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Freud's Will to Power

Ronald W. Dworkin

Legend has it that Freud, although educated in the philosophies of his day, studiously avoided the work of Nietzsche to preserve the originality of his ideas against external influence. Nietzsche’s analysis of the human psyche, how values were supposedly projections of people’s unspoken jealousies and fears, ran dangerously close to Freud’s idea (still a work in progress at the end of the 19th century) that the roots of conscious behavior lay in unconscious desires.

But after reading Dr. Peter Kramer’s outstanding new biography of Freud (HarperCollins, 213 pages, $21.95), one wonders if Freud feared something else, not influence but self-knowledge, for Dr. Kramer’s Freud is practically the living embodiment of Nietzsche’s will to power. It’s not simply that Freud was incredibly ambitious. (At age four, after soiling a chair, he reassured his mother that he would grow up to be a great man and buy her another.) Rather, it was Freud’s determination to systematize the world, to bring order to chaos, and to impose his theory of life on life itself a determination so intense that one of Freud’s colleagues called it a “psychical need.”

This criticism of Freud the systematizer runs throughout Dr. Kramer’s book, highlighted by Freud’s irritating tendency to generalize whole theories of human nature from a handful of personal observations.

From just a few sexual abuse cases, Freud theorized that hysteria resulted from sexual molestation during childhood, and that such abuse was common. Yet his charge lacked factual basis; the notion that parents all over Europe were routinely assaulting the “vaginas, buccal cavities, and rectums” of their children strained the imagination. His colleagues rightly laughed.

Freud built his theory of the Oedipus complex on an equally gross generalization, namely that all children want to kill their fathers and commit incest with their mothers. Yet a few questionable patient experiences hardly confirm a new truth about human nature. What are we to make of a man who, according to Kramer, approached people through theory rather than through natural understanding?

When the will to power infects an artist, the results are often illuminating and entertaining, without danger, because an artist can’t hurt anyone with paint or clay. When the will to power infects a politician, it can be very dangerous:

Men in the grip of fanaticism bend people and events according to their theory of what is right and good. Just think of Stalin’s forced collectivization and Hitler’s notion of Lebensraum.

Freud lies somewhere in between. When he writes, “We shall in the end conquer every resistance by emphasizing the unshakable nature of our convictions,” he sounds like any fascist or a commissar. But, of course, Freud was a doctor and not a politician he lacked police powers and he could only hurt people so much.

Research that came to light only in the 1980s offers one example of the kind of trouble he caused. Freud jumped to conclusions and accused a male patient (who, on reflection, probably suffered from bipolar disorder) of latent homosexual tendencies. He told the man to divorce his wife and marry his mistress, and then told his mistress that if she refused to comply, the patient might never return to “normality.” The couple took Freud’s advice, delivered more as a command, and married. They divorced three years later, both their lives ruined.

Although today’s psychiatric establishment has largely disowned Freud, his reputation as a wise man lives on, in part because of his immense literary talent. Rumor has it that at one point Freud was considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature, so beautifully written are his books.

But Freud’s reputation thrives mostly because he is still viewed as a scientist rather than as a philosopher. Because knowledge in science is cumulative, with each generation of scientists building on the work of previous ones, Freud’s work is seen as somehow contributing to the great edifice.

This is wrong. In real science, things are given names because they have value hence the words “atom” and “molecule.” In Freudian psychoanalysis, things have value because they are given names “Oedipus complex,” “castration anxiety” and only because enough people have been convinced of their value. If scientists ignored atoms and molecules, these particles would still exist and exert vital effects. If Freudian concepts are ignored, their value, their very existence, is gone forever. Freudian analysis is not science; it is fashion, totally dependent on public acclaim.

Freud did not discover the unconscious. Other doctors had written on the subject before him. Nor did he discover phenomena like Freudian “slips,” “displacement,” and “transference.” What he did was give these mental phenomena names, turn them into symbols, and then use these symbols to create road signs and boundaries in the vast infinite of the human mind. He was just one more man of letters who tried to tame that monster of energy: life.

Order out of chaos. Will to power. These may be the only truisms about human nature in the whole Freud saga.

This article originally appeared in the November 29, 2006, New York Post.

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