on 11 March 2012
Writing from a Freudian perspective with insights from evolutionary psychology, Greek philosophy, the "Bhagavad Gita," Buddhism, and everyday life, psychiatrist/philospher Neel Burton makes it clear that self-deception is and has always been the norm in human behavior.
Dr. Burton organizes ego defenses into four basic categories: "abstraction," "transformation (or distortion)," "evasion," and "projection."
Abstraction includes denial, repression, anger, intellectualization, depression, and some others. Transformation recalls reaction formation (a term I haven't heard in years), minimization, etc. Evasion is about being vague or inauthentic, or maybe regressing or daydreaming, or telling jokes. Projection is basically tagging others with your own failures or shortcomings.
This all may sound somewhat abstract but Burton's straightforward and uncluttered prose makes this book a surprisingly easy read. Some of that is due to the vivid examples from history and literature that Burton provides to support his elaborate taxonomy.
I very much liked Burton's defense of depression especially in light of the overmedication we are getting from the psychiatric profession these days. Burton writes "The time and space and solitude that the adoption of the depressive position affords prevents us from making rash decisions...," allows us "to see the bigger picture" and "to reassess our social relationships..." (p. 60). I would add that seasonal depression at least may well be adaptive in that staying put (depressed persons typically don't want to do anything or go anywhere) when the weather is not good may help in avoid danger and prolong life. Burton's near celebration of the honesty and courage of "people in the depressive position" that ends the chapter may be a bit overdone for some people. You might want read it for yourself on pages 62 and 63. For me this is an example of the intelligence and creativity that Burton brings to the subject of ego defenses.
Burton classifies some defense mechanisms as "mature" and others as "immature," (or what we might call adaptive and productive verses unadaptive and destructive). He contends that one of the purposes of daydreaming is "to relax and recuperate; and perhaps even to find creative inspiration." (p. 138) In writing about regression (perhaps as a means of relating to children) Burton explains how ego defenses can in general be positive. "If regression, or indeed any other process that is used for ego defence, is consciously employed--whether for ego defence or any other purpose such as empathy, enjoyment, play, humour, inspiration, creativity, and even survival--then it stops being our unthinking master and turns into our good and faithful servant." (p. 143)
In the chapter on asceticism Burton reminds us of these words from Krishna in the "Bhagavad Gita": "There has never been a time when you and I have not existed, nor will there be a time when we will cease to exist..." (p. 164). On the next page Burton quotes Wittgenstein in what amounts to an interpretation of Krishna's words: "If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present." This idea is further explored in my book, "Yoga: Sacred and Profane (Beyond Hatha Yoga)."
While Burton includes "altruism" as an ego defense, he notes "There can be no such thing as an `altruistic' act that does not involve some element of self-interest, no such thing, for example, as an altruistic act that does not lead to some degree, no matter how small, of pride or self-satisfaction." (p. 179)
I think Burton is correct in this and indeed in his overall assessment of the meaning and purpose of self-deceptions. Where I would differ slightly is by saying that ego defenses (or self-deceptions) are in general either adaptive or maladaptive in the Darwinian sense and should be seen as attempts to maintain "psychological homeostasis." For more on this see my book, "The World Is Not as We Think It Is."
One of the things that makes this book much more interesting than might be expected is the way Burton recalls apt historical examples or incidents in the news to illustrate his points. Noting that the so-called "Stockholm Syndrome" may partially underlie the ego defense "reaction formation," Burton recalls the famous Patty Heart case from the 1970s after pointing to the syndrome's christening by psychiatrist Nils Bejerot after a robbery and hostage situation at a Stockholm bank in 1973. (See pages 85-87.)
In Chapter 17 Burton sees "inauthenticity" (basically what I would call "faking it") as a means to "minimize or put off the existential anxiety associated with choice and responsibility." (p. 115) In this context he recalls Freud and Erich Fromm who wrote "The Fear of Freedom" (titled "Escape from Freedom" in the US) and other works on our existential fear of real freedom. Burton quotes Freud from "Civilization and Its Discontents": "Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility."
Perhaps the most profound statement in the book is this from page 108" "...one could go so far as to argue that the self is nothing but the sum total of our ego defences, and that it is therefore tantamount to one gigantic ego defence, namely, the ego itself."
I want to close this rather long review three quotes from the book that I think illustrate Burton's deep understanding of human psychology:
In talking about what is the right thing to do (such as perhaps leaving your estate to some worthy cause) Burton writes, "...this goes to the very heart of ancient virtue, which can be defined as the perfection of our nature through the triumph of reason over passion. The truly altruistic act is the virtuous act and the virtuous act is, always, the rational act." (p. 179)
In lamenting the relative absence of Plato and Aristotle in higher education today, Burton writes, "...the best education is not that which enables a person to make a living, nor even that which enables him to make a social contribution, but that which inspires and enables him on the path of freedom and individuation, and which, in the longer term, leads to the fullest living and the greatest social contribution." (p.183)
Finally, there is this from Burton's "Final Words": "...it is not just that ego defences may or may not provide us with one or several advantages, but also that they define our human nature and thereby frame the human experience." (p. 218)
There is so much more that I could say about this deeply wise and most stimulating book. Perhaps the best thing I can do is to suggest that you get a copy and read it for yourself.