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.

So fast-forward to when I was thinking about finding a counterpoint to Freud. I thought of Lewis and I started reading his works for the first time quite seriously. And much to my surprise, I found that there was a striking parallelism—Freud raises a question and Lewis attempts to answer it. And I realized as I got to know more about Lewis that Lewis was in literary criticism, and at that time in Europe, Freud’s concepts were permeating the universities and providing literary critics with new tools to use in understanding human behavior. So Lewis knew Freud’s work very very well. And he also used Freud’s arguments from his philosophical works to defend his own atheism. So after Lewis’ transition to a spiritual worldview, as he begins to define and defend that worldview, he uses arguments that are counterarguments for Freud’s arguments. So this provides a real striking parallelism that I never realized was there, and I think it’s this dialectic that makes the course what it has become.

THC: At one point Freud modestly says, “I said nothing which other and better men have not said before me in a much more complete, forcible manner.” If your ultimate goal was simply to have someone defend atheism and to have someone defend spiritiualism, there probably would be people who have promoted those views more aggressively. So what is it about these two—and have you ever thought about adding other voices to the dialogue?

AN: I think if you have too many voices, it tends to reduce the clarity. Both of these men wrote extremely well. Freud won the Goethe Prize for Literature, and of course Lewis is known for his clarity and conciseness; his writings have probably been among the most influential of the 20th century. Now it’s true that Freud did say that, but then he also said “All I did was add a great psychological foundation.” People before him like Feuerbach and Voltaire and many people of the Enlightenment said that this whole concept of intelligence beyond the universe was a projection of our own and our needs. What Freud does is identify those needs or those wishes; that’s the psychological foundation that he adds.

THC: Why not have a psychiatrist respond to him? Obviously Lewis is responding to Freud’s work but he is coming at it from a different angle because he is in literature.

AN: Yes, he is. But he also has a complementary understanding of human behavior that comes form the great literature. And that in some sense is more nuanced and more sophisticated than what comes solely from clinical experience and interaction with people.

THC: You’ve been teaching for so long. When did you decide that you were going to write this particular book?

AN: Many people on the faculty had suggested that I write the book a long time ago, and I started collecting a database. Both men wrote so prolifically—just volumes and volumes of scholarly work plus tens of thousands of letters—that it took me a long time to get it all into a database and organize it. As you know the book is kind of heavily referenced. So I’m glad that I did do the resesarch for it because it does make it more than just my opinion; I’ve documented it pretty clearly.

THC: How long did the actual writing take?

AN: Well I’ve been collecting the data off and on for some twenty years. Actual writing—well, I’ve been invited by many universities to give papers on this, so I began writing maybe at least ten or fifteen years ago. Then I was asked to give the Nobel lectures at Harvard, and then I was asked to give some lectures at Oxford University on Freud and Lewis and this helped crystallize some of my thinking. And then somebody sent a set of my lectures to Simon & Schuster without my knowing it, and they came up to Cambridge and said, “we’d like you to consider writing a book for us.” And I did. I had to be taken by the collar!

THC: Who do you want to read the book?

AN: I think that everyone’s preoccupied with these questions at some level. I think everyone embraces some form of Lewis’s worldview or some form of Freud’s worldview. Everyone, whether they realize it or not, has a worldview. That worldview is formed very early in life, and it begins with one of two premises: one is that the universe is an accident and life on this universe a matter of chance, and the other is that there’s an intelligence beyond the universe that is somehow related to our purpose in being here. That worldview is the lens through which we see the universe. It influences our concept of where we come from, our heritage, who we are, our identity, our moral code that we live by, our relationships, how we see other people and where we think we’re going, our destiny.

THC: You have a statistic in the book that 96 percent of Americans believe in some form of God—people seem to have made an opinion heavily weighted in one direction. Have people considered this, or might their minds change while reading your book?

AN: I don’t really know what people’s reaction will be. I’ve tried to approach this from my training as a scientist to look at both views objectively and dispassionately—I try to do this in my course—and to look at it through “scrutinized observation” (to use Freud’s phrase). But the point is that everything that we look at we see through the lens of our worldview, and therefore the worldview that we bring to the evidence—even in science—influences how we interpret that evidence. So our worldview probably tells us more about ourselves than anything else in our personal history. It’s interesting that medicine over the past several years has taken a real interest in patients’ worldviews, and there’s a great deal of carefullly controled research to explore the impact of a patient’s worldview on his emotional and physical health. So these issues have become very much at the forefront of modern medical research.

THC: If Freud and Lewis were sitting down at a table, what might they both agree on—the biggest area where the two of them would agree philosophically?

AN: That’s a very interesting question. I think they’d be very courteous to one another—the age difference would probably ensure that. I think they would agree that these questions are indeed the most important questions. Because Freud would insist that if your whole life is based on a false premise, that can only lead to disaster. And Lewis would agree with that.

THC: There’s a tendency to put science and religion, or atheism and spirituality, in completely opposite camps—but do you think there are more places where Freud and Lewis might have agreed than they thought?

AN: I think they both shared the same view of human nature. They both have great insight into human behavior. It’s interesting because Freud, although he was familiar with the great literature, his concepts of behavior were based primarily on his clinical work; he was a brilliant and astute clinican. Lewis’ knowledge of human behavior, on the other hand, came primarily from the great literature, and from his interactions with the many friends that he had, and his observations of people in his environment, but primarily from the great literature. But that’s where they agreed; their insights into human behavior are not dissimilar.

THC: What was it like trying to represent two people who are so well known without having direct access to them? Were there places you had to make educated assumptions?

AN: Well, I’ve spent a number of summers at the Hamstead clinic in London, which is where Freud’s home is, and his daughter [Anna] is the head of the Hamstead clinic. She said to me often, “If you want to know my father, don’t read his biographers, read his letters.” I found that in both Freud’s letters and Lewis’ letters, I came to know them personally and to know them well, and to get an entirely different dimension of who they are, different from their writings and scholarly works.

THC: What about in your own practice as a clinician—how has this research affected your own clinical work?

AN: One of the things is the importance in a doctor’s work with a patient for him to understand his patient’s worldview, because unless you understand that aspect of the patient you will not have an understanding of who that patient is and how they will confront illness and death—and all of these other aspects that you would find out if you understood a patient’s worldview. Modern medicine is just beginning to realize that that’s a very important part of a patient’s personal history and not unrelated to often what the state of their emotional patient is. There’s been a lot of research now to show how one’s worldview influences outcomes of certain illnesses.

THC: You teach a similar course at the medical school. Do you think that medical schools need to embrace more of this kind of learning?

AN: It’s very similar [to the undergraduate course] except that it has more of a clinical orientation. I think that there has been a change over the past ten years in medical school curriculums that now include courses that focus on understanding patient’s worldview.

THC: How is this book particularly important or relevant to us today?

AN: Every 12 months, about a quarter of a million people decide there is no meaning and they attempt to end their lives. A lot of those are college students, which seems bizarre when you think about it, with all that they have. So is there any meaning to life? Why are we here? How do we live our lives? We all have some kind of code—where does that come from, and will it be most fulfilling for us? What is happiness? I think when people attempt to take their lives, the cause is usually depression, which is sadness, which is the opposite of happiness. We live an average lifespan of 40,000 days; how are we to live those days? What is happiness, and how is it related to love? What are the different forms of human loves and how do they influence our relationships? I ask my students at Harvard if they’re happy, and the answer is almost universally no; and the reason is the lack of meaningful relationships. When you form meaningful relationships, you are happy. Both Freud and Lewis had a great deal to write about the question of sexuality. And there’s the problem of suffering: if 96 percent of people believe in some kind of intelligent being that’s omnipotent and all-loving, how do you equate that with September 11. How can somebody allow that many innocent people to be slaughtered? How do we confront the fact that we’re not going to be here forever, what Freud calls “the painful riddle of death”? We don’t think about these things, because they make us anxious; but sometimes we wake up at 3am and say “Is there any meaning to my life, what am I going to do with my life?”

THC: I really want to ask which one of the two worldviews is correct—but I figure that’s cheating.

AN: The students always ask me, “What do you think?” I tell them that I’ll answer that after their last paper’s in. My approach has always been to be the objective dispassionate observer, and I try to establish in my students the desire to make a critical and objective assessment, to understand the arguments of both whether they embrace it or not. If the course doesn’t change their worldview it has helped them understand and crystallize their own world view, because a lot of people just don’t know — they haven’t thought about it that much and they’re in the agnostic category.


The Question of God

By Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr.

Free Press

244 pp., $25