Sigmund Freud as Sage-writer

by Mark Wallace

If 19th-century England was the home of the Sage-writer, with Carlyle, Arnold, Ruskin, Newman, et al. (see John Holloway, The Victorian Sage), there are various writers from other times and places who seem to be writing in somewhat of the same spirit and towards the same ends.  It is certainly possible to read some of Sigmund Freud’s work as being in the sage tradition. Freud wrote mostly on psychoanalysis, which he considered to be a science, but later in his career he turned to general reflections on the course of civilization, and the relationship between the individual and his society, notably in The Future of an Illusion (1927) and Civilization and its Discontents (1930). At the beginning of the former work he gives his subject as “culture”, defined as: “[E]very thing in which human life has risen above its animal circumstances and in which it distinguishes itself from animal life (and I refuse to separate culture and civilization)” (The Future of an Illusion, Penguin (Great Ideas series), 2008, p. 2). A very wide definition, then, basically synonymous with civilization itself, or at least so intertwined with it as to render both terms indefinable without the other – to become civilized is to gain a culture of some sort.

In the early pages of TFOAI, Freud also states some general political principles; that is, in the terms he has set out, his idea on how society becomes civilized or cultured, and may be kept so in an orderly, productive and reasonably pacific way. His answer is bluntly authoritarian:

Only the influence of exemplary individuals whom they accept as their leaders will induce them to perform the labour and suffer the voluntary privations on which the continued existence of culture depends […]. However, there is a risk so far as [the leaders] are concerned that, in order to retain their influence, they will yield to the mass more than the mass yields to them, which is why it seems neccesary for them to have access to instruments of power making them independent of the mass. In short, two very common properties of human beings are to blame for the fact that only through a measure of coercion can cultural institutions be upheld: humans are not, of their own volition, keen on work, and arguments are powerless against their passions. (p. 5)

Clearly, Freud was no great admirer of humanity in general, as is also clear in Civilization and its Discontents. But this passage goes even further than you might expect. When we read the second sentence excerpted, we find it beginning with the acknowledgement that “there is a risk” in investing the power of leadership in these “exemplary individuals”; indeed there is, we say, confidently expecting the good doctor to go down the power corrupts route. In fact, he says the exact opposite! The problem is not power’s corrupting influence, but the possibility that the leader will be acted on by the mass, hence the need for “access to instruments of power” that render the leader independent of the mass. Dr F is heading into Carlyle territory here, though he is perhaps even harder on the human race than Carlyle (though his language is more moderate, of course). His justifications for advocating, basically, tyranny (a “wise despotism”, as Carlyle would say) are that humans are not keen on work, and cannot be swayed by reason, both big generalizations that go unsupported in any way.

Dr Freud with a cigar, but maybe not just a cigar.

Dr Freud with a cigar, but maybe not just a cigar.

But unsupported does not necessarily mean wrong, of course. One could say that the history of homo sapiens provides ample supporting evidence for both positions. It is the job of the sage only to have a position on the nature of humanity, and prescribe a course for society in line with that. Freud’s here is close to Carlylean Hero-worship, revolving around the idea of the accession to power of “exemplary individuals”, and the vesting of said individuals with power without check. But while Freud diagnoses authoritarianism as the remedy for societal ills in mankind’s then state of development, his aim in TFOAI was to suggest that this could change if “the primacy of the intellect over the libidinal life” (p. 65, see also 68) became a reality. This could perhaps be achieved through the final break with the ideology of religion; at least, that was its only chance, though nothing was guaranteed.

Like most of the Sages of the 19th century, Freud believed that religion in its old forms was dead: the Christian era was over, some rough beast perhaps slouched towards Bethlehem to be born. He advocated, however, a purely rationalist response to the new predicament. His approach here was somewhat different to his predecessors: while Arnold presented “culture” (as defined by him) as the great tool of moral and social progression, and Carlyle spoke with equal certainty of the power of work, faith and duty, Freud is, in one sense, less presumptuous: “Should experience reveal (not to me but to others after me who think as I do) that we have made a mistake, we shall drop our expectations.” (p. 67) While Carlyle traded on the power of positive certainty (and, given his tenets on the importance of faith, it behoved him at all times to display faith in his own principles) Freud was positive only in a negative sense: that the lot of mankind in society was not, and showed no signs of ever having been, or ever becoming, a happy one. He toyed with the idea of authoritarianism to suppress discontent, but seems to have concluded in TFOAI that a final break with religion and a seeing of humankind’s place in the universe exactly as it was could, potentially at least, allow for a more rational humanity which had relinquished its infantile desires and would perhaps live in reasonable harmony. Yet a tension remains in Freud’s work, for whenever he gets onto to talking of humans as they are, it is always clear that he has seen (or believes he has) little empirical evidence of man’s potential for harmonious, rational living. Thus an air of uncertainty hangs over the conclusions of both TFOAI and, more explicitly, Civilization and its Discontents, and it is this gap that Freud allows between what he believes and what may be that makes these books palatable over 80 years on.