Sigmund Freud - an analysis

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), at a major crossroad in his life
wrote a letter to a friend expressing his desire to
become a philosopher: "As a young man I longed for noth-
ing else than philosophical knowledge, and I am now on the
way to satisfy that longing by passing from medicine to
psychology." (Cited in Calvin S. Hall, A primer of Freudian Psychology,
New York American Library, 1964, p.19)

In one sense, his philosophy was simple and can be ade-
quately encapsulated in the maxim "knowledge through sci-
ence". But this is not really a philosophy. Rather, it is the
reuction of philosophy to scientific materialism. In Freud's
case it was psychologism. In another sense, it was complex. He
acknowledged his indebtedness to Schopenhauer and Nietz-
sche for their contribution to his own vitalism and recogni-
tion of the irrational element in man.

Freud, however, was v ur able to harmonize these two disparate
elements, reason and the irrational, in his philosophy. He remained am-
bivalent about whether the knowledge we gain through a
purely scientific examination of man can ever be used to
curb his fundamental irrationality so that the needs of the
individual can harmonize with those of society.

Freud was a scientist. But science alone was not enough
to satisfy his personal ambitions. He wanted to be more than
a scientist. He wanted to be a revolutionary: "Acheronta
movebo" (I will move all hell). So be added to his scientific
findings a mythology that would ensure that his larger view
of man would secure his historical immortaliry. Bur the phi-
losophy he bequeathed to the world, composed as it is of
two radically incompatible and antagonistic elements, is, in
the last analysis, incoherent. It promises freedom on the one
hand, but on the other, it virtually guarantees chaos. It pur-
ports to understand man, but, in fact, reduces him to

Freud, from the standpoint of the history of the West, is
indeed one of its great intellectual revolutionaries. He saw
himself as leading the Third Revolution of this type and
aimed to "lance the poisonous bubble of pride in man".
Man's pride (known to the Greeks as hubris) bad been se-
verely wounded as a result of two preceding intellectual
revolutions. As a consequence of the Copernican Revolu-
tion in mathematics and astronomy, man could no longer
regard his earthly abode as being the center of the universe.
This was a cosmological revolution. After Darwin, man could
no longer think of himself as completely unrelated to brute
animals. This was a biological revolution. Freud laid bare man's
unconscious and revealed its powerful, irrational drives,
thereby removing the illusion of self-mastery. This was a
psychological revolution.

And so, for Freud, as science advanced, man diminished.
As science displaced religion, meaning and morality began
to dissolve. The process of learning more unpleasant things
about himself through science was humbling him. The Third
Revolution did not seem to be improving his lot. Man was
not enjoying the new status that scientific knowledge had
carved out for him. He was becoming increasingly discontent,
though he found consolation in the belief that be was losing
his illusions.

Freud's philosophy has three basic qualities that warrant
serious examination. Each represents a retreat from reality
and consequently from an authentic experience of life. Its
reductive, irrational, and mythic features cannot be integrated
into a coherent whole. As such, they tend to weaken and
fractionalize the human being, rendering him more suscep-
tible to the forces of discouragement and death.

1. Reductive: Jacques Maritain states rather bluntly, "The
whole of Freudian philosophy rests upon the prejudice of a
radical denial of spiritualiry and freedom." (Jacques Maritain,
"Freudianism and Psychoanalysis", in Cross Currents of
Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis, ed. W. Birmingham and
J.E. Cunneen (New Yoork: RandomHouse, 1964, p 353) Freud, then,
simply followed the pattern of modern materialism, accepting
both its reductive premises and reductive conclusions. In this
way he produced a truncated and unrealistic view of human
beings. As an example, his gratuitous and unscientific denial
of the spiritual dimension of man makes it impossible for
him to explain such universal activities as art, morality, and
religion. Freud, in effect, reduced the world of man and all
his distinctively human operations to mere fodder for scien-
tific materialism. While his explorations into the uncon-
scious and subsequent development of the psychoanalytic
method ensured his lasting stature as an eminent doctor of
the mind, be saw the unconscious as nothing more than a
"seething cauldron", an interior inferno thronged with re-
pressed monsters. By making this simplistic identification,
he divorced the unconscious from the life of reason and spirit,
thereby reducing it to the level of primitive instinct or, as
Maritain states, "into some kind of pure bestiality crouched
in the depths of mans being".(ibid. p.354)

Thus, Freud's method of dealing with anything spiritual is
reductive; that is, he reduces it to the plane of the material,
where it is subject to empirical analysis alone. As a conse-
quence, Freud finds himself in the impossible position of try-
ing to explain the higher by appealing exclusively to the lower.
Is it at all reasonable to try to explain Beethoven's motiva-
tion for writing his Ninth Symphony solely on the basis of
what materialist-defined science can examine empirically?
The spiritual cannot be explained by the material, though it
may be related to it in some way.

But for Freud, the spiritual could not be real. Therefore
all spiritual beliefs had to have material causes. As an exam-
ple, Freud claims that the notion of God is merely a father
image projected onto the sky. He theorizes that a child
originally looks upon his own father as omnipotent. As the
child matures and discovers that his father is not divine, he
nonetheless retains the fantasy image of an omnipotent fa-
ther, that is, God. His belief in God persists, although it is
shifted from a real being to one who is imaginary.

Or to take another example, Freud states that Holy Com-
munion is not what it is believed to be on a spiritual level,
but is strictly derived from the primitive state of mankind,
when cannibalistic ceremonies were practiced. Receiving the
sacrament of Holy Communion, therefore, is merely what
be terms "oral introjection". Continuing in this vein, disci-
ples of Freud have taught that the mystical experiences ot
saints are the result of sexual frustrations, that saying the
Rosary is unconscious masturbation, and so on.

Of course, we must point out that Freud was at least con-
sistent. It is quite logical for him, having dismissed the spir-
tual order, to explain all art, morality, and religion solely in
relation to the material order. The great father of modern
materialism, Thomas Hobbes, had done it three centuries
earlier, and Darwin bad offered his own materialist reduc-
tionism in the century of Freud's birth. Materialist premises
can yield only materialist conclusions.

Psychiatrist Karl Stern states that the most remarkable of all
Freud's reductive statements is this: "Religion is nothing but
obsessive-compulsive neurosis." (Karl Stern, The Third Revolution,
New York: Harcourt Brace, 1954, p 119.) Now, it is undeniable that
some obsessive-compulsive people are also religious. This does
not mean, logically, that all people who are religious suffer from
this abnormality. We would not conclude that all people who
are sick must have a fever on the basis that all people who have
are sick. The field of discourse for sick people in general
is much wider than it is for its subset of those who are
fevered. So, too, the range of religious people is much broader
than its subset of religious people who happen to be obsessive-
compulsive. To equate the two is both prejudicial and re-
ductive. It is also, ironically, unscientific.

Because Freud operated in the arbitrarily cramped quar-
ters of the material, he lacked the vision to be able to see
things in their wholeness and thus be able to make a realistic
diagnosis. He was not in a position, for example, to say, "Peo-
ple whose religion is tied to their neurosis do not experience
the true nature of religion and therefore do not receive its
appropriate benefits." Freud simply reduced religion to a
neurosis and remained blind to what be refused to see. His
reductive method prevented him from apprehending a healthy
reIigion that is free of neurotic entanglement.

Freud also reduced free will to instinctive drives, thereby
reducing real guilt to mere "guilt feelings". By such reduc-
tionism, Freud lost sight of moral responsibility, and vices,
no less than virtues, became merely the result of the inter-
play of deep, irrational instincts and other psychological de -

Thus, he could explain violent human aggression,
hate, and evil in relation to the body. In this way as Ernest
Becker remarks in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial
of Death, Freud was able to "keep his basic allegiance to
physiology, chemistry, and biology and his hopes for a total
and simple reductionist science of psychology". (E.Becker, The
Denial of Death, New York, Free Press, 1975. p.98)  The price
of this reduction, however, is the loss of any sense of an in-
tegrated moral person. It also brings with it a sense of utter
helplessness in preventing the emergence of a Culture of

The notion that evil chooses man is far more despair-
ing than that of man being capable of freely choosing evil,
since lic has some control in the latter instance, whereas lic
has no control in the former. In freeing man from moral
responsibility, Freud did not free man, but left him defense-
less against himself. Being radically unfree is a greater hand-
icap than being capable of experiencing true guilt.

2. Irrational: Maritain has criticized Freud for infecting his
philosophy with "a deep hatred of the form of reason".
"Freudianism", p. 355).
He is by no means alone in this assessment.
Psychotherapist Rollo May is equally critical of the overemphasis
of the "irrational" in psychoanalysis:

"Has it not been always the function of psychoanalysis, that
we - whether we literally are murderers or not - are always
pushed by the "irrational," daimonic, dynamic forces of the
"dark" side of life that Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, as well
as Freud, talked about? Freud dethroned deliberation as the
motive for actions. Whatever we do, infinitely more than
our "rational" reasons and justification is involved. (Rollo May,
Love and Will, New York: W.W. Norton, 1969, p. 233)

Schopenhauer had seen the blind, instinctive rush of Life
everywhere. Nietzsche felt its irresistible urge in his Will to
power. Freud reduced it further and situated it in the pri-
mordial instinctive center of the human being. He called it
not Life or Will, but Id. As such, the Id is a source of mo-
tivation, a drive for pleasure. It is inherently irrational, a thor-
oughly blind instinct. Freud tells us in Beyond the Pleasure
principle that, as an instinct, it is "an urge inherent in organic life
to restore an earlier state of things". (S. Freud, Beyond the Pleasure
Principle, 1920, standard ed., London: Hogarth Press, 1955, 18:6.)

<>In other words, it is a tendency in animate things to return to the
inanimate. Therefore the "aim of all life is death". (ibid. p. 38) Freud
defined pleasure, including sexual pleasure, after the manner of Schopen-
hauer as a negative phenomenon, the struggle to release one-
self from unpleasure, or tension. "I must insist", Freud writes,
in reference to sexual tension, "that a feeling of tension nec-
essarily involves unpleasure." (
S.Freud, Three Essays on the
Theory of Sexuality, New York, Avon books, 1962, p. 109

But rather than liberating the Id, Freud asserts that the
primordial, irrationally impulsive Id must be held in check.
Civlization cannot exist unless restrictions are placed upon
the Id so that it does not bring society to ruin. The Super-
ego formerly understood as conscience, is the restraining
order that society, religion, parents, and other rational agen-
cies upon the Id. We are beset by three "tyrants", Freud
explains: the Id, the Superego, and the environment. It is the
role ofthe Ego to establish some kind of balance in the midst
of these warring factors. But the Ego is weak. More often
than not, it can do nothing other than repress its bitter con-
flicts, which would finally erupt in neurotic anxiety.

Having been despiritualized and depersonalized, the Ego
is left with no energy of its own. It is entirely passive, a mere
rider on the horse." (See Gordon Allport, Personality and
Social Encounter (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969, p. 139)
The question that Freud faces, and it is a formidable one,
is how can civilization, with its obvious needs for order,
harmony, and a common good, come to terms with the
individual and the irrational forces that surge from within
each individual?

Freud wrote two books on the subject, Civilization and is
Discontents and The Future of an Illusion. These works are in-
teresting in the way they express the human dilemma. But
they shed no light on the subject, nor do they offer any hope.
In his excellent study on Freud, The Mind of the Moralist,
Philip Rieff states that Freud has "no message" for the mod-
ern world in the sense of "something positive and construc-
tive to offer". "None of the consolations of philosophy or
the hopes of religion are to be found in Freud." (Philip Rieff,
The Mind of the Moralist, New York: Viking Press, 1959, p. xx)

The main theme of Civilization and Its Discontents is the
irremediable antagonism between the demands of instinct
(as found ultimately in the Id) and the restrictions of civili-
zation. The individual and society, man and reality, self and
instinct are all hopelessly and antagonistically pitted against
each other. Life becomes a rather miserable experience and
cries out for help. Freud writes:

"The service rendered by intoxicating media in the struggle
for happiness and in keeping misery at a distance is so highly
prized as a benefit that individuals and peoples alike have
given them an established place in the economics of their
Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Disconterrts, trans.
James Strachey, New York. W. W. Norton, 1962. p. 25).
 . . . Life as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us
too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks. In or-
der to bear it, we cannot dispense with palliative measures.''

(Ibid., p. 22)


Freud enumerates the indispensable need for "powerful
deflections" to make light of our misery, "substitutive satis-
factions" to diminish it, and "intoxicating substances" to make
us unsensitive to it. Man is victim of an inner irrational drive
and lives in a restrictive, repressive environment. The result
is misery.

But the matter is bewildering. Why would man,
dominated and surrounded as be is by irrationality, crave a
Iife of rational order? Why would he flee from the clutches
of the irrational, the very factor that defines him in his es-
sence? Reason, for Freud, is not instinctive. From whence
does it originate? This is a conundrum for which the father
of psychoanalysis has no answer.

Given man's dilemma and his need for a variery of illu-
sions, it is curious that Freud has such strong objections to
that particular illusion he calls religion. In his "Future of an Illu-
lusion, Freud recognizes the likelihood that the removal of
religion would lead to chaos:

"If men are taught that there is no almighty and all just God,
no divine world-order and no future life, they will feel ex-
empt from all obligation to obey the precepts of civilization.
Everyone will, without inhibition of fear, follow his asocial,
egoistic instincts and seek to exercise his power; Chaos, which
we have banished through many thousands of years of the
work of civilization, will come again."

Freud seems to forget for a moment that religion is not
merely a negative force, bur played a central role in the de-
velopment of civilization. He also seems to forget that chaos
has not exactly been banished. Nonetheless, assigning a cen-
tral role to the irrational in the human being, weaving it
intimately with the "death instinct", and perceiving that all
forms of reasonable restrictions are tyrannical (albeit neces-
sary), it is not surprising that Freud can find no specific pre-
scription for hope. Yet be stubbornly insists that the belief
that science can bring about a vastly better world is not an
illusion and that it is an illusion to think that anything other
than science can help us. His closing comment is merely
this: "No, our science is no illusion. Bur an illusion it would
be to suppose that what science cannot give us we can get
elsewhere."(Sigmund Freud
, The Future of an Illusion, trans.
James Strachey (New York: W. W Norton,1961), p. 34

3. Mythic: Freud's attempt to harmonize the irrational with
the rational and materialism with an overarching philosophy
had produced an incoherent mishmash of imaginative, but
radically incompatible, elements. Something was needed to
tie up the many loose ends in his thinking.

<>In a letter to his Swiss friend Oskar Pfister, Freud wrote,
"By the way, how comes it about that none of the godly
ever devised psychoanalysis and that one had to wait for a
godless Jew?" According to David Bakan in "Sigmund Freud
and the Jewish MysticalTradition", Freud conceives of himself as
a new Lawgiver who replaces Moses, the previous Lawgiver.
The new Lawgiver must revoke the older one. Moses brings
a Iaw that binds; Freud brings a law that frees. "Thus Freud
plays the role of a new Moses who comes down with a new
Law, dedicated to personal psychological liberty. (David Bakan,
"Sigmund Freud and the Jewish MysticalTradition, Princeton,
N.J. D. Van Nostrand, 1958, p. 329.) Religious man was born to
be saved; psychological man was born to be pleased. Freud saw
himself not only as a sexual liberator but also, in identifying himself
as a secular messiah, a new Moses, he was viewing himself in
mythic proportions.

The greatest figures for Freud, the ones be virtually idol-
lized, were Moses, Oedipus, and Leonardo da Vinci. It is note-
worthy that none of them were either empirical scientists or
ahteists. They represent personalities that are larger than life,
characters of mythic proportions.

In deliberating on the origin of religion, Freud came to
the conclusion that something nonreligious must have tran-
spired in the distant past that provides its explanation. He
concludes that the great crime of killing the father occurred,
and this formed the basis for Judaism and subsequently for
Christianity. In his papers on religion, and more particularly
in "Moses and Monotheism", he elaborates this daring hypoth-
esis, one that, we might add, lacks even the slightest shred of
scientific justification. As literary critic George Steiner has
said of this hypothesis, it is "a piece of mythology of con-
trolling metaphor as vital to the agnostic world view of Freud
as is the parallel metaphor of sin in the world view of the-
(David BakanSigmund Freud and theJewish Mystical
, Princeton, N.J. D. Van Nostrand, 19588, p. 329). Freud
was proposing something more than science and philosophy, He was
proposing a new religion and he was its new Moses.


<>Freud's fascination for Moses is clearly a matter of intense
self-identification. When Freud first saw Michelangelo's
overpowering statue Moses, in that little church in Rome,
San Pietro in Vincoli, he fainted. Like the Moses of the Old
Testament, Freud was, or at least thought be was, a leader,
destined to deliver mankind to a land of milk and honey. As
Freud's professional situation became both more celebrated
and more controversial, his identification with Moses inten-
sified. He also appears to have analogized the Mosaic wan-
derings with the progress of the psychoanalytic movement
that be spawned.

David Bakan develops and convincingly documents the
thesis that, at least metaphorically, Freud entered into a "Sa-
tanic pact" and that psychoanalysis was its result. Soon after
the pact, after having gone through a period of unproduc-
tivity and depression, Freud wrote Tlre Interpretation of Dreams
(1900), which be always regarded as his masterpiece. He chose
for its epigraph the words Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta
movebo (if the gods above are no use to me, then I'll move all
hell). " (The passage is from Virgil's Aeneid (bk. 7. l. 310, and reads
 in its entirety as follows: "Well, if my powers are not great enough
I shall not hesitate- that is true - to ask help wherever help may be
found. If the gods above are no use to me, then I will move all hell".)

Bakan argues that it made logical sense for Freud to
think of himself as the devil, since both he and the devil
were the opposites of Moses. He cites a remark that Freud
once made to colleagues: "Do you know that I am the Devil?
All my life I have bad to play the Devil, in order that others
would be able to build the most beautiful cathedrals that I
produced."(Bakan, Freud, p.132.) Bakan then adds, "The disease
of the neurotic is guilt. This guilt is, in itself, an evil and its removal is
good.. . . If God is the guilt-producing image, then the Devil
is the counterforce." (Ibid. p. 233)

<>Paul Roazen points out in Freud: Political and Social Thought
that "Freud came back again and again to the fantasy of
being raised fatherless." Fatherhood, for Freud, would rep-
sent the Superego and therefore a restriction of freedom.
As the great liberator, Freud had to be totally free himself.
From the viewpoint of the Judeo-Christian tradition, only
God the Father is fatherless. Claiming to be fatherless is
paraamount to claiming to be God. Pope John Paul II has
stated, "Original sin attempts ... to abolish fatherhood ... leav-
ing man only with a sense of the master/slave relationship
(Pope John Paul II, Crossing the Treshold of Hope, Toronto,
Ont.: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994. p. 228) The absence of fatherhood
implies the impossibiliry of brotherhood. It is no accident that
Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Sartre, in addition to Freud, all
struggled with the notion of fatherlessness. Its exalted, but
unrealistic, implication is godlessness and self-deification.
But its more immediate, existential implication, as we have seen,
is being orphaned and abandoned. It is curious that Freud, de-
spite his extensive knowledge of classical literature, either
ignored or repressed its most trenchant moral, namely, that
by equating oneself with the gods, one invokes their anger
and punishment. The gods will not be mocked, and they are
intolerant of hubris.

We conclude, then, that the mythic element in Freud is
entirely without scientific foundation. He tried to propound
philosophy that is scientific, though in realiry it is largely
mythical. Even as a mythology, Freud's account is not cred-
ible. For a mythology to be credible, it must both illustrate
and illuminate common human experience, even while it
transcends it. But Freud's fundamental approach, being es-
essentially reductionistic, could present a view of reality that
appeared only through a distorted lens. Neither his mythol-
ogy nor his science captured the integrated person.

He talks about love in terms of Eros, but, in truth, he
reduces it to an instinctive desire that depletes itself as it ex-
pends itself. His "love" is really a movement toward death.

(Paul Roazen, Freud: Politiral and Sorial ThouQhr (New York: Vintage Books,
1970), pp. 176-8 1.)
He talks about getting at the truth of things by probing the
depths of the unconscious, but be reacts with Puritan dis-
dain at what be finds there. He exemplifies "militant Puri-
tanism", in the words of Philip Rieff. He talks about liberation
from oppression, and yet his view of life reflects a Schopen-
hauerian pessimism. He proclaimed love, truth, and free-
dom. But be did not have the wherewithal to deliver any of

In America today, Freud's intellectual influence is, in many
respects, greater than that of any other modern thinker. He
presides in the college classroom, over the mass media, in
the chatter at cocktail parties, and in the advice dispensed by
sex counselors. His clinical terms---repression, anxiety, guilt
feelings, displacement, libido, penis envy, castration complex---
are known to a large segment of the population and are traded
as common coin. He has achieved that rare and remarkable
transition from intellectual revolutionary to household word.
His name is indelibly associated with sexualiry, but also with
originality, daring, and liberation. He is a secular messiah, a
legend, a trailblazer. All this despite the fact that his philos-
ophy does not hold together, his methodology is inconsis-
tent, and his positive contribution to the world is negligible.
Sadly, even though his positive system is not credible, the
negative aspects of his philosophy continue to corrode like
an uncontrollable acid. Freud's rejection of religion, distrust
of fatherhood, suspicion of morality, and reduction of love
to sex have unleashed a plague of problems that has pro-
duced widespread and adverse effects.

Freud's reductionism, then, has been a major factor in con-
tributing to the Culture of Death. Karl Stern, in criticizing
Freud, has pointed out that unspeakable things have hap-
pened, as in Nazi Germany, when "the biological was allot-
ted a position of primacy". (Stern, Third REvolution, p 132)
Of course, wc do not need to need to turn to Nazi Germany to
view the darkness caused by the caused by the reduction
of human beings from spiritual and bodified persons
to mere biological entities, as our own embrace of abortion
and various modes of genetic engineering well attest.
"God is not mocked. For what a man sows, that be will also
reap.  For he who sows in the flesh, from the flesh also will
reap corruption. But be who sows in the spirit, from the
spirit will reap life everlasting." (Gal. 6:8)

-Donald de Marco