SINCE THE ENLIGHTENMENT the towering works of three men in particular have stood as portals to the mindscape that is current scientific understanding: I speak of Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein. Two of them were avowed Atheists, and Einstein was at best a Deist who scorned organised religion. An interesting symmetry of completeness is apparent when you compare their disciplines: Darwin dealt with the outer world, Freud the inner world, and Einstein beyond the world.
Of the three men only Freud independently created a distinct branch of science in Psychoanalysis, and only Freud attempted a universal explanation – Weltanschauung in German – of the nature of man. Because of this, and for other reasons that I hope to make clear shortly, I contend that he was the greater scientist of the three. For me, Freud’s contributions to psychology and behaviouralism are of such scope that they form nothing less than a blueprint of hope for the future of mankind. – A big statement? Isn’t he that dirty old man with the genitals fixation? Dismissing women as victims of penis envy and always chomping on a cigar that comedian George Carlin once laughed at as being a “big brown dick?”
When I was about 16 yo I attempted to read Freud’s seminal book ” The Interpretation of Dreams” from cover to cover. I very quickly realized – from the first page of the preface actually – that I wasn’t reading “The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe.” It’s complexity was astounding. From then on I was determined to come to grips with Freudian thinking. At that age you tend to think you know all the answers but of course you’re only at the starting line of personal knowledge; old ideas fall by the wayside as you take new ones on board, usually reflecting the zeitgeist of the day. However, one idea I had back then I still hold to this day.
I believe that the boogeyman of intolerance with regard to race, creed, class and social status, and fear of change, is in fact inherited ancestral conditioning imposed on us by the very first tribe, the biological family unit. Though these prehistoric predilections once had a practical use, namely survival, they are now unconscious biases projected into “reality.” In this explanation I include the origins of evil spirits, gods and religion.
In time I was amazed to discover that Freud had long held similar views, though obviously his observations were vastly greater, deeper, and immeasurably more developed than my stumbling amateur ideas. Nevertheless I felt like i’d found a home base. It was like finding daddy.
It’s quite plain that a large proportion of life’s conflicts has it’s origin within the recesses of the psyche. These conflicts come from an internal unconscious battle between basic instinctual urges/needs, and the need to repress, sublimate or fulfill them in order for people and society to function effectively – psychological balance can only be achieved by the presence of conscience, a tool we learn during early childhood. Freud concluded that this battle or conflict is unavoidable and can never be completely resolved, therefore suffering is to be considered an inevitable part of the human condition. I think we all know this intuitively despite our best efforts to bring about change for the better.
The “battle” gives rise to innumerable externalizations across the full spectrum of human behaviour: political, social, cultural, and individual. It is expressed in art and mythology as well as religion – “original sin” is one such intuitive glimpse, albeit expressed as religious myth. The crunch time is during one’s infancy up to around 5 years of age.
One of the most persistent of all these conflict-manifestations is religion. Personally I have always considered religious faith to be an emotional impulse driven by a deep seated need for a protective overlord or father figure who rewards, punishes and saves from fear and death, however it is not necessarily a product of irrational thinking as some would suggest. Some of the greatest rational minds in history have been religiously devout. It is though a psychological safety net for those in need. Nor do I believe for a minute that intelligent, well educated people literally believe all the stories of the Bible given it’s obvious flaws and contradictions, not forgetting recent archaeological findings, eg scientific proof that the Exodus didn’t happen.
My thinking on the religious impulse is rooted in Freudian analysis so I think the best way of explaining it is to quote Freud himself –
“One can only understand the remarkable combination of teaching, consolation and precept in religion if one subjects it to genetic analysis. We may begin with the most remarkable item of the three, the teaching about the origin of the universe, for why should a cosmogony be a regular element of religious systems? The doctrine is that the universe was created by a being similar to man, but greater in every respect, in power, wisdom and strength of passion, in fact by an idealised superman. It is interesting to notice that this creator of the universe is always a single god, even when many gods are believed in. Equally interesting is the fact that the creator is nearly always a male, although there is no lack of female deities, and many mythologies make the creation of the world begin precisely with a male god triumphing over a female goddess, who is degraded into a monster. This raises the most fascinating minor problems, but we must hurry on. The rest of our enquiry is made easy because this God-Creator is openly called Father. Psycho-analysis concludes that he really is the father, clothed in the grandeur in which he once appeared to the small child. The religious man’s picture of the creation of the universe is the same as his picture of his own creation. If this is so, then it is easy to understand how it is that the comforting promises of protection and the severe ethical commands are found together with the cosmogony. For the same individual to whom the child owes its own existence, the father (or, more correctly, the parental function which is composed of the father and the mother), has protected and watched over the weak and helpless child, exposed as it is to all the dangers which threaten in the external world; in its father’s care it has felt itself safe. Even the grown man, though he may know that he possesses greater strength, and though he has greater insight into the dangers of life, rightly feels that fundamentally he is just as helpless and unprotected as he was in childhood and that in relation to the external world he is still a child. Even now, therefore, he cannot give up the protection which he has enjoyed as a child. But he has long ago realised that his father is a being with strictly limited powers and by no means endowed with every desirable attribute. He therefore looks back to the memory-image of the overrated father of his childhood, exalts it into a Deity, and brings it into the present and into reality. The emotional strength of this memory-image and the lasting nature of his need for protection are the two supports of his belief in God.”
THE ABOVE excerpt taken from a Freud lecture illuminates one of the many unconscious sublimations that make up human consciousness. Intolerance towards others of differing race, heritage or culture is another example of the inner child’s need for security in the comfort of familiarity. The child knows only that it needs to identify with it’s immediate surroundings and feel protected by them. Anything out of the norm constitutes a threat to varying degrees. Everybody is afflicted by this tribalist impulse. We are prejudiced by nature, and only lessons learned in society and the strength of our conscience corrects this to a socially acceptable degree. So often that degree isn’t acceptable.
So to the death of Sigmund Freud. Hopefully the following reflections will put this blog into sharper focus. Firstly though it needs to be understood that Freud saw the human dilemma in fatalistic terms – consciousness being subject to forces largely determined by the unconscious. However, he was at heart a life affirmer. In fact his whole career in neurology and psychology is testimony to that. He believed that humanity could rise above it’s problems if it understood the nature of those problems.
Complex issues can sometimes best be defined in simple terms, like headlines in a newspaper. Behind the authority and enormous depth of Freud’s life work lay three simple propositions he was putting to mankind: #1 Know who you are. #2 Face up to your fears, and #3 Overcome your inner child and grow up. This third proposition Freud saw as crucial to the mental health of the world, vital in securing a progressive future free of childish insecurities, irrational fears, and baseless superstitions.
In 1939 Sigmund Freud was facing an ignominious death. In the last year of his life his mouth/jaw cancer, despite 30 operations, had become incurable. His daily routine now included round the clock morphine injections and cleaning the huge prosthesis that fitted inside his mouth. The pain was extreme and yet it hardly slowed down his prodigious work output. He was determined to fine tune his legacy for the benefit of us all. His decision to leave Vienna for London in 1938 was expedited by a lovely bunch called the Nazis who’s hatred of Freud was not only due to his jewishness but of course his theories expounding on sexuality and the aggression impulse of the unconscious. These ideas didn’t exactly fit in with the image the Nazi regime had of it’s master race, nor was it what they wanted the people even thinking about.
Freud had often warned about the masses’ natural leaning towards authoritarianism. A strong leader. A demi god. A father figure to keep us safe! The Nazis in fact were living proof of everything he warned about, particularly the aggression impulse. At the station to board the Orient Express he was forced to sign a document asserting that he had been treated by the authorities, especially the Gestapo, “with all the respect and consideration due to my scientific reputation, that I could live and work in full freedom”. He signed, adding, “I can most highly recommend the Gestapo to everyone.” Fortunately the sarcasm was not picked up by the morons that surrounded this wizened “jew boy” from Vienna. Vienna’s official Nazi organ, the Voelkischer Beobachter, in reporting Freud’s departure did not mention his name but referred to the Freudian psychoanalytic school as a “pornographic Jewish specialty.”
Freud was resigned to his death but of course he was as human as the rest of us: he was frightened of the pain and the uncertainty that lay before him, already being well aware of his body shrivelling before him. At least he had the satisfaction of finally being lauded for his achievements as the London establishment fussed over him. Finally, when the pain became too great for him to work he asked his doctor to administer a lethal injection of Morphine. In his own words: “It is only torture now, and it has no longer any sense.”
His death, though not heroic, has a Socratic feel about it. He faced the end true to his convictions, accepting that all that consciousness of his would soon be no more. I cannot help but feel that Freud was something of a secular prophet. He laid before us a map of the mind and gave us the tools to advance the human race in harmony despite the inner disharmony. His work must also be seen as a sharp warning to us all about the human prediliction for fascism and fundamentalism.
On the 3rd of September 1939 Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Three weeks later on the 23rd of September Sigmund Freud died. Then. After decades of ridicule for his controversial theories – throughout his life right up to the present day – leading neurologists in 2002 released findings that they had begun physically detecting areas of the brain that corresponded with Freud’s original map of the mind. Accordingly they began a new branch of science: Neuropsychoanalysis. It has taken 80 years but perhaps finally his ideas will be vindicated.