A few weeks ago, The Topmost Apple featured an article from Prospect Magazine entitled “Freud: The Last Great Enlightenment Thinker,” and it was too rich not to post here as well. The piece, written by John Gray, explores the intellectual disdain that Sigmund Freud’s ideas continue to inspire, especially from those who claim such special allegiance to The Enlightenment, and it does so in a way that is remarkably accessible (sort of makes one realize how obtuse such articles tend to be). The gist of Gray’s argument is that, “Freud’s ideas are rejected today because they imply that the human animal is ineradicably flawed.” While I’m sure plenty of cognitive behavioral psychologists would beg to differ – that there are other reasons why people disagree with Freud – still, the observation clearly has merit. As Gray wisely points out, the same triumphalistic humanism (e.g. the Radical Atheist movement) that resists, at all costs, the merest suggestion of ‘original sin’ is the same that Freud’s vocabulary helped establish. The self-esteem culture being just the pop expression of such an ideology. It’s only too bad that Freud never seemed to acknowledge his debt to St Paul, as Hannah Arendt did so admirably.
But all that aside, the article presents quite a compelling case for the new Cronenberg film, A Dangerous Method, which has gotten such raves:
Writing to Albert Einstein in the early 1930s, Sigmund Freud suggested that “man has in him an active instinct for hatred and destruction.” Freud went on to contrast this “instinct to destroy and kill” with one he called erotic—an instinct “to conserve and unify,” an instinct for love.
Without speculating too much, Freud continued, one might suppose that these instincts function in every living being, with what he called “the death instinct”—thanatos—acting “to work its ruin and reduce life to its primal state of inert matter.” The death instinct provided “the biological justification for all those vile, pernicious propensities [to war] which we are now combating.”
Freud’s ideas are today not simply rejected as false. They are repudiated as being dangerous or immoral; the “gloomy mythology” of warring instincts is condemned as a kind of slander on the species, the fundamental nobility of which it is sacrilege to deny. To be sure, righteous indignation has informed the response to Freud’s thought from the beginning. But its new strength helps explain one of the more remarkable features of intellectual life at the start of the 21st century, a time that in its own eyes is more enlightened than any other: the intense unpopularity of Freud, the last great Enlightenment thinker…
Initially rejected because of the central importance they gave to sexuality in the formation of personality, Freud’s ideas are rejected today because they imply that the human animal is ineradicably flawed. It is not Freud’s insistence on sexuality that is the source of scandal, but the claim that humans are afflicted by a destructive impulse.
The account of religion he presented… in Moses and Monotheism (1937) was more complex [than the one in The Future of an Illusion (1927)]. In the earlier book he had recognised that, answering to enduring human needs—particularly the need for consolation—religious beliefs were not scientific theories; but neither were they necessarily false. While religions might be illusions, illusions were not just errors—they could contain truth. In Moses and Monotheism, Freud went further, arguing that religion had played an essential role in the development of human inquiry. The Jewish belief in an unseen God was not a relic of ignorance without any positive value. By affirming a hidden reality, the idea of an invisible deity had encouraged inquiry into what lay behind the world that is disclosed to the senses. More, the belief in an unseen god had allowed a new kind of self-examination to develop—one that aimed to explore the inner world by looking beneath the surface of conscious awareness. Freud’s attempt to gain insight into the invisible workings of the mind may have been an extension of scientific method into new areas; but this advance was possible, Freud came to think, only because religion had prepared the ground. Without ever surrendering his uncompromising atheism, Freud acknowledged that psychoanalysis owed its existence to faith.
Freud’s thought is a vital corrective to the scientific triumphalism that is making so much noise at the present time. But more than any other feature of his thinking, it is his acceptance of the flawed nature of human beings that is offensive today. Freud’s unforgivable sin was in locating the source of human disorder within human beings themselves. The painful conflicts in which humans have been entangled throughout their history and pre-history do not come only from oppression, poverty, inequality or lack of education. They originate in permanent flaws of the human animal. Of course Freud was not the first Enlightenment thinker to accept this fact. So did Thomas Hobbes. Like Hobbes, Freud belongs in a tradition of Enlightenment thinking that aims to understand rather than to edify. Both aimed to reduce needless conflict; but neither of them imagined that the sources of such conflict could be eliminated by any increase in human knowledge. Even more than Hobbes, Freud was clear that destructive conflict goes with being human. This, in the final analysis, is why Freud is so unpopular today.
The incessant ranting uplift and adamant certainty of latter-day partisans of Enlightenment are symptoms of a loss of nerve. Baffled and rattled by the unfolding scene, requiring incessant reassurance if they are not to fall into mawkish despair, these evangelists of reason are engaged—no doubt unconsciously—in a kind of collective therapy. Inevitably, they find Freud an intensely discomforting figure. Among many of his followers, the practice of self-inquiry that Freud invented has been turned into a technique of psychological adjustment—the opposite, in many ways, of what he intended. In this respect, at least, contemporary hostility to Freud expresses a sound intuition. What Freud offers is a way of thinking in which the experience of being human can be seen to be more intractably difficult, and at the same time more interesting and worthwhile, than anything imagined in the cheap little gospels of progress and self-improvement that are being hawked today.
If Freud has been misunderstood, neglected or repudiated, he would have expected nothing else. He is rejected now for the same reason that he was rejected in fin-de-siècle Vienna: his heroic refusal to flatter humankind.