Life, the Universe, and Everything

Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis lock horns over life's most difficult questions in a Harvard professor's new book

One might expect a book called The Question of God to answer its title question. Yet Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr., Harvard Medical School professor of psychiatry and teacher of a popular seminar for undergraduates entitled “Freud and C.S. Lewis: Two Contrasting Worldviews,” prefers to let readers answer the fundamental questions of existence for themselves.

The book sets an ambitious course: its chapters grapple with questions such as “Is there an intelligence beyond the universe?” “Is there a universal moral law?” and “Is all love sublimated sex?” In answer, Nicholi draws on two of the 20th century’s greatest thinkers: Sigmund Freud, an atheist known for inventing psychoanalysis, and C.S. Lewis, an Oxford don, prolific writer and author of the popular children’s series (arguably a religious allegory) The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. These two opposing voices each seek to answer fundamental questions in polar ways: Lewis through God and Freud without. Although they never met, the technique of setting them on opposite podiums—with arguments drawn from their letters and other writings—is intriguing. They were certainly familiar with each other’s work and both are remarkably eloquent.

Nicholi’s premise is that all human beings endorse one variant or another of these thinkers’ “worldviews” and that our entire approach to life stems from our belief or disbelief in an all-powerful Creator. We may not have time to fully grapple with all these philosophical issues, though they rest somewhere in our minds. But by bringing out a discourse between two men, Nicholi hopes to present insight and evidence that might change or at least help define our own weltanschauung.

Freud and Lewis, despite their many differences, share striking similarities. Lewis went through an atheistic period in his young adulthood—and justified much of it based on Freud’s philosophical writings. Although primarily involved in clinical work, Freud is considered the father of the “new literary criticism” that Lewis might have studied and used in his teachings at Oxford.

In presenting the thinkers’ responses to the questions he poses, Nicholi molds their separate work into something of a dialogue. For instance, in his chapter on pain, he starts with the separate “painful” experiences of Freud and Lewis—for Freud, a combination of anti-semitic responses to his work, occasional bouts of depression and mouth cancer, and for Lewis, numerous deaths of family and friends and problems in his career. Both men seem equally unprepared to deal with the greatness of human suffering; Freud never seems to resolve the meaning of or reason for suffering, and even Lewis with his spiritual worldview can not explain God’s seeming absence during times of need.

Nonetheless, Lewis never returned to atheism: “Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God,” he wrote. “The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about him.” In the end, he agreed in some sense to leave the questions unanswered—what he termed “a rather special sort of ‘No answer’”—that somehow gave him the ability to “endure with patience and hope,” in Nicholi’s words. Freud, by contrast, never found such contentment, which served as part of the basis for his atheism and his sense of “resignation.” Nicholi writes, “The suffering in his own life and the lives of those he loved, for him, ruled out the notion of an all-loving, all-powerful Creator.”

The Question of God, as might be expected of any book that tries to solve the most largest questions in a mere 244 pages, runs the risk of feeling contrived. From time to time, for example, Nicholi attempts to make the comparisons and contrasts too clear. In the biographical background of the first chapter, he writes, “Little did she [Amalia Freud] realize that her child [Sigmund Freud] would someday be listed among the most influential scientists in history,” and a few pages later, he says of Lewis, “Little did they realize the child would someday become a brilliant scholar, a celebrated author….”

This need to place everything in exact opposition—Freud asks, Lewis answers, Freud responds, Lewis asks again—is pardoxically the book’s great strength and its weakness. Evidence is presented, sides are made—but all too neatly, for sometimes it is some hybrid or synthesis of the two sides that provides the most fulfilling and complete solution. A question which Freud may answer well, Lewis may not, and vice versa. We cannot help but feel somewhat unsatisfied by the book’s refusal to pin down a single “correct” answer. But, of course, that is the point.

The Harvard Crimson spoke at the Faculty Club with Dr. Nicholi, author of The Question of God and professor—for 35 consecutive years—of “Freud and C.S. Lewis: Two Contrasting World Views” (Leverett House Seminar 104).

The Harvard Crimson: It’s unusual to see a book that explores the kind of questions everyone wants to answer from two opposite angles.

Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr.: Well, they’re the fundamental questions concerning our existence that you have to try and understand at some level for all of our lives. They’re kind of anxiety provoking, so we don’t think about them unless we’re some place where we’re not distracted

THC: How did you come upon Freud and C.S. Lewis as sources to pit against each other?

AN: When I was finishing my medical training, I was invited to teach a course in Arts and Sciences on Freud. I had read his expository works during my medical training, but I had never read his philosophical works. When they evaluated it at the end of the semester, the students kept saying, “This is very interesting but it’s imbalanced—it’s one sustained attack on the spiritual view—so why can’t we at least have someone define and defend the worldview that he attacks?” I thought about that for two or three years and didn’t know who would be a good counterpoint to Freud, because he’s a pretty formidable intellect.

When I was an intern after finishing medical school, I encountered human suffering for the first time, especially in small children that had a fatal illness. I couldn’t understand how anyone on heaven or on earth who had the ability to preempt this would not do so, and the whole problem of suffering suddenly preoccupied me. Somebody had put a little book called The Problem of Pain by Lewis on the table in the library of the hospital that I was at. It didn’t answer all the questions but it answered some of them.