Tag Archives: Sigmund Freud

Civilization and Its Discontents

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud, with an introduction by Christopher Hitchens.

Civilization and Its Discontents presents itself as a direct sequel to Freud’s Future of an Illusion. Where the earlier text was chiefly concerned with the irrational adherence to religious ideas, this one starts out inquiring into the “deepest sources of religious feeling” (9), what might in more sympathetic hands be termed the psychology of mysticism. In section II of the essay, Freud at first tries to relate such sources to the chief means of palliating life’s suffering: i.e. “powerful diversions of interest, … substitutive gratifications, … and intoxicating substances” (10), which three may be taken as another iteration of the chief Platonic frenzies (dropping the Muses as was done by Ficino and his successors): oracular, erotic, and mantic. (In the writings of Aleister Crowley these become the musical, sexual, and pharmaceutical methods of inspiring ecstasy.) At the end of this section, Freud seems to imply that a chief function of religion is to guard against the abusive individual indulgence in the frenzies, and to supply a deferred substitute in the form of metaphysical guarantees. (As Crowley wrote, “No religion has failed hitherto by not promising enough; the present breaking up of all religions is due to the fact that people have asked to see the securities.”)

In the third of the essay’s eight sections, Freud pivots to concentrate on the business indicated by its title. He begins to explore the tensions between individual gratification on one hand and social growth and welfare on the other. In particular, he focuses at first on the occasional hostility toward cultural development as such, and the idealization of a pre-lapsarian state. As the discussion continues on to the etiology of culture generally, it becomes distinctly androcentric (“Women represent the interests of the family and sexual life; the work of civilization has become more and more men’s business,” 33) and culminates with a presentation of 1930s family life and sexual discipline that seems positively Victorian in the most pejorative sense of the term.

Returning to religion, Freud identifies the social instrumentality of the religious “love of neighbor,” as well as the insupportable demands that it makes of individuals. This context is the one in which he develops an outline of the conflict between Eros and Thanatos, the life-instinct and the death-instinct. The instinctual bind is what he then hypothesizes as the motive force in the development of the super-ego (i.e. conscience) in the individual.

In the closing passages, the idea of the super-ego of a community or of “an epoch of civilization” is introduced, and Freud proposes that such super-egos take their particular forms in reaction to perceived human figures, such as Jesus bestowing the “love of neighbor” fixation on the collective super-ego of Christian culture. The possibility to personify such a collective psychic function makes it provocatively similar to the “Aeon” as used in Thelemic parlance, especially when Freud posits the derangement and replacement of such a super-ego. And in this final section, while disclaiming “any opinion regarding the value of human civilization” (70), he does seem to come full circle to the critique of culture, suggesting that the survival of humanity itself may be dependent on the arrival at a new covenant between Eros and Thanatos at the collective level. [via]

The Future of an Illusion

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Future of an Illusion by Sigmund Freud.

In The Future of an Illusion, Freud suggests as a germinal postulate of religion, “Life in this world … signifies a perfecting of man’s nature. It is probably the spiritual part of man, the soul …” (23). The Greek for soul is psyche. Psychoanalysis, which set itself the task of diagnosing and treating the psyche (and not merely the conscious mind, nor the organic brain as such), seems to be a phenomenon in some measure tailor-made to supplement, supplant, or substitute for religion. Freud presented a clear claim that religion is a mass neurosis, not only in The Future of an Illusion, but also in his later work Moses and Monotheism. To the extent that one sees the collective problem of religious ‘delusion’ as analogous to obsessional neurosis in the individual, one might take psychoanalysis, the custodian of techniques to address the latter, as a point of departure to cope with the former. And while he does not make light of the difficulty in coming to do without traditional religions, Freud insists on the desirability and even “fatal inevitability” of such “growth” in the human condition (55).

The “care of souls” is the pastoral function in Christian religion, and equally a mission of psychoanalysis as a therapeutic institution, with its priestly class of analysts. Freud does not hold himself back from the pleasures of religiously-based rhetoric. For example, he writes that “the questions which religious doctrine finds it so easy to answer” … “might be called too sacred” to be addressed in a traditional, unquestioning manner (40). Taking a cue from the Dutch anti-colonialist Multatuli, Freud makes reference to “our God, Logos” slowly fulfilling the desires of mankind (69). And he sometimes shows a rather “religious” tendency (as he would perhaps describe it) to pick and choose among scientific theories for the sake of doctrinal coherence in psychoanalysis.

In one of his devil’s advocate passages in The Future of an Illusion, Freud remarks, “If you want to expel religion from our European civilization, you can only do it by means of another system of doctrines,” which would itself engender a functional religion, with all of the concomitant drawbacks (65-6). In replying to his own objection, Freud emphasizes the desired differences in his post-religious system: it is to be non-delusive and more capable of being corrected. It will be science, not religion. But Freudian psychoanalysis, for all of its scientific trappings, is already at some remove from the positivist territory of the physical sciences. It is no closer to, say, biology, than the monotheism of Moses was to the polytheistic religion of eastern Mediterranean antiquity. In effect, Freud’s proposal is that the superstitious religion of traditions focused on God should be replaced in the future with a scientific religion trained on the soul. [via]

Moses the Egyptian

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism by Jan Assmann from Harvard University Press:

Jan Assmann's Moses the Egyptian from Harvard University Press


Assman is an Egyptologist by profession, but this book is a more general work of “mnemohistory,” in which he sets forth a history of the development of the “Mosaic distinction.” It is an example of the best and most responsible sort of historical deconstruction, with the aim of sleuthing out “religious antagonism and its overcoming,” which should be welcome to sagacious readers everywhere. It provides a serious, detailed treatment about the historical figure of Moses as it has been alternately opposed to and aligned with evolving appreciation for ancient Egyptian religion.

After some intellectual background, the first set of chapters begin by treating classical literary sources, and then work through an historical sequence beginning with English Hebraist John Spencer (1630-1693), and progressing through Renaissance Hermetists, Enlightenment freethinkers (at which point expressly Masonic contributions to the topic start to appear), Spinozists, Friedrich Schiller, and 19th Century “cosmotheism,” to Freud’s Moses and Monotheism.

That survey concluded, Assmann returns to ancient Egypt and shares some of the latest contemporary research on the Amarna religion (or anti-religion) of Akhenaten, long espoused as the possible point of origin for Western monotheism. That chapter should be of value to anyone interested in mysticism or esoteric traditions, as it treats an ancient approach to the divine as Light. [via]



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Pax Hominibus Bonae Voluntatis by Aleister Crowley in International, Dec 1917.

“These words, ‘Peace to men of good will,’ have been mistranslated, ‘Good will towards men.’ Christ said that he did not come to bring peace, but a sword; that he would divide mother from son and father from daughter, careless of the effect of such remarks upon the feelings of Dr. Sigmund Freud.” [via]

Psychological Effects of Pathworking from Problems on the Path of Return by Mark Stavish, M.A. in Vol 3 No 1 of Caduceus.

“While many therapists and esotericists are familiar with the writings of Carl Jung and have applied them in some form to their respective work, the realm of therapy that is most important to esoteric students during practical alchemical and ritual work is more closely akin to Freud than Jung. Depth psychology is often overlooked in the rush to the mountaintop, and Jung has been gutted by many of his would be advocates of his psychoanalytical content. Yet even both of these systems combined will only give a glimpse into the interior worlds, as they lack effective techniques for the kind of initiation that most esotericists seek.” [via]