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Sublimation  of  States  of  Mind

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The Need for Clear Terminology

The realm of emotions has always been a confused one within traditional views of morality. The importance of emotions to moral debate is that some attitudes of morality and virtue arise from the sublimations of particular emotions. The confusion about emotions has led to confusion about morality. Hence some traditional moral views are inherently confused. [¹]

To penetrate and attempt to clear the confusion I need to make some distinctions in terminology. I give specific meanings to the terms ‘morality’, ‘virtue’, and ‘ethics’.

Over the past few centuries the progress of science and technology has been quite spectacular. However, the moral development of mankind has not kept pace with it.

In general, the moral standards of most Western peoples are patchy and poor, and only kept in place by social pressures rather than by individual integrity. In fact, social pressures are both the usual source of moral standards and the force that maintains them.

Sub - Headings
Jealousy and Narcissism
Love and Hate
Self-pity and Vanity
Guilt and Pride
Resentment and Bitterness
Greed and Envy
Anger and Fear

 Social pressures produce social conditioning and social learning (where the conditioning has been absorbed into the subconscious level of the person's mind, and no longer generates friction, then it can be called learning).

For most people, moral standards are derived from social conditioning.

The rules of social behaviour that a person adheres to represent the level of goodness that he can practice and the level of truth about ideas of right and wrong that he can accept.

When a person advances beyond the social consensus and becomes an idealist, the contemporary state of social conditioning becomes restrictive to his further evolution. He needs to examine, and possibly discard, contemporary moral standards until he can formulate a higher set of rules for himself. Social conditioning is always a challenge to overcome in order to progress to higher standards.

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Standards reflect character traits. I need to make a distinction in the origin of these traits. I need to make this distinction because character traits have two different roots, and in order to label these roots I use the terms ‘morality’ and ‘virtue’.

I am therefore changing traditional terminology, which treats these two terms as being more or less identical.

There are two roots because some traits of responsible behaviour are social ones, and others are purely aspects of individuality.

Where the social traits are produced by social learning I call them moral traits.

Where the individual traits arise as a reaction to social conditioning I call them virtues.

For example, if a person revolts to some degree against social pressures and decides to go his own way in life and make his own decisions, irrespective of what other people think of him, then he begins to cultivate the virtues of independence of mind and freedom of spirit.

The problem with any morality that is derived from social learning or any virtue that is generated as a reaction to social pressures is that they are unstable and likely to change (in the direction of becoming more right-wing) during times of social abreaction. [2]. When, however, some deliberate choice is involved in determining one's standards then I use an opposition of  ethics against both morality and virtue. [3]. Conditioning and learning just affect behaviour. Deliberation brings in motives

I consider ethics to be the critical and clear-minded analysis of the problems of right and wrong, good and evil.

To ensure that ethical debate is meaningful, an understanding of the processes of sublimation and internalisation is needed. Both use emotions and desires, but emotion is more prominent in sublimation whereas internalisation focuses primarily on desire.

To begin with, I need to repeat a couple of ideas.

the two psychological mechanisms of projection and introjection link together in a loop to create the dialogue between desire for power  and will to power. These are two paths to power. [4].  In the desire for power, the person aims at power over his situations and environment  (this is the use of the will ) ; the desire for power is centred on jealousy. In the will to power, he aims at power over himself, or self-control  (this is the control of the will ) ; the will to power is centred on narcissism.

the determinism that acts on a person has two major factors: the need for social approval and the inferiority complex. [5]

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Any state of mind is always underpinned by emotional factors. I use the term ‘emotional dynamics’ to mean the principal emotions that drive any particular state of mind.

Sublimation is the process of making emotional dynamics that are (usually) considered to be unpleasant into socially-acceptable attitudes and states of mind. It is the process whereby the emotions (and their associated beliefs and attitudes) that are considered to be ‘bad’ are transformed into qualities of character that are considered to be ‘good’. In past times negative emotions were repressed. Now they need to be sublimated. Repression denies wholeness to a person. Sublimation enables one to fulfil oneself. The rationale of sublimation is that all emotions have a place in human development.

Freud, in his early writings, considered that the primary drive in man is the sexual instinct, libido ; the process of sublimation becomes the various ways of re-directing libido. I reject this assumption. I reject the idea that any physiological drive or instinct can produce ethical, even spiritual, states of mind. Existential choice can never arise from any instinct.

Nietzsche proposed that  the will to power is the person's primary drive (Hollingdale, 1973). I accept this as a partial explanation of the evolutionary process, but with a qualification. For Nietzsche the will to power was more of a physiological drive rather than ‘will’ in the conventional sense. I translate the will to power back into an existential drive, without any connotations of instinct.

For me, the will to power is the conscious and /or subconscious means of directing personal evolution. [6]. The will to power acts as an existential drive, focusing on the use of free will ; the dynamic of this process is the person's intensity of  idealism. The psychological content of this drive arises from ways of satisfying the need for social approval and ways of compensating the inferiority complex.

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The binary (or complementary) process to the will to power is  the desire for power. The desire for power always arises first in the person's evolutionary journey, and only when it is frustrated and then (sometimes) repudiated does the will to power arise – frustration begins the process of self-questioning, which is the origin of idealism. 

Freud had little understanding of power. The desire for power can explain everything that Freud explained using the concept of libido, and more besides. The re-direction of the desire for power into sexuality gives rise to the sexual politics of the family. But I cannot see how re-direction of libido can give rise to the politics of power ; it may generate the idea that might is right (a rationalisation of physical strength, which can pass as a product of an instinct), but nothing else. Certainly not socialism or anarchism or existentialism.

After reading Nietzsche's concept of sublimation, I set myself the task of identifying attitudes that have their base in my repertoire of regular emotions. The difficulty with establishing the sublimation of an emotion is that it cannot be deduced by either wishful or logical thinking. The only way to do it is to take any major attitude that is currently dominant in your mind, or any major ideal that is currently motivating you, and then try to identify through awareness what emotion it springs from, that is, what subconscious emotion is associated with it. Identifying emotions is an empirical task and not a rational one. Conversely, any rational conjecture on sublimation has to be verified by empiricism.

Emotions form into pairs or binaries. Therefore the sublimation of one emotion needs to be compatible with the sublimation of its binary. [7]

I give a list of some binary emotions 

jealousy - narcissism
love - hate
self-pity - vanity
guilt - pride
resentment - bitterness
greed - envy
anger - fear

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Now I can give their sublimations.

Jealousy and Narcissism

Some moral practitioners want to better the condition of the world rather than to concentrate on personal salvation ; such moral idealists usually focus on the practice of duty and social obligation. Social concerns have a base in jealousy. The sublimation of jealousy leads to morality.

The narcissistic person prefers to be free, free from social obligations and morality, since these carry the blemish of coercion. The sublimation of narcissism produces individualism. Individualism has various levels to it: for example, at the bottom is the amoral person ; somewhere in the middle we have the individualism of nineteenth century Liberalism, defined in political and economic terms ; at the top is the subjective existentialist, trying to break all the chains of coercion that restrict him.

To be more specific about the sublimations of these two emotions I turn to the end states of each emotion.

Jealousy = love + self-pity.

The love mode of jealousy generates sociability and a focus on community, which is needed when individualism is no longer the best response to changing times. The self-pity mode generates social dependency. Through sublimation, social dependency transforms into a positive asset. Obligation and duty, and morality in general, are social traits of good character that make social dependency respectable.

Narcissism = love + vanity.

The sublimation of the love mode of narcissism gives a positive feature to egoism. Individualism is the love of a completely free life, without any chains. Without individualism, there would be nothing to challenge a community (based on jealousy) that had deteriorated and become unable to meet the needs of changing times. The vanity mode fosters my own abilities and strengths. Virtues are the individual's traits of good character that are independent of society, such as dignity, tolerance, courage, integrity. Some of these traits (such as integrity) do not arise from narcissism, but nevertheless require an affirmation of narcissism before they can be developed.

The sublimations of jealousy are :

love mode generates sociability ;
self-pity mode generates morality.

The sublimations of narcissism are :

love mode generates individualism ;
vanity mode generates virtues.

In times of social change, people tend to centre on either jealousy or narcissism. Change is a dialogue between people who need to affirm their sense of individuality and other people who need to base themselves on a sense of community.

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The roots of some sublimations are not always as obvious as they might appear.

For example, the ideals of  brotherhood and camaraderie are quite different. The ideal of brotherhood is a social one, and reflects the love mode of jealousy. Here each person is assumed to be one's equal, even though this assumption is generally false ; the group is a collection of socially-centred people. Whereas camaraderie within a group reflects the love mode of narcissism, because each person is definitely one's equal, in tried and tested ways ; the group is a collection of individuals. In peculiar circumstances, such as the trench warfare of World War I, ideals of brotherhood and camaraderie intermingle.

The connection between jealousy, desire for power (focused on jealousy), and morality (sublimation of jealousy) ‘stabilises’ or solidifies a person's character and makes him dislike social change. As a deep psycho-analysis abreacts the intensity of jealousy so this type of power is lost and the person becomes de-stabilised. He then becomes vulnerable to swings of mania and depression. The depressive stage of manic depression arises from jealousy in self-pity mode. Hence any loss of moral codes (the failure of sublimation) can lead to depression ; depression can become the response to jealousy (self-pity mode) instead of morality. [8]

A deep psycho-analysis also abreacts the intensity of narcissism, thereby enabling the person to feel more at home in a community.

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Love and Hate

I look at the binary comprising love and hate. It is not just negative emotions that cause problems and so need to be sublimated. Even pure love needs to be sublimated, just like other emotions ; love can cause difficulties for the idealist, just as any other emotion can. Love can take away the need to learn about oneself and other people.

Equality is the only attitude that is derivable from a motivation of pure love. Equality dissolves the passion from love, thereby enabling love to be applied to everyone in the same way. The unconscious idea that creates pure love is  ‘ I am the same as everyone else’. [9]. The practice of equality enables a person to treat everybody in the same way.

All ability in concentration and meditation requires an emotional dynamic of hate. Hate enables the meditator to clear the mind of irrelevant detail.  Hate clears the mind, but also clears the person from society and into solitude. The unconscious idea that maintains hate is  ‘ I am different from everyone else’.  It is more common for original thinkers of any depth to be anti-social, for example Newton ; it is unusual for such a thinker to be social, for example Leibniz. The Buddhist way of offsetting the necessity of hate in the meditator is the advocacy of a compassionate attitude to all others. Compassion dissolves the passion from hate.

The sublimation of love is equality.

The sublimation of hate is compassion

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Self-pity and Vanity

At one stage of my psycho-analysis I was plunged into a state of catatonia for a few minutes. This experience haunted me for a year and generated a great amount of hopelessness and self-pity. I scrambled out of it by affirming faith in myself.

The sublimation of self-pity is faith. There are three forms of self-pity, so there are also three forms of faith. Jealousy is a social emotion, and its mode of self-pity generates blind faith in a teacher or in any person acting as a role model. Guilt in self-pity mode is the ultimate disaster, so faith needs the highest helping hand, that of god.

The sublimations of self-pity are :

self-pity generates faith in oneself ;
self-pity (guilt) generates faith in god ;
self-pity (jealousy) generates faith in a teacher.

Vanity is a most interesting paradox. Vanity is usually conflated with egoism and then almost universally denounced in traditional religious ethics, both Eastern and Western. This view indicates confusion and self-deception. If a person examines the emotional dynamics of any of his noble ideals he will find that they are based on vanity. Vanity is the carrier wave for all ideals.

The sublimation of vanity is idealism.

For example: if a person sets justice as his noblest ideal, then the emotional dynamics of this ideal are vanity plus envy (the pursuit of justice is the sublimation of envy). If a person prefers duty (as an aspect of morality) to be his best ideal, then the emotional dynamics of this ideal are vanity plus jealousy (mode of self-pity).

It is a common criticism of idealists that they are vain – this only means that their idealism is intense, and so their vanity is correspondingly intense. For normal man, his vanity within his ideals may not be noticeable simply because his ideals are not set very high. However, for the high-flying idealist who considers himself to be following a spiritual practice, his intense vanity does cause serious problems, such as a sensitivity both to criticism and to failures in relationships.

This is the paradox of spirituality : vanity causes problems, but you cannot do without it if you want to achieve your spiritual ideals.

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Guilt and Pride

The factors of guilt are :

Guilt = self-hate + self-pity.

The self-hate mode produces a very unpleasant state of mind and can cause intense levels of distress. The usual way to survive this kind of self-hate is to aim for a state of purity where criticism no longer harms oneself.

The self-pity mode is debilitating and makes one languid and tired ; no matter how long one rests, one never gets refreshed. To overcome it one needs to generate an attitude of perfectionism. Becoming a perfectionist in one’s work creates a resolute mental routine that offsets the meaninglessness that the self-pity mode produces. Set routines maintain set lines of thinking, and so banish any questions. Set routines are a way of handling a lack of meaning.

The factors of pride are :

Pride = vanity + hatred of other people.

Pride can be inflexible ; in some ways this attitude is valuable. The bedrock of my character is my integrity: I can sacrifice everything except that. If I lose my integrity in any social situation then I switch to guilt and start to feel intense self-hatred, and even the desire for suicide. The vanity mode generates integrity and cannot be devalued without intense trauma.

I hate other people when they impose themselves on me. Only my world is important. What is important about my world is the freedom to do things my way, irrespective of the demands of other people. I only begin to consider that other people’s views are just as good as mine when I learn to respect people.

The sublimations of guilt are :

self-hate mode generates purity ;
self-pity mode generates perfectionism.

The sublimations of pride are :

vanity mode generates integrity ;
hate mode generates respect for other people.

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Resentment and Bitterness

A person may be deeply upset by some form of immorality that he has done earlier in his life, or he may believe that he is the victim of some form of injustice. Such beliefs generate intense resentment and bitterness.

Forgiveness dissolves resentment. And the fading of bitterness leads to the acceptance of the previously-disturbing belief. Since resentment and bitterness are regular states of mind produced by regular sequences of abreaction, so forgiveness and acceptance need to become regular states of mind too.

The sublimation of resentment is forgiveness.

The sublimation of bitterness is acceptance.

Greed and Envy

These two emotions are very important, since they can shape the course of a nation's history.

A person seeks a moral teacher because he has no sense of being a moral authority himself. By doing the will of a teacher the person acquires a surrogate moral authority. The drama of being devoted to an outstanding person revolves around the greed for moral authority, and the person gets this authority in the measure that he is devoted to the teacher. Greed is consecrated into devotion.

Therefore, the more that a person is centred on a materialist life, which means that greed is focused on materialist desires, then correspondingly the less capable of spiritual effort such a person will be.

When envy stirs in me I deny attachment to any people who I feel have shown a lack of fairness to me. Envy is stimulated by being on the receiving end of injustice. I direct my envy  internally to destroy social conditioning ; this destructiveness is my revenge for the trauma of my infancy. I can give up my envy, my revenge, when justice has been done to me.

Politicians direct envy  externally to destroy political systems and social groups: for example, Hitler (with his anti-Semitism) and Stalin (the 1930s communist show trials). Envy is the motive when barbarian tribes destroy more cultured societies : for example, the fall of the Minoan and the Roman civilisations.

Envy is the most destructive of all emotions and it is the basis of Freud’s ‘death instinct ’ [10]. Correspondingly, the only basis for an enduring and non-destructive society is justice. Justice precedes in importance all other attitudes and ideals, even those of freedom and equality. If a society lacks justice it will not survive for very long: it will eventually become destructive, since envy will sooner or later eclipse all ‘good’ emotions, including love.

The sublimation of greed is devotion.

The sublimation of envy is justice.

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Anger and Fear

Often my response to dominant fear is to access anger and then keep it controlled by my idealism so that I can face the unpleasant situation. Anger sustains the attitudes needed to give leadership when a person is under great stress in difficult situations.

What is the sublimation of fear ?  It is the consciousness of freedom. Fear of something always prevents a person from being what he wants to be. Freedom is the only state of mind that enables a person to face fear without denying it, without repressing it, or without switching to anger as an antidote.

The sublimation of anger is leadership.

The sublimation of fear is freedom.

There are three other ways of handling fear

1). When fear is absent, then equanimity can arise. Equanimity means the cessation of making value judgements, and this is the basis on which any situation can be faced directly and harmoniously. However, this state of mind is the most difficult of all to achieve.

2). A common desire for religious persons and meditators is to yearn for peace, the ‘peace that passes understanding’. How does peace compare with equanimity ?  The difference between them is the difference between repression (absence from the conscious mind, but present in the subconscious mind )  and the absence from both conscious and subconscious minds. Peace is the repression of fear.

3). Another common desire of meditators is to still the mind of all activity in order to generate a state of internal silence. This desire arises from bitterness. It represents neither equanimity nor peace.

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End Note

It is always possible that the sublimation of an emotion may have more than one corresponding attitude and belief ; there may be perhaps two or three, in a hierarchy of importance. The particular one espoused will then reflect the need of the age. In a low-stress society, an attitude at the bottom of the hierarchy may be what is needed. In a high-stress society the attitude at the top is the one to achieve.

In general, sublimation is the process whereby a person re-directs his emotional drives from lower goals to higher ones ; his unrefined emotional motivations are transformed into attitudes and qualities of character that are either socially-acceptable or less egoistic.

Each person has many goals, many ideals, which he wishes to achieve. These can be graded according to the intensity of the underlying emotional motivations. This means that whatever is a person's highest ideal will indicate which is the most powerful emotional drive in him.

Different ideals sublimate different emotions.

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The number in brackets at the end of each reference takes you back to the paragraph that featured it. The addresses of my other websites are on the Links page.

[¹]. My definitions, descriptions, and analysis of emotions are given in the three articles on Emotion. See home page. [1]

[²]. My analysis of the process of abreaction is given in the five articles on Abreaction. See home page.
In particular, ideas on social abreaction are given in the fourth article : Resentment and Bitterness. [2]

[³]. There are more notes on the terms morality, virtue, and ethics in the article Morality. [3]

[4]. The terms "will to power" and "desire for power" are explained in more detail in the article Power. [4]

[5]. The need for social approval and the inferiority complex are described in the article Social Approval, Inferiority Complex & Power.
A more general account of determinism is given in the article Determinism. [5]

[6]. There is an article on Personal Evolution on my websites  The Strange World of Emotion and Discover Your Mind[6]

[7]. The binary nature of emotions is explained in the first article on Emotion. [7]

[8]. Mania and depression are the subject of articles on my website Patterns of Confusion.[8]

[9]. I introduce the use of the term "unconscious idea" in the first article on Emotion. [9]

[10]. Envy is described in two articles on my website Patterns of Confusion. The two articles are Depression & Autism & other States of Despair, and Envy and the Death Desire. [10]

For more ideas on sublimation, the sublimation of sexuality is analysed in the article Sexuality and Ethics.


Hollingdale, R.J.  Nietzsche. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973.

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