Politics & Policy

Dinner With Greats

Imagine sitting with Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis.

Whom would you most like to sit between at a fantasy dinner party? Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant? Martin Luther and Pope John Paul II? Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill? Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate?

If you were to ask Harvard professor of psychiatry Armand Nicholi for his choice, he would probably say Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis–the most eloquent spokesmen of the competing secular and spiritual worldviews. “I think they would have a great deal to discuss,” he says. “It would be the most exciting discussion that one could possibly have between two human beings.”

Nicholi’s enthusiasm is understandable. The administrators at Harvard recruited him 30 years ago to teach a course on Freud, the world-renowned father of psychoanalysis. While the course was centered on Freud’s medical and scientific Weltanschauung, the students complained about the course’s unbalance. “It was one sustained attack on the spiritual worldview,” they told him.

Based on the testimony of his students, Nicholi knew that Freud needed an interlocutor to spar over ideas of great consequence. He began to search for a voice that would defend and define the spiritual worldview and act as a counterweight to Freud’s relentless atheism. Aware that he needed someone with Freud’s intellectual credibility, Nicholi was reminded of The Problem of Pain, a book by literature professor C. S. Lewis that he had read during medical school. The book had a profound effect upon Nicholi as he came face to face with so much suffering–particularly in young children with fatal illnesses.

As he reacquainted himself with Lewis’s work, Nicholi was struck by the parallelism in his writing and Freud’s. It was as if Lewis was attempting to answer Freud’s questions one by one. “I was startled by this,” Nicholi says. “I realized that Freud was the father of the new literary criticism that was sweeping the universities of Europe at that time. Freud gave the literary critics new tools for understanding human behavior, as described in the great literature. So Lewis knew Freud’s writings well and after he changed his worldview from secular to spiritual, and began to define it and defend it, whose arguments did he answer but those of Freud?” After all, these were the very arguments that Lewis himself had used to defend his atheism prior to his conversion.

Two years ago, Nicholi explored these points and counterpoints in his book, The Question of God: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life. PBS is currently airing a documentary by the same title (Part II airs Wednesday night) that allows the men to wrestle over questions such as: What does it mean to be happy? If God exists, then why is there so much pain and suffering in the world? What is the source of our morality? Is death our only destiny?

“It would be an undoubted advantage if we were to leave God out altogether and admit all the purely human origins of precepts and regulations of civilization,” an actor portraying Freud says in the film.

The C. S. Lewis portrayal counters, “God created things that have free will. This means creatures who can go either wrong or right. But a great many things have gone wrong with the world that God made. And God insists on our putting them right again.”

You get a sense of the documentary’s rhythm and the way in which these two men grapple with the big questions as if they were debating in a lecture hall. And how would the discussion go between the two men over dinner?

“They would talk a great deal about the great literature,” Nicholi responds. “Freud thought the greatest piece of literature was Milton’s Paradise Lost. It was one of the greatest books he ever read. And Lewis was an authority on Paradise Lost. He wrote a preface to Paradise Lost that I think is still used wherever courses on Milton are taught.”

The two intellects had much in common. Both of them were bright in school and brought up in the religions of their families–Judaism for Freud, Protestant Christianity for Lewis. As children, both of them embraced a nominal kind of faith until they both became atheists.

Freud and Lewis would have much to discuss with regard to pain, suffering, and the devastation of war. “Freud was deeply affected by the First World War,” says Nicholi. “He had two sons that were in it. He looked deeply at human nature, trying to understand it, and why human beings would spend so much time destroying one another. And he came up with his theory of the ‘death instinct.’ That there’s not only the libido, the desire to build and to procreate, but also a destructive instinct that was part of human nature.”

Lewis would have most certainly understood Freud’s perspective, but he ultimately comes at it from a different position. “Of course, Lewis agreed that there was something very destructive, and sinful, about human nature,” says Nicholi. “He agreed with Freud that people need alteration. Freud thought they could be changed by psychoanalysis, by introspection, and so forth. And Lewis, of course, thought that the only way people could be dramatically changed was through redemption and atonement. People needed a spiritual rebirth.”

In the midst of the plumes of smoke (both men loved their tobacco), it would not be long before their dinner conversation would turn to God. “They would have wonderful arguments about the existence of God,” says Nicholi. “Freud seemed to be obsessed with that question. I mean, you read the first letters that we have when he was in college, and they’re filled with arguments for the existence of God. And he, at that time, wrote that science seems to demand the existence of God.”

Despite his resolute atheism, Freud could not escape his God-hauntedness. “The last book that he writes at the end of his life is on Moses and monotheism,” Nicholi points out. “He can’t leave the subject alone. I think that they would be off on that topic in two minutes flat.”

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News magazine and the creator of Thunderstruck.org.

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