Freud -- with Marx, Darwin and Einstein -- ranks among the intellectual fathers of the 20th Century. The core concepts of Freudian psychoanalysis still pervade Western society. We talk about the meaning of dreams, make "Freudian" slips, appreciate the power of unconscious desires and accept the influence of childhood experiences on the adult. However, Freud’s relevance for the 21st Century lies more in his call for a renovation of human consciousness. Freud's concern with the health of the soul and the support he sought to give to reason and intellect places him in a dialogue with Plato and gives psychoanalysis roots deep in Western culture. Both Freud and Plato practiced statecraft of the soul, reforming the “inner city” that determines individual and collective character. Both attempted to help the individual gain control over desire through establishing proper order among the parts of the soul.
As we move through these first years of the new millennium, it sometimes appears that the world has become too large, too complex and more dangerous and inhospitable every day. We seem beset by nightmares: terrorism, fanaticism, fascism, communism, tribalism, nationalism, racism and the other -isms that have prevented us, as individuals and as societies, from thinking clearly and acting with humanity. We paid dearly for these nightmares in the 20th century and the end is nowhere in sight. We feel increasingly challenged to preserve a minimum sense of security and well being in the midst of the planet-wide struggle of billions of others to do the same. In this struggle, our political systems -- the governments that oversee our domestic and foreign affairs and the organizations that connect us internationally -- often seem overwhelmed by the effort to stave off ever-threatening crises and disasters of one kind or the other. No place, no one, no system appears immune to difficulty. At a time when the major ideological and systemic competitors to Western liberal-democracy and free-market capitalism have collapsed, neither democracy nor the market appear to offer, by themselves, the answers we need to our many problems.
We in the West have been especially blessed by history. But with an abundance of natural and human resources, a long and secure tradition of democracy and individual rights, and the strongest and richest mass economies the world has ever seen, we nevertheless remain afflicted by poverty, prejudice, racial injustice, declining living standards and political system mired in parochialism and shortsighted partisanship. We have proved incapable of preventing the death of innocent men, women and children from terror, war, famine and disease -- which are, after all, largely the result of human action or inaction. And although the world has providentially taken a step back from nuclear Armageddon, we are still poisoning our environment and degrading its capability to feed, care and comfort us. To be fair, it is not that we are at a loss for ways to resolve many of these problems. One can imagine solutions to most of them that could succeed if we were determined enough, worked hard enough and sacrificed enough. Yet, when we are not dreaming, it seems naive to believe that we could ever achieve such outcomes in the "real" world. So, our feet firmly planted on the ground, we hope for the best while fearing, more and more, the worst.
In all, it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that we have reached a point in global history that demands finding new ways to live, individually and collectively. We have lost our faith in ourselves and in our ability to reason our way forward. After the terrors of the 20th Century, the Enlightenment and its faith in the ability of human intellect to help us perfect our world have come to seem like a bad joke. The nightmares have entered our very souls and made us doubt our ability to think, reason, discuss and decide with our fellow human beings the many problems that we face. Some believe that the only response is to trust instinct, listen to our blood, and fight to protect what we have while seizing the high ground before others do so. Reason must be rescued if we are to find a better way.
Freud can yet help us begin. His conception of the human soul and the conflict within us reconnects our problems with the similar concerns of Plato and Aristotle. Freud's work recalls Socrates' invitation, in the Republic, to establish within ourselves the rule of reason without which we cannot have just and well-ordered societies. 2300 years later, this solution remains difficult to achieve. But after all this time, we have even more cause to believe that "knowing thyself" may be the only way to leave the nightmares behind.