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A little while ago I blogged about Aaron Stalnaker’s concept of chastened intellectualism. Chastened intellectualism, for Stalnaker, is a central feature of the thought of Augustine and Xunzi, across their very different cultural contexts. Their ideas are “intellectual” in that one needs to learn (directly or indirectly) from texts and reflect intellectually on them in order to live a good human life; but “chastened” in that our own reflection is insufficient to allow us to reach this good life. We unconsciously sabotage our efforts to reach the good; we need help from others to get there, likely involving some sort of practice that will transform us.

Such practice seems at first to involve the kind of thing we might normally count as “religion”: meditation, prayer, ritual. But it seems to me that there’s another thinker, not religious except in the broadest stretching of the word, whose worldview also counts as chastened intellectualism: namely, Sigmund Freud. Freud’s message, it seems to me, is very similar to Augustine’s and Xunzi’s: the ego is not the master of its own house. To be saved from oneself, one needs some understanding of the textual learning that Freud saw himself as beginning; but simply reading Freud isn’t going to be enough to understand yourself. Our repression, our defences, are too strong. You need to engage in the practice of therapy (or analysis) at someone else’s guidance.

I tend to suspect that a chastened intellectualist view of humans is correct. I rather wish it weren’t, because its conclusions never seem pleasant. Augustine slams the very idea of human flourishing – because we are weak we cannot live a good life in this world, only in the next. Freud says a very similar thing – but denies that there is a better world to come. All we can do is be slightly less neurotic. Of the three, it’s Xunzi who seems to allow that a life in this world could be good – but only if restrained by the kind of hierarchies that would now seem tyrannical to us.