Sigmund Freud

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Freud, Sigmund [Sigismund Schlomo Freud] (6 May 1856 - 23 September 1939)

The eminent founder of psychoanalysis, Freud early on rejected the use of hypnosis, developing a technique called free association that allowed emotionally charged material which the individual had repressed in his unconscious to emerge to conscious recognition. His application of psychoanalytic theory to cultural problems has been wide, in areas such as anthropology, education, art, and literature.

The person who theorized the unconscious and the Oedipus complex, Freud also wrote about political life and tyranny - he found that the relationship crowds show to absolute leaders is an erotic one (Hitler apparently agreed, having once suggested that he made love in his speeches to the German masses).

A lifelong atheist, Freud stayed away from religion. He also stayed away from any medication stronger than aspirin, wanting to keep his mind clear at all times.

One little-known fact is that Freud’s first research was a study of the gonads of an eel.

Freud was author of The Interpretation of Dreams (1900); The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1904); The Id and the Ego (1923); and Totem and Tabu (1918).


When the American poet Hilda Doolittle, better known simply as H.D., visited Freud in 1933, she found “the death-head swastika chalked on the pavement leading to the professor’s door.” Inside his Viennese office, she found he had a large collection of archaeological artifacts on his desk “like a high altar.” Picking a tiny Athena from the collection, he offered it to her, saying, “This is my favorite. She is perfect…only she has lost her spear.” The significance of handing the bisexual H.D. a figurine of the bisexual Athena was filled with sexual implications, which he may or may not initially have intended, according to her Tribute to Freud (1956). But the story illustrates his intense interest in the Ancient Greeks which, combined with his knowledge of Judaism, led to his controversial work on monotheism and Moses.

Moses and Monotheism (1938) implies that Moses was not a foundling Jew. Rather, he was a high-born Egyptian, a member of Akhenaten’s intellectual elite. Moses obtained his monotheistic concepts from the Egyptian religion of Aton, choosing the Hebrews, a poor group of alien people who had settled in a border province, as his people, making Egyptians out of them in order that they could profit by his country’s culture. In addition to monotheism, he gave them two other Egyptian “gifts”: the practice of circumcision, and the Aton cult’s ethical code. In short, Moses obtained his idea of one god from a human, not from a supernatural source, a viewpoint which immediately drew negative criticism from most leaders of the organized religions and others with vested financial interests. According to Freud,

  • Religion is an attempt to get control over the sensory world in which we are placed by means of the wish world which we have developed inside.”



Sigmund Freud with his wife, Martha Bernays Freud (center) and her sister, Minna Bernays (left) in 1929.

The "father of psychoanalysis," who popularized such of his ideas as Freudian slips, dream symbolism, and defense mechanisms, was a blood uncle and an uncle-in-law to Edward Bernays, a public relations and propganda wizard. The mother of Bernays, Anna Freud Bernays, was Freud's sister, also an atheist. Ely Bernays, Bernays's father, was brother to Sigmund's wife, Martha Bernays Freud, whom he had married in 1886. Rumors were that Sigmund had had an affair with his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays, but the allegation by C. G. Jung was denied and Jung was accused of malice. Gossip continued, saying she may have had a child who was aborted.

In 1898 on August 13th, however, Minna and Sigmund had shared a hotel room and the hotel record shows his signing in as "Dr Sigm Freud u frau." The record had been found by Dr. Franz Maciejewski, a sociologist formerly at the University of Heidelberg and a specialist in psychoanalysis. In August of 2005, he had retraced the Swiss idyl to gain information for a book he was writing about Freud's fixation on Moses. In Maloja, at the Schweizerhaus, he asked if the original guest book still existed, and there on a page from 1898 he found Freud's entry. "They not only shared a bed," Maciejewski declared, " they were even up to misrepresenting their relationship to strangers as that of husband and wife, a subterfuge they surely then maintained whenever feasible during subsequent holidays together in faraway places." He wrote in September 2006 in the Frankfurter Rundschau about his find. Room 11, now called 24, was one of the largest in the hotel, the current manager - Jürg Wintsch - told him, saying he had hoped to keep it a secret until the hotel's 125th anniversary in June 2007.

Minna's fiancé had died of tuberculosis in 1886, the same year the Freuds had married, and in 1896 Minna had moved in with them, helping with household chores and child rearing and staying for 42 years. On a 1900 trip she took with Freud to the Austrian town of Meran, where she might have had an abortion, she fell mysteriously ill after returning to Vienna. Freud, in a letter to Wilhelm Fliess, said Miss Bernays was suffering from a lung ailment.

By the age of forty-two, Freud, the author of Three Contributions to the Sexual Theory (1905) and who had married a cousin and had had six children, had said, “Sexual excitation is of no more use to a person like me.” At the age of fifty-six, he said that “at the bottom of his heart” he had found sexual intercourse” degrading,” according to People’s Almanac #2, because he was unable to discuss sex with his children.

Ernest Jones, Freud's student and first biographer, in 1953 had tried to dispel gossip about Freud's "second wife," dismissing what he called "strange legends" and claiming that Freud was "monogamic in a very unusual degree."

Peter Swales, a historian and researcher who has spent decades uncovering details of the relationship, hailed the finding of the hotel's record. As for the lung ailment or an abortion, he told a reporter, "The jury is still out."

(See Ralph Blumenthal, "Hotel Log Hints at Illicit Desire That Dr. Freud Didn't Repress," The New York Times, 24 December 2006). Also, see the entry for Hilda Doolittle, whom he analyzed and who she thought was not always right.


Freud’s work, Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen said in a 1947 sermon, is based on “materialism, hedonism, infantilism, and eroticism.” Sheen’s attack called attention to the religionists’ concern that psychiatry and psychology were providing alternative, nonspiritual explanations for religious experiences. Freud was accused of treating religion as a comforting illusion, something which a mature person or society would outgrow. (Ironically, as pointed out by Peter Steinfels in The New York Times (3 Jan 1993), the president of the American Psychiatric Association, is a Catholic. That group’s president-elect as well as the president and the president-elect, and secretary general of the World Psychiatric Association, are Catholics, also.)


Freud's analysis of the organized religions is clear. “Neither in my private life nor in my writings,” Freud wrote in a letter to Charles Singer, “have I ever made a secret of being an out-and-out unbeliever.” He also wrote, “When a man is freed of religion, he has a better chance to live a normal and wholesome life.” And “Religions originate in the child’s and young mankind’s fears and need for help. It cannot be otherwise.” He also wrote, “The Catholic Church so far has been the implacable enemy of all freedom of thought” and, to colleague Ludwig Binswanger in 1927, “The Nazis? I am not afraid of them. Help me rather to combat my true enemy. . . religion, the Roman Catholic Church.” Freud was an honorary associate of the Rationalist Press Association (RPA), of which Bertrand Russell later was president.

On the subject of religion Freud wrote

  • In my Future of an Illusion I was concerned much less with the deepest sources of the religious feeling than with what the common man understands by his religion—with the system of doctrines and promises which on the one hand explains to him the riddles of this world with enviable completeness, and, on the other, assures him that a careful Providence will watch over his life and will compensate him in a future existence for any frustrations he suffers here. The common man cannot imagine this Providence otherwise than in the figure of an enormously exalted father. Only such a being can understand the needs of the children of men and be softened by their prayers and placated by the signs of their remorse.
  • The whole thing is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life.
  • It is still more humiliating to discover how large a number of people living today, who cannot but see that this religion is not tenable, nevertheless try to defend it piece by piece in a series of pitiful rearguard actions.
  • One would like to mix among the ranks of the believers in order to meet these philosophers, who think they can rescue the God of religion by replacing him by an impersonal, shadowy and abstract principle, and to address them with the warning words: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain!” And if some of the great men of the past acted in the same way, no appeal can be made to their example: we know why they were obliged to.

George J. Stack has written of Freud’s attitude toward religion: “The Future of an Illusion (1927) is a terse, sharp critique of religion. It emphasizes the psychogenic origin of belief in God (who is characterized as a projection of the child’s vision of a powerful, stern father), the obsessive-compulsive nature of ritual and prayer, the illusory nature of religion as based upon ‘omnipotence of thought,’ and infantile feelings of dependence. In sum, Freud argued that religion is a ‘universal neurosis’ that must be outgrown if men would attain independence of mind and maturity.” In that book, Freud had written, “Religion is comparable to a childhood neurosis.” Gaskin, who states that although Freud had been brought up to observe Jewish religious customs, he “seems never to have had any serious belief in God or in gods. But he has much to say about religion in a number of his published works. His frequently repeated contentions are that ‘the psychical origin of religious ideas . . . are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind’; and that ‘the primal father figure was the original image of God.’” Gaskin adds that Freud “argues in close detail, and with evidence, that human beings, being the sort of creatures they are, need to believe in gods,” that religion is based upon wish fulfillment.


Freud couch2.jpg
• Freud's Couch

Freud’s views were controversial in his own time and continue to be so. Simon LeVay, whose The Sexual Brain (1993) develops the view that the brain’s hypothalamus produces what is called male- and female-typical sex drive and who found the nucleus of the hypothalamus smaller–sometimes absent–in gay as compared to straight men, has said when asked if he views Freud as a savior or a scourge, “A scourge, absolutely. He started the idea that homosexuality was a state of arrested development caused by defective parenting. He himself was not homophobic. He wrote some things that were very gay-friendly, particularly toward the end of his life. Nevertheless there’s an incredible amount of unnecessary guilt and blame that has to be laid at his doorstep. What happened with homosexuality is exactly what happened twenty years ago with schizophrenia, with everyone blaming parents for making their kids schizophrenic. I can’t imagine what it does to a parents.”

Freud was not homophobic. In fact, unexpurgated correspondence with the young Wilhelm Fliess, a psychologist, reveal that Freud definitely had a “crush” on him. Fliess was not that interested in returning the love, however, but from him Freud developed ideas concerning bisexuality and from him he adopted terms such as “latency period” and “sublimation.” For a time, also, Freud was attracted to Jung, an attraction that wore off and eventually led to a break when Freud was in his fifties, whereupon Freud exulted that he was finally rid of that Jung and his pious gang. Jung, it transpired, was anti-Semitic, an occultist, and pro-Nazi, until the Nazis were defeated, after which he tempered his views. Freud also disapproved of Jung’s having made a pass at a patient, Ms. Spielrein, who had insufficient money to pay his fee, after which she became his own patient.

Although critics of psychoanalysis are many, supporters of Freud point out that no other thinker has made creativity and imagination more democratically available. “Creativity,” Jonathan Lear has written, “is no longer the exclusive preserve of the divinely inspired, or the few great poets. From a psychoanalytic point of view, everyone is poetic; everyone dreams in metaphor and generates symbolic meaning in the process of living. Even in their prose, people have unwittingly been speaking poetry all along.”

Paul Edwards has perceptively noted that little evidence exists that any of Freud’s patients, including Gustave Mahler and Bruno Walter, were ever cured. Just the same, and although it is partly true that Freudianism has currently diminished somewhat in importance, Edwards holds that it is imperative to retain such of Freud’s truly great contributions as the concepts of repression (the unconscious exclusion from the conscious mind of painful impulses or fears or desire), transference (the process by which emotions and desires originally associated with a person are unconsciously shifted to another person, often an analyst), and parapraxis (the slip of the tongue which reveals a subconscious motive). Edwards is not at all positive about Freud’s having been attracted to Lamarckism, to parts of Freud’s dream theory, to his view that paranoia is caused by repressed homosexual feelings whereas many homosexuals are not at all repressed or paranoiac, and to his inexcusably having fabricated some data in order to support certain theories.


Freud’s final days have been described in Peter Gay’s Freud: A Life For Our Time (1988). Cancer had eaten away much of his jaw, the cancer gave off such a putrid smell that even his dog avoided him, Freud lost weight, and he began to be less alert mentally. Losing such a great quality of life and knowing that his intolerable pain could not be relieved by medicine, he arranged with his physician, Dr. Max Schur, to inject morphine and allow him to lapse into a coma. The father of psychiatry clearly was a believer in euthanasia. The funeral address was delivered by Ernest Jones, the surviving member of Freud’s close associates. Jones praised Freud’s unwavering love of truth and his hatred of deception. “As never man loved life more, so never man feared death less.”

The cremains were buried in a Grecian urn, which he had admired and owned, at Golder’s Green Cemetery in London, England.

(See entry for Adolf Grünbaum, who holds that Freud’s ideas about repression can be accepted only when tested against data obtained from control groups, but “no such data have become available during the past century.” Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend by Frederick C. Crews is meant “to expose [Freud’s] system of psychological propositions to the same kind of scrutiny one would apply to any other aspiring science.” Also see entry for Hilda Doolittle , who helped Freud escape from the Nazis to London.)

{CE; CL; ER; EU, George J. Stack; HNS2; JM; News & Views, Humanists of North (New) Jersey, June 1998; PA; RE; TRI; TYD}