In my Introduction to Philosophy course we are reading Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents. In Chapter 5, Freud makes the following strong claim about human nature:
“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 kill him. Homo homini lupus [Man is a wolf to man]” (68).
Aggression, slavery, rape, theft, sadism, and murder as the center of human nature.
Freud is not making the innocuous claim that we can experience aggressive and anti-social urges. He is making the strong claim that such anti-social urges are inborn and dominant in us.
By contrast, Freud believes, our rational and cooperative capacities are much weaker: “instinctual passions are stronger than reasonable interests.” Consequently, mankind’s history is dominated by crime, war, and atrocity, and “civilized society is perpetually threatened with disintegration” (69). The modest successes of civilization are a tenuously fragile veneer over a mutually predatory intra-species conflict. “Who,” Freud asks, “in the face of all his experience of life and history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion?”
I do; and there are lots of issues worth following up there, but in this post I want to make one sideways connection to another book we read in the course, C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity.
Freud is an atheist who disparages the Christian tradition and Lewis is a theist who defends the Christian tradition, but they are in marked agreement in their assessment of human nature.
Go back to the Garden of Eden in the story of Genesis. God has created a place of ease and loveliness and left Adam and Eve free to enjoy it. In their first independent act, they steal from the Tree of Knowledge. In the next generation, Cain envies Abel and murders him. The book of Genesis carries on through several generations until the time of Noah, when “the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5).
God is so disgusted with what his creatures have wrought that he wipes them out (even the children) and starts over with Noah. But the humans pick right up where they left off and continue their wicked ways — more theft and murder and deceit and war and every form of nastiness. That is Original Sin: the innate badness in man dominates his existence.
Freud has a secular version of the same view of human nature.
As Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity in commenting directly on Freud’s views, “But psychoanalysis itself … is not in the least contradictory to Christianity” (p. 88). Lewis notes there are metaphysical differences between the Christians and the Freudians — the Christians add a God and a rather ineffectual immortal soul to their ontology — but their view of human nature in action is the same.
On this issue, the key divide is not between dualists and physicalists but between the pessimists (e.g., Freud, the Christians) and the optimists (e.g., Socrates, Rand) about the raw material of human nature.