May 18, 2001

1. Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche

Our book group recently read Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Idiot.

Dostoyevsky believed that atheism, which was beginning to flourish in his lifetime, was a development of momentous importance. Dostoyevsky believed that, as a consequence of atheism, people would throw off all moral restraints, that everything would be permitted. Dostoyevsky believed that communism was a by-product of atheism. The atheists and communists in Dostoyevsky’s novels often propose to slaughter millions of people in the name of a political goal.

Nietzsche’s views on these matters were similar to Dostoyevsky’s — so similar that one even finds the same phrases in both writers. Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche reached the same conclusions independently of each other. They foresaw (more accurately than anyone else) the calamitous course of 20th-century history. The views of Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche can be expressed in an equation; I call it the Dostoyevsky-Nietzsche equation:

death of God = death of morality = genocide

This equation had more influence over the 20th century than e = mc². One character in The Idiot (Ippolit) spends much time discussing suicide. If there’s anything of which Dostoyevsky’s atheists are more fond than genocide, it’s suicide. Dostoyevsky’s atheists have lost their faith — their faith in God, their faith in man, their faith in life, their faith in the universe. In Dostoyevsky’s time, there was an epidemic of suicide in Russia. One might say that, under the Czar, Russian atheists killed themselves, and after the fall of the Czar, they killed other people.

Ippolit and the other atheists also contemplate murder, and sometimes commit murder. Ippolit is dying of consumption, and thinks that he’s out of reach of the law: “‘What if the fancy suddenly took me to kill some one, a dozen people at once... What a predicament my judges would be in, with my having only a fortnight to live, now that corporal punishment and torture is abolished. I should die comfortably in hospital, warm and snug, with an attentive doctor, and very likely much more snug and comfortable than at home.’”1 Ippolit is not restrained from murder by any moral scruples.

Thus, we can modify the Dostoyevsky-Nietzsche equation as follows:

death of God = death of morality = suicide/homicide/genocide

Another character in The Idiot, Lebedev, delivers a diatribe against the railways, and against “the entire spirit of these last centuries, in its scientific and practical totality.”2 In Lebedev’s view (which is doubtless Dostoyevsky’s own view), the problem with modern society is not just atheism, but the emphasis on science, on mastering nature, on technology, on industry, on economics, and a corresponding neglect of the inner life, the soul, the spiritual dimension, religion. Modern man has turned away from the inner world, and directed his energies onto the outer world. Since the Renaissance, he has lost his faith, and worshipped reason. Our aim is to make our trains a little faster, our computers a little faster. As the Lexus ad puts it, we’re engaged in “the relentless pursuit of perfection” — the perfection not of ourselves, but of our machines.

Communism sought to create a perfect society, a utopia, by ignoring the inner life, and focusing all its energies on the external, the material.

In a religious age, in an age of faith, unconscious forces are harmonized by religious symbols. In our age, these unconscious forces are like a river that has escaped the riverbed and flows wildly over the land. Our machines have carried us to the moon, but they haven’t prevented us from falling victim to a sickness of the soul, a split between the untamed unconscious and the rationalistic consciousness. Let’s modify our equation once more:

death of God = mental discord and spiritual sickness = death of morality = suicide/homicide/genocide

2. Freud on Aggression

In addition to Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, our book group recently read Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents. Written when Freud was 75, this little book is full of profound ideas. It isn’t an easy book to read; the reader must strain to grasp all the ideas that it contains. It’s a penetrating analysis of human nature, it throws light on the dark side of human nature. Based on his analysis of human nature, Freud makes predictions about the future, predictions that proved to be accurate. All things considered, one must regard this book as a philosophical work of the highest order.

Pascal once said, “All men naturally hate each other.”3 This is what Freud discusses in Civilization and Its Discontents: the dark side of human nature, the hostile, violent impulses in human nature. This book alone can refute the myth that Freud is obsessed with sexuality, that Freud finds sexual motives behind all human actions.

Freud mentions the religious commandment, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” and calls it, “a commandment which is really justified by the fact that nothing else runs so strongly counter to the original nature of man.”4 Freud says that each of us, drawing on our own life experience, can prove his assertions about the original nature of man: “The time comes when each one of us has to give up as illusions the expectations which, in his youth, he pinned upon his fellow-men, and when he may learn how much difficulty and pain has been added to his life by their ill-will.”5 Nor is it only our neighbor who harbors hostile impulses, we ourselves harbor them; Freud speaks of “this inclination to aggression, which we can detect in ourselves and justly assume to be present in others.”6

“Men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus (Man is a wolf to man.).... Anyone who calls to mind the atrocities committed during the racial migrations or the invasions of the Huns, or by the people known as Mongols under Jenghis Khan and Tamerlane, or at the capture of Jerusalem by the pious Crusaders, or even, indeed, the horrors of the recent World War — anyone who calls these things to mind will have to bow humbly before the truth of this view.”7

Freud scoffs at communism, which blames private property for the evil in human society; “Aggressiveness was not created by property.”8 If you abolish private property, says Freud, people will fight over sexual relationships. If you declare complete sexual freedom, and abolish the family, it is impossible to foresee how civilization will develop, but we can be sure of one thing: aggression will continue to be part of it.

How is it possible for people to cooperate with each other? Freud says that two people can be bound together if they have a third person on whom they can vent their aggressive impulses. “The dream of a Germanic world-dominion called for anti-Semitism as its complement.”9 Russian communists were bound together by their hostility to the bourgeois; “one only wonders, with concern, what the Soviets will do after they have wiped out their bourgeois.”10 These sentences were written before Stalin and Hitler committed their worst atrocities. The accuracy of Freud’s predictions validates his analysis of human nature.

When Freud says that violent action is “accompanied by an extraordinarily high degree of narcissistic enjoyment,”11 one thinks of those American students who shoot their classmates, and grin broadly while doing so, evidently enjoying themselves immensely.

Freud’s broad education is evident throughout Civilization and Its Discontents. He frequently quotes Goethe, and occasionally Shakespeare. He also quotes Heine: “Mine is a most peaceable disposition. My wishes are: a humble cottage with a thatched roof, but a good bed, good food, the freshest milk and butter, flowers before my window, and a few fine trees before my door; and if God wants to make my happiness complete, he will grant me the joy of seeing some six or seven of my enemies hanging from those trees.”12

One reason I enjoy reading Freud is that he treats the reader with courtesy, he treats the reader like a friend, like a companion who is joining him on a search for truth. As an example of Freud’s courtesy, permit me to quote the start of the book’s final chapter: “Having reached the end of his journey, the author must ask his readers’ forgiveness for not having been a more skillful guide and for not having spared them empty stretches of road and troublesome detours. There is no doubt that it could have been done better.”

When you read Freud, you feel that you are in the company of a great intellectual — bold and original, yet also cautious and skeptical; searching for ultimate truths, yet also admitting when truth is uncertain or elusive. Like all great intellectuals, Freud has a deep love for civilization, for cultural tradition. This is apparent in the first chapter of Civilization and Its Discontents, when Freud discusses the history of Rome. This discussion of the history of Rome is occasioned by a discussion of the nature of the mind; Freud mentions that nothing is ever completely forgotten, that everything is preserved in the mind, and can be recalled in certain circumstances. He compares this to the history of Rome, in which earlier buildings are preserved alongside later ones. Freud’s lengthy, detailed description of Rome shows his respect for tradition, for civilization.

Freud scorns American civilization, perhaps because it lacks the respect for tradition, the courteous tone, that one finds in Freud’s own work. Though Freud anticipated the atrocities of Hitler and Stalin, he felt that one of the greatest threats to civilization was the American spirit, the un-civilized, un-traditional, un-respectful tone of American culture. In nations like the U.S., “the bonds of a society are chiefly constituted by the identification of its members with one another, while individuals of the leader type do not acquire the importance that should fall to them in the formation of a group.... But I shall avoid the temptation of entering upon a critique of American civilization; I do not wish to give an impression of wanting myself to employ American methods.”13

3. May 16 Discussion:
Freud and Nietzsche on Morality

Our Freud discussion was lively, one of the best discussions we’ve had. The discussion began with someone saying that Civilization and Its Discontents is difficult to read. That’s a valid point: it’s not a good introductory work, like Jung’s Man and His Symbols, or Freud’s own Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis.

We discussed Freud’s idea that man has a deep-seated impulse toward violence, a by-product of the death-instinct. Someone mentioned that a tiger needs to be violent in order to live. So how can its violence be called an expression of the death-instinct? I mentioned that Konrad Lorenz (the expert on animal behavior) made the same argument: that aggression among animals is often an expression of their life-instinct, their drive for self-preservation and procreation. Since man is an animal, isn’t it possible that human aggression also springs from the life-instinct, at least part of the time? Doesn’t war spread civilization as often as it damages civilization? Isn’t European civilization a by-product of Roman conquests? Isn’t every civilization a by-product of conquest?

Someone asked about the relationship between Freud and Nietzsche. I said that there was a striking agreement in their views on morality: Freud and Nietzsche both felt that morality was often influenced by a death-instinct, that morality often represented aggression against the ego, aggression against life. I was asked to explain this further. I gave an example: a monk spends years sitting on top of a column, wearing a hair shirt at all times, except when he is whipping himself. In such a case, morality is doing violence to the self, the super-ego is raging against the ego; in such a case, morality resembles suicide.

So Freud and Nietzsche both believed that morality is related to aggression, to a death-instinct. I believe that Freud and Nietzsche reached this paradoxical view independently of each other. Did Freud know that Nietzsche viewed morality in this way? Did he regard Nietzsche’s view of morality as similar to his own (as I believe it is)? Was he pleased that his view of morality was in agreement with Nietzsche’s?

This view of morality is an important point. It leads to Nietzsche’s view that moral thinkers are decadent, while amoral thinkers are healthy, renaissance-type. This idea is the core of Nietzsche’s philosophy. My theory of history (my theory of renaissance and decadence) rests on this idea, rests on the idea that morality is linked to decadence. (See chapter 14 of my book, Conversations With Great Thinkers.)

Where did I get this idea, from Nietzsche or from Freud? Actually, from neither, I developed it myself, it grew out of my own experience. (Most big ideas in philosophy are ideas of the time, discovered by more than one thinker.) When I was fifteen, I read Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Stoic, and I tried to live a Stoic life. After experimenting for several months with the Stoic life, I gradually reached the conclusion that the Stoic life was not the good life, that it led to depression of spirits and to friction within oneself. (My experience was not unlike that of Martin Luther, who joined a monastery, and tried to live according to strict rules, but found that the monastic life was not the good life.)

I began reading Montaigne, and I found his ethics to be better. Montaigne advocated natural ethics, he advocated expressing your whole nature, instead of encouraging your reason to control the rest of your nature. I rejected the moral approach, and when I glanced at Nietzsche’s work, I was fascinated to discover that he, too, rejected the moral approach, and called it decadent. Shortly afterwards (if I remember correctly) I discovered that Freud, too, was suspicious of morality, and felt that it was influenced by the death-instinct.

How is it possible for a teenager to think along the same lines as Nietzsche and Freud? It is not only possible, it is natural and normal. The teenager is more profound and original than the adult; as Schopenhauer said, “If we are to be acquainted with deep truths, everything depends upon a proper use of our early years.... Youth is the time for forming fundamental conceptions.”14 Burke wrote his treatise on the sublime, “his only purely philosophical work,” when he was a teenager. Many years later, when he was asked to expand it, “Burke replied that he was no longer fit for abstract speculation.”15

© L. James Hammond 2002
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1. The Idiot, III, 7 back
2. ibid, III, 4 back
3. Pensées, Penguin Classics, #210 back
4. Civilization and Its Discontents, ch. 5 back
5. ibid back
6. ibid back
7. ibid back
8. ibid back
9. ibid back
10. ibid back
11. ibid, ch. 6 back
12. ibid, ch. 5, footnote back
13. ibid, ch. 5 back
14. Counsels and Maxims, 5 back
15. Wikipedia back