Red Pill / Blue Pill: A Step (Or Two) Beyond The Pleasure Principle

“And there the children of dark Night have their dwellings, Sleep and Death, awful gods. The glowing Sun never looks upon them with his beams, neither as he goes up into heaven, nor as he comes down from heaven. And the former of them roams peacefully over the earth and the sea’s broad back and is kindly to men; but the other has a heart of iron, and his spirit within him is pitiless as bronze: whomsoever of men he has once seized he holds fast: and he is hateful even to the deathless gods.” – Hesiod, from Theogony, on Hypnos and Thanatos.

In, perhaps, his second most famous work, Sigmund Freud explored a number of aberrant behaviors that could not easily be explained by the more common human desire for pleasure, notably one that he called the “death drive“.  Later referred to as “Thanatos” by post-Freudians (in deference to Freud’s pleasure-seeking Eros), Freud defined the “death drive” as:  “an urge in organic life to restore an earlier state of things”, which is to say, an inorganic stateReally now, Siggy?

It is interesting to note that, according to Greek mythology, Thanatos had a twin brother, “Hypnos” (or Sleep), who , as it happens, was the father of Morpheus, “the shaper of dreams“.  In a more modern mythological context, of course, it is  Morpheus who offers Neo (of The Matrix) his choice between the Red Pill or the Blue Pill, either the painful truth of reality or the blissful ignorance of illusion.

While Freud may have relegated “Hypnos” to his toolbox of favorite clinical techniques, there can be little doubt that the human desire for pleasure – or mere pain avoidance – will lead many to choose the Blue Pill.  The Red Pill, on the other hand, seems to lie well outside Freud’s personal “theogony”.  He notes that, “…we men, with the high claims of our civilization and under the pressure of our repressions, find reality generally quite unsatisfactory”.  True enough.

But, then, Freud also states, “Religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires.”  And, I suppose that I’d have to give him this:  Much of what often passes for religion (and politics, too) is, in actual practice, not all that different from taking the Blue Pill.  (But, then, you might say the same about psychoanalysis.)

Be that as it may, we are left yet with Thanatos and, I think, the reasonable question of where self-destructive desires and behaviors fit into the collective psyche of modern society.  There are quite a few, it seems, that are not only obsessed with the possibility of our collective destruction, but, oddly enough, may be actively rooting for it. 

I’m not talking, at the moment, about eschatology generally, or even, more specifically, variants of the Mahdi or the Messiah, although these subjects are clearly related.  Right now, I’m more particularly interested in the more secular (even atheistic) “death wish”, a variant that, we must imagine, originates from a rather more peculiar neurosis.  Freud, of course, hypothesized that such self-destructive tendencies were “beyond the pleasure principle”, but I’m not convinced. 

On first glance, there would be appear to be no personal “upside” to such a desire, unless, of course, you happen to believe that we do, in fact, share some peculiar compulsion to “return to the inorganic”.   Of course, most of those rooting for our collective destruction tend to argue that they are merely champions for the survival of the planet and, typically, some lucky remnant of humanity (see one perverse example here).   Why, how altruistic of them; they’re merely concerned with sustainability, after all, not, really, the incidental mass destruction of modern civilization.

Others, it seems, would envision an entirely different manner of human destruction, an evolution of sorts, sometimes known as Transhumanism.  But, what ties all of them together is the notion that humankind is a scourge that must either be eliminated or, at the very least, transformed in order to achieve some presumed higher level of existence for an advanced surviving remnant of the human species. 

Now, maybe it’s just me, but I’m having a hard time seeing much, if any,  material difference between these secular schools of thought and most of what passes for  religion on the planet.  From Merriam Webster:  Religion (4): : a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.  Substituting a rationalized human ideal for God doesn’t change the religious nature of that belief.  It may, however, reveal it’s underlying motivation. 

In fact, as with pure hedonism, this substitution should tell us all we need to know about the color of the pill being taken.  Afterall, if, in your heart of hearts, you suspect that God represents a fixed moral standard that  you may find either repugnant or overly restrictive, well, it may be quite easy for you to rationalize taking that Blue Pill and excise him right out of the equation. 

All the more so, if that God also brings with him the certain promise of an unpleasant judgement.  As Freud would suggest, it may be equally easy to simply modify your concept of God into something more like a genie who will be happy to grant all your wishes. Good luck with that version of the Blue Pill too. 

Either way, the pleasure-seeking (and/or pain-avoiding) motivations of Church of the Blue Pill requires the “blissful ignorance” (or modification) of some unpleasant truth.  This is the de facto common denominator.  If you can’t help but put God (or his judgement) in that “unpleasant” category, well, there you go.

It doesn’t really matter whether the prescribed avenue of escape takes the form of either sleep or suicide.  Pretending that a) God doesn’t exist ( and, just as often, hating him anyway) or, b) otherwise doesn’t matter, won’t make your problems go away.  

But, when self-proclaimed atheists start planning their own end-times drama, well, that’s not just sad and pathetic, it’s just creepy.  Whether they favor eugenics or some naturally occurring Malthusian solution, the future they seem to yearn for is as devoid of any real hope or mercy as you might imagine.  Just culling the dead wood in the name of sustainable human achievement, that’s very noble work, Thanatos

Taking the Red Pill, of course, will require more than a simple acknowledgement of  “unpleasant” truths.  It will, almost certainly, require some heavy lifting on the part of the recipient.  In either personal or eschatological terms, the “upside” may be a long ways down the road.  Near-term conditions may not be all that comfortable.  But, at least there is hope for each and every member of our species. 

Harry Tuttle


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