Utopian Dreams & Pessimistic Distrust in 
Freud's Hopes for Science

"Your substitute for religion is basically the idea of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment in proud modern guise. I must confess that, with all my pleasure in the advance of science and technique, I do not believe in the adequacy and sufficiency of that solution of the problem of life. It is very doubtful whether, taking everything into account, scientific progress has made men happier or better. According to the statistics, there are more criminals among scholars than in the intellectual middle class, and the hopes that were set on universal education have turned out to be illusory. . . .If it were part of psycho-analytic treatment to present that despoiled universe to our patients as the truth, I should well understand it if the poor devils preferred remaining shut up in their illness to entering that dreadful icy desolation."
--Oskar Pfister, Letter to Freud 24 November 1927, after the publication of The Future of an Illusion

In The Future of an Illusion, much of Freud's critique of religion, as he himself admits, is nothing new. He gives voice to complaints and objections that were made by Voltaire, by Schopenhauer, and by Darwin, just to name a few. Significantly, he also gives voice to the utopian hope for western civilization and modern progress that was so pervasive in his culture. This is all the more surprising considering Freud's theories of personality and his general melancholic distrust of human hypocrisy. The rhetorical interlocutor that Freud introduces in chapter four becomes more pronounced in chapters seven to ten. The interlocutor can be said to represent not only Freud's anticipations of counterarguments to his claims, but also at points his own inner argument, one that already assumes that the salvific goals of a civilization are really just a matter of utilitarian pleasure amidst survival.

The Future of an Illusion--Key Ideas--Chapters 7-10

Chapter VII

  1. Freud considers whether other elements of civilization--its political, economic, and pedagogical ideals--might also be illusions.
  2. To those who fear that Western civilization will come to an end without a religion to uphold its obligations, Freud doubts that believers will be shaken by his views; besides, he is saying nothing new and he is a modern man writing in a modern time.
  3. Likewise, psychoanalysis is not at its heart godless, but "an impartial instrument, like the infinitesimal calculus, as it were" (47).
  4. While it can be argued that religion has had an important social function, has it really been any more successful in making people happy?
  5. The evidential claims of the revealed religions are now disproved, while the scientific enterprise continues in its pursuit of truth. With education and modern science, comes increasing secularization, so the educated minority should fear what will happen when the dissatisfied masses discover the same truths.

Chapter VIII

  1. While civilization's prohibitions were couched in the language of divine commands, once we realize their true source, they can become more flexible things that can be made to serve our interests and improve life in general. 
  2. Even granting that sometimes religion has protected individuals from neuroses, the concept of a father god is a neurotic stage on the way to civilized adulthood; religion is something to be psychoanalyzed in order to bring greater freedom in a movement toward the rational.
  3. What we tell children through symbols, we openly say to adults.

Chapter IX

  1. The "psychological ideal" is "the primacy of the intellect" (61). The healthy individual is one no longer ruled by neuroses. The religious person is less intelligent being in thrall to a kind of retardation.
  2. Freud admits he might, too, be following his own illusion, but should his "experiment" in a godless world prove unsatisfactory, then he is ready to give up the reform.
  3. But still believers are addicted to what their religion offers and most wont be freed, and yet, we must continue to offer "an education to reality" (63).
  4. If we do this, then finally we will achieve a tolerable, oppression-free civilization.

Chapter X

  1. But perhaps this plan is only trading one illusion for another one? But, Freud insists, that his own illusions are open to correction, unlike religious ones. 
  2. The intellect must express itself, and it maintains a future hope of touching reality. It has as its goal the betterment of humanity.
  3. The god, Reason (Logos) is a weak god, but it will displace the false consolations of religion.
  4. Science is not an illusion, but will over the long-haul provide real answers since the human mental apparatus has evolved as an adaptive mechanism that brings together our mental organization with that of the world's objectivity. 
  5. Its absolute "nature" is simply a meaningless question.

The Therapeutic Ethos as End of Utopia

Philip Rieff in his works, especially The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1968), traces how under Freud, Western ethics and religion have often moved from a metaphysically-driven ethos to a therapeutic one. The mind has increasingly become like the body, something that must be moderated and stabilized, while the social body has increasingly been understood more like that of an individual. Instead of seeing social conflict as driven by issue of injustice and tyranny, the social dimension of life is seen as one driven by instincts which hunger for pleasure and seek to flee pain. These must be controlled and yet met whenever possible.

With this shift, Rieff sees the rise of "Psychological Man" and a corresponding number of fundamental reworkings of the culture's purpose:

  1. Faith commitments are replaced by therapeutic illuminations.
  2. The pursuit of virtue is replaced by the pursuit of personal well-being.
  3. Debates about essentials become superfluous in the display of personal values.
  4. The responsibility of persons for their actions is shifted unto other forces.
  5. The value of suffering or stoicism gives way to freedom from physical or mental pain or fear.
  6. Modest trust in authority is discounted as always authoritarian.
  7. Absolute truth is replaced with contingent symbol systems manipulated for therapeutic reasons.
  8. The need for moral and spiritual renunciation is replaced with "salvific" breakthroughs in which renunciation (i.e. repression) is overcome.

Rieff, a secular Jew, late in his career pronounced this resulting culture as preoccupied with death, a thantos-driven culture denying its past by feeding off the destruction of it:

What, then, is it about the third [present] culture that is so ominous?

"It's characterised by a certain vacuity and diffidence. The institutions which were defenders of the second world, or second culture [Christendom] - I think cultures are world creations - have not offered the kind of defence or support that would have been more powerful than therapeutic forces. So Christianity becomes, therapeutically, 'Jesus is good for you.' I find this simply pathetic."

Are therapeutic cultural drives, then, what one might describe as hedonistic?

"Yes, many of them are pleasure driven. But they are not unintelligent. They may be pleasure driven but there's a limit to their stupidity. They don't act in a way that is blatantly destructive or self destructive. Nor do they ostentatiously deny the past. Christianity in America, for example, has in one sense never been stronger. But I don't believe that 'Jesus is good for you, Christ is good for you' is good Christianity. It's therapeutic Christianity. You can find therapeutic motifs in dozens of examples of Christianity around you today."
--from The Ideas Interview, The Guardian Monday December 5, 2005

Discussion Questions

  • How does Rieff call into question some of Freud's utopian hopes for psychotherapy?
  • Do you find Rieff's analysis convincing of Modern Western culture, especially of Christianity?
  • If Rieff is correct, are Freud's hopes in any way still justified?
  • How again might Freud's own critique be applied to his claims?
  • What do you make of Freud's interlocutor and his increasing presence in the later chapters?
  • Is it possible that at points the interlocutor is a projection of his friend Oskar Pfister, the pastor? (cf. 68-69)
  • Compare and contrast Freud with Nietzsche in regards to their view of the problem of evil, the creation of ethics, and the hope for a better future.

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding