Sigmund Freud’s (1856–1939) formulation of the Id, Ego, and Super-Ego marks one of the major benchmarks in the development of modern psychology and psychiatry. Freud’s tripartite psychic apparatus provided a psychiatric vocabulary that replaced the overused and misused ambiguous term, “unconscious.” Jacques Lacan (1901–1981), famous for his “return to Freud,” also derived a tripartite model of subjectivity: the Symbolic, the Imaginary, and the Real. Lacan famously argued that “the unconscious is structured like a language,” and his Symbolic, Imaginary, and Real describe human psychology in terms of linguistic individuation and indoctrination into the realm of language (1978, p. 149). Both Freud’s and Lacan’s tripartite models share many similarities with one another, and together they share similarities with the Christian Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Freud defines the Id as the instinctual and somewhat uncontrollable drives inherent in every person. The Ego seeks to fulfill the Id’s drives through the reality principle by satisfying Id-level wishes in a socially acceptable manner. The Ego creates repression, the key component of Freudian psychoanalysis, in addition to creating the associated defense mechanisms and sublimation: the ego is “the libido’s original home” (Freud 1961a, p. 76). Freud’s Super-Ego acts as the governing and law-giving part of the psychic apparatus, that part of the unconscious that keeps the Id and Ego in check with regard to cultural expectations and socially determined rules for interacting with others. According to Freud, the “super-ego torments the sin-ful ego” (Freud 1961a, p. 86). The Super-Ego comes about “from an identification with the father taken as a model” (Freud 1960, p. 56). The God-like Super-Ego is very unforgiving; Freud (Freud 1960, p.54) writes that the “super-ego manifests itself essentially as a sense of guilt (or rather, as criticism—for the sense of guilt is the perception in the ego answering to this criticism) and moreover develops such extraordinary harshness and severity towards the ego”.
The Super-Ego closely resembles Lacan’s Symbolic Order, as both serve the role of governing the behavior of the subject. Lacan’s Symbolic Order serves to govern the subject through indoctrination into the linguistic realm; in other words, Lacan believed that subjectivity begins at the point at which the subject first uses language, thereby delineating the subject from animals. Lacan’s Imaginary serves as the challenge to the Symbolic that appears at the mirror stage, the stage at which the subject realizes that he is an entity, an object to be viewed by others from the outside. The Imaginary thus creates a narcissistic subjectivity that is also alienated. Lacan’s Imaginary relies upon the relationship between the Dual Relation and the Specular Image (Evans 1996, p. 82). Lacan uses the term Specular Image to refer to the reflection of the infant at the point of the mirror stage, the point at which the Ego forms (Evans, p. 190). Lacan’s Dual Relation refers to the mediation between the Ego and the Specular Image, as the reflection is simultaneously the subject’s self and the Other. The conflict between the two results in neurosis or narcissism. Lacan’s Real resides in the realm of purely authentic and residing completely outside of signification and sensory perception.
The Christian Trinity – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – serves as the tripartite model of the monotheistic belief in the Judeo-Christian God of the Old and New Testaments. Trinitarian belief holds that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist in hypostasis, i.e., are all equal parts of one entity or substance. Freud’s Super-Ego and Lacan’s Symbolic both represent an all-seeing, all-knowing governing entity that very closely resembles a monotheistic understanding of God. The New Testament opens with “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Such a linguistic “exalted father” (Freud 1961c, p. 28) points directly to Lacan’s incorporation of Ferdinand Saussure’s structural linguistics in his Course on General Linguistics. Additionally, in Genesis God specifically tasks Adam with naming the animals: “And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof” (KJV, Gen. 2:19).
Jesus Christ, the Trinity’s Son, represents a challenge to the perfection inherent in the Christian God. Christ, both God and man, represents a symptom to God’s previous perfection; Christ himself did not transgress God’s law, but he became the Other who would bear the sins of mankind. The Ego and the Imaginary both serve as the locus for where the psychoanalyst must intervene with the analysand to resolve psychological pathology; Christ similarly represents a locus of intervention, as God sacrificed his son to bear the sins of mankind. Christ brought about a “son-religion” that “displaced the father-religion” (Freud 1950, p. 191). Marxist-Lacanian philosopher Slavoj Žižek (2001) argues that Christ’s death provides man “freedom and responsibility” by making mankind’s redemption possible by way of a “leap of faith” and through the choice to live “in imitatio Christi” (p. 105). To “imitate Christ” suggests holding Christ up to a mirror and to base one’s behavior and life around a mimetic approximation or the life of Christ.
Comparison of Freud’s, Lacan’s, and Christianity’s Trinities
Both Freud and Lacan were raised in religious families but eventually turned away from religion. Freud was born to Jewish parents in predominantly Protestant Germany, and he ultimately aligned himself with a secular Jewish identity. Freud’s father had been raised as a Hasidic Jew and continued Torah reading into adulthood. Freud’s early encounters with Judaism ultimately lead him to argue vehemently against religion, most specifically in his books about religion: Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices (1907), Totem and Taboo: Some Points of Agreement Between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics (1913), The Future of an Illusion (1927), Civilization and its Discontents (1930), and Moses and Monotheism (1939). Lacan grew up in a strictly Roman Catholic family but ultimately turned his back on religion. In his Triumph of Religion, however, Lacan draws a corollary between psychoanalysis and the Catholic sacrament of confession and he would eventually lead many Jesuit Catholics to embrace psychoanalysis.
- Evans, D. (1996). An introductory dictionary of Lacanian psychoanalysis. London/New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
- Freud, S. (1907). Obsessive actions and religious practices. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 9), pp. 117–127. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.Google Scholar
- Freud, S. (1950). Totem and taboo: Some points of agreement between the mental lives of savages and neurotics. Trans. J. Strachey. New York: Norton. (Original work published 1913)Google Scholar
- Freud, S. (1960). The ego and the id. Trans. J. Strachey. New York: Norton. (Original work published 1923)Google Scholar
- Freud, S. (1961a). Civilization and its discontents. Trans. J. Strachey. New York: Norton. (Original work published 1930)Google Scholar
- Freud, S. (1961b). Beyond the pleasure principle. Trans. J. Strachey. New York: Norton. (Original work published 1920)Google Scholar
- Freud, S. (1961c). The future of an illusion. Trans. J. Strachey. New York: Norton. (Original work published 1927)Google Scholar
- Freud, S. (1967). Moses and monotheism. Trans. K. Jones. New York: Vintage. (Original work published 1939)Google Scholar
- Lacan, J. (1978). The seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book XI: The four fundamentals of psychoanalysis. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton.Google Scholar
- Lacan, J. (2013). The triumph of religion. Trans. Bruce Fink. Cambridge/Malden: Polity.Google Scholar
- Žižek, S. (2001). On belief. London/New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
- Žižek, S. (2009). The fear of four words: A modest plea for the Hegelian reading of Christianity. In Creston Davis (Ed.), The monstrosity of Christ (pp. 24–109). Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar