This will be an occasional series on some influential modern thinkers who influenced the world of unbelief. These are notes based on an essay by Peter Kreeft, author of Socrates Meets Freud: The Father of Philosophy Meets the Father of Psychology (St. Augustine’s Press, 2014).

Who was Sigmund Freud?

An Austrian neurologist and author who founded psychoanalysis.

When did he live?

From 1856 to 1939. (For American point of reference, he was born 5 years before the US Civil War and died in the same month as World War II began.)

What were his main vocations and what was his influence in each?

  1. He was the inventor of the practical therapeutic technique of psychoanalysis. (He was a genius; psychologists today stand in his debt for some of his insights.)
  2. He was a theoretical psychologist. (Like Columbus, he mapped out some new continents but made some major mistakes.)
  3. He was a philosopher and religious thinker. (Here he was strictly an amateur and little more than an adolescent.)

How did Freud approach psychology?

He wanted to reduce the complex to the controllable, and he wanted to make psychology into an exact science. (This doesn’t work, though, because man is never only an object but also a subject.)

What was his greatest work?

The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). He rightly emphasized the subconscious forces that move us, but he underemphasized their depth and complexity.

What was Freud’s most influential teaching?

Sexual reductionism.

As an atheist, Freud reduced God to the dream of a man.

As a materialist, Freud ultimately reduced man to sex.

God → dream of a man

man → his body

the human body → animal desire

desire → sexual desire

sexual desire → genital sex

In what ways do thinkers like Freud confuse wants and needs?

Premise 1 below may be true, but premises 2, 3, and 4 do not follow from it.

  1. All normal human beings have sexual wants or desires.
  2. These sexual wants or desires are needs or rights.
  3. No one can be expected to live without gratifying these sexual needs or rights.
  4. To suppress these sexual wants or desires is psychologically unhealthy.


How did Freud divide up the human psyche?

He identified three divisions, but these are not the same as the traditional notions of appetite, will, and intellect (and conscience).

  1. Super-ego. The unfree, passive reflection in an individual’s psyche of societal “thou shalt nots”—restrictions on his desires. We need to realize that our “own” insights into good and evil is simply a mirror of man-made social laws.
  2. Ego. A mere facade; there is no free will.
  3. Id. The only real self is impersonal; it’s comprised simply of animal desires.

Just as Freud denied God (“I Am”), he denies God’s image, the human “I.”

For Freud, what is the fundamental illusion of humanity?


What did he see as the only light?

Materialistic scientism.

What are his most famous anti-religion books?

  • Moses and Monotheism (1939)
  • The Future of an Illusion (1927)

Where did Freud believe that the infantile illusion of religion came from?

Four sources:

  1. Ignorance. Religion is a pre-scientific guess at how nature works (if there is thunder, there must be a Thunderer, a Zeus).
  2. Fear. Religion is our invention of a heavenly substitute for the earthly father (he dies, gets old, goes away, or sends his children out of the secure home into the frightening world of responsibility).
  3. Fantasy. God is the product of wish-fulfillment (there’s an all-powerful providential force behind the terrifyingly impersonal appearances of life).
  4. GuiltGod is the ensurer of moral behavior (once, long ago, a son killed his father, the head of a great tribe; that primal murder has haunted the human race’s subconscious memory ever since).

What was Freud’s most philosophical book?

Civilization and Its Discontents (1930).

What was the argument?

The meaning of life and human happiness are unattainable. But we can experience psychotherapy, moving ”from unmanageable unhappiness to manageable unhappiness.”

  1. We are animals seeking pleasure, motivated only by “the pleasure principle.”
  2. We need the order of civilization to save us from the pain of chaos.
  3. But the restrictions of civilization curtail our desires.
  4. So the very thing we invented as a means to our happiness becomes our obstacle.

What did he mean by eros and thanatos?

The pleasure principle leads us in two opposite directions:

  1. Eros leads us forward, into life, love, the future and hope.
  2. Thanatos leads us back to the womb, where alone we had no pain.

We resent life and our mothers for birthing us into pain. .


Freud prophetically saw the power of the death wish in the modern world and was unsure which of these two “heavenly forces,” as he called them, would win out. He died an atheist but almost a mystic. He had enough of the pagan in him to offer some profound insights, usually mixed up with outrageous blind spots. He calls to mind C.S. Lewis’ description of pagan mythology: “gleams of celestial strength and beauty falling on a jungle of filth and imbecility.”

What raises Freud far above Marx and secular humanism is his insight into the demon in man, the tragic dimension of life and our need for salvation. Unfortunately, he saw the Judaism he rejected and the Christianity he scorned as fairy tales, too good to be true. His tragic sense was rooted in his separation between the true and the good, “the reality principle” and happiness.

Only God can join them at their summit.