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Comparison of Freud’s and Plato’s Aspects of Human Character Essay

Aspects of human character have been discussed in a number of fields; inputs from the philosophical and political perspectives can be identified by how human character is in place with respect to the society whereas concepts from the psychological field can be observed to focus more on the individual and its relationship with his environment.  Such is demonstrated by Plato in his The Republic which can be seen to potentially contrast with Sigmund Freud in his discourse in Civilization and its Discontents.  Plato had apparently came up with literature describing a functional society according to certain controls needed in order to establish a civilization according to certain ideologies such as justice, authority, and the ideal state, among others.  Freud, on one hand, tackled a world that is already in existence and presented an analysis on life and reality.

From this, when it comes to their respective discussions on the human character, Plato’s The Republic presented how human character should be while Freud discussed what human character is through instinctual drives.  Plato’s prescription for the Guardians, the social class tasked to rule the society, mentioned that their education should emphasize their “love for wisdom” and “high spirits”.  This characterization can be therefore compared with Freud’s discussion on Eros and Death; the comparison can thereby give way in identifying whether their references for the twin aspects of human character were the same or not.

Plato’s “Love of Wisdom” and “High Spirits”

Plato proposed the formation of a social class called the Guardians who would rule the society.  Given the great responsibility that is going to be vested in them, these Guardians are proposed to learn certain aspects that would make them an effective ruler and manager of the state.  In this case, it was brought up in the discussion in The Republic that “[…] it’s our job, as it seems, to choose, if we’re able, which are the natures, and what kind they are, fit for guarding the city” (Book II, 374e).  Hence, the discussion resulted to a description of the Guardians, as follows (Book II, 376c):

“Then the man who’s going to be a fine and good guardian of the city for us will in his nature be philosophic, spirited, swift, and strong.”

The context in which they discussed the trait of “love of wisdom” (Book II, 376b) apparently referred to the philosophical leanings of the Guardian.  In addition, possessing the love of wisdom is also associated with having the “love of learning” (Book 2, 376b).  It can be gathered that “love” in this context is based on having the nature to pursuit a deep interest for knowledge thereby demonstrating how an individual can have the characteristic of an ideal ruler.

In addition to the discussion on “love of wisdom”, possessing a high spirit or “spirited” is also seen as a significant characterization of a Guardian.  The characters initially discussed this aspect in the context of citing animal behavior, hence, demonstrating that the high spirits may initially come from the individual’s courageous nature.  What makes the human distinctive from the animals, as seen in the discussion, is how this ideal person also injects a sense of gentleness in this instinctive characteristic (Book II, 375c):

“Yet, they must be gentle to their own and cruel to enemies. If not, they’ll not wait for others to destroy them, but they’ll do it themselves beforehand.”

In this case, what they are looking for in a Guardian is someone who is “gentle and great-spirited” (Book II, 375c); the challenge, however, as noted in the dialogues, is how these two traits oppose each other.

The concept of “love of wisdom” and “high spirits” in Plato’s work, in the context of Guardians’ characters, clearly show that they are discussing human characteristics that are admirable.  The twin aspects of human character, in this case, show how these two characteristics complement each other in which case, the ideal person for the function is some who is spirit and by nature, philosophical.

Freud’s Eros and Death

The context in which Freud discussed Eros and Death in Civilization and its Discontents is how these two instinctive forces, albeit opposing, work together in life.  As Freud discussed (66):

That is to say, as well as Eros there was an instinct of death. The phenomena of life could be explained from the concurrent or mutually opposing action of these two instincts “[…] A more fruitful idea was that a portion of the instinct is diverted towards the external world and comes to light as an instinct of aggressiveness and destructiveness. In this way the instinct itself could be pressed into the service of Eros, in that the organism was destroying some other thing, whether animate or inanimate, instead of destroying its own self. Conversely, any restriction of this aggressiveness directed outwards would be bound to increase the self-destruction, which is in any case proceeding.”

Although Freud noted that Death, which is also associated with destruction, and even Evil, may “name his adversary not what is holy and good, but Nature’s power to create, to multiply life–that is, Eros” (68), he noted that Eros and Death can be “alloyed” with each other, thereby resulting to an integration which hides either purpose.  An example Freud cited is how this is evident in sadism in which destruction can also bring satisfaction, the very idea in itself brings a certain degree of enjoyment.

Conclusion: Comparison

Based on the above discussions, the contexts in which Plato and Freud discussed “love for wisdom” and “high spirits”, and Eros and Death can be regarded to be total opposites.  For Plato, how these human aspects function is for the purpose of greater good; the ideal nature of the individual in the form of the Guardians is meant to benefit the society which the Guardians are tasked to serve.  In this case, the intent to define these traits, which is the union of philosophy and spiritedness, is meant to put together an exceptional leader.  In Freud’s discussion, on one hand, presented a justification as to how two opposing ideas, Eros and Death, actually work, and how these are in fact a reality of human nature.

Plato and Freud discussed human nature in different contexts: for Plato, the opposing twin aspects of human nature (“love of wisdom” and “high spirits”) can be reconciled and further enhanced through education, thereby resulting to an ideal functional leader for the ideal city.  Freud, on one hand, discussed how the opposing Eros and Death do exist in human nature and how this is exemplified by the presence of satisfaction in destruction; the integration of Eros and Death may not result to an ideal person, but this demonstrates the humanness of the individual.

Apparently, the similarity ends there; the similarity can be seen in the seed of the argument which is how opposing ideas do work together as a part of human nature.  Both demonstrated how internal contradictions further contribute to human characteristics that lead to how people eventually function.  In this case, the premise of their discussion is the same yet the intent of the discussion is different.  For Plato, the marriage of “love of wisdom” and “high spiritedness” gives way to an ideal class in an ideal society whereas Freud’s “alloyed” Eros and Death benefits the destruction more because it is in the face of Eros that Death can hide.

Upon a close reading of the texts, there is also a similarity of the premise in terms of these two works; Plato’s The Republic contains a series of discussions leading to the definition of an ideal state whereas Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents showed how the individual can be in conflict with the society.  In addition, both agreed how the implementation of laws can establish control in a society basically manned by individuals with baser instincts; however, Plato pointed out how education can manage these instincts and how people can be formed into functional citizens while Freud mostly highlighted how individuals will be always governed by the pleasure principle.


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