This is the embryonic form of a very old gnvqi seauton (gnuthi seauton) though it has its own particular emphasis, related to inner process. But it is enough to situate the sharp difference that is introduced by Freudian thought. What does this difference consist of? It can be measured in the response given to the question: once it is over, once the return to the meaning of an action has been accomplished, once the deep meaning has been liberated, separated out through a catharsis in the sense of decantation, will everything work out all right by itself? Will there be nothing but goodness?
A very old question – a certain Mencius, as he was called by the Jesuits, tells us that it can be judged in the following way. In the beginning, goodness was natural to man; it was like a mountain covered with trees. Only the inhabitants of the surrounding area started to cut the trees down. The blessing of the night was that it gave rise to a fresh growth of suckers, but in the morning the herds returned to eat them and in the end the mountain was denuded, so that nothing grew on it.
The goodness in question is so far from being confirmed in our experience that we start out from what is modestly called the negative therapeutic reaction, a malediction assumed or agreed to in the me funae (rather not to be) of Oedipus. Not that the problem doesn't remain whole; that is decided beyond the return to sense.
I suggested an experiment this year, that we adopt the point of view of the Last Judgment, and choosing as the standard of that reconsideration of ethics to which psychoanalysis leads the relationship between action and the desire that inhabits it. To make you understand this relationship, I had recourse to tragedy. The ethics of psychoanalysis has nothing to do with speculation about prescriptions for, or the regulation of, the service of goods. Rather, the ethics of psychoanalysis implies the dimension that is expressed in the tragic sense of life. Actions are inscribed in the space of tragedy; also this is the sphere of values; also the space of comedy.
The relationship between action and the desire which inhabits it in the space of tragedy functions in the direction of a triumph of death, a triumph of being-for-death that is formulated in Oedipus's me funae (rather not to be), a phrase in which one finds that me, the negation that is identical to the entrance of the subject supported by the signifier. There lies the fundamental character of all tragic action.
The space of comedy is less a question of a triumph than of a futile or derisory play of vision. There too it is a question of the relationship between action and desire, and of the former's fundamental failure to catch up with the latter. The sphere of comedy is created by the presence at its center of a hidden signifier (in the Old Comedy it is there in person), namely, the phallus. Who cares if it is subsequently whisked away? What makes us laugh is not so much the triumph of life as its flight, the fact that life slips away, runs off, escapes all those barriers that oppose it, including those that are the most essential, those constituted by the agency of the signifier. The phallus is nothing more than a signifier, the signifier of this flight. Life goes by, life triumphs, whatever happens. If the little fellow trips, he nevertheless survives.
The pathetic (comic) side of this dimension is exactly the opposite, the counterpart of tragedy. They are not incompatible, since tragic-comedy exists. It is here where the experience of human action resides. It is because we know how to recognize the nature of desire which is at the heart of this experience that a reconsideration of ethics is possible, that a form of ethical judgment is possible, of a kind that gives this question the force of a Last Judgment: Have you acted in conformity with the desire that is in you? This question can only be posed in the analytic context. (Demonstrate the opposition between the desiring center and the service of goods.)
Opposed to this pole of desire is traditional ethics. The antithesis of the tragic hero in a tragedy, who nevertheless embodies a certain heroic quality, is Creon, with reference to whom is the service of goods that is the position of traditional ethics. The cleaning up of desire - modesty, temperateness, the middle path - articulated so remarkably in Aristotle: we need to know what it takes the measure of and whether its measure is founded on something.
Examination demonstrates that its measure is always marked with a deep ambiguity. In the end, the order of things on which it claims to be founded is the order of power, of a human power. It can hardly take two steps in expressing itself without sketching in the ramparts that surround the place where the signifiers are unleashed, or where, for Aristotle, the arbitrary rule of the gods holds sway, insofar as at this level gods and beasts join together to signify the world of the unthinkable.
It is not the prime mover (God), but the mythical gods. We know how to contain the unleashing of the signifiers, but it is not because we have staked almost everything on the No/Name-of-the-Father that the question is simplified. Aristotle's morality is wholly founded on an order that is no doubt a tidied-up, ideal order. But it corresponds to the politics of his time, to the organization of the city. His morality is the morality of the master, created for the virtues of the master and linked to the order of powers. One needs to know their limits.
Of interest to us, that which has to do with desire, to its array and disarray, the position of power of any kind in all circumstances and in every case, whether historical or not, has always been the same. Alexander's proclamation when he arrived in Persepolis or Hitler's when he arrived in Paris? "I have come to liberate you from this or that. Carry on working. Work must go on." Which means of course: "Let it be clear to everyone that this is on no account the moment to express the least surge of desire." The morality of power, of the service of goods, is: "As far as desires are concerned, come back later. Make them wait."
Recall the line of demarcation with reference to which the question of ethics is raised for us; it is also a line that marks an essential end in the development of philosophy. Kant introduces the topological milestone that distinguishes the moral phenomenon, the field that is of interest to moral judgment. It is a limited categorical opposition, purely ideal, but it was essential that someone articulate it by purifying it of all interest, that is, sensible, vital human interests. None of our interests must be involved for it to be valorized as the properly ethical field.
Traditional morality concerned itself with what one was supposed to do "insofar as it is possible". What is the point on which that morality turns; nothing less than the impossibility in which we recognize the topology of our desire. Kant's breakthrough is when he posits that the moral imperative is not concerned with what may or may not be done. To the extent that it imposes the necessity of a practical reason, obligation affirms an unconditional "Thou shalt." The importance of this field derives from the void that the strict application of the Kantian definition leaves there.