Throughout history there have been various views of man in terms of his social relationships and subsequent forming of political structures. Aristotle (in his Politics) observed, “man is by nature a political animal.” Man’s behavior can be studied according to psychological principles. Given this fact, the political behavior of people may be subject to Freudian analysis. Sigmund Freud described the functioning of personality as being the result of the dynamic interaction of the id, the ego, and the superego. The id, according to Freud, is a boiling cauldron of desires and drives (i.e. sexual and aggressive) and operates on the pleasure principle, demanding immediate gratification. The id is felt to be the most basic state of an infant’s psyche. The superego is the polar opposite of the id. It operates as the voice of conscience and establishes internalized principles for the controls of one’s desires, as generated by the id. The ego is the emotionally conscious portion of the personality that mediates between the unchecked desires of the id and the overly rational demands of the superego. The ego operates on the reality principle, seeking to satisfy the id’s desires in a realistic manner. (David G. Myers, Psychology. 8th edition, New York, Worth Publishers 2007, p. 598.)
In terms of political theory, Thomas Hobbes viewed the state of man as being the id incarnate. He viewed the fundamental nature of man as being a constant state of “war, where every man is enemy to every man…there is no place for industry…and which is worst of all, continual fear, and the danger of violent death; and the life of man, [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Wootton, p. 159). Where Hobbes was mistaken lies in his failure to recognize that man is not merely a political animal, but a social animal. We know that even subhuman mammals, such as dolphins, exhibit cooperative behavior and altruism. At the other extreme, Socrates believed that man was capable of being all superego. He believed that man could be completely rational, and pursued this concept by causing people to rationally reexamine their entire belief system. Socrates found, “in [his] investigation of the service of the god…that those who had the highest reputation were nearly the most deficient, while those who were thought to be inferior were more knowledgeable” (the Apology, 26). Socrates’ fatal mistake was his failure to recognize that man is not merely a political animal, he is also an animal, and as such, is not an entirely rational being. Pointing out to an irrational person that he is, in fact, irrational doesn’t make him any more rational, but does tend to make him angry.
In the best dialectical sense, Martin Luther King, Jr. embodied the principles of the Freudian ego. Dr. King recognized that man embodies both superego and id, and that the reality principle dictates that the ego must find a way of satisfying both these forces. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” MLK stated that, “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws” (p. 4). King did not advocate defying the law altogether, but did think that “one who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty” (p. 5). Dr. King understood the importance of rationally defying an unjust law, while making an emotional appeal to the conscience of a nation by being willing to accept even the violent and deadly consequences.
MLK succeeded where both Hobbes and Socrates failed: it was Locke’s philosophy, not that of Hobbes, that won the attention of our Founding Fathers; Socrates was executed for his efforts. Dr. King utilized the reality principle of the ego to achieve an effective balance between American society’s superego and id.