Volume > Issue > Freud, the Secular Moralist

Freud, the Secular Moralist


By Robert Coles | September 1985

I have recently been reading a book by Jef­frey Abramson on Freud’s moral and political thinking (Liberation and Its Limits). Once again I’ve been reminded of how significantly that partic­ular genius shaped our (bourgeois, Western) view of ourselves in this century. Freud was not only a physician, a psychiatrist, but a tough polemicist, a gifted essayist, and a compelling storyteller.

In The Future of an Illusion he yields not an inch to his religious adversaries as he carries the banner of science in a steady (and sometimes impa­tient, sometimes fiery) confrontation with their ideas and ideals — overlooking, alas, his own illu­sions with respect to science and its possibilities, and revealing a sadly distorted notion of what reli­gion can end up being in various lives. Still, the book is a major tract, all too convincing to all too many.

His New Introductory Lectures on Psycho­analysis is a brilliantly clear-headed, persuasive ex­position of a complex subject — a model of precise, yet relaxed writing unequaled, surely, by any social scientist. His Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism are provocative exercises of specula­tive fiction (the latter was originally titled The Man Moses: A Novel).

Then, there is Freud the ambitious social and political theorist — as in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, or the exchange with Albert Einstein, titled “Why War?” This Freud is anxious to understand the way individuals respond to the press of crowds, if not mobs, and the way nations deal with other nations. If the early Freud was a radical challenge to the medical establishment, and eventually, the proper bourgeoisie of the West, the later Freud comes across as skeptical, cautious, and socially and politically conservative — and no won­der, given his own declining health and the steady rise of fascism in the period between the two World Wars. Moreover, the psychoanalytic view of human motivation is necessarily inclined to doubt and suspicion. What appears to be may be a decep­tive cover for what (“underneath”) truly is — hence Freud’s scorn for certain Victorian preten­sions, and his distrust of the avowals and promises uttered by various social reformers, whether the ones he knew as fellow psychoanalysts (Reich, Ferenczi) or those who operated full-time in the world of politics.

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