihilism. When Oedipus realizes his own truth, he too retreats to the comforting darkness of nihilism by plucking out his eyes. Thus can we see this Sophoclean tragedy in Nietzschean terms. Nietzsche, however, demands that man go further, that he overcome himself, that he see the truths and the lies while still opening his eyes to say Yes to life. Zarathustra is this child. The hermit who encounters Zarathustra on his descent from the mountain back to the world of man (a descent that is reminiscent of the philosopher's return to the cave in Plato's Republic) recognizes his awakening, saying: "Zarathustra has changed, Zarathustra has become a child, Zarathustra is an awakened one; what do you now want among the sleepers?" Zarathustra understands and accepts the death of God, but still abides by the wisdom of the earth with an affirming Yes. In this is he free for the task of valuation, the task of the child in the final metamorphosis.
It is perhaps strange that we even speak of a progression when in fact the movement of these mythical figures moves backwards in time, from Christ at the beginning of the first millennium, to Oedipus in the 5th century B.C., to Zarathustra (derived from the Persian figure Zoroaster) who dates back to two millennia B.C. We start at the phase of the camel, at the Christian phase, because that is where Nietzsche finds our cultural spirit. It would not be consistent with Nietzsche to envision a linear progression toward some future uebermensch, but rather more likely that the metamorphosis of the spirit is something that goes back to or recurs, a prominent notion in Nietzschean thought.
4. The Zarathustrian Ego and its Relationship to the Structural Theory
Given that the id is Oedipal, and the superego is Christ-like, could we reason backwards from the myth and consider an undescribed or perhaps unactualized structural element that is Zarathustrian? Is this mystery of Zarathustra not a historical figure resulting from the cultural evolution of man, but rather a psychological state that we ourselves may achieve when we synthesize the antagonism of Christ and Oedipus? If the ego is a battlefield of the id and superego, could the Zarathustrian ego be the battle already won?
According to Freud, it is through the ego we have our primary connection to the world through perception, and it is the ego that ultimately mediates the presence or reality of the external world within the mind. It is further responsible for censorship and repression into the unconscious, and attempts to achieve control of the id. Finally, it is important to recognize that the superego is a modification of the ego in response to the Oedipal drives of the id. How would the Zarathustrian ego compare? As an embodiment of the Nietzschean "will to power," it is reasonable to assert that the sine qua non of a Zarathustrian ego would be its strength. When we posit such strength we shall see how all other elements of the structural theory naturally conform to a Nietzschean mold.
Zarathustra is a philosophical and religious figure who is introduced to supplant Christ how, therefore, would a Zarathustrian ego affect the ontogeny of the Christ-like superego? Although the origin of the superego as a reaction to the Oedipal drives of the id has been, the superego emerges from the ego (and subsequently dominates it) by virtue of the weakness of the ego. According to Freud (1923, p. 48):
"[The superego] is a memorial of the former weakness and dependence of the ego, and the mature ego remains subject to its domination. As the child was once under a compulsion to obey its parents, so the ego submits to the categorical imperative of its superego."
It is clear that the birth of the superego is a result of the fragility of the ego, as well as its inability to harness the forces of the id. Thus, assuming a greater strength of the ego, we would expect less dynamic impetus for the formation of the Christ-like superego. In this way, the Zarathustrian ego would function as a Nietzschean anti-Christ. I posit that the strength of the Zarathustrian ego with the subsequent lack of need for the superego could be conceived as a either a step in the development of the individual (ontogeny) or a step in the development of the species psychologically (phylogeny).
Heidegger, a major 20th century philosopher and interpreter of Nietzsche, repeatedly puts forth the question in Nietzsche: Who is Nietzsche's Zarathustra? He returns us to the notion that Zarathustra is some type of bridge to the uebermensch, and inquires into the nature of this bridge (Heidegger, 1961, pg. 219).
"Nietzsche has Zarathustra say: 'For that man be redeemed from revenge that is for me the bridge to the highest hope and a rainbow after long storms.' How strange, how alien these words must seem to the customary view of Nietzsche's philosophy that we have furnished for ourselves...But then why is it that something so decisive depends of redemption from revenge? Where is the spirit of revenge at home? Nietzsche replies to our question in the third-to-last episode of the second part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which bears the heading "On Redemption." Here the following words appear: "The spirit of revenge: my friends, up to now that was man's best reflection; and wherever there was suffering, there also had to be punishment."
Overcoming the spirit of revenge, from one perspective a step from Judaism to Christianity, takes on a more psychological significance here. Christian thought attempted (in principle) to turn us away from the "eye for an eye" sensibilities of Judaism, in order to purge us of a vengeful and punitive attitude toward others. It appears as if Nietzsche wishes to cure us of the Christian sensibility that engenders a vengeful and punitive attitude toward ourselves. In the context of Nietzsche's thought, the association of punishment with suffering is also part of the Christian legacy. For those of "herd morality," the Christian superego adds insult to injury by associating guilt and causal significance to suffering, rather than viewing it as a part of the human, that is to say natural, condition. Not only must we suffer, but we must punish ourselves for the guilt that has brought this suffering about. Thus in The Anti-Christ (pg. 141) does Nietzsche praise Buddhism for its "struggle against suffering," as opposed to the Christian "struggle against sin."
For those of "master morality," suffering is also inflicted by a superego. The natural predilections of the master include the infliction of suffering on others. When this natural tendency is repressed, the impulse is turned inwards in the form of conscience: one comes to inflict pain on oneself, as well as moral censure for the very drive to inflict pain at all. Perhaps the Zarathustrian ego is strong enough to suffer and to inflict suffering without the need to punish itself masochistically through the superego.
The Zarathustrian ego will also have a unique relationship to the id, as well as the instincts of the id. Before Freud conceived of the id, Nietzsche recognized the power and importance of the instincts. In Beyond Good and Evil (Nietzsche, 1886, pg. 201), he points out the instinctual foundation of ostensibly rational thought, and furthermore suggests that the conscious, rather than the unconscious mind is the proper domain for these instincts. Thus, the rational ego is not opposed, and perhaps should not be opposed, to the instincts of the id.
We see a picture of the Zarathustrian ego emerging. It is strong, and thus limits the genesis or at least the power of the superego. It is able to suffer and to inflict suffering without the masochistic retribution of punishment. It does not attempt to conquer the id but rather absorbs it, integrating and recognizing its instincts as an appropriate part of its conscious activities. Instead of repressing and censoring instinct and therefore mutating it it accepts and envelops it, or at least does not split itself off into a rational ego and irrational id in the first place. With the psychic apparatus more wholly integrated at the surface and interface between interior and exterior, the Zarathustrian ego is capable of a richer and more natural interaction with the world. Unlike Oedipus, it is strong enough for truth; unlike Christ, it is strong enough for lies.
We see a henceforth obscure relationship between the personae of Oedipus and Christ elucidated. Each born under some cloak of doubt, each destined to be heir to a unique kingdom one by the satisfaction of his impulses and the other by denial of his. If Oedipus represents a particular aspect of the mind that may experience pathology if unbalanced, then so may Christ represent an aspect of the mind that may be pathological if unbalanced (viz., the Christ complex). From the perspective of Nietzsche who no doubt recognized the great importance of Christ as evidenced by his fervent opposition to all things Christian we may also consider the Christ complex in its cultural expression. The so-called slave mentality, the culture of pity and weakness, and the inhibition of cultural genius were, according to Nietzsche, in large part due to Platonic and Christian ideals. Once again, we may view the Christ complex in terms of psychic ontogeny (a Freudian perspective) as well as psychic phylogeny (a Nietzschean perspective).
The assertion of Oedipus as an anti-Christ led appropriately to the discussion of Nietzsche, and Nietzsche's own anti-Christ Zarathustra. "Who is Nietzsche's Zarathustra?" Heidegger asks. One answer is that he was a teacher of eternal recurrence and the uebermensch, although Heidegger directs us to a deeper consideration of the question. I posit that Zarathustra represents a new form of ego, strong enough to incorporate the instincts of the id, and therefore strong enough to have little need for the genesis of the superego. This is consistent, in many ways, with Nietzsche's vision: an ego strong enough to recognize and embrace instinct, and to trust the wisdom of the earth rather than the ephemera of a Christian superego. From our cultural beginning of the Christian superego, we make the first step of recurrence to the Oedipal lion, slaying the dragon of "thou shalt!" with the id's "I will!". Finally, the child of the Zarathustrian ego is born: a new developmental beginning, a recurrence to the ancients, an opportunity for new strength which sees the death of God, but does not yearn again for the father in the form of a superego.
FREUD, S. (1923). The Ego and the Id. S.E. 19
HEIDEGGER, M. (1961). Nietzsche. Translated by David Farrel Krell 1979. San Francisco:Harper & Row.
NIETZSCHE, F. (1886). Beyond Good and Evil In Basic Writings of Nietzsche, translated and edited by Walter Kaufmann 1968. New York: The Modern Library.
NIETZSCHE, F. (1889). Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Translated by Walter Kaufmann 1954. New York: Penguin Books.
NIETZSCHE, F. (1895). The Anti-Christ. Translated by R.J. Hollingdale 1968. New York:Penguin Books.
© George Mashour 2003
George Alexander Mashour, M.D., Ph.D.
Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A.