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Sublimation, The Prerogative Of Wise Societies…


Religious institutions have been eager to reclaim and appropriate the teachings of enlightened teachers, often for political purposes. However, these same institutions offer a framework for accepting the disorders of the human condition while at the same time proposing a way to emancipate themselves from them.

If we look at this approach from a psychoanalytical point of view, we can see that religious institutions propose their followers two of the defence mechanisms established by Freud: idealization and sublimation.

What is a defense mechanism?

According to the site:, it is :

“methods, mostly unconscious, that individuals use to defend themselves from emotions or thoughts that would produce anxiety, depressive affect or injury to their self-esteem, if they came to consciousness.

Human existence leads to a variety of disorders that must be guarded against if one is not to live a miserable life. Not all of the defense mechanisms deployed by our brains are healthy, however. Let’s take a look at some of them, again from :

Examples of primary defense mechanisms:

Withdrawal: This is a way of getting inside yourself to get away from reality by taking refuge in the world of fantasy and sleep. An easily observable example is that of an anxious or over-stimulated baby who protects himself by falling asleep. This defence allows the individual to escape from a painful reality without distorting it and generally it does not create misunderstandings when interpreting it. On the other hand, its excessive use considerably limits the possibility of dealing with reality.

Idealization manifests itself in the need to give a special value or power to a person on whom the individual depends upon emotionally in order to be able to associate with someone omnipotent and omniscient who will solve all difficulties definitively. Devaluation is the flip side of the same coin and expresses the frustration that is felt when reality belies idealization. All love has a seed of idealization.

Examples of secondary defense mechanisms:

Rationalization is a way of finding reasons for an act that would be experienced as a conflict without those reasons. It comes into play when the individual doesn’t get what they wanted and decides who finally didn’t want it as much, or when something goes wrong and the individual decides in retrospect that it wasn’t so bad. This defence allows one to accept things with a minimum of resentment, but its abuse can lead to everything being rationalized.

Sublimation is a way of finding derived and adaptive satisfaction from impulses that cannot be expressed directly because of social prohibitions. A surgeon may sublimate his aggressiveness, and so on. The advantage of sublimation is that it allows the discharge (displaced and transformed) of the impulse instead of fighting it.

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The latter is interesting. To an extent we can say that religious institutions offer both the moral framework (religious prohibitions for example) and the psychological tools to overcome the frustration or anxiety created by this same moral framework.

This creates an inevitable dependence of the community on the religious order. On one hand, those who do not obey the defined rules are de facto banned by the community. On the other hand, those who adhere to the established rules but do not apply the precepts advocated (the defence mechanisms) suffer from their inability to emancipate themselves from their impulses, which are repressed by the moral order.

This configuration is frighteningly effective, so much so that an entire society can find itself under the influence of a religious order.

Not all religious power is bad in itself. Indeed secular powers are not necessarily better. The latter, although proposing a less rigid moral framework, very often propose only defense mechanisms that are “inferior” in substance to that of sublimation. As such, the defense mechanisms proposed by lay orders are often intellectualization, rationalization, compartmentalization or sexualization.

To what extent is sublimation superior to others?

The answer is found in the above-mentioned definition: the advantage of sublimation is that it allows the discharge (displaced and transformed) of the impulse instead of fighting it.

Sublimation allows the drive to be displaced, whereas the other means developed by the brain do not offer this option. In fact, anxiety is never really eradicated. It remains there in the background, making it a mechanism of lesser value than sublimation.

Although sublimation exists in the configuration proposed by the model of so-called modern societies particularly through artistic production. It is not as central as it is in societies dominated by religious values. This is why one can conjecture, as Freud had previously, that as long as a society has not integrated a high level of sublimation, a fortiori of spiritual values, it has not reached a sufficient level of maturity as a civilization, although it defines itself as modern. Thus, the ideal civilization is perhaps a hybridization of societies benefiting from the scientific and artistic prowess offered by secular societies while having access to the elevation of spiritual societies.

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