Jan 16, 2006

The forgotten controvercies of Freud

I find it interesting, when assigned a reading by some academic (past or present), to read his biography. Much of one's work can be better understood in the context of one's experiences. And who'd be better for such analysis then the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud?

He is a much more interesting persona then I'd have thought. In the spirit of the early scientists, he experimented on himself - trying to come to grips with his own phobias. A compulsory smoker - he smoked a box of 30 cigarettes per day (!), an early user and proponent of cocaine as a stimulant, he destroyed his personal papers and notes at least twice. Additionally, his later papers were closely guarded in the Sigmund Freud Archives, access to which was restricted and spawned at least one controversy. Last but not least, his death was a suicide (via euthanasia due to cancer pain, to be precise).

We often look at Freud as the 'shrink', forgetting he was a prominent social theorist - sociologist - as well. After reviewing his various works I do have to say I find his approach to civilization and religion perhaps the most intriguing of his life's works. In Civilization and Its Discontents he presents a fairly pessimitsic, bleak view of our civilization: that by attempting to solve problems (lack of food, security) civilization forces us into unnatural behaviour (family, law) which thus results in mental sickness (neurosis and such). Religion, according to him, is similar to Marx 'opium for the masses. In the The Future of an Illusion he critizes ogranized religion as actually being a 'collective neurosis', arguings that religion has tamed asocial instincts and created a sense of community around a shared set of beliefs, thus helping the civilization, yet at the same time it has also exacted an enormous psychological cost to the individual by making him perpetually subordinate to the primal father figure embodied by God. Finally, in one of his last books, Moses and Monotheism, he deconstructs the Bible using his theories, arguing that Moses only led his close followers into freedom, and that they subsequently killed Moses in rebellion either to his strong faith or to circumcision. Freud explains that years after the murder of Moses the rebels formed a religion which promoted Moses as the Saviour of the Israelites. Freud said that the guilt from the murder of Moses is inherited through the generations; this guilt then drives us to religion to make us feel better.

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