Written by Vladimir Moss



     If Darwin defined the modern, twentieth-century attitude to the physical and biological world, and Marx did the same in relation to the social and political world, Sigmund Freud defined it in relation to the inner world of the psyche, including religion. His theory, like theirs, is a doctrine of will understood in the broadest sense; he takes the will to survive, to conquer and to reproduce that we find in the physical, biological and social worlds, and internalizes it within the individual psyche and in particular within the unconscious, the “id”. The purpose of this article is to examine to what extent Freudianism is compatible with Orthodoxy, and in particular whether the Freudian “id” has any relation to the Christian concept of original sin.

The Theory of Psychoanalysis

     Great sea-changes in human thought are often accompanied by changes in the honour accorded to particular human faculties. The Renaissance, for example, exalted reason; hence the heretical mind-set that exaggerates the power of reason that we know as rationalism. The Romantic era, on the other hand, tended to downgrade reason in favour of the irrational faculties of will, imagination and emotion, which in artistic geniuses were considered capable of attaining higher truths than those attained by philosophers and scientists.[1] Another human faculty that came into prominence during the Romantic era was memory, both collective and individual. The nineteenth century marks the heyday of historiography and historicism and the belief that the truth about a man, a nation or an epoch is to be discovered above all in his or its history: “In my beginning is my end”.

     Freud inherited all three trends: rationalist, romantic-irrationalist and historicist. Thus he considered himself first and foremost a rationalist and a scientist. “From one point of view,” writes John Gray, “Freud’s work was an attempt to transplant the idea of the unconscious mind posited in Schopenhauer’s philosophy into the domain of science. When Freud originated psychoanalysis, he wanted it to be a science.”[2] And if he had been able to read later assessments of his work, he would probably have been upset most by the fact that (in Anglo-Saxon countries, at any rate) we do not consider him to have been a scientist at all insofar as his methods were not objectively empirical and quantitative.[3]

     But even if Freud personally valued reason above all, he reveals his romantic heritage in his discovery (if it is truly that) of the enormous extent to which our apparently rational thinking is dominated by the irrational, by that huge, dark reservoir of repressed feelings, desires and memories which he called the unconscious and which is revealed especially in dreams. His Interpretation of Dreams (1900), which A.N. Wilson calls “one of the most extraordinary and revolutionary texts ever to come from a human brain”, is sometimes seen as heralding the beginning of a truly modern consciousness. It “expounded the theory on which all subsequent psychoanalysis was based, even or especially those psychoanalytical theories which reacted most violently against it: namely, that the human mind consists of what might be described as two layers. With the outer layer, of our conscious mind, we reason and form judgements. In reasonable, well-balanced individuals, the pains and sorrows of childhood have been worked through, put behind them. With the unhealthy, however, neurotic or hysterical individuals, there is beneath the surface of life a swirling cauldron of suppressed memories in which lurk the traumas (the Greek word for wounds) of early experiences. Under hypnosis, or in dreams, we re-enter the world of the subconscious and with the care of a helpful analyst we can sometimes revisit the scenes of our early miseries and locate the origins of our psychological difficulties…”[4]

     Systematizing this fundamental insight, Freud called the conscious layer of the mind the “ego”, and the unconscious layer – the “id”. Later he added a third layer, that of the “super-ego”, a kind of internalized social conscience which forces the memories of childhood sexual experiences and conflicts into the “id”. The process whereby these memories are forced by the “super-ego” into the “id” is called repression.

     For Freud, the “super-ego”, is no less irrational in origin than the “id”. The task of psychoanalysis is to strengthen the “ego”, the sole outpost of rationality in the soul, against the irrational pressure of both the “id” and the “super-ego”. This was not to say that the “super-ego” was rejected completely – as Freud argued in Civilization and its Discontents (1930), submission to it, at least most of the time, is the price we pay for our deliverance from primitive savagery and our enjoyment of civilization. But it was recognized as being deprived of any higher or other-worldly origin. It was a faculty owing its origins to childhood conflicts and traumas and no more rational in itself than the “id” which it censored and repressed.

     Another way in which Freud showed his romantic heritage was the significance he attached to art. Thus already in his early obituary on Charcot, written in 1893, he clearly saw the relationship between "the poet's eye" and the gift of clinical diagnosis.[5]He acknowledged his debt to the Greek tragedians, Goethe and Shakespeare; in his Leonardo he felt the need to forestall the criticism that he had merely written "a psycho-analytic novel"[6]; and he included literary history and literary criticism among the disciplines to be studied in the ideal Faculty of Psychoanalysis. According to Philip Rieff, the fact that “Freud owed most to Sophocles and Shakespeare (cf. The Interpretation of Dreams, SE IV, Part I, 264) and least to the scientific psychology of his era shows us how dangerous scientific training can be to the mental life of the scientist when poetry is excluded from what is conceived as significant in his training. William James said this best, in the conclusion to his Gifford Lectures, The Varieties of Religious Experience: ‘Humbug is humbug, even though it bear the scientific name, and the total expression of human experience, as I view it objectively, invincibly urges me beyond the narrow “scientific” bounds’ (London, rev. ed., 1902, p. 519).”[7] 

     Norman Holland writes: "What Freud admires in the writer are his powers as a seer, his ability to grasp intuitively truths the psychologist gets at only by hard work. As early as 1895, he wrote, 'Local diagnosis and electrical reactions lead nowhere in the study of hysteria, whereas a detailed description of mental processes such as we are accustomed to find in the works of imaginative writers enables me, with the use of a few psychological formulas, to obtain at least some kind of insight'. 'Creative writers,' he wrote in Delusions and Dreams, 'are valuable allies and their evidence is to be prized highly, for they are apt to know a whole host of things between heaven and earth of which our philosophy has not yet let us dream'. Writers could see, for example, the 'necessary conditions for loving' before psychologists could. Shakespeare had understood the meaning of slips of the tongue long before Freud, and not only that, he had assumed that his audiences would understand, too, The writer, however, knows these things 'through intuition - really from a delicate self-observation', while Freud himself had to 'uncover' them through 'laborious work'."[8]

     Freud defined the difference between conscious and unconscious contents in terms of the element of naming or verbalization which belongs to the conscious content alone: "What we have permissibly called the conscious presentation of the object can now be split up into the presentation of the word and the presentation of the thing... We now seem to know all at once what the difference is between a conscious and an unconscious presentation. The two are not, as we supposed, different registrations of the same content in different psychical localities, nor yet different functional states of cathexis in the same locality; but the conscious presentation comprises the presentation of the thing plus the representation of the word belonging to it, while the unconscious presentation is the presentation of the thing alone...

     “Now, too, we are in a position to state precisely what it is that repression denies to the rejected presentation in the transference neuroses: what it denies to the presentation is translation into words which shall remain attached to the object. A presentation which is not put into words, or a psychical act which is not hyper-cathected, remains thereafter in the Ucs in a state of repression."[9]

     Dreams, according to Freud, are a kind of language for repressed presentations; we are to read them as we read a poem, treating the techniques of "dream work" - displacement, condensation, symbolization, dramatization, etc. - as a critic might treat the devices of poetry, such as metaphor and allegory. According to the literary critic Lionel Trilling, Freud's greatest achievement was his discovery that "poetry is indigenous to the very constitution of the mind", which is "in the greater part of its tendency exactly a poetry-making organ". Thus psychoanalysis is, in effect, "a science of tropes, of metaphor and its variants, synecdoche and metonymy."[10]

     Dreams are like the first draft of a poem, the expression of an unconscious content in a semi-conscious form. More work needs to be done on them in order to bring them into the full light of consciousness, work which the patient must carry out with help from the psychotherapist. In this way psychotherapy is a kind of artistic collaboration, with the therapist encouraging his patient to do as Shakespeare exhorted in his Sonnet 77:

Look what thy memory cannot contain

Commit to these waste blanks, and thou shalt find

Those children nurs'd, deliver'd from thy brain,

To take a new acquaintance of thy mind. 

     The importance of memory in Freudianism brings us to its third major characteristic: historicism. For the psychoanalyst’s work in unearthing the unconscious can be compared to that of the historian or archaeologist. Just as the latter labours to discover and interpret old documents that cast light on the present, so the psychoanalyst labours to unearth significant events and strata in the patient’s life, especially his early sexual history, that have been repressed from his conscious memory but continue to colour and distort his present behaviour.

     In his theory of the collective archetypes, Freud’s most famous disciple, Karl Jung, extended the importance of memory in psychoanalysis still further into the past, not only of the individual, but also of the race. And Freud himself, in his later works such as Moses and Monotheism, pointed to certain hypothetical events in the history of the race or tribe, such as the killing of the tribal leader, that supposedly continue to influence all succeeding generations.

Freudianism and Orthodoxy

     In order to understand the relationship between Freudianism and Orthodox Christianity, we need to distinguish between Freud’s purely psychological ideas and his philosophical presuppositions. 

      Most of Freud’s most purely psychological ideas, such as the Oedipus Complex, have not been confirmed by empirical research. “Every particular idea [of Freud] is wrong,” says psychiatrist Peter D. Kramer: “the universality of the Oedipus complex, penis envy, infantile sexuality…”[11] This is not to say that these phenomena are never found, only that they do not play that vast role in the life of the soul that Freud attributed to them. [12]

     However, according to C.S. Lewis, the Freudian concept of repression is important and valid. But repression, says Lewis, must not be confused with suppression. “Psychology teaches us that ‘repressed’ sex is dangerous. But ‘repressed’ is here a technical term: it does not mean ‘suppressed’ in the sense of ‘denied’ or ‘resisted’. A repressed desire or thought is one which has been thrust into the subconscious (usually at a very early age) and can now come before the mind only in a disguised and unrecognisable form. Repressed sexuality does not appear to the patient to be sexuality at all. When an adolescent or an adult is engaged in resisting a conscious desire, he is not dealing with a repression nor is he in the least danger of creating a repression. On the contrary, those who are seriously attempting chastity are more conscious, and soon know a great deal more about their own sexuality than anyone else…”[13]

     Christians would therefore agree with Freud that repression is bad for the soul, just as any refusal to face up to the facts about oneself is bad. In this respect psychoanalysis has something in common with the Christian practice of the confession of sins. Insofar, then, as psychoanalysis helps one to unearth hidden traumas and shine the light of reason on the irrational depths of the soul, it should not be considered harmful.

     However, Christianity cannot agree with the Freudian presupposition that the contents of the “id” are morally neutral, nor with the idea that the suppression (as opposed to the repression) of the “id” is harmful.

     Again, “conscience” for the Christian is by no means to be identified with the “super-ego” of the Freudians (which is not to say that something like the “super-ego” does not exist). In the true sense it is not the internalization of the social conscience of contemporary society, with all its pride and prejudice, but “the eye of God in the soul of man”; it is not another form of irrationality, but the super-rational revelation of God’s will. As such its judgements cannot be ignored or rejected by reason, but must be accepted as having objective validity.

     Freud has been accused of opening the floodgates to all kinds of immorality. He never preached free love in the manner of his contemporaries H.G. Wells and D.H. Lawrence. Nevertheless, he was a Jewish supremacist who expressed contempt for Christianity and Christian morality.[14] Moreover, insofar as his theory encourages the view that the contents of the unconscious should be revealed without being judged from a higher, moral point of view, it is undoubtedly contrary to Christianity.

     Psychoanalysis, according to Lewis, says nothing very useful about normal feelings, but does help to remove abnormal or perverted feelings. “Thus fear of things that are really dangerous would be an example of the first kind [of feelings]: an irrational fear of cats or spiders would be an example of the second kind. The desire of a man for a woman would be of the first kind: the perverted desire of a man for a man would be of the second… What psychoanalysis undertakes to do is to remove the abnormal feelings, that is, give the man better raw material for his acts of choice; morality is concerned with the acts of choice themselves.”[15]

     However, this optimistic view of the potential of psychoanalysis is unwarranted. On the one hand, as we have seen, many of its theoretical constructs have been rejected, and so the occasional (and very expensive) successes of psychoanalytic therapy may be attributable, not to the truth of the theory itself, but rather to other factors having nothing to do with psychoanalysis as such – for example, the love of the therapist for his patient. On the other hand, and still more fundamentally, there exists no criterion within Freudianism for distinguishing the normal from the abnormal. Homosexuality, for example, may have been judged abnormal by Freud and his contemporaries, as it has always been judged abnormal by Christians. 

     Whereas Christianity possesses a detailed model of the normal man – that is, the saint, and believes in a God-given conscience, Freudianism possesses no such model, and does not believe in conscience (which, as we have seen, is not the same as the “super-ego”). [16]  It can have no reason for declaring a certain feeling or desire good or evil, normal or abnormal, so long as its presence does not create conflicts with other psychical processes. And this is another reason for concluding that while Freudianism may not actively encourage immorality, its attitude to life is essentially amoral.

     Bishop Gregory (Grabbe) makes this point well: “The criterion of the norm for every person in psychoanalysis is the person himself with all his sins and inadequacies, in a condition of calm after the overcoming of all conflicts arising within his consciousness. In psychoanalysis they try to overcome and remove conflicts by putting the conscience to sleep and reconciling the person with the sin that lives in him. Therefore the very profound critic of psychoanalysis, Arved Runestam, in his book Psychoanalysis and Christianity (Augustiana Press, 1958) notes with reason that psychoanalysis in theory and practice is in general a powerful proclaimer of the right to a life directly ruled by instinct. ‘One cannot say,’ he writes, ‘that this signifies the recognition of morality as an evil in itself. But morality is represented rather as an inescapable evil than a positive good’ (p. 37)…”[17] 

     When we turn from the strictly psychological theory of psychoanalysis to its philosophical presuppositions, then its incompatibility with Christianity becomes still more obvious. Thus Freud believed that human psychology is completely reflected in the activity of the brain, so that neuroscience and psychology should eventually merge.[18] This is simply materialism, the denial of the existence of the rational soul and its survival after the death of the body.

     As Bishop Gregory writes: “Although psychoanalysis contains within its name the word ‘soul’, it concentrates its investigations on the functions of the brain. But we, of course, know that with the latter is mysteriously linked our invisible soul, which constitutes a part of our personality. We must suppose that much that the psychiatrists refer to as the workings of the subconscious sphere of the brain in fact belong not only, or not so much, to the brain, as to the soul.”[19]

     Again, Freud believed that the roots, not only of man’s abnormal actions, but even of his higher activities, the things which are most characteristic of his humanity – politics, art and religion - are to be found in childhood traumas and conflicts. Of course, the phenomena of totalitarian politics, pornographic art and sectarian religion do manifest abnormal psychological traits, and as such may be illumined to some extent by psychoanalytic ideas. However, the higher we ascend in our study of these spheres, the more inadequate, crude and distorting of a true understanding will the theory of psychoanalysis appear.

     Thus if politics is reduced by psychoanalysis to narcissism, or to the libidinal relations between the leader and his followers[20], then there can be no higher politics of the kind that we find in the lives of the holy kings and princes of Orthodox Christian history. Again, if the psychoanalysts’ study of art consists in “the pursuit of the personal, the neurotic and the infantile in the work of artists”[21], then we may justly wonder whether they understand art at all. And if religion is reduced to hatred and love for a repressed father-figure, then it is not difficult to see why psychoanalysis should be seen as one of the roots of contemporary atheism.  

     So to Freud and the Freudians we must say, in the words of Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and on earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy…”

Freudianism and Original Sin

     However, some Orthodox writers have purported to find in Freud’s concept of the “id” a useful analogy, if not more, to the Orthodox doctrine of original sin.

     For example, Mikhail Dronov writes: “Man’s consciousness represents one of his natural energies, but when it is cut off, there remains only the experience accumulated by the personality, which constitutes as it were the content of the personality. This is what is called ‘the unconscious’. The essence of original sin consists in the fact that, even without becoming conscious of it (that it, acting beyond the control of the consciousness), man makes an egoistical sinful choice. He thereby breaks the first-created bond between his personality and his common human nature, destroying its unity and as it were walling off from it his own small individual part.

     “If man sins for the most part unconsciously, then repentance – the overcoming of sin – can only be in consciousness!”[22]

     Now we have already noted that there is a certain analogy between the psychotherapeutic technique of psychoanalysis and the Christian practice of confession. In both cases, an attempt is made to speak openly about certain acts, feelings and desires which up to now the patient/sinner has been too ashamed to discuss/confess, or which he has altogether forgotten or repressed. In both cases, moreover, it is assumed that the act of speaking openly about this material is beneficial for the patient/sinner; the shining of the light of consciousness and reason on the repressed or forgotten material drives away the darkness from it and destroys its harmful influence on the rest of the psyche.

     However, it should be immediately obvious that the analogy does not go very far. First, the Christian penitent confesses what he and his confessor consider to be sins, while, as we have seen, psychoanalysis does not use the language of sin at all. True, the patient may express guilt feelings; but psychoanalysis speaks only about (neurotic) diseases and eschews all “judgemental” language; the analyst will be much more likely to view the expression of guilt feelings as a symptom of an illness that has to be removed - that is, the symptom as well as the illness - than as an objective statement of fact. Of course, certain guilt feelings are inappropriate because they are the product of an internalized social conscience that is merely conventional, that is, which does not correspond to God’s measure of sin. Nevertheless, there is a “hard core” of guilt feelings which the Christian will recognize as being authentic, that is, corresponding to God’s own measure, but which the analyst, since he believes neither in God nor in sin, will continue to regard as inauthentic and diseased. For, as Dronov writes, “the positivist and Freudian understanding of ‘the unconscious’ in man’s psyche substantially differs from the patristic one. The positivists do not notice the moral quality of that content of the personality which he calls ‘the unconscious’.”[23]

     Secondly, while the analyst regards the light of consciousness and rational discussion as the means of destroying the darkness of neurotic suffering, the Christian regards the healing power to be the light of God Who alone forgives men their sins and grants them healing. The analyst does not heal so much as help the patient to heal himself by becoming conscious of his inner state. But for the Christian, consciousness of his inner state is not enough: he must also condemn that which is sinful in that state, repent of it, and ask God to destroy it.

     Moreover, confession before God and his spiritual father is only part of what the Christian has to do in order to achieve full healing. The grace of God is drawn into the soul through a whole range of ascetic practices, including fasting, abstinence, prayer and active love for one’s neighbour. These practices, as Bishop Gregory writes, “carried out not only consciously but also subconsciously (that is ‘prayer of the heart’), concentrate grace-filled experiences, thoughts and feelings in the subconscious sphere...”

     Psychoanalysis, however, “usually looks at abstinence only from” the point of view of “an imposed or external law or implacable rules of decency”. “For it the aim, without going into a moral evaluation of a man’s passions, is to remove the suffering elicited by the struggle inside him, to pacify him, reconcile him with the passion living in him, pointing out to him a path on which he can peacefully live in society without transgressing its external laws of decency, but at the same time without condemning his passion and without rejecting it.

     “The overcoming of passions and sin is recognised as necessary only insofar as the man who gives himself up to them unrestrainedly harms his own health. That is, the passions are not subjected to extirpation. The limitation of their satisfaction is dictated in essence not so much by higher moral principles as by practical considerations.

     “Psychoanalysis preaches a life directed by the instincts, the suppression of which in its eyes is an abnormal phenomenon and one that threatens to engender dangerous internal conflicts…”[24]

     Orthodoxy agrees with Freudianism in teaching that much of the suffering in the souls of men is caused by a diseased and disordered functioning of the incensive and appetitive passions. However, the two systems differ in their understanding of the causes of this disorder. Freudianism attributes it to childhood traumas, while considering the passions themselves to be “normal” and undiseased. Orthodoxy says little about childhood traumas, attributing all to the original trauma that took place in the childhood of the human race, in the Garden of Eden. That was the original sin, which spread like a disease, changing the nature of the passions themselves from innocent to guilty.

     Moreover, Orthodoxy considers not only the incensive and appetitive passions to be diseased and infected by original sin, but also the reasoning faculty. In this respect, Orthodoxy differs not only from Freudianism, but also from the whole western rationalist tradition going back as far as Thomas Aquinas, who regarded the rational mind of man as not subject to original sin. It is precisely because our mind, too, is diseased and sinful that we cannot heal ourselves but need the grace of God.

     It follows that while a happy childhood in a peaceful environment might prevent the neuroses that are the main subject of psychoanalysis, this could in no way remove the original sin that is the object of the Christian’s lamentation and which is inherited from Adam at the very moment of conception. For “in sins did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 50.5), says David, and “even from the womb the sinner is estranged” (Psalm 57.3). True healing from original sin comes to the Christian only through the transformation and redirection of the passions themselves to their original condition and holy object; and this is possible only through the granting of God’s grace in Holy Baptism and a life lived completely in accordance with God’s commandments.


January 27 / February 9, 2009; revised January 18/31, 2012.

[1] Pascal’s famous dictum: “The heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of” expressed the essence of the Romantic faith over a century before Romanticism.

[2] Gray, “Freud: the last great Enlightenment thinker”, Prospect, January, 2012, p. 58.

[3] The present writer studied for two degrees in psychology in British universities, but in neither of them was Freud taught even at an introductory level. He was not considered a scientist, and therefore not part of the science of psychology.

[4] Wilson, After the Victorians, London: Hutchinson, 2005, pp. 3-4.

[5] Freud, S., “Charcot”, Standard Edition, London: Hogarth, vol. III, pp. 11-23.

[6] Freud, S., Leonardo, London: Penguin Books, 1957.

[7] Rieff, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, University of Chicago Press, 1979, p. 385, footnote.

[8] Holland, N., “Freud and the Poet’s Eye”, in Mannheim, L. & Mannheim, E., Hidden Patterns: Studies in Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism, New York: Macmillan, 1966, p. 153.

[9] Freud, S., “The Unconscious”, 1915, Standard Edition, vol. XIV, pp. 201-202. My italics (V.M.).

[10] Trilling, L., “Freud and Literature”, in The Liberal Imagination, New York: Doubleday, 1947.

[11] Kramer, in Jerry Adler, “Freud in our Midst”, Newsweek, March 27, 2006, p. 37.

[12] Jessie Chambers recounts how D.H. Lawrence once told her: “You know, Jessie, I’ve always loved mother.” “I know you have,” I replied. “I don’t mean that,” he answered, “I’ve loved her – like a lover – that’s why I could never love you.” (in Wilson, op. cit., p. 73).

[13] Lewis, Mere Christianity, London: Fount Paperbacks, 1977, pp. 91-92.

[14] See David Duke, “The Real Sigmund Freud”, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QOpxOna7eGE&NR=1.

[15] Lewis, op. cit., p. 81.

[16] Occasionally, however, we do find in Freud something approaching the concept of a truly independent rational faculty like the God-given conscience. Thus in The Future of an Illusion he writes: “We may insist as much as we like that the human intellect is weak in comparison with human instincts, and be right in doing so. But nevertheless there is something peculiar about this weakness. The voice of the intellect is a soft one, but it does not rest until it has gained a hearing. Ultimately, after endlessly repeated rebuffs, it succeeds. This is one of the few points in which one may be optimistic about the future of mankind.”

[17] Grabbe, “Pravoslavnoe vospitanoe detej v nashi dni”, http://www.portal-credo.ru/site.print.php?act=lib&id=846 (in Russian)

[18] The idea was first put forward in his Project for a Scientific Psychology (1895) (Claudia Kalb, “The Therapist as Scientist”, Newsweek, March 27, 2006, p. 42).

[19] Grabbe, op. cit.

[20] Freud, Group Psychology, pp. 103, 94.

[21] Anthony Storr, The Dynamics of Creation, London: Secker & Warburg, 1972, p. 236.

[22] Dronov, “Otets PsikhoAnaliza protiv Svyatykh Otsov”, Pravoslavnaia Beseda, N 4, 1998; http://www.psylib.ukrweb.net/books/_dronm01.htm, p. 4 (in Russian).

[23] Dronov, op. cit., p. 5.

[24] Grabbe, op. cit.

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