Freud refers to the concept of altruism approximately ten times in his work, most often in a social or cultural context. In "Thoughts for the Times on War and Death" he writes:
Throughout an individual's life there is a constant replacement of external by internal compulsion. The influences of civilization cause an ever-increasing transformation of egoistic trends into altruistic and social ones by an admixture of erotic elements. In the last resort it may be assumed that every internal compulsion which makes itself felt in the development of human beings was originallyhat is, in the history of mankindnly an external one. Those who are born to-day bring with them as an inherited organization some degree of tendency (disposition) towards the transformation of egoistic into social instincts, and this disposition is easily stimulated into bringing about that result. (1915b, p. 282).
In other cases, Freud uses the term most frequently against a background of what he called, in an exchange with Oskar Pfister, his "joyous pessimism." After pointing out that except when in love, "the opposite of egotism, altruism, does not, as a concept, coincide with libidinal object-cathexis" (1916-17a [1915-17], p. 418), he added, rather laconically, in Civilization and Its Discontents, "the development of the individual seems to us to be a product of the interaction between two urges, the urge towards happiness, which we usually call 'egoistic', and the urge towards union with others in the community, which we call 'altruistic'. Neither of these descriptions goes much below the surface. In the process of individual development, as we have said, the main accent falls mostly on the egoistic urge (or the urge towards happiness); while the other urge, which may be described as a 'cultural' one, is usually content with the role of imposing restrictions" (1930a , p. 140).
However, in the third part of The Ego and the Mechanism of Defence (1936/1937), Anna Freud provides an example of two types of defense, namely, "identification with the aggressor" and "a form of altruism." And in connection with the mechanism of projection, she conceives of "altruistic surrender" (altruistische Abtretung, according to the expression used by Edward Bibring):
The mechanism of projection disturbs our human relations when we project our own jealousy and attribute to other people our own aggressive acts. But it may work in another way as well, enagling us to form valuable positive attachments and so to consolidate our relations with one another. This normal and less conspicuous form of projection might be described as 'altruistic surrender' of our own instinctual impulses in favour of other people (p. 133).
Using a clinical example, Anna Freud analyzes the transference of the subject's own desires to others, a transference that enables the subject to participate in the instinctual satisfaction of another person through projection and identification. In speaking of this process, she refers to Paul Federn's comments concerning identification through sympathy.
The section of the book devoted to the study of two mechanisms of defense is is placed between a chapter on the preliminary stages of defensehe avoidance of unpleasure in the face of real dangers (negation through fantasy, negation through acts and words and withdrawal of the ego)nd a chapter on the phenomena of puberty and the defenses arising from fear associated with the intensity of instinctual processes. To Anna Freud, the mechanisms of identification with the aggressor and altruism can be conceived as intermediary stages of defense, centered on the transition from anxieties arising from external dangers to subsequent anxieties arising from internal dangers.
This explains the projection inherent in both types of defense and the role of the superego in the genesis of altruistic surrender: "Analysis of such situations shows that this defensive process has its origin in the infantile conflict with parental authority about some form of instinctual gratification" (p. 141). Other passages in her work support this view: "Her early renunciation of instinct had resulted in the formation of an exceptionally strong super-ego, which made it impossible for her to gratify her own wishes. . . . She projected her prohibited instinctual impulses on to other people, just as the patients did whose cases I quoted in the last chapter. . . . In most cases the substitute has once been the object of envy" (pp. 135-36, 136, 141). She also points out that altruistic surrender is a means for overcoming narcissistic humiliation.
Finally, for Anna Freud, altruism could involve libidinal impulses as well as destructive impulses and, moreover, could affect either the realization of desires or their renunciation. Her analysis of the mechanism of defense finishes with an approach to its connection with the fear of death, by examining the bonds between the hero Cyrano de Bergerac and his friend Christian. Anna Freud provides a concluding note on the similarity between the conditions needed to initiate altruistic surrender and those present during the formation of masculine homosexuality.
Anna Freud's position was subsequently revisited with respect to such concerns as the psychodynamics of anorexic adolescents.
See also: Antinarcissism; Burlingham-Tiffany, Dorothy; Identification with the aggressor; Reaction-formation.
Freud, Anna. (1937). The ego and the mechanisms of defence. London: Hogarth. (Original work published 1936)
Freud, Sigmund. (1915b). Thoughts for the times on war and death. SE, 14: 275-300.
. (1916-17a [1915-17]). Introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 15-16.
. (1930a ). Civilization and its discontents. SE, 21: 64-145.
Freud, Anna. (1936). A form of altruism. In Writings of Anna Freud (Vol. 2, pp. 122-134).
McWilliams, Nancy. (1984). The psychology of the altruist. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 1, 193-214.
Seelig, Bud, et. al. (2001). Normal and pathological altruism. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 49, 933-960.
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