January 17, 2005


Freud, Satan and the serpent (RICHARD WEBSTER, from Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis)

AT THE BROADEST AND most general level, Freud’s nineteenth-century biologism drew its scientific authority from Darwin’s theory of natural selection. But it was by no means a purely scientific phenomenon. For one of the major cultural functions of Darwin’s evolutionary theory had been that of legitimating the nineteenth-century doctrine of inevitable progress, and making this doctrine seem as though it were merely an expression of natural laws. Although it is widely held that ‘Social Darwinism’ was based on a corrupted version of Darwin’s theories, almost all the doctrines associated with it can be traced back to Darwin himself. It is quite true that Charles Darwin once wrote, in the form of a reminder to himself, ‘Never use the words higher and lower.’ Yet, after he had written these words, Darwin himself admitted that he was in a ‘muddle’ about teleology and he repeatedly failed to heed his own most subversive principle. Instead he consistently portrayed evolution as a competitive struggle for ascendancy and he himself wrote in the closing pages of The Descent of Man, to cite but one example, of how ‘man’ had ‘risen, though not through his own exertions, to the very summit of the organic scale’ and also spoke of the possibility of ‘a still higher destiny in the future’.

That the fundamental idea which lay behind all nineteenth-century theories of evolutionary progress was a moral and religious one is perhaps indicated most clearly in some words written by Havelock Ellis: ‘It has been well said that purity – which in the last analysis is physical clearness – is the final result after which Nature is ever striving.’ It was this crypto-theological notion of evolution as an ever-upward progress away from earlier forms of animal life and towards spiritual and social perfection which came to be inseparable from the way Darwinian biology was received and interpreted.

Freud frequently expressed scepticism about the more facile manifestations of this conception of biological progress. Yet for all the pessimism with which he tempered his own philosophy, he never succeeded in escaping from the Zeitgeist of evolutionary progressivism. At the very heart of all his theorising about sexual development and human history is a passionate, culturally orthodox belief, derived ultimately from Judaeo-Christian apocalyptic, that human beings are fulfilling their historic destiny by progressively leaving behind their animal origins and developing a more rational and sublimated consciousness. To put the matter in traditional religious terms, Freud saw human history as a difficult upward progress from the realm of the flesh towards the realm of the spirit. While not sharing the optimism of those rationalists who held that future progress towards an even higher spiritual level was inevitable, his hierarchy of values never ceased to be shaped by the traditional view. He once told a patient that ‘the moral self was the conscious, the evil self was the unconscious.’ In describing the underlying aspiration of psychoanalytic treatment, he wrote the following words which have been quoted already in the Introduction:

[We] liberate sexuality through our treatment, not in order that man may from now on be dominated by sexuality, but in order to make a suppression possible – a rejection of the instincts under the guidance of a higher agency ... We try to replace the pathological process with rejection.

As these words themselves suggest, there is a constant tension in Freud’s writings between the desire to explore the animal origins of human beings, together with their instinctual heritage, and the impulse to transcend this animality. But there is never ultimately any question that the path of transcendence – or ‘sublimation’ -represents the ideal. ‘We have no other means of controlling our instinctual nature but our intelligence,’ he wrote, ‘... the psychological ideal [is] ... the primacy of the intelligence.’

There can be little doubt that this consonance between the ethos of psychoanalysis and that of Judaeo-Christian orthodoxy was partly responsible for the initial success of psychoanalysis, and that it helps to explain why Freud’s followers sometimes behaved more like the members of a church than an association of scientists. The survival of the psychoanalytic movement and its continuing strength today, however, seems to require a more specific explanation than can be supplied by vague comparisons between the ethos of psychoanalysis and that of the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

One way of approaching this problem is to consider the manner in which Freud’s own attitude towards the ideas of health and illness changed and developed during the twenty years which elapsed between his visit to Charcot in Paris and the publication of his theory of sexuality . At the outset Freud was concerned almost exclusively with patients who, since they presented eminently physical symptoms, would have been deemed ‘ill’ by most physicians. By the time he published his sexual theory, however, many of his patients were not ‘ill’ in the traditional sense of that word. For increasingly Freud began to concern himself not with people suffering from physical symptoms, but with individuals who were clearly experiencing acute emotional distress – such as the woman afflicted by jealousy or the young woman with the obsessional bed-time rituals whose cases were discussed earlier.

From the fact that Freud progressed in this manner away from illnesses characterised by physical symptoms towards the analysis of people’s emotional difficulties, we might well conclude that he eventually succeeded in freeing himself from his narrow medical orientation towards ‘illness’, and replacing this attitude with a completely psychological viewpoint which was entirely independent both of biology and of medicine. This point of view is advanced frequently not only by the advocates of psychoanalysis but also by many ostensibly independent onlookers. Yet to accept this view – with its implicit disjunction between Freud's early and later work – would be to paint an entirely false picture of how psychoanalysis actually developed.

For, from the time of his collaboration with Breuer onwards, Freud never ceased to regard himself, and to seek to be regarded by others, as a healer. It is quite true that, like many messianic personalities before him, he was not prepared to allow himself to be constrained by the apparent limitations of this role. But it was not by turning away from those who were ill towards those who were healthy that he sought to escape these. It was by enlarging the notion of disease and applying it to those who, in reality, were not ill at all.

. . . The course taken by Freud in starting as a healer who at first dispenses supposedly miraculous cures to a small number of sick people, and then subsequently universalises the concept of illness so that all individuals might be deemed to be in need of a physician, should be familiar to us. For a similar pattern of development is implicit in the doctrines of Jesus and the subsequent development of the Christian Church. The general pattern is noted by David Bakan in his study of the influence of Jewish mysticism on Freud’s thought:

That psychoanalysis should have grown up in the context of the healing of the sick who were incurable by orthodox medical means accords with the Messianic quality of the psychoanalytic movement. For Messianism characteristically proves itself first by miraculously healing the sick. Thereafter it reaches out to large-scale social reform. So Freud’s psychoanalysis reached out from the healing of individuals to the healing of society.

Freud himself is clearly unaware of the depth of his own submerged religious traditionalism when, in a significant passage, he introduces psychoanalysis as one of the great blows inflicted on ‘the naive self love of man’. The previous blow, he says, had come from Darwin, who had proved ‘man’s ... ineradicable animal nature’. This passage, in which Freud is clearly referring to his theory of the Unconscious, is frequently quoted by commentators on psychoanalysis. But its full significance is not always appreciated. For what Freud ignores, and what we tend not to notice, is that his words belong not to the realm of objective science, but to the realm of ethics. More importantly still, the moral aim which Freud implicitly professes is precisely the same as that of St Augustine, when he elaborated the doctrine which was to lie at the heart of Christian orthodoxy until at least the beginning of the eighteenth century – the doctrine of Original Sin.

The very essence of that doctrine was to be found in the attack it made on spiritual pride – or what Freud called ‘the naive self love of man’. The way in which it made this attack was by offering a theory of human nature according to which men and women, rather than being in control of their own lives, were doomed to remain the prey of a seething and unclean mass of impulses and desires which had become, through Adam’s fall, an ineradicable part of their nature. Individuals might seek to control these impulses through the use of reason, but they could never hope to escape from them within their earthly lives. The religious importance of this doctrine was that through it, and it alone, could the need for Christian redemption be established. For one of the essential points of the doctrine was that it universalised the concept of illness. By postulating that all human beings were afflicted by sickness of the soul it suggested that all equally stood in need of a physician. In the words of Pascal, the traditional Christian faith rested on two things, ‘the corruption of nature and redemption by Jesus Christ’.

The doctrine of Original Sin reigned for centuries as perhaps the most important psychological theory of Christian Europe. Its immense historical significance and its deep psychological appeal is an essential part of the heritage of modern intellectual culture. Yet one of the eventual outcomes of the rational spirit of the Reformation, and of the Counter-Reformation in the Roman Catholic Church, was that the doctrine tended increasingly to be repudiated by theologians and intellectuals. Quoting Pascal’s words, and referring mainly to Protestant England, T. O. Wedel has written that ‘half at least of Pascal’s formula is seldom spoken of after 1700.’

Yet although the doctrine of Original Sin has tended to be progressively weakened by the central tradition of Protestant rationalism, one of the main projects of religious traditionalists has always been to restore the doctrine to a position of theological centrality. If we wish to place the psychoanalytic movement in perspective, and understand the religious psychology which underpins both its cult-like features and the messianic role adopted by its founder, one way of doing so is to consider it in relation to earlier, more overtly religious movements which have taken a particular interest in the doctrine of Original Sin.

One of the most significant of all such movements in England was the Methodist Church founded by John Wesley. Wesley’s longest written work was actually entitled The Doctrine of Original Sin (1757). In this work, after surveying the host of optimistic views of nature and human nature which prevailed in the middle of the eighteenth century, Wesley inveighed against the arrogance of ‘the present generation of Christians’:

How many laboured panegyrics do we now read and hear on the dignity of human nature! ... I cannot see that we have much need of Christianity. Nay, not any at all; for ‘they that are whole have no need of a physician’ ... Nor can Christian philosophy, whatever be thought of the pagan, be more properly defined than in Plato’s words: ‘the only true method of healing a distempered soul.’ But what need of this if we are in perfect health?

It would be difficult to find a clearer example of the tendency of Christianity to universalise the concept of illness. One of the aims of Wesley’s movement, indeed, was to re-establish the ‘reality’ of the Christian’s distempered soul. It did this by vitalising all the anxieties about irrational and sexual impulses which Christians had traditionally been encouraged to feel but which had been, as it were, disconnected from the consciousness of mainstream Protestant rationalism. Wesley and his followers believed that it was necessary to bring these buried anxieties back into the Christian consciousness, for it was only by doing this that they could establish people’s need for the religious therapy which they offered.

Wesley was by no means alone in seeking to revive the traditional doctrine of Original Sin. The work which he referred to most frequently in his own disquisition on the doctrine was none other than Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. For, as one or two largely forgotten literary critics have recognised, Swift’s scatological satire was, no less than Wesley’s religious propaganda, directed against the spiritual pride and naive self-love of ‘man’, which he felt was expressed by the rationalist optimism which surrounded him. In place of the view of human beings which saw them existing in harmonious, rational integration, Swift reasserted the traditional Christian view according to which they were profoundly divided between their rational souls and their carnal bodies. We can only understand Swift’s satirical intentions if we recognise that the excrement-loving Yahoos which Gulliver encounters in his Fourth Voyage are to be seen as an imaginative representation of this sinful carnal body. ‘Unregenerate man’ is in this way presented by Swift in very much the same way as he had been by St Paul, St Augustine and countless other exponents of the traditional doctrine of Original Sin – as a ‘lump of deformity and diseases both in body and mind, smitten with pride’.

Deane Swift, the biographer of his cousin Jonathan, recognised this in a way that modern literary critics have generally failed to do when he defended Gulliver’s Travels against the attacks of Anglican rationalists. In describing the Yahoos, Swift was, wrote his cousin, fulfilling his duties as ‘a preacher of righteousness’ and ‘a watchman of the Christian faith’:

And shall we condemn a preacher of righteousness, for exposing under the character of a nasty, unteachable Yahoo the deformity, the blackness, the filthiness, and corruption of those hellish abominable vices, which inflame the wrath of God against the children of disobedience.

We should recall here that the Yahoo vices by which the ‘children of disobedience’ are seen as ‘inflaming the wrath of God’ are, in Swift’s imaginative restatement of the doctrine of Original Sin, the same vices against which Christian moralists had always warned. For the Yahoos are portrayed not only as excrementally unclean, but as driven by uncontrollable sexual and sadistic impulses and as possessed by an animal lust for financial gain. The implicit moral of Swift’s religious satire is that Gulliver can be saved from his own destructive and naive self-love only by accepting the hideousness of his animality and the depth of his carnal sinfulness. For it is only when he has first done this that he will be made aware of his own deep need for the redemption offered through Christianity.

The relevance of these largely forgotten aspects of religious history to the creation of psychoanalysis and its twentieth-century reception should not be difficult to divine. For in the intellectual environment of nineteenth-century Vienna, Freud found himself in a cultural predicament which was in many respects similar to that experienced by Jonathan Swift in the eighteenth century. With certain significant exceptions the intellectual climate was one of assured rational optimism. Many of the most influential rationalist thinkers seemed determined to forget that men and women had ever possessed such things as bodies and all those animal impulses and appetites with which bodies are associated. These, together with all forms of sexual behaviour, were often treated as the animal residue of a nature which could eventually be refined, by the power of science, into pure rationality.

Freud believed that the strategy which he chose in order to resist this intellectual trend was a scientific one. It was, as we have seen, within the framework of biological assumptions which had been created by Darwin and Haeckel that he constructed his theory of infantile sexuality, in which he proclaimed the discovery of such component-instincts as ‘oral-erotism’ and ‘anal-erotism’. While many of Freud’s contemporaries were outraged by his views, the success which psychoanalysis ultimately enjoyed itself indicates that there were other reactions. In 1917 the Harvard biologist William Morton Wheeler spoke for many when he contrasted the theories of psychoanalysis with other more rationalistic psychologies:

After perusing during the past twenty years a small library of rose-water psychologies of the academic type and noticing how their authors ignore or merely hint at the existence of such stupendous and fundamental biological phenomena as those of hunger, sex, or fear, I should not disagree with, let us say, an imaginary critic recently arrived from Mars, who should express the opinion that many of these works read as if they had been composed by beings that had been born and bred in a belfry, castrated in early infancy and fed continually for fifty years through a tube with a stream of liquid nutriment of constant chemical composition ...

Now I believe that the psychoanalysts are getting down to brass tacks ... They have had the courage to dig up the subconscious, that hotbed of all the egotism, greed, lust, pugnacity, cowardice, sloth, hate and envy which every single one of us carries about as his inheritance from the animal world.

Wheeler’s caricature of contemporary rationalistic psychology expresses an entirely reasonable criticism. But he fails to recognise the true character of Freud’s instinctualism. In this respect the most revealing part of his statement is his conclusion. For what is presented as a plea for biological realism is couched in the language of traditional Christian morality. Indeed, while ostensibly discussing the biological basis of human nature, Wheeler comes very close to presenting a list of the seven deadly sins.

The confusion which is apparent in Wheeler’s language accurately mirrors that which lies at the heart of psychoanalysis. For, as should by now be clear, Freud’s ‘scientific’ enterprise followed almost exactly the same pattern as many earlier attempts to revive the doctrine of Original Sin. Freud, no less than Swift or Wesley, offered a view of the personality which saw human nature as radically divided against itself. The animal impulses and appetites which he located in the self were characterised in predominantly negative terms. The most obscene levels of the sexual imagination were not, according to Freud, to be affirmed or incorporated into the whole identity and liberated as part of the riches of the self. Rather they were to be intellectually acknowledged and then controlled and sublimated through the power of reason.

Freud himself was not averse to using the traditional rhetoric of Judaeo-Christian moralism in order to express this aspect of his vision. Although his attitude towards sexual ‘perversion’ was benign in comparison to that of the most repressive Victorian commentators, he continued to employ the concept and sometimes came close to endorsing conventional views, as when he compared ‘perverts’ to ‘the grotesque monsters painted by Breughel for the temptation of St Anthony’, and characterised their sexual practices as ‘abominable’. He used similar demonological imagery to describe the wishes behind dreams. These were, he once wrote, the ‘manifestations of an unbridled and ruthless egotism ... These censored wishes appear to rise up out of a positive Hell ...’ Elsewhere Freud sometimes actually employs the term ‘evil’ in order to describe the Unconscious. As we have already seen, he refers at one point to the contrast between the moral self and the ‘evil’ self – equating the latter with the Unconscious.

In A Short Account of Psychoanalysis he writes that the ‘impulses ... subjected to repression are those of selfishness and cruelty, which can be summed up in general as evil, but above all sexual wishful impulses, often of the crudest and most forbidden kind.’ In a discussion of group psychology, he suggests that the individual tends to lose his repressions when he becomes part of the mass: ‘The apparently new characteristics he then displays are in fact the manifestations of this unconscious, in which all that is evil in the human mind is contained as a predisposition’. That Freud sees it as desirable to suppress and control this ‘evil’ part of the mind is made quite clear: ‘Our mind ...’ he writes, ‘is no peacefully self-contained unity. It is rather to be compared with a modern State in which a mob, eager for enjoyment and destruction, has to be held down forcibly by a prudent superior class.’

Freud genuinely believed that, by invoking evolutionary biology in the manner that he did, he was using science to sweep away superstition and introduce a new view of human nature. His real achievement in creating psychoanalysis, however, was to hide superstition beneath the rhetoric of reason, and by doing this succeed in reintroducing a very old view of human nature. By portraying the unconscious or the ‘id’ as a seething mass of unclean impulses, and seeing men and women as driven by dark sexual and sadistic impulses and a secret love of excrement which was associated with a compulsion to hoard money, Freud in effect recreated Swift’s Christian vision of ‘unregenerate man’ as a Yahoo. By casting his intense moral vision in an ostensibly technical form he had, it would seem, succeeded in reinventing for a modern scientific age the traditional Christian doctrine of Original Sin.

It's hardly surprising that the three bearded God-killers--Darwin, Marx, and Freud--should have produced what are essentially just religious restatements.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 17, 2005 12:01 AM
Comments for this post are closed.