Sigmund Freud was born into a Jewish family in Freiburg, Moravia (now Pribor, Czech Republic), in May 1856. Before he reached his 10th birthday, the family settled in Vienna, Austria.
Though he insisted that he hated Vienna, he stayed there until early in 1938 when the Anschluss (the forced union of Austria with the Nazi Third Reich) drove him to seek refuge in England. There he spent the last year of his life, dying in London in September 1939 on the cusp of the Second World War.
Freud studied medicine and graduated in 1881 from the University of Vienna, having specialized in the newly emerging field of neurology. In 1885 he worked briefly with J.-M. Charcot in Paris, who helped pioneer the separation of psychiatry from neurology as a distinct field of study and treatment.
As time went on, Freud developed a process he called psychoanalysis—the conscious, piece-by-piece analysis of the causes of neurotic behavior in an individual, with a view to breaking down the complex. He often quoted his work as a practical implementation of Christ’s words in John 8:32: “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
He revolutionized modern thinking about dreams and outlined the now widely accepted notion that dreaming results from unguarded thinking of the subconscious part of the brain. He reasoned that, though its communicative skill was low, this “dreaming brain” offered insights—and escaped “conscious repression” by the conscious brain—that further revealed truth and could be used in the treatment of mental health problems. These views are now considered fanciful and simplistic.
It is another aspect of Freud’s work that has had the greatest impact on human life in the West during the 20th century.
It is another aspect of Freud’s work that has had the greatest impact on human life in the West during the 20th century: his reevaluation of the role of sex and sexual behavior. Freud taught that sexual repression was the chief psychological problem of mankind. He surmised that repression and constriction of sexual behavior in youth would become manifest in adulthood.
Where Western society (often under the guise of “Christian morality”) had long treated sex as a taboo subject and covered over both normal and abnormal sexual behavior as “sin”—or at least shameful—there had been great neglect of appropriate help and correction. Freud was able to persuade his opponents and admirers alike that sexual repression was rampant, unhealthy, and the indirect cause of much crime, illness and woe.
Through psychoanalysis, Freud set out to uncover his patients’ sexual repression. His influence lives on today, not only in the Freudian school of analysis but in rival schools introduced by some of his foremost followers. He added numerous words to our language, which remain in popular use today: “the unconscious,” “guilt complex,” “the ego,” “sublimation,” “the Freudian slip,” and “death instinct”—later to become “death wish”—to name but a few.
Though not everyone today shares Freud’s contention that sex surrounds almost every human action and emotion even from infancy, his teachings have profoundly shaped the everyday thinking of modern society as a whole. At least in part, this is because people are eager to see their behavior as something other than “sin.”
Some have taken Freud’s teachings beyond the realization that sex is a natural and normal function. They have gradually come to the unjustified conclusion that they can blame much of their unacceptable behavior on subconscious rather than conscious thought, leading to the further conclusion that they cannot be held fully responsible for their actions and character flaws. Many people now believe that they are merely victims of the subconscious mind, which is shaped by past events and relationships over which they have no control. Thus Freud’s doctrine of unnatural repression has been used as a broad brush to whitewash behavior that society has traditionally considered inappropriate. Yet repression addresses only one small aspect of sin and responsibility.
The pernicious effect of Freud’s studies on our modern world is that his message is largely responsible for the unwillingness of so many to see themselves as accountable for their actions and personal problems. Further, his insights were perceived as a replacement for a relationship with God. The analyst’s couch became a kind of secular confessional as people looked for humanistic and psychological solutions to moral issues.