Freud is an illuminating example, not for any particular reason other than the fact that his life story is exceptionally well-documented. In the late 1890s, he wrote to Wilhelm Fliess (a friend with whom he shared his earliest conceptualizations of psychoanalysis, and other personal reflections) a fascinating letter. Following abysmal reviews from fellow psychiatrists regarding Freud’s earliest formulations of the psychosexual origins of neuroticism, Freud commented that their input was especially painful as he sought so deeply to be ‘eternally renown.’ Although other details of Freud’s life collaborate this stated intention, I am by no means singling out Freud or psychoanalysis for mischievous reasons; it just so happens that, as fate would have it, these thoughts were recorded and, incidentally, he did ultimately become one of the most influential figures in the development of modern psychology. But what drove Freud to seek immortal glory? Six hundred years prior to Freud’s birth, as referenced by Sherman Jackson, an Islamic scholar by the name of ibn Taymiyyah wrote that human beings have two powerful, hidden drives which must be overcome. The first, he wrote, is the drive to be worshipped and the second is to be obeyed. Both drives mutually constitute one another, reflecting a common theme found throughout history that mankind is essentially driven by his passion.
The drive to be obeyed, on the other hand, reflects our desire for power and the ability to exert our force unto the world. It’s especially poignant when we believe that we, erroneously, are solely responsible for our achievements, and deserve to be recognized accordingly for them. Reflecting upon this drive, we see two complimentary conditions, anxiety and arrogance. Anxiety is a popular subject in clinical psychology, however it is unfortunately referred to as an ‘abnormality’. If we hold to the understanding that the drive to be obeyed reigns within us all however, we notice that, in fact, it’s all too human. Anxiety can be defined as the intolerance of uncertainty, and it’s stronger among those individuals who feel that their accomplishments are entirely in their hands. As such, a student who studies for the exam, who absolutely believes that his studying will directly correlate to success, may feel anxious while studying because he carries the sheer burden of triumph. But in reality, there are many other factors involved in success over which we have no control, such as the exam questions themselves, sickness or just regular absentmindedness. An anxious individual dismisses these uncontrollable forces because they symbolize an uncertain reality outside their control, which their drive to force cannot tolerate. They are unable to appreciate hard work as a virtue in-and-of-itself, leaving the results and accomplishments to Allah. Failure is often this individual’s demise, and I have seen many clients (especially university students) who have sought therapy precisely because they had no conception of failure. Arrogance and false pride would be the result should this anxious individual actually succeed, which is the second condition. Having won what they worked so hard for, the individual crystalizes the relationship between cause and effect (“I work, and only by my work, I succeed”), thereby developing a sense superiority and self-importance that should be respected and admired. Of course, we cannot succeed forever, nor do we exert any power over the world, and death is the most obvious reminder of that.
Is there anything to destroy this idol within us? Unfortunately, no, but conversely, this may very well represent the test of life – to overcome ourselves. Ibn Taymiyyah offered that it is only through Allah that these drives are subdued, and I would reiterate that position in other words: to fight our drives to be worshipped and obeyed, we must first submit to something greater than ourselves.
This is not to say that the things we accomplish while seeking to be worshipped are bad – let’s not forget that Freud’s psychoanalysis has helped many for over a century. It does however indicate a flaw in our self-professed commitment towards truth and objectivity, and a negligence of Allah’s omnipotence. Thus, the search for truth necessitates, above all, humility to subdue this inner idol, knowing full well that the drives will reappear at a moment’s weakness.