“Do you not know that I am the Devil? All my life I have had to play the Devil, in order that others would be able to build the most beautiful cathedrals with the materials that I produced” – Sigmund Freud
Sometimes a demon is just a demon, Dr. Freud. Except when it’s not. I am of course speaking of the disconcerting discovery that we periodically make that there aren’t necessarily monsters roaming around out there in the dark forests and empty wastes, rather they are inside of us. A curious proposition made by the good doctor was that the Devil (that’s right, the capital “D”, Prince of Lies, fallenest of the fallen angels) may just be our own suspended superego.
I don’t particularly care for the association of anything “super” with the diabolical as always playing the odds is a prudent course of action, but in necromantic consultation with Jimmy “the Greek”, he gave me 50-1 odds that I’d wind up roasting in the Lake of Fire by next Christmas, and while I stand to cleanup should I, well, clean up, the outlook is not good by a long stretch. It’s my own little version of Pascal’s Wager (it is in one’s own best interest to behave as if God exists, since the possibility of eternal punishment in hell outweighs any advantage of believing otherwise). One can only hope that one of the milder, less hellfire and brimstoney religions turns out to be right, and the worst you have to look forward to is eternal boredom with a side dish of existential ennui. Heck, I’ve got that right here. Back to the matter at hand, that is, the Devil is your own suspended superego.
What exactly is your superego? Freud suggests that “”the installation of the super-ego can be described as a successful instance of identification with the parental agency,” otherwise known as your conscience. Your moral compass, per se. Now, considering that the Devil is the archetypal representation of the spoiled brat with daddy issues, it stands to reason that if anything represented the infernal, it would be the suspension of all the rules your parents either inculcated in you or failed to teach you. Down there at the root of your despair and inability to self-actualize because your parents never loved you is the Devil just waiting to make you a deal. Curiously, that means the Devil is hope incarnate. Don’t take it from me, just listen to Siggy. Well, actually, an insightful interpretation of Freud by respected psychologist David Bakan in his readings of Freud, of whom he was both an admirer and defender.
The Devil is then a cure for despair. He is called upon as an assertive act when all hope is gone. And in this sense also, the Devil is always the Tempter. The essential message of the Tempter is that the anticipated rewards associated with resistance to temptation will not be forthcoming, that faith is groundless. The Devil presents the new hope, and supports this promise by immediate tokens of his favor. But since these tokens themselves bring so much relief, one permits oneself, in his relationship to the Devil, to be thus taken in (by the Devil), since he feels that he has already been taken in by God. (Mowrer, 1961, p117).
Freud would know, since rumor has it, at least metaphorically, that he himself made a “deal with the devil”, and the methods and insights of psychoanalysis were the result. Prior to the publication of Freud’s masterpiece Die Traumbeutung in 1900, from Freud’s own correspondence, we know that he was in an abject state of unproductivity, discouragement, and depression. Suffering as he was from acute depression, Freud had nothing to lose through his self-analysis that led to generalizable conclusions about the utility of psychoanalysis as a treatment regimen. While Freud certainly rejected supernaturalism in all its flavors, perhaps he touched upon the true nature of the Devil in all his temptations, recognizing the utter banality of the “satanic pact” in so far as the deal we make is a deal with ourselves, thereby overcoming the constraints of our own minds, cultural norms, and fear that there is no benevolent ordering principle in the universe.
I’ve tried suspending my superego. It keeps telling me to buy a horse. I don’t know why, but I’m hopeful there is divine method to the madness, for as Freud said in discussing Anatole France’s Revolt of the Angels, “War will produce war and victory defeat. God defeated becomes Satan and Satan victorious will become God”.
Mowrer, Orval Hobart, 1907-1982. The Crisis in Psychiatry And Religion. Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand, 1961.