Sunday, March 5, 2017

The god of Freud

"If experience should show - not to me, but to others after me, who think as I do - that we have been mistaken, we will give up our expectations."


Thus writes Freud towards the conclusion of The Future of an Illusion wherein he insists on the propriety of replacing the Christian illusion with a more rational illusion: the gods Reason and Necessity.

Freud was not optimistic about human beings, therefore readers can be excused for misunderstanding his enthusiasm in favor of jettisoning Christianity as indicative of his faith in human progress. In point of fact insofar as Freud was a revolutionary it is safe to say despair motivated him more than hope.

We are now well beyond revolutions born either of hope or Freudian despair. Our times are characterized by drift and apathy combined with unsettling cruelty. Freud may say we have chosen Thanatos or at least do indeed eternally return to it: we have expressed, in the XXth century, the greatest death wish in all human history and are now quite pleased with ourselves.

This expression commenced just as Freud chose to die. The essential nature of this expression has been characterized by Solzhenitzyn simply thus: men have forgotten God.

Forgetting is an interesting way of putting it. Freud, following Nietzsche, would have mankind progress beyond Christian illusions towards more humane and rational illusions rooted in the reality of science.

To do so it is necessary to understand Christianity far better than philosophers do; it is necessary to grasp God through psychology.

While hardly orthodox, Freud's approach is not willful amnesia. Insofar as he is an atheist, Freud's atheism is studied. He has contemplated literature and poetry and (in keeping with psychoanalysis) discovered a sensitivity - not a rationale - for gods of a sublime nature.

To forget would be, in Freud's view, a suppression of urges. In the case of the second world war we are tempted, if we must use Freudian terminology, to see the entire apocalypse as a suppression of the Super-Ego by the Id:

"It is in keeping with the course of human development that external coercion gradually becomes internalized; for a special mental agency, man's super-ego, takes it over and includes it among its commandments."

This process can be said to define the growth of the possibility for human freedom. The man who has internalized moral commandments via his super-ego is capable of self-government and of what Freud called "cultural regulation" and "education of future generations."

Freud was deeply pessimistic with regard to the capacity for all but a minority of human beings to emerge who fit this description.

The real question which must be posed here is simply this: to what extent can we attribute the war to the deplorable masses and to what extent to a small minority who self-consciously used the very coercion 
Freud himself outlines towards the beginning of his book as underpinning civilization in order to destroy it?

In a certain sense Freud gives us an answer in the veiled attacks on the Nazis that he makes in his book. His refusal to critique the Soviet Union because he has "neither the special knowledge nor the capacity to decide on its practicality" is likewise telling. Freud's refusal to reflect directly upon the chief political movements of his time are polite repressions of his very deep Nietzschean disgust with mass movements.

Certainly Freud has the capacity for political science. The first chapter of his book is a perfect study in the fundamentals of political philosophy. Freud's disgust with mass politics extends not only to fascism and communism, but liberalism as well:

"One would think that a re-ordering of human relations should be possible, which would remove the sources of dissatisfaction with civilization by renouncing coercion and the suppression of instincts, so that, undisturbed by internal discord, men might devote themselves to the acquisition of wealth and its enjoyment. That would be a golden age, but it is questionable if such a state of affairs can be realized. It seems rather that every civilization must be built upon coercion and renunciation of instinct."

None of the modern forms of coercion are to Freud's liking. Liberalism, fascism and communism are all mass deviations. The one form of coercion Freud acknowledges as superior and worthy of preservation is religion.

This appears counter-intuitive given that Freud is an atheist. However Freud is not a modern rationalist and his praise of scientific method should not be seen as the deification of Absolute Reason.

In classifying Christianity as an illusion Freud is not belittling it. He is following Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy and holding the poetic as superior to the rational. Christianity, in Freud's view, is an illusion in need of refinement.

"When I say that these things are all illusions, I must define the meaning of the word. An illusion is not the same as an error...What is characteristic of illusions is that they are derived from human wishes."

The modern rational ideologies; liberalism, fascism and communism, would  have discarded wholesale the entire realm of human wishes in favor of Absolute Rationalism. They were the pinnacle of a long process in Western philosophy which commenced with Socrates and the "twilight of the idols."

This process was perceived correctly by Nietzsche as a slow cancer upon European civilization. (In this view, Nietzsche's critique is remarkably similar to Orthodox Slavophile assessments of Western degeneration). Each new generation it played itself out in the spectacle of scientific progress and moral regress until reaching its apogee in the second world war when mankind reverted beyond cannibalism to pure sadism employed with maximum economic efficiency with the latest means of technological achievement.

Freud, like Nietzsche, recognized only one proper form of moral coercion which could remedy the long march to the Last Man: religion. Religion as the bastion of the irrational - religion prior to Plato and Aristotle or beyond them. Religion as Christ lived it in contradistinction to how St. Paul wrote it. (We leave aside the theological deficiencies of this view, most of which have been layed out best in Max Scheler's work on Nietzsche and agape.)

Freud's esteem of religion derives from the fact that it is the only means of political rule which has demonstrated the capacity for effectively leading to the internalization of moral commandments and thus lessened the necessity for external coercion. This is likely why Freud's work is concerned with the future of the religious illusion rather than being an attempt to disillusion the masses of their religious beliefs.

Freud's god is not almighty. Reason and Necessity are explicitly identified with the imperfect scientific method which yields limited, questionable results. In a sense that is the key to happiness: setting limits and encouraging questions.

Freud's god is not the idealistic Absolute Rationalism of liberalism, fascism and communism. It is not a god of total salvation but of limited yet constant progress. Freud's god is not an illusion because science is never illusory - however in its reality Freud's god is limited, is actually little more than human, only human. Freud's peculiar illusion rests in the viability of his project.

In practice, the rejection of the Christian illusion Freud imagined has come to pass. It has not been replaced by the wish of the man of science, only by Thanatos. Would Freud revise his views in light of the practical experience of 1939-1945? I am certain he would.

I am certain Freud would conclude that religion is still the best form of political rule and would continue to be skeptical of any others. His concern would continue to be the question of the proper illusion which should constitute the basis of religion. His inadequate gods having been found wanting, Freud may well consider it both reasonable and necessary to add agape to his divine dualism. Eric Fromm's work on Love is an example of the direction that Freud would likely follow.

This direction retains a skepticism of the political arena as capable of nothing more than inciting mass stupidity. This direction yearns for an alternative vessel for the continued progress of mankind. This vessel, as I argued in the past, is literature.

Note: Cover photo from personal collection. Anchor Books 1964 edition

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