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The diminutive insect: 'Gullivers Travels' and original sin


The bewildered visionary

Flirting with Freud

Rediscovering the unconscious

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Freud's false memories

Melvyn Bragg, hysteria and the indubitable flatness of the earth

Freud, Charcot and hysteria

Hysteria, medicine and misdiagnosis

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The cult of Lacan

History and hatred

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Letting the Cartesian cat out

Freud and the Judaeo-Christian tradition: an exchange between Frederick Crews and Richard Webster

Freud, Satan and the serpent

………………………………………………………  From Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis (1995)

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’.[1]


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.’[2] 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.’[3] 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.[4]


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.’[5]


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 (see Chapter 12).


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.[6]


. . . 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.[7]


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’.[8] 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’.[9]


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.’[10]


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?[11]


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’.[12]


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.[13]


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.[14]


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’.[15] 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 ...’[16] 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.[17]


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.’[18] 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’ (italics added). 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.’[19]


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.



THE VIEW THAT THERE are significant similarities between psychoanalysis and the Christian doctrine of Original Sin is not a new one. In an interesting essay published in the collection Psychoanalysis Observed, John Wren-Lewis has considered Freud’s contention that psychoanalysis represents the third and final stage of a scientific revolution against the ‘naive self-love’ of human beings. He points out that that Freud’s view is a ‘complete misrepresentation’ of the effects of the scientific revolution and goes on to suggest that his words betray ‘a wish to be morally censorious about humanity, a desire to make people feel small, exactly parallel to the traditional theological castigation of man for sinful pride’. More recently Ernest Gellner has drawn a direct parallel between Christian doctrine and psychoanalysis. One of the purposes of the doctrine of Original Sin, he observes, is to ensure that no one may shelter behind a consciousness of virtue:


It is a spiritual equivalent of universal peasant indebtedness. Such universal and starting-point moral indebtedness makes certain that no one can even begin life with a clear ledger. Everyone then has ever-renewable and self-perpetuating debts to pay right from the very start, and must work arduously to pay them off, if he is to be granted even the hope of salvation. The Unconscious is a new version of Original Sin.[20]


In 1948 R. S. Lee, in his book Freud and Christianity, actually attempted to enlist psychoanalytic theories in defence of Christianity, seeing Freud’s ideas as offering a scientific explanation of the doctrine of Original Sin:


Here too is found the explanation of Original Sin ... It is not our concern to discuss the theological conception here, but psychoanalysis has thrown considerable light on what underlies the conception, The sense of sin comes, we have seen, from the personalisation of the Super-ego at the resolution of the Oedipus Complex, by which the wish to destroy the father and possess the mother are mastered in the developing infant. If these wishes had not existed there would have been no need to form the Super-ego and so develop a moral conscience. Thus the precondition of getting a knowledge of good and evil at all is that we have sinned psychologically. A sense of guilt is inherent in our make-up. The original sin is the complex of wishes in the Oedipus Complex which we develop before we have a moral sense, but which remain, in varying degrees of fixation after we have developed that moral sense in dealing with them as dangerous wishes.[21]


Writing in 1960, David McClelland, a Quaker descended from radical Protestants, who was also a Harvard psychologist, suggested that Freud’s attitude towards human sinfulness is one of the reasons ‘why psychoanalysis has had such a great appeal to American intellectuals’:


Its insistence on the evil in man’s nature, and in particular on the sexual root of that evil, suited the New England temperament well which had been shaped by a similar Puritan emphasis. In fact, to hear Anna Freud speak of the criminal tendencies of the one and two-year-old is to be reminded inevitably of Calvinistic sermons on infant damnation.[22]


Similar observations have been made by a number of different commentators. Yet although some observers have had no difficulty in spotting the external resemblance between psychoanalysis and the doctrine of Original Sin, the deeper significance of this resemblance has proved more elusive.


One reason for the failure to investigate the parallel has been the assumption that the superficial similarities conceal deeper and more significant differences. It is often assumed, for example, that whereas exponents of the traditional Christian doctrine of Original Sin have been deliberately setting out to create anxiety, and exacerbate feelings of guilt, Freud had discovered a way in which these feelings could be alleviated. To see the problem in this way, however, is to fail to understand the extent to which Freud, far from subverting Judaeo-Christian doctrines, merely adopted a modernised version of the seual realism which was itself an integral part of traditional teachings. For Freud was by no means the first Judaeo-Christian thinker to take the view that ‘we ought not to exalt ourselves so high as completely to neglect what was originally animal in our Nature.’[23] This view of human nature, which is above all a commentary on human pride, is Augustinian rather than Darwinian. As we have seen, it was just such a view which lay at the heart of the traditional doctrine of Original Sin. Nor should we see Freud’s claim that some sexual impulses ‘have a right to direct satisfaction’ as in any way standing outside the traditional Judaeo-Christian view.[24] For mainstream Christian doctrine has always seen sexual impulses as being a part of human nature and – outside the priesthood at least – as having a right to direct expression; this view, indeed, is even more strong in Freud’s own Jewish tradition than it is in Christianity. It was only the gradual rise of some of the extreme forms of religious and scientific rationalism encouraged by the Reformation, and the cultural dominance which such rationalism achieved in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which had begun seriously to challenge this view. It was against this kind of rationalist extremism, and not against more traditional manifestations of Judaeo-Christian ideology, that Freud attempted to rebel.


The fact that his rebellion resembles, in some respects at least, that undertaken by Jonathan Swift in the eighteenth century may appear to vindicate psychoanalysis. There can, I believe, be no doubt that Swift was in some respects an acute and interesting psychologist – much more acute and interesting, perhaps, than Freud himself. It would nevertheless be quite wrong to suggest that Swift ever managed to subvert, or even to see clearly, the rationalistic orthodoxies he sought to criticise. In Gulliver’s Travels his implicit moral had been clear: that only if people acknowledged the reality of their own sinful ‘Yahoo’ natures would they cease to project their corrupt nature onto others; by this means, and this means alone could human destructiveness be controlled and subdued.[25] The psychological truth which Swift cannot bring himself to confront, however, is that to expect people wholly to accept their sensuality and simultaneously to define that sensuality as sinful, is to make an impossible demand on the human personality. It is rather like expecting a poor man to accept a debt on the assumption that it will increase his solvency. For the very concept of sin implies an idealisation of some elements of the identity and a rejection of others. To portray human carnality in the form of a loathsome, sadistic, compulsively acquisitive, excrement-loving Yahoo, and simultaneously to demand that this carnality should be fully accepted as a part of the human identity is not, finally, to triumph over rationalist optimism; it is to concede defeat to it. For what we cannot but observe is that, although Swift saw himself as battling against the rationalist spirit of the Enlightenment, one of the basic assumptions of Swiftian psychology is itself rooted in a form of Enlightenment optimism. Swift assumes that a full acknowledgement of the ‘sinful’ elements of the identity can be made in spite of the emotional factors which militate against this; he implicitly assumes that this can be done through the power of human reason. Swift’s works contain their own refutation of this view. His satire, for all the psychological insights it contains, is frequently both corrosive and bitter. His opposition to rationalism becomes at times an uncontrolled rage. In this raging hatred we cannot but see a form of that very projection against which he implicitly warns.


The possibility which Swift could not entertain was that the ills which he divined in eighteenth-century rationalism derived not from a rejection of Christianity but from a profound internalisation of its doctrines. For the contemporary trend towards the denial of the doctrine of Original Sin, which disturbed both Swift and Wesley so deeply, was in one sense a direct psychological consequence of the ‘success’ of that very doctrine. It suggested that, among some deeply ascetic intellectuals, a sense of the loathsomeness of the human body and its appetites had become so acute that the only psychologically viable reaction was to ‘disconnect’ the body altogether and take refuge in dreams of the rational, scientific or military domination of nature. It is ironic that, in satirising these dreams of power, Swift consistently offers as an ‘objective’ religious truth the very degrading self-image which is their psychological source.


The confusion which we find at the heart of Swift’s psychology is not essentially different from that which is also present in psychoanalysis. For Freud, no less than Swift, assumes that it is possible for us to reconcile ourselves, through the power of human reason, to a self-image which is, in emotional terms, abhorrent and degrading. Just as the impossible nature of such a demand is reflected in Swift’s corrosive satire, which is frequently directed against his own implicit universalism, so Freud’s universalism frequently founders on the same kind of anxieties. The most valuable aspect of psychoanalysis is to be found in the way that it, like traditional expositions of the doctrine of Original Sin, forces back into our consciousness elements of our identity which we would prefer to conceal, and in this way points to a human predicament which is universal. Freud himself could on occasions be remarkably tolerant and generous, even in relation to homosexuality, which he found personally distasteful. In a letter which he wrote to the mother of a homosexual, Freud offered reassurance:


Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation; it cannot be classified as an illness; we consider it to be a variation of the sexual function, produced by a certain arrest of sexual development. Many highly respected individuals of ancient and modern times have been homosexuals, several of the greatest among them (Plato, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, etc.). It is a great injustice to persecute homosexuality as a crime – and a cruelty, too.[26]


The generosity and the considerable moral courage which Freud shows here were very real features of his character. He always refused to submit to bullying by those whom he saw as self-righteous moralists and many of his patients undoubtedly benefited from his relatively liberal stance on matters of sexual morality. But, like countless more traditional prophetic figures, Freud’s capacity for emotional generosity was enclosed within a harshly demanding moral vision of his own. As a result, the positive universalism which is discernible in psychoanalysis is again and again overpowered by the tendency of psychoanalysis to reject or implicitly condemn aspects of human sexuality – or indeed whole categories of men and women.


According to traditional Christian doctrines (which have been widely repudiated by modern theologians) those who refuse to accept the cleansing baptism of Christ are liable to eternal damnation and are frequently seen by Christians of an apocalyptic turn of mind as ‘children of the Devil’ or followers of Satan. Psychoanalysis, it need scarcely be said, possesses no article of doctrine which corresponds to the Last Judgement. Nevertheless Freud himself frequently endorsed just the kind of sheep-and-goats habit of mind which underlies Judaeo-Christian eschatology. He tended to divide human beings into those he considered susceptible to psychoanalytic therapy and those who were not – who were in effect ‘beyond redemption’. The people who could be helped by psychoanalysis were seen as morally significant – worthy of keeping company with Freud himself. Most people, however, did not belong to this category of psychoanalytic worthiness and were regarded quite differently. Writing about another homosexual, Freud said that ‘in the most unfavourable cases, one ships such people ... across the ocean with some money, let’s say to South America, and there let them seek and find their destiny.’[27] At another point, in a letter to Lou Andreas-Salomé, Freud even made the explicit confession that one of his own worst qualities was ‘a certain indifference to the world ... In the depths of my heart I can’t help being convinced that my dear fellow men, with a few exceptions, are worthless.’[28] In a letter to his friend and follower, the Protestant minister Oskar Pfister, he amplified this view:


I do not break my head very much about good and evil, but I have found little that is ‘good’ about human beings on the whole. In my experience most of them are trash, no matter whether they publicly subscribe to this or that ethical doctrine or none at all ... If we are to talk of ethics, I subscribe to a high ideal from which most of the human beings I have come across depart most lamentably.[29]


Much earlier in his career Freud made clear that his sympathy for patients, never conspicuously strong, was restricted to a very narrow range. ‘I cannot imagine bringing myself,’ he wrote, ‘to delve into the psychical mechanism of a hysteria in anyone who struck me as low-minded and repellent, and who, on closer acquaintance, would not be capable of arousing human sympathy ...’[30]


If such passages as these point towards the existence of an implicit Freudian demonology, this impression is reinforced elsewhere in Freud’s writings where, again and again, we may discern a tendency to project what Freud would regard as negative human characteristics onto specific categories of people. Freud’s moralism is frequently disguised by his habit of translating moral categories into clinical labels – rather in the same way that he objectified his distaste for homosexuality by characterising it as a developmental anomaly. But once we recognise that Freud’s clinical labels – such as ‘anal-erotic’ – tend to have a hidden moral content, the pattern of psychoanalytic demonology begins to become clear.


In Christian demonology the devil has traditionally been portrayed as a bestial creature who is lecherous, sadistic, and a lover of excrement. Medieval tradition associated Jews with the devil and the Christian stereotype of the Jew corresponded closely to the portrayal of the devil, who was also seen as a kind of pedantic infernal treasurer, hoarding in the infernal regions stockpiles of gold.[31] If we regard psychoanalysis as a disguised continuation of our religious tradition, we will not be surprised to find that a configuration of diabolic character-traits is used to define the concept of the ‘anal character’. Freud represents the ‘anal character’ by the image of a man who, like the devil, is given to hoarding, sadism and pedantry, and who, like the devil, is a secret lover of excrement. We will also not be surprised to find that the concept of the ‘anal character’ has frequently been used by psychoanalysts to launch bitter attacks against individuals, or against entire cultures. There is, admittedly, a difference between an intolerant Christian calling Hindus ‘heathen savages in to Satan’ and a psychoanalyst finding the anal-erotism of the Hindus confirmed by their concern with ritual impurity, their irritability, hypochondria, miserliness, pettiness, proneness to bore and obstinacy, and writing that ‘the anal erotism of the Hindu produces a congeries of character traits which are the very antithesis to those of Europeans, especially the English.’ This was the position adopted by Owen Berkley-Hill in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis in 1921.[32] There is, admittedly, a difference between calling Jonathan Swift a ‘diabolical monster’ and claiming, as one psychoanalyst has done, that ‘Swift was a neurotic who exhibited psychosexual infantilism, with a particular showing of coprophilia, associated with misogyny, misanthropy, mysophilia and mysophobia.’ This is what Ben Karpman wrote in the Psychoanalytic Review in 1942.[33]


There is, admittedly, a difference between calling Hitler ‘an agent of Satan’ and arguing that he embodied an extreme type of the anal-hoarding character, and that he displayed all the characteristics of ‘a withdrawn, extremely narcissistic, unrelated, undisciplined, sado-masochistic, and necrophilous person’. This is what Erich Fromm argued in 1977, in his book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness.[34] There are, admittedly, differences. But those differences are largely matters of terminology. Today we are more likely to accept the kind of ‘scientific’ language used by Erich Fromm than we are to give serious attention to talk about angels and demons. Yet the concerns remain recognisably the same. When Fromm seeks to persuade us that Hitler was a pure ‘necrophile’, whereas Albert Einstein, Albert Schweitzer and Pope John XXIII were pure ‘biophiles’, he talks in the language of modern scientific neologism. Yet his naive desire to divide the world into good and evil evidently springs directly from Judaeo-Christian apocalyptic. In this respect Fromm is only grotesquely exaggerating a tendency which is fundamental to classical psychoanalysis and which was originated by Freud himself – the psychoanalytic habit of inventing or exaggerating differences between human beings – differences between ‘moderns’ and ‘savages’, between the mature personality and the ‘neurotic’, between men and women.


Throughout all the centuries of Christian history there has functioned what the French historian Léon Poliakov has called ‘that terrible mechanism of projection that consists in attributing to the loathed people of God one’s own blasphemous desires and unconscious corruption.’[35] The millennial movements of the Middle Ages, the Great European Witchhunt, modern anti-semitism and Stalin’s purges have all alike been marked by collective fantasies in which groups identifying themselves as the ‘pure’ have sought to annihilate entire classes of human beings imagined as ‘evil’ or ‘unclean’.[36] Yet if we turn to psychoanalysis in order to gain insight into the fundamental process of demonological projection which has scarred the face of Christian history, what we find is nothing other than a less destructive version of the same process. Psychoanalysis does not only project men’s feelings of inadequacy onto women, and the anxieties and obscene impulses of the normal personality onto ‘neurotics’, it also, perhaps most significantly of all, projects adult impulses and desires onto children.


According to Freud’s theory of infantile sexuality and the associated concepts of fixation and regression, all of the darker and most destructive aspects of adult human behaviour originate in the earliest stages of the child’s natural development and represent eruptions of childhood energies and instincts into adult life. This attitude to childhood is perhaps encapsulated most clearly in a passage in Freud’s Introductory Lectures where he actually uses the term ‘evil’ in order to characterise the mental life of children. As soon as we recognise that ‘what is unconscious in mental life is also what is infantile,’ Freud writes, ‘the strange impression of there being so much evil in people begins to diminish’:


This frightful evil is simply the initial, primitive, infantile part of mental life, which we can find in actual operation in children, but which, in part, we overlook in them on account of their small size, and which in part we do not take seriously since we do not expect any high ethical standard from children.[37]


By such arguments as this an abstract ideal is created in which the ‘normal’, ‘well-adjusted’ or ‘healthy’ adult is portrayed as relatively free of conflict, tension, anxiety, inner rage and violence. In contrast the unregenerate child is portrayed, either implicitly or explicitly, as seething inwardly with sexual perversion and sadistic rage. To use Erik Erikson’s approving description, Freud’s theories present a view of the ‘infantile organism’ as ‘a powerhouse of sexual and aggressive energies’.[38]


The process of projection by which all manner of ‘badness’ is attributed to children is fundamental not only to Freud’s own theories, but to almost all later adaptations of them. The emphasis which Melanie Klein places on the supposed existence of an intense and violent fantasy-life during the child’s first years makes Kleinian theory into one of the clearest expressions of this tendency. Klein has no hesitation in attributing to normal children desires to lacerate the mother’s breasts or body and to suck or bite off the father’s penis. Klein maintains that in all normal children ‘urethral and anal sadism’ are added to aggressive biting in order to produce what she calls ‘the stage of maximum sadism’:


Every other vehicle of sadistic attack that the child employs, such as anal sadism and muscular sadism is, in the first instance, levelled against its mother’s frustrating breast, but it is soon directed to the inside of her body, which thus becomes the target of every highly intensified instrument of sadism. In early analysis these anal-sadistic, destructive desires of the small child constantly alternate with desires to destroy its mother’s body by devouring it and wetting it, but their original aim of eating up and destroying her breast is always discernible in them.[39]


What we cannot but observe here is that, while the fantasies which Klein describes are not suggested by any aspect of the behaviour of one-year-old children, or ever divined by ordinary mothers, these fantasies do correspond, in every single respect, to the sexual fantasies of adults. Fantasies in which the bodies of women are compulsively defiled or become ‘the target of every highly intensified instrument of sadism’ are, indeed, frequently expressed both in medieval demonology and visions of hell and in modern pornography. If we accept psychoanalytic theory we will seek to explain away this coincidence by adopting the view that the sadistic and scatological fantasies of adults are not the products of any process of cultural conditioning, but are a direct expression of infantile impulses which some may succeed in sublimating or repressing but which others do not. We will thus find ourselves arguing that de Sade systematically subjected women to torture, degradation and defilement in his literary fantasies not because he was a fully grown, cruel man (who had probably been abused by adults when he was young) but because he had never ceased to be a child. The alternative to this view is to conclude that in Klein’s description of ‘the stage of maximum sadism’, as in much psychoanalytic writing, the observer’s own distinctively and anxieties have been attributed to the children who are being analysed. Dreams of destruction, of sadistic cruelty or of ‘perverted’ behaviour, which adults find difficult to acknowledge as their own, can in this way be imaginatively disowned but still indulged and expressed under the guise of an ‘analysis’ of children’s ‘inner mental life’. Children thus come to be treated in the same way that Jews have historically been treated by Christians, or, indeed, in the same way that women are often treated by men. Recreated in the imagination as stereotypes, or as creatures of fantasy, they have projected onto them all those elements of our own identity which cultural propriety forbids us to express in a direct form.


Examples of this attitude towards children in twentieth-century writing might be drawn from practically any field of knowledge. One particularly instructive instance is provided by an analysis of Hitler’s character offered by a distinguished German historian:


The dominant trait in Hitler’s personality was infantilism. It explains the most prominent as well as the strangest of his characteristics and actions. The frequently awesome consistency of his thoughts and behaviour must be seen in conjunction with the stupendous force of his rage, which reduced field marshals to trembling nonentities. If at the age of fifty he built the Danube bridge in Linz down to the last detail exactly as he had designed it at the age of fifteen before the eyes of his astonished boyhood friend, this was not a mark of consistency in a mature man, one who has learned and pondered, criticized and been criticized, but the stubbornness of the child who is aware of nothing except himself and his mental image and to whom time means nothing because childishness has not been broken and forced into the sober give-and-take of the adult world. Hitler’s rage was the uncontrollable fury of the child who bangs the chair because the chair refuses to do as it is told; his dreaded harshness, which nonchalantly sent millions of people to their death, was much closer to the rambling imaginings of a boy than to the iron grasp of a man ...[40]


This passage is taken from Ernst Nolte’s Three Faces of Fascism. It tells us very little about Hitler, but a great deal about the irrationality of our own theories of childhood. Nolte’s words imply that normal children are stubborn, awesomely consistent, filled with inner rage, driven naturally to dominate others, ruthlessly narcissistic and capable of fantasies resembling those which drove Hitler to send millions of people to their death. The other violent feelings which appear in the passage are offered as ideals of the way in which children should be treated. Childishness is something, we are told, which should be ‘broken and forced into the sober give-and-take of the adult world’.


This attitude towards childhood flies in the face of our own experience and any intuitive assessment of the mental life and character of small children. Yet the very fact that a historian can offer such an analysis of Hitler’s character without apology or explanation shows that the attitude must be very close to being one of the ‘official doctrines’ of our own culture. What is fascinating about this particular example is that, from the passage itself and its context, it is all but impossible to determine whether Nolte’s view of childhood has been derived directly from psychoanalysis or not. The use of the term ‘infantilism’ suggests that there may indeed be a psychoanalytic influence at work, and Nolte’s implied theory of childhood development is very close indeed to the theory of childhood espoused by Freud. But the general style of Nolte’s remarks seems to owe almost as much to homespun, culturally traditional views of childhood as it does to psychoanalysis.


The fact that it is so difficult to locate Nolte’s analysis accurately is itself instructive. There can be no doubt that, in its modern intellectualised form, this attitude towards children derives directly from Freud’s theories. But one of the reasons that this part of Freudian theory has met with such wide acceptance is that it too, like so many other aspects of psychoanalytic theory, secretes within it a form of Judaeo-Christian traditionalism. Freud himself, as we have seen, frequently lapses into traditional rhetoric, as when he uses the term ‘evil’ in order to characterise the mental life of children. But, working as he did in an intellectual environment which had been radically purified of religious traditionalism, Freud was evidently quite unable to understand the cultural significance of his own rhetoric. Freud thus repeatedly propagated the myth that until his own ‘discoveries’ it had been almost universally assumed that childhood was a time of innocence. This may have been true of his own immediate intellectual environment. But it is the very essence of the doctrine of Original Sin that children do not come into the world and then learn how to sin, but come into the world bringing their sinful sensuality with them. Freud’s attitude to childhood, far from being so new that nobody had thought of it, was in fact so old that many had succeeded in forgetting it. In the Middle Ages it was believed that the newly born child was not only polluted by contact with the impure body of its mother – one of Eve’s daughters – but was actually possessed by the Devil. It was for this reason that the traditional ritual of infant baptism included the ceremony of exorcism.[41]


This attitude towards the supposed evil propensities of young children has become deeply internalised into our cultural consciousness, and the pious portrayal of children as ‘little angels’ tends merely to be the sentimental expression of the fear that children may in reality be but ‘little demons’. This fear has shaped many of our culture’s attitudes towards child-rearing, and, whenever the fear has been dimmed by the waning vitality of the doctrine of Original Sin, there have always been Christians who have sought to revive it. Writing in 1621, the Puritans Robert Cleaver and John Dod must be seen not as putting forward a new view of childhood but as reaffirming an old one:


The young child which lieth in the cradle is both wayward and full of affections; and though his body be but small, yet he hath a great heart, and is altogether inclined to evil ... If this sparkle be suffered to increase, it will rage over and burn down the whole house. For we are changed and become good not by birth but by education ... Therefore parents must be wary and circumspect ... they must correct and sharply reprove their children for saying or doing ill ...[42]


In view of the fearsome and wholly unrealistic view of childhood which inevitably results from the traditional Christian doctrine, it is scarcely surprising that there should be a constant tendency on the part of parents to reject the orthodox view by superimposing on it the alternative fantasy of the child’s innocence. Thus, nearly two hundred years after Cleaver and Dod gave their advice to Puritan parents, the Evangelical Hannah More found it necessary to remind parents of old truths that were in danger of being forgotten, writing that it is a ‘fundamental error to consider children as innocent beings, whose little weaknesses may perhaps want some correction, rather than as beings who bring into the world a corrupt nature and evil dispositions, which it should be the great end of education to rectify.’[43] Freud’s own attitude towards childhood can only be assessed in the light of these historically orthodox views.


So close are Freud’s views to traditional doctrines that it is tempting to suggest that he has done nothing more than disguise an ancient doctrine in modern technical terms. But if we inspect his theories more closely it should become clear that there is a significant difference. This can be seen if we consider a passage from The Interpretation of Dreams in which Freud discusses his view of childhood:


It is easy to see that the character of even a good child is not what we should wish to find it in an adult. Children are completely egoistic; they feel their needs intensely and strive ruthlessly to satisfy them ... But we do not on that account call a child ‘bad’, we call him ‘naughty’; he is no more answerable for his evil deeds in our judgment than in the eyes of the law. And it is right that this should be so; for we may expect that, before the end of the period which we count as childhood, altruistic impulses and morality will awaken in the little egoist and ... a secondary ego will overlay and inhibit the primary one ... If this morality fails to develop, we like to talk of ‘degeneracy’, though what in fact faces us is an inhibition of development.[44]


The crucial point about Freud’s view of evil is that he sees it not as a permanent, inescapable condition of human beings, but as a developmental stage which all healthy individuals are biologically destined to leave behind them as they grow to maturity. By taking this view, Freud is able to preserve many of the traditional features of the doctrine of Original Sin while at the same time implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) opposing some of the more repressive child-rearing strategies which had grown from it. What most historians of psychoanalysis have not recognised is that the ‘permissiveness’ of psychoanalysis grows almost inevitably from its biological premises. For since Freud believed that repression was primarily a biological phenomenon and that civilisation itself was passed on largely by inheritance, it followed that excessive parental intervention in children’s natural development was not necessary. ‘Sinfulness’ was no longer seen as something which needed to be disciplined, or beaten out of children; most individuals would leave their ‘evil’ selves behind naturally and those who did not could be helped through their inhibited development by psychoanalysis.


Without consciously designing his theories to meet a historical need, Freud had in effect created a body of psychological doctrine which, although it was completely spurious from a scientific point of view, was ideally suited to twentieth-century Judaeo-Christian cultures. For, to societies which were beginning to lose touch with their traditional orthodoxies, Freud’s ideas offered an all but traditional theory of evil which, unlike the older versions of the theory, was completely compatible with the doctrines of individual freedom which had grown up out of the Enlightenment and out of nineteenth-century European Romanticism.


Thus, beneath Freud’s own schismatic and revolutionary presentation of his ideas, a deep cultural continuity was preserved. This combination of scientific modernism with religious traditionalism was deeply appealing and there can be little doubt that it was Freud’s skill in updating the doctrine of Original Sin, rather than the explanatory value of his theory of childhood development, that helped to give the psychoanalytic account of childhood the wide cultural currency it has today.



From Chapters 14 and 15 of Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis. The argument about Jonathan Swift and Gulliver’s Travels which is presented here is worked out in much greater detail in The diminutive insect: Swift, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ and original sin.





[1] Darwin, The Descent of Man (1871), Watts, 1930, p. 244

[2] Havelock Ellis, Selected Essays (‘St Francis’), Dent, 1936, p. 97.

[3] Freud, SE10, p. 276.

[4] Freud, ‘The Future of an Illusion’, SE21, p. 48.

[5] Freud, Minutes of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, ed. Herman Nunberg and Ernst Federn, vol. II, New York: International Universities Press, 1967, p. 89.

[6] Thomas Szasz in The Myth of Mental Illness (Paladin, 1972) has advanced what is perhaps the best-known argument against the tendency of psychiatrists to label people who are ‘disabled by living’ as mentally ill. In a number of significant respects our arguments are similar. The account Szasz gives of Charcot and hysteria, however, is quite different from the one which I have offered. Ignoring completely the possibility of misdiagnosis, Szasz assumes that ‘hysteria’ was an emotional problem and that therefore Charcot’s patients were not really ill at all. See, for example, The Myth of Mental Illness, pp. 37–43.

[7] David Bakan, Sigmund Freud and the Jewish Mystical Tradition, Boston: Beacon Press, 1958, p

Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, PF1, p. 326; SE16, p. 285

[8] Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, PF1, p. 326; SE16, p. 285

Pascal, quoted in T. O. Wedel, ‘On the Philosophical Background of Gulliver’s Travels’ (1926) in Richard Gravil(ed.), Swift: Gulliver’s Travels, Macmillan, 1974, p. 88.

[9] Pascal, quoted in T. O. Wedel, ‘On the Philosophical Background of Gulliver’s Travels’ (1926) in Richard Gravil(ed.), Swift: Gulliver’s Travels, Macmillan, 1974, p. 88.

[10] Wedel, pp. 88–9. This account of the decline of the doctrine of Original Sin might well be considered alongside Ernest Gellner’s succinct summary of one of the most important dimensions of Western intellectual history in his The Psychoanalytic Movement:


The great pre-industrial and pre-scientific civilisations, especially perhaps the Western ones, tend to see man as half-angel, half-beast ... This dualistic vision caused great torment to those condemned to live with it ...

None the less, anguished though it may have been, this vision had one or two marked advantages. It provided a validation for the rules and values towards which men were obliged to aspire. They contained an answer to the question – why must we strive and suffer so? These higher values were tied to the better parts of the total cosmic order, and to the better elements within man ...


But there was a further and very important advantage: the picture also provided an idiom and an explanation for all the forces within man which were opposed to the higher and purer elements. However much the Lower Aspects of our nature might have been reprobated, their very existence was not denied. Quite the reverse: the devil had a recognised place in the scheme of things. His power was treated with respect. No one who found him within his own heart had any reason to feel surprised. We had been warned.


However, with the coming of modernity, the total dualistic picture, of which divided man was a part, lost its authority. The twin currents of empiricism and materialism destroyed it, and replaced it with a unitary vision both of nature and man (pp. 12–13).



[11] Wesley, quoted in Wedel, p. 89

[12] See Wedel. See also Roland Mushat Frye, ‘Swift’s Yahoos and the Christian Symbols for Sin’, Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. XV, 1954, pp. 201–17.

[13] Deane Swift, quoted in Frye, p. 203.

[14] William Morton Wheeler, ‘On Instincts’, Journal of Abnormal Psychology (1917), vol. 15, pp. 295–318. Quoted in Sulloway, p. 4.

[15] SE16, pp. 304–6; PF1, pp. 346–8.

[16] SE15, pp. 142–3.

[17] SE10, p. 177.

[18] A Short Account of Psychoanalysis, SE19, p. 197; PF15, p. 168.

[19] SE22, p. 221; SE21, pp. 7–8.

[20] John Wren-Lewis, ‘Love’s Coming of Age’ in Charles Rycroft(ed.), Psychoanalysis Observed, Penguin, 1968, p. 84; Ernest Gellner, The Psychoanalytic Movement, Paladin, 1985, p. 36.

[21] R. S. Lee, Freud and Christianity (1948), Penguin, 1967, p. 144.

[22] David C. McClelland, The Roots of Consciousness, Princeton: D. Van Nostrand Co., 1964, pp. 127–8. This passage occurs in McClelland’s essay ‘Psychoanalysis and Religious Mysticism’ (1960), which contains one of the best descriptions of the crypto-religious nature of psychoanalysis ever given. As a Christian himself, McClelland is one of those commentators who finds the Judaeo-Christian dimensions of psychoanalysis a positive asset rather than a reason for criticism. But his discussion of the issue is subtle and perceptive and ought to be much better known than it is. His description of psychoanalysis as the faculty religion in American universities during the 1950s is particularly interesting:


Psychoanalysis stands in striking contrast to Christianity in intellectual circles. It is enthusiastically accepted, or at least taken very seriously, by the very same men who ignore or despise Christianity. Unfortunately I have no precise figures, but it is my strong impression that an influential minority among both faculty and students in our great urban universities have either been psychoanalysed or would like to be. It has been seriously proposed in one university department known to me, that a psychoanalyst be added to the permanent staff of the department whose function would be largely to analyse his fellow staff members. In Cambridge where I live it is as difficult to spend an evening with friends without discussing some aspect of psychoanalysis as it was perhaps a hundred years ago to spend the same kind of evening without discussing Christianity (p. 120).


McClelland also has an unusual perspective when it comes to explaining the dual affinity of psychoanalysis with both Judaism and Christianity, and concludes his essay with the following remarkable words:


Christianity was itself initially a response of mystical, individualistic elements within Judaism to the Pharisaic orthodoxy of the times. If Goodenough’s evidence is to be believed, it was spread all over the Mediterranean world by Hellenized Jews; by Jews like Paul who were in contact with Greek mysticism and rationality. Are we witnessing a similar development today? Has the Christian Church become so petrified, so insensitive to the needs of our times, that a new religious movement has again arisen out of Judaism, opposed to orthodoxy and spread by secularized Jews? Certainly psychoanalysis has all these characteristics. It is essentially individualistic, mystical and opposed to religious orthodoxy. It originated in Judaism and it has been spread by Jews who had lost their faith by contact once again with the spirit of Greek rationalism as represented by modern science. Would it not be the supreme irony of history if God had again chosen his People to produce a new religious revolt against orthodoxy, only this time [orthodoxy] of Christian making? It is an interesting question, but time and the response of the Christian Church alone can give the answer (pp. 144–5).


This passage might be seen as offering a revealing analysis of the historical significance of psychoanalysis, for the account McClelland gives of the relationship of psychoanalysis to both Judaism and Christianity is, I believe, broadly correct. But if we are to appreciate the full significance of what are, perhaps, the most extraordinary words which have ever been written about Freud by an academic psychologist, we need to read McClelland’s essay, which originally appeared in a Christian anthology of essays entitled The Ministry and Mental Health, with the utmost care and with due attention to McClelland’s own intended meaning. He himself goes to some lengths to speak out against the secularist taboos of American academia and what he calls ‘the conspiracy of silence on religion’. He does so by boldly declaring his own religious background and convictions:


Let me confess at the outset that my remote ancestors were Huguenots and strict Presbyterians from Scotland and Northern Ireland, that my mother was reared a Covenanter – one of the most radical forms of Presbyterianism, that my father is a Methodist minister and that I am a convinced Quaker, whose approach to religion is primarily mystical. It would be hard to find a background of more ‘radical’ Christianity. Its relevance to my theme will become clearer as I proceed (p. 119).


McClelland’s unusually full statement of his own religious assumptions should help to make it clear that when he talks in the concluding words of his essay about the possibility of God having again ‘chosen his People to produce a new religious revolt against orthodoxy’, he is not talking loosely or figuratively. He appears actually to be considering the possibility that psychoanalysis may be a divinely inspired movement and (by implication) that Freud himself might be, for all his ostensible hostility to religion, a real prophet or messiah, chosen by the God of the New and the Old Testaments to inaugurate a new radical covenant, replacing those of Moses and Jesus. Psychoanalysis, on this view, is part of God’s ultimate plan and Freud, without knowing it himself, was actually carrying out the will of the very God he forbore to worship.


So bizarre will this reading of modern intellectual history seem to some that there is a temptation to dismiss it as entirely eccentric and irrational. I think that it would be wrong to give in to this temptation. For in this particular case a religious view provides a much better understanding of history than that sometimes shown by non-Christian intellectuals. Secure in his faith in the reality of a God who exercises ultimate control over history, McClelland is able to recognise, as modern secularised intellectuals usually cannot, that the course of Western history has been shaped and determined at practically every point by people who share such a faith. This, together with his own deep familiarity with the biblical tradition, enables him to acknowledge the many points of resemblance between psychoanalysis and Judaeo-Christian doctrine and to offer a subtle, and in many respects profound explanation of phenomena which secular intellectuals frequently ignore. If the rationality of a hypothesis is measured according to its ability to explain odd resemblances and other puzzling phenomena, then any hypothesis which represents psychoanalysis as a scientific theory of human behaviour which is unrelated to religious orthodoxies is far more ‘irrational’ than one which, like McClelland’s, sees it as part of a divine plan.

[23] SE11, p. 54.

[24] SE11, p. 54.

[25] The mythology of modern literary scholarship has often made Swift into a misanthropist. Swift himself, however, saw the matter more clearly than his critics: ‘I tell you after all that I do not hate Mankind, it is vous autres who hate them because you would have them reasonable Animals, and are Angry for being disappointed.’ What Swift implicitly recognises here is that the philosophy of rationalism, which begins with the greatest optimism, can only lead to the cruellest kind of disappointment. For those who refuse to acknowledge ‘animality’ or ‘unreason’ as elements in their own identity, and who seek to banish these elements from their consciousness, can only end by hating those other men and women who continue to display them. This view of rationalism lies at the heart of Gulliver’s Travels. See T. O. Wedel, ‘On the Philosophical Background of Gulliver’s Travels’ (1926) in Richard Gravil(ed.), Swift, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’: A Casebook, Macmillan, 1974, p. 86.

[26] Freud, Letters, pp. 419–20 (Letter to Anon., 9.4.1935).

[27] Quoted in Weiss, Sigmund Freud as a Consultant, p. 28. On Freud’s concept of ‘worthiness’, see Paul Roazen’s excellent discussion, to which I am indebted (Roazen, pp. 160–65).

[28] See Roazen, p. 163.

[29] Heinrich Meng and Ernst Freud(ed.),Psychoanalysis and Faith: The Letters of Sigmund Freud and Oskar Pfister, New York: Basic Books, 1963, pp. 61–2.

[30] Studies on Hysteria, SE2, p. 265; PF3, p. 348.

[31] On the relationship between Christian demonology and anti-semitic stereotypes, see Joshua Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews, Yale University Press, 1943.

[32] Owen Berkley-Hill, ‘The Anal-Erotic Factor in Hindu Religion’, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 192l, p. 336. For a lively attack on this paper, see Reginald Reynolds, Cleanliness and Godliness, Allen and Unwin, 1943, pp. 154–9.

[33] Ben Karpman, ‘Neurotic Traits of Jonathan Swift’, in Psychoanalytic Review, vol. 29, 1942, p. 182.

[34] Erich Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Penguin, 1977, p. 549, p. 488.

[35] Léon Poliakov, The History of Anti-Semitism, vol. 1, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974, p. 274.

[36] See Norman Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons, Paladin, 1976, p. xiv.

[37] Introductory Lectures, SE15, p. 210; PF1, pp. 247–8.

[38] Erik Erikson, Childhood and Society, Penguin, 1967, p. 59.

[39] Melanie Klein, The Psychoanalysis of Children, Hogarth Press, 1975, p. 129

[40] Ernst Nolte, Three Faces of Fascism, New York: Mentor, 1969, p. 368.

[41] Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, Penguin, 1978, p. 40.

[42] Cleaver and Dod, A Godly Form of Household Government, London, 162l. Quoted in Michael Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1979, p. 190.

[43] More, quoted in Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500–1800, Penguin, 1979, p. 294.

[44] Interpretation of Dreams, SE4, p. 250; PF4, p. 350




© Richard Webster, 2002