Dr. Armand Nicholi has served on the faculty of the Harvard Medical School for over 20 years. He also teaches a popular course at Harvard College on the contrasting worldviews of Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis
The following Part One article is adapted from a speech made by Dr. Armand Nicholi at a faculty/alumni luncheon hosted by Dallas Christian Leadership at Southern Methodist University on September 23, 1997. Part Two appears in The Real Issue of March 1998 and explores Lewis' change in worldview and eventual conversion.
The worldviews of Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis, both prevalent in our culture today, present diametrically opposed interpretations of who we areour identity, where we come from, our biological and cultural heritageand our destiny.
First, let us lay the ground work for our discussion by asking three questions. Who is Sigmund Freud? Who is C. S. Lewis? And, what is a worldview?
Few men have influenced the moral fabric of our civilization more than Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis. Freud was the Viennese physician who developed psychoanalysis. Many historians rank his findings with those of Plank and Einstein. His theories proffer new understanding of how our minds work. His ideas per-vade several disciplines including medicine, literature, sociology, anthropology, history, and law. How we interpret human behavior in law and literary criticism is strongly influenced by his theories. His concepts so permeate our language that we use terms like repression, complex, projection, narcissism, Freudian slip, and sibling rivalry without realizing their origin.
Because of the unmistakable impact of his thought on our culture, scholars refer to this century as the "century of Freud." Why is that? In light of what we now know, Freud is continuously criticized, discredited, and vilified; yet his picture keeps cropping up on the covers of our magazines and front-page articles in newspapers like the New York Times. Recent historical research has intensified the interest in the controversies surrounding Freud and his work. As part of an intellectual legacy, Freud vehemently advocated a secular, materialistic, atheistic philosophy of life.
Though C.S. Lewis won international recognition long before his death in 1963, his scholarly and popular books continue to sell millions of copies a year and his influence continues to grow. During World War II, Lewis' broadcast talks made his voice second only to Churchill as the most recognized on the BBC. In the years following, Lewis' photo appeared on the cover of Time and other leading magazines.
Today, the sheer quantity of personal, biographical and literary books on Lewis; the vast number of C.S. Lewis societies in colleges and universities; the C.S. Lewis periodicals and journals; as well as the relatively recent play and movie on his life all attest to the ever-growing interest in this man and his work. As a young faculty member at Oxford, Lewis changed from a secular, atheistic worldview to a spiritual one; a worldview that Freud regularly attacked, but which Lewis embraced and defined and described in many of his writings after his conversion.
Both Lewis and Freud possessed extraordinary literary gifts. Freud won the Goethe prize for literature in 1930. Lewis, who taught at Oxford and held the chair of English literature at Cambridge University, produced some of the world's great literary criticism and scores of widely-read scholarly and fictional books.
Now, on to the question of defining "worldview." In 1933, in a lecture called "The Question of a Weltanschauung," Freud defined a worldview as "an intellectual construction which solves all the problems of our existence uniformly on the basis of one overriding hypothesis."
All of us, whether we realize it or not, have a worldview; we have a philosophy of lifeour attempt to make sense out of our existence. It contains our answers to the fundamental questions concerning the meaning of our lives, questions that we struggle with at some level all of our lives, and that we often think about only when we wake up at three o'clock in the morning. The rest of the time when we are alone we have the radio or the television onanything to avoid being alone with ourselves. Pascal maintained the sole reason for our unhappiness is that we are unable to sit alone in our room. He claimed we do not like to confront the reality of our lives; the human condition is so basically unhappy that we do everything to keep distracted from thinking about it.
The broad interest and enduring influence of the works of Freud and Lewis result less from their unique literary style than from the universal appeal of the questions they addressed; questions that remain extraordinarily relevant to our personal lives and to our contemporary social and moral crises.
From diametrically opposed views, they talked about issues such as, "Is there meaning and purpose to existence?" Freud would say, "Absolutely not! We cannot even, from our scientific point of view, address the question of whether or not there is meaning to life." But he would declare that if you observe human behavior, you would notice the main purpose of life seems to be to find happinessto find pleasure. Thus Freud devised the "pleasure principle" as one of the main features of our existence.
Lewis, on the other hand, said meaning and purpose are found in understanding why we are here in terms of the Creator who made us. Our primary purpose is to establish a relationship with that Creator.
Freud and Lewis also discussed the sources of morality and conscience. Everyday we get up and make a series of decisions that carry us through the day. Those decisions are usually based on what we consider to be right: what we value, or our moral code. We decide to study hard and not use other people's ideas, because somehow that is part of our moral code. Now, Freud said our moral code comes from human experience, like our traffic laws. We make the codes up because they are expedient for us. In some cultures you drive on the left, in others you drive on the right.
But Lewis would disagree with that. He said that while there are differences in cultures, there is a basic moral law that transcends culture and time. This law is not invented, like traffic laws, but is discovered, like mathematical truth. So Freud and Lewis had an entirely different understanding of the source of moral truth.
Lewis and Freud also talked about the existence of an intelligence beyond the universe; Freud said "No," Lewis said "Yes." Their viewpoints led them to discuss the problem of miracles in an age of science. Freud claimed miracles contradict everything we have learned through empirical observation; they do not really occur. However, Lewis would ask, "How do we know they don't occur? If there is any evidence, the philosophy that you bring to that evidence determines how you interpret it." So, according to Lewis, we need to understand whether our philosophy excludes miracles and colors our interpretation of the evidence.
Freud and Lewis both spoke at length about human sexuality. Freud considered all love a kind of sublimated sexualityeven love between friends. Lewis said that anybody who thinks that friendship is based on sexuality has never really had a friend.
They also discussed the problem of pain and suffering. Freud was enormously bothered by this problem, and Lewis wrote some wonderful books that help explain the problem of suffering that we all experience. The Problem of Pain [ Macmillan, 1944] is a very cerebral discussion of the issue. When Lewis' wife died, he wrote A Grief Observed [Reprint, Harper, 1994], which I highly recommend. People in my field say it is the finest work on the process of grief.
And, of course, they both discuss what Freud called "The painful riddle of death." But I'll come to that later.
Each of the questions I've addressed are primarily philosophical in nature. It's significant to note that Freud's philosophical works have had a much greater influence on the secularization of our culture than his scientific works. I will discuss two of these themes.
First, the existence of an intelligence beyond the universewhat modern scientists refer to as the "God question." Norman Ramsey, a professor of particle physics at Harvard, won the 1989 Nobel Prize in physics. He told me recently that even in his field, scientists have become interested in the question of whether or not there is intelligence beyond the universe. He said this is a rather recent area of interest for them and that it has been provoked primarily by the acceptance of the Big Bang theory. I replied that I didn't quite understand the relationship. He said, "Well, when the universe had no beginningit was simply always thereone didn't have to be concerned about what came before. But once one accepts the idea that the universe had a specific starting point, one has to think about what occurred before. So physicists now are thinking about questions only theologians and philosophers thought about in the past."
As we look at the world around us, we make one of two basic assumptions: either we view the universe as an accident and our existence on this planet a matter of chance, or we assume some intelligence beyond the universe who not only gives the universe design and order, but also gives life meaning and purpose. How we live our lives, how we end our lives, what we perceive, how we interpret what we perceive, are all formed and influenced consciously or unconsciously by one of these two basic assumptions.
With this in mind, Freud divided all people into "believers" and "unbelievers." Unbelievers include all those who consider themselves cynics, skeptics, scoffers, agnostics, or atheists. Believers include the rest, whose belief ranges from merely an intellectual assent that someone or something is out there to those like Lewis, Augustine, Tolstoy, and Pascal who have had a life-transforming experience after which their faith becomes the primary motivating and organizing principle of their lives.
Freud came down clearly and strongly against the notion that there is "Anyone" out there. He described his worldview as secular and called it "scientific," and he claimed that no source of knowledge of the universe exists other than "carefully scrutinized observationwhat we call research." Therefore no knowledge, he said, can be derived from revelation or from intuition. He stated that the notion of the universe created by a being "resembling a man but magnified in every respect, an idealized superman, reflects the gross ignorance of primitive peoples." He stated that no intelligent person could accept the absurdities of the religious worldview.
Freud described the concept of God as merely a projection of the childish wish for the protection of an all-powerful father. He added that "religion is an attempt to master the sensory world in which we are situated by means of the wishful world which we have developed within us as a result of biological and psychological abnormality."
He concluded that the religious view is "so pathetically absurd and . . . infantile that it is humiliating and embarrassing to think that the majority of people will never rise above it." Except for the brief time as a college student under the influence of a brilliant philosopher named Franz Bratano, a devout believer, when Freud wavered in his atheism, he stated that he remained an unbeliever all of his life. A year before he died, Freud wrote to Charles Sanger, "Neither in my private life nor in my writing have I ever made a secret of being an out-and-out unbeliever."
When we carefully assess the record, however, we find that Freud may not have been quite as adamant in his atheism as he proclaimed. Certainly he did refer to himself often as, "an infidel Jew," and he rejected outright the religious view of the universe, especially the Judeo-Christian view. He certainly attacked this view with all his intellectual might and from every possible perspective. Yet, for some reason he remained preoccupied with these issues; he just could not leave them alone. He spent the last thirty years of his life writing about them.
In an autobiographical study he said that these philosophical and religious issues interested him throughout his life from early youth. A great deal of evidence exists that Freud's worldview proved less than comfortable for him. Faith was by no means a closed issue for him, and he was extremely ambivalent about God's existence.
Anna Freud, Sigmund's daughter who died a few years ago, explained to me the only way to know her father: "Don't read his biographies;" she instructed, "read his letters." Throughout Freud's letters are statements such as, "If someday we meet above," "[my] one, quite secret prayer," and statements about God's grace.
During the last thirty years of Freud's life, he carried out a continuous exchange of hundreds of letters with a Swiss theologian, Oskar Phister. It's interesting to note that his longest correspondence was with this theologian. He admired Phister and wrote, "You are a true servant of God . . . [who] feels the need to do spiritual good to everyone he meets. You did good this way even to me." He later said that Phister was, "In the fortunate position of being able to lead men to God."
Are these just manners of speaking? If it were anyone but Freud, who claimed even a slip of the tongue had meaning, we might be able to say this.
I have studied Freud's writings and his letters for many years and I've concluded that the main obstacle Freud had with the idea of some intelligence out there was his inability to reconcile an all-loving, all-powerful God with the suffering that all of us experience to some degree.
In a 1928 letter to Phister, Freud wrote, "And finally, let me be impolite for once. How the devil do you reconcile all that we experience and come to expect in this world with your assumption of a moral world order?" And then in a 1933 lecture he said:
It seems not to be the case that there's a power in the universe which watches over the well-being of individuals with parental care and brings all their affairs to a happy ending. On the contrary, the destinies of mankind can be brought into harmony neither with a hypothesis of a universal benevolence nor with a partial contradictory one of a universal justice. Earthquakes, tidal waves, complications make no distinctions between the virtuous and pious and the scoundrel or unbeliever. Even where what is in question is not inanimate nature, but where an individual's fate depends on his relationships with other people, it is by no means the rule that virtue is rewarded and evil finds its punishment. Often enough the violent cunning or ruthless man seizes the envied good things of the world and the pious man goes away empty. Obscure, unfeeling, unloving powers determine our fate. The systems of rewards and punishments which religion describes to the government of the universe seems not to exist.
I wonder how many of us have sometimes felt that way.
Freud seemed to be unaware, of course, that in the Biblical worldview the government of the universe is temporarily in enemy hands. Before Anna Freud died, I asked her about her father's difficulty with the problem of suffering, and she expressed great curiosity about it. At one point she said to me, "How do you explain the suffering in the world? Is there someone up there that says, 'You get cancer. You get tuberculosis,' and kind of dishes out adversity?" I said I didn't know quite how to answer that question, but I knew that she respected Oscar Phister.
I said that people like Phister would describe the presence of an evil power in the universe that might account for some of the suffering. Anna seemed unusually interested in this notion and came back to it several times in our discussion.
We must remember that Freud suffered considerably in his life, emotionally as a Jew growing up in an intensely Catholic-biased Vienna, and physically with an intractable cancer of the palate that he struggled with for sixteen years of his life. Surgical procedures were not very well developed then and caused him a great deal of physical pain. So we need to keep that in mind when trying to understand how he felt.
C. S. Lewis, throughout the first half of his life, also described himself, like Freud, as an "out-and-out unbeliever." If Freud wavered in his unbelief as a college student, Lewis flaunted his atheism as a student at Oxford. He strongly expressed cynicism and hostility toward people that he called "believers" and shared Freud's pessimism toward life generally.
When thirty-three years old, by then a popular member of the Oxford faculty, Lewis experienced a profound and radical change in his life and in his thinking. He rejected the materialistic and atheistic worldview and embraced a strong faith in God and eventually in Jesus Christ. This conversion from one worldview to the other began an outpouring of scholarly and popular works that have influenced millions of people.
For the next Real Issue, in Part 2 of When Worldviews Collide, Dr. Armand Nicholi discusses the views of C.S. Lewis on life, pain and death.