Freud As Moralist

The Letters of Sigmund Freud and Oskar Pfister

edited by Heinrich Meng, edited by Ernst L. Freud
Basic Books, 152 pp., $4.95

Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud; drawing by David Levine

Those who are bored by moral simplicity will find these letters dull. They cover thirty years of unbroken friendship and mutual admiration, which was founded on deep agreement about the fundamentals of psychoanalysis, and disagreement about many other topics. As such they are an invaluable corrective to the view of Freud given by others who disagreed with him: Jung, Adler, Rank. What is clear about the others is that they were unable to disagree with Freud without exhibiting an anxiety about it. By contrast, the Swiss clergyman Pfister clearly had no particular inclination to agree with Freud and therefore experienced no stress when he disagreed: he just happened to believe that on certain important questions Freud was right. This attitude evoked from Freud a touching warmth and objectivity.

Pfister was fortunate in his approach to psychoanalysis. As a Protestant pastor he had to cope with the emotional problems of his congregation, and thus found in psychoanalysis materials for the solution of problems which he had encountered independently. In this way he avoided the difficulties of those who acquire some acquaintance with psychoanalytic solutions first, and then carry the burden of having to accommodate their problems to the solutions. To place his analytic practice in a pastoral context meant that he had to deal with psychoanalytic questions in a situation somewhat different from that of the ordinary professional analyst. He thus probes familiar ground in an unfamiliar way.

But the interest of these letters at the level of analytic detail is minor; their greatest interest lies in the fact that they raise the question of the connections between psychoanalysis and ethics and religion. Both Pfister and Freud were straightforward and naive on this question. Freud believed that psychoanalysis rested on “the general scientific outlook, with which the religious outlook is incompatible.” Pfister believed that psychoanalysis was neutral between rival religious and moral systems and that theism was vindicated by metaphysical argument. Freud was not so much impatient with, as entirely lacking in interest in, the kind of philosophical system-building upon which Pfister relied. His atheism was of the simplest kind. He did not think that psychoanalysis was needed for the provision of new arguments to show that belief in God was false, but that, since belief in God was false, psychoanalytic theory might help to explain why men nonetheless believed. In any actual analysis, however, one might have to stop somewhere short of uncovering the sources of the patient’s need for a Father in heaven. Thus Freud found no difficulty in tolerating both Pfister’s own beliefs and his characterization of Freud’s atheism: “Your substitute for religion is basically the idea of the eighteenth-century Enlightment in proud modern guise.”

Was Pfister right? Isn’t his view belied by Freud’s extremely pessimistic view of human nature? “I do not break my head very much about good and evil but I have found little that is good…

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