Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Future of an Illusion (Book Review)

The Future of an Illusion (1927) was the first book of Sigmund Freud’s that I had ever read, but it was not my introduction to him, as I had studied his theories on sexuality, death, the ego, neuroses and whatever else his grandness decided to throw mankind's way. It is remarkable how much information he managed to put forth in only ten short chapters of this profound book. Many have considered him to have been a disciple of Friedrich Nietzsche's, and, speaking as a Nietzschean scholar myself, I definitely see the influence and similarities in both his thought process and style of writing. He directs all his psychoanalytic sharpness and abilities at the problem of religion in comparing it to an obsessive childhood neurosis. He believes religion to be a stumbling block in the future of mankind, and that what must replace it is the decrease of suffering through love and science. The new and inevitable God of mankind shall be Reason.

He begins by briefly explaining the necessity of civilization and the agitated feelings and sensations it causes in the masses due to the repression of the instincts, and he stresses that the passions could not be subdued by the intellect alone, hence what followed was the necessity of force. And to make up for all the inadequacies and the robbery of fulfillment which individuals feel, society, to compensate, grants them pride in their culture over others and the upholding of their ideals and works of art. This then gratifies a narcissistic need.

“The extent to which a civilization’s precepts have been internalized – to express it popularly and unpsychologically: the moral level of its participants – is not the only form of mental wealth that comes into consideration in estimating a civilization’s value. There are in addition its assets in the shape of ideals and artistic creations – that is, the satisfactions that can be derived from those sources.” – Chapter II

He goes on to explain his theory from Totem and Taboo (1912-1913) that our need for a father whom we both fear and need as protection from the elements and fate of the unforgiving, natural world transformed into God, who contained a combination of many of the gods which existed before him. He quips that the men who first designed a monotheistic god took much pride in designing one that contained the characteristics of all the ones that came before him. And from the first truly abhorrent act mankind had to deal with, which, according to Freud, was the killing of one’s father, came the necessary commandment, sanctified by God Himself – “Thou shalt not kill.” And in order for us to keep this commandment, and other important commands (which he does not mention) alive and in the hearts of man after the death of religion, the masses must be educated and taught that those commands were merely sanctified by religion, but in fact came from us, just as God did – out of necessity.

This is key because a core issue is that when the lower, downtrodden strata find out that the higher, more educated strata no longer believe in God, they will be influenced in the same atheistic direction, and be so indignant and resentful towards them that with no dogmatic fears holding them back, they will revolt out of envy and cause something as bloody as the French and Russian revolutions. This will not happen, however, if people are thoroughly educated in a secular manner from childhood, being properly taught all that their minds can possibly handle so that this gap between the masses no longer exists.

“Science has many open enemies, and many more secret ones, among those who cannot forgive her for having weakened religious faith and for threatening to overthrow it.” – Chapter X

Now, his main concern and emphasis is on Christianity and its state in modern-day Europe. Except there is no scriptural, scientific, or historical refuting of religious ideas, fables and doctrines by him, because, as he says, it has already been done by many great men before him, which he does not want to name, as he does not want to give the impression that he is putting himself in their rank. So the presupposition of the essay is that religion has been thoroughly refuted, is irrational, cannot be true and is, as he puts it, “a lost cause.” His goal is to explain much of the psychology behind it which has not been addressed yet, especially since psychoanalysis began with him. He does not hide the obviousness and his concern for the frivolousness in which people blindly hold fast to their faiths, even when presented with the blatant contradictions and errors.

“Where questions of religion are concerned, people are guilty of every possible sort of dishonesty and intellectual misdemeanour. Philosophers stretch the meaning of words until they retain scarcely anything of their original sense.” – Chapter VI

He explains that this ignorance is preserved from generation to generation through religious inculcation in childhood, and could very well be the root cause for the stagnation of the adult intellect and its limitations. This in turn causes the theistic and presumptuous circular argument that the human intellect can never be enough to replace religion in keeping a civilization secure and safe from humans acting as avariciously and cruelly to one another as their primeval ancestors.

“Is it not true that the two main points in the programme for the education of children to-day are retardation of sexual development and premature religious influence? Thus by the time the child’s intellect awakens, the doctrines of religion have already become unassailable. But are you of opinion that it is very conductive to the strengthening of the intellectual function that so important a field should be closed against it by the threat of Hell-fire? When a man has once brought himself to accept uncritically all the absurdities that religious doctrines put before him and even to overlook the contradictions between them, we need not be greatly surprised at the weakness of his intellect. But we have no other means of controlling our instinctual nature but our intelligence.” – Chapter IX

He strongly believes that when man throws off the veils of infantilism created by theistic brainwashing, he will be able to look at life more clearly and honestly. He will accept his little corner in the universe, and the horrors of life and nature will be something he takes on bravely and with resignation. And because all his concentration will be on this life, instead of a life in some Great Beyond, the world will experience progressive civilizations more profound than anything it has ever experienced before.

“They will be in the same position as a child who has left the parental house where he was so warm and comfortable. But surely infantilism is destined to be surmounted. Men cannot remain children for ever; they must in the end go out into ‘hostile life’. We may call this ‘education to reality’. Need I confess to you that the sole purpose of my book is to point out the necessity for this forward step?” – Chapter IX

Throughout the book he antagonizes himself with a made-up devil’s advocate who he hears making the inevitable objections. It is quite noble, indeed, as he scrutinizes himself thoroughly to the point where you can actually picture a stubborn-minded theist ranting while pulling out every stop he can possibly think of. It is not surprising that it ends with a formidable defence of science against the arguments that have been continuously thrown at it by men like Plato, Descartes, Kant, Leibniz, Berkeley and Hume (though he does not mention the names of these geniuses and master-rhetoricians), who have attempted to thwart it by having us question and severely doubt our reasoning abilities, senses, minds and, in turn, empirical data.

“No, our science is no illusion. But an illusion it would be to suppose that what science cannot give us we can get elsewhere.” – Concluding statement

It is a must read. It won’t take you very long either. What you get here is quality, not quantity.

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