The Fate of a Humanist

Peter Singer
Peter Singer; drawing by David Levine


On November 11, 1909, Sigmund Freud wrote to Carl Jung about a young Viennese classics teacher whose work on folklore—particularly folk tales featuring prophetic dreams—had piqued Freud’s interest:

Chance recently led me to a clever high school teacher who is working on mythology with similar ideas, but fully equipped…decidedly intelligent, only so far he gives me the impression that he isn’t really adept at taking on something that has up to now been foreign to him. At our first meeting I found out from him that Oedipus may have been originally a phallic demon, like the Idean Dactyls (!), the name means simply erection….

The young man in question, whose name was David Oppenheim, wasn’t a scholar of note. He was, in fact, no more than a high school teacher of Greek and Latin at the prestigious Akademisches Gymnasium in Vienna, whose alumni included Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Tomás Masaryk. What papers he published appeared not in the great German-language philological journals but rather in a minor psychoanalytical publication that he himself helped to edit.

What historical interest Oppenheim has had has derived, until recently, from his brief association with Freud. The father of psychoanalysis was interested at this time in exploring the psychoanalytical meaning of classical myths, and Oppenheim’s great expertise in this subject provided an opportunity to Freud for a rare collaboration. By 1910 the two were working together on a paper about folk tales that featured dreams—tales, as Oppenheim argued, that demonstrated that ordinary people are aware of the sexual symbolism of dreams. Freud’s enthusiasm for Oppenheim was marked by an appreciative footnote to the latter’s work in a 1911 edition of The Interpretation of Dreams. And yet because Oppenheim would side with Alfred Adler in the latter’s 1911 break with Freud, the collaboration fizzled out. “Dreams in Folklore, by Sigm. Freud and Prof. Ernst Oppenheim” was never published. In post-1911 editions of The Interpretation of Dreams, the footnote about David was dropped.

Oppenheim would have been lost to history had it not been for a connection to yet another controversial figure, one who, like Freud, explores in his professional life the gray areas that lie between philosophy, science, and the darker areas of human thought and emotion. As with Freud, the revulsion he inspires in his critics is balanced both by high academic honors (he is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University) and a level of popular fame not generally achieved by academicians. I am referring to the Australian-born bioethicist Peter Singer, whose views in favor of euthanasia for catastrophically disabled human infants, coupled with his fierce defense of animal rights, have made him one of the most controversial figures in the academy today. He has, for instance, been likened to a Nazi for his views—not least, by Germans: Der Spiegel published an attack on Singer accompanied by pictures of the transportation of…

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