Interactive Musings

Interactive Musings

The Evil Impulse

Posted on August 27, 2012 at 11:50 PM




Evil impulses are inherent in human nature, as are good impulses.


In Hebrew, the evil impulse is called yetzer ra, and the good impulse is called yetzer tov.  Acknowledging the existence of both impulses is essential to Jewish thought – as it is to Freudian psychoanalysis.  Freud postulated two drives inherent to human nature, eros and thanatos, a sexual drive and an aggressive drive. 


In religious tradition, the world is seen in terms of good and evil.  From a psychoanalytic standpoint, the impulses are not evaluated, nor judged for their moral or ethical essence.  Rather, they are acknowledged as aspects of human nature to be recognized, understood, and made conscious.


In Judaism, the emphasis is on choice.  Each person has the capability to choose to follow an evil impulse or a good impulse. 


In psychoanalysis, the emphasis is on self-knowledge, so that we do not act from the unconscious.  Rather, we become aware of our feelings, thoughts, conflicts, attitudes, desires, and memories, and our awareness creates opportunities for choices.  Rather than continue to be motivated by unconscious pressures, we have more personal power, the ability to act with self-awareness.


In Jewish thought, the evil impulse is selfishness without awareness of or concern for the impact of one’s actions on others.  Therefore we can understand sadism and violence as corruptions of the evil impulse, in a sense, extreme perversions of the evil impulse.  The evil impulse does not have to be denied, it has to be mitigated by loving concern, a kindly awareness of the experiences of others. 


Both Judaism and psychoanalysis offer the possibility of resolution of conflict, of reconciliation of one’s own selfishness, one’s own evil impulse, with one’s desire to think of ourselves as good.


Psychoanalysis enables us to understand that our desire to do something forbidden, something harmful, can be experienced, felt deeply, and transformed into something commensurate with the good impulse, without betraying our core self.


Our challenge is to embrace the evil impulse, to embrace and experience the feelings that give impetus to the evil impulse.


An important aspect of human nature is our capacity for self-reflection, and self-judgment.  One religious tradition calls self-reflection the Witness; psychoanalysis calls self-reflection observing ego.  Religions call self-judgment conscience; psychoanalysis calls self-judgment superego.  As we become aware of our evil impulse, we may experience shame or guilt. 


Rather than reject the feelings and thoughts we experience as evil impulse, we need to acknowledge, and, indeed, even honor those feelings and thoughts. We need to embrace our feelings of shame and guilt.


Religions offer various forms of repentance and absolution, such as Catholic confession, Islamic Ramadan, and Jewish Yom Kippur rituals.  Can we face and embrace the feelings and thoughts of evil impulse without the need to confess or to seek absolution?  Can we accept ourselves?


Can we say, I hate, I envy, I lust, I covet, I am resentful, I am rebellious, I am greedy, I want to betray others, I want to betray my own values, and much more?


Yes, we distinguish between feelings/thoughts and action.  What if we know we have behaved badly?  Can we accept the feelings and thoughts that overwhelmed us and led to actions we wish we had not done?  Can we remain in touch with thoughts and feelings arising from the evil impulse and make efforts to refrain from actions we know we should not take?


Yes.  It is difficult, but necessary, if we are going to be whole. 


Psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Henry Krystal survived Treblinka concentration camp during the Holocaust.  Among his many books is “Integration and Self Healing: Affect, Trauma, and Alexithymia.” He worked with more than 100 camp survivors, including camp capos, who were camp inmates who were given positions of authority by the S.S.  Krystal found many capos to be self-loathing because of their identification with the aggressor, their abuse of their position at the expense of other inmates. Essentially he taught them that they could hate the deeds they committed, but they had to have love for the person who did those deeds, to understand the desperation and fear they experienced.  In essence, a version of hate the sin but love the sinner.  Concentration camps and similar places of oppression put people in extreme conditions.  Under extreme conditions, they very well may be overwhelmed by evil impulse.


Not every situation is as extreme, and not everything we do under the influence of the evil impulse is as dire.  Whatever the situation and the deed, ultimately we have to integrate who we are to remain psychically alive.


The good impulse will help us act wisely and ethically, so that we can remain a full, integrated human being, aware of, but not in thrall to, our selfishness, our evil impulse.


Love can prevail.


“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  If I am only for myself,what am I?  And if not now, when?"


                          -- Rabbi Hillel, “Ethics of the Fathers


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