Fr. John Pasquini, Th.D.
Id, Ego, Superego and Grace
In our culture, being sinful is considered a part of what it means to be fully human. For the Christian, however, to be fully human is to be sinless. We call Jesus fully divine and fully human. Jesus is fully human because he is without sin.
Sin diminishes humanity. The Christian journey is one marked by the goal of being Christ-like, of being fully human. In fact, in heaven that is what we shall be!
Subconsciously or even consciously we recognize this reality. How many times have we heard the cliché, “What an animal?” when describing the character of someone who has done something atrociously evil or sinful? Implicit in such a statement is the recognition that sin diminishes our humanity.
So how are we to be fully human? Grace is necessary. Let us explore the traditional psychology of the human person, and let us see where grace fits in.
Traditional psychology often describes the human person in terms of the Id, Ego, and Superego.
The Id is a term used to describe a human’s innate, instinctual drive for pleasure and immediate gratification. It is marked by need, desire, urge, compulsion, libido and aggression. The Id is only concerned with self-gratification. Uncontrolled it would lead to debauchery.
The Superego is marked by the internalization or introjection of attitudes and norms of behavior, especially those instilled by parents, educators, or admired role models. The superego has often been referred to as an “inner critic,” or “conscience.” It is engaged in fostering socially appropriate responses to internal and external realities. When the superego is infected by extremes, repression or capitulation, the superego can have negative consequences (i.e., inappropriate guilt feelings, depression, obsessions. anxiety, inferiority, compulsivity, and so forth).
The Ego is often referred to as the “reality principle” of the “I,” the “self.” It is where self-mastery takes place. It is where reason and common sense is active. It is directed to modulation, direction, and regulation. It is focused on the harmonious functioning of the Id with the Superego.
The Ego is equipped with defense mechanisms that help balance the tension between the Id and the Superego. Some of the common defense mechanism include denial, displacement, repression, suppression, sublimation, introjection, projection, rationalization, dissociation, idealization, regression, etc. Depending on the mechanism used by the Ego, negative or positive consequences can follow. Thus the need for a healthy Ego.
Where does grace come in?
Grace heals, elevates, and builds upon human nature. In a sense, it heals, elevates, and builds upon the Ego so that the Ego functions the way it is ideally meant to function. It is grace that makes the possibility of being fully human a reality. Grace allows the Ego to function as it is meant to function. It reinforces, supports and energizes the Ego to function properly, humanly, authentically.
Grace, by healing, elevating and building upon nature, upon the Ego, allows for the most appropriate, reasonable and healthy functioning and balancing of the Id, the instinctual drives, and the Superego, the conforming drives, in such a way that life is lived out most fully, abundantly, and healthily—in a fully human manner.
Without responding to grace, this functionally becomes virtually impossible. Let us resort to the example of militant atheists. The vast majority of atheists come from broken homes, lacking appropriate parental figures. Parental values—part of the Superego—are thus absent or gravely diminished. This inevitably leads to the Id having a disproportionate impact. Many “new atheists” make no apologies for seeking to create a “philosophy of hedonism.” Many of the “old atheists,” such as the Marquis de Sade, likewise made no excuses. Without grace, the Id can often overwhelm the Ego, the “I.”
On the other hand, the Superego, without the influence of grace, can overwhelm, in a negative manner, the Ego. We will stay with our example of the militant atheist. Instead of sublimating the hurt inflicted by non-existent or abusive parental figures in a positive manner, the defense mechanism of repression is often used, which often leads to the anger and confrontational spirit that is almost universally associated with militant atheists.
Grace is operative on the Id, Ego, and Superego.
The Ego arbitrates between the Id and the Superego. Grace heals, elevates and builds upon the Ego, allowing the Ego to function at its most appropriate manner. It is grace that allows the Ego to form a person into an authentically, properly, fully human.