SIGMUND FREUD AND THE CLASSICS, ESPECIALLY SOPHOCLES’ OEDIPUS TYRANNOS

George Anastaplo

I.

            The sovereign question on this as on many other such occasions is, How does one read the text at hand? A “text” may include the materials gathered by the psychiatrist from a patient. It may include as well the materials, ancient and modern, drawn on by the doctor in thinking about what has been gotten from the patient.

Vital among such materials for Sigmund Freud seems to have been the Oedipus Tyrannos of Sophocles, evidently used by him in the development, as well as in the explanation, of his once-celebrated Oedipus Complex. In the course of our inquiry here there should be at least an awareness of what classical scholars have done with this play. Indeed, it can be wondered how Freud’s expositions were affected by the readings, including the misreadings, by the authoritative classical scholars of his day.

The limitations that Freud seems to have inherited from Twentieth Century scholars include their repeated (almost compulsive) designation of the relevant hero here as King Oedipus. The significance of the Theban leader’s status as a highly-respected tyrannos is lost sight of. This determined lapse in sound designation comes down to our day, as may be seen in such well-regarded texts as the one that continues to be distributed by the University of Chicago Press with its Oedipus the King.

II.

            Freud evidently first distinguished himself, as a professional scientist, with his work in neurology. Some of his papers in that field are still spoken of with respect by neurologists. But that line of inquiry seems to have been abandoned by him when he got into his psychiatric pursuits.

Particularly noteworthy here, of course, was the work Freud did in developing the dynamics and implications of what has long been celebrated as the Oedipus Complex. The passions investigated came to be presented as relevant for understanding most, if not all, human beings. Even so, Freud’s emphasis here seemed to be much more on the male than on the female, with the mother very much longed for and the father correspondingly rejected by the son of the family.

The status today of the Oedipus Complex, even among psychiatrists, seems to be much diminished. It can even be wondered whether Freud himself was unduly influenced by the dynamics of Viennese society as he knew it, if not also by his particular family circumstances. We, in turn, should wonder what it was that Sophocles’ Oedipus (as distinguished from the mythical character that that playwright might have inherited) “really” wanted to do.

III.

            Particularly intriguing for us can be how Freud explicitly recalls Sophocles’ play. Whether the mistakes here are due to him or to the scholars relied upon by him need not matter at this point in our inquiry. The materials thus drawn upon cannot be regarded as reliable guides to the Classical Greek (and hence to the underlying human) psyche.

Critical among the mistakes evident here may be something already noticed:     the transformation of tyrannos into king (Konig). The status of Oedipus as an acclaimed outsider, and the significance of such a status, can be lost sight of. Indeed, it turns out, he was eminently acceptable as an outsider, far less so when revealed as an insider in Thebes.

Several mistakes are relied on in the use made by Freud of Sophocles’ play, beginning with the decisive report from Delphi about the current plague being said to have been brought by “messengers” rather than by Creon. It was Creon, it should be noticed, who had offered Oedipus a more prudent course to follow for informing him (that is, indoors) about what had just been learned by Creon at Delphi. Instead, Oedipus had insisted upon a determined (if not even obsessive) openness, a failing which reflected (it turned out) the way he had come to treat his parents.

Freud (perhaps misled here by modern scholars) does not notice sufficiently that the concern expressed at Delphi, with respect to the current plague in Thebes, was with regicide, not with either patricide or incest. It was such a concern that was evident in Aeschylus’ Oresteia— that is, in Apollo’s insistence that a son should deliberately kill his mother. Among other misreadings evident in Freud’s text is the indication that Sophocles’ Oedipus had been instructed at Delphi (a generation earlier) that he not return to Corinth after learning there from Apollo the dreadful oracle about his career.

IV.

            Freud is supported in his insistence upon the universality (or, at least, the near-universality) of the Oedipus Complex, by his interpretation of what the Greeks understood (or, at least, felt) about the Oedipus myth. This is supported, for him, by what Jocasta says about the lascivious dreams that males often have about their mothers. But, it can be wondered, how would Oedipus (considering his general temperament) have conducted himself if he had not had the desires Freud attributes to him?

Indeed, it has been argued, with some plausibility, that the evidence provided by Sophocles suggests that one person we know of who did not have an Oedipus Complex was Oedipus himself. How are other powerful Greek tragedies to be understood if their evidence is used as Freud uses that provided by Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos? What, for example, did Euripides’ Hippolytus (as well as Aeschylus’ Orestes) “really” want?

And then there are disturbing revelations about what mothers “really” want to do to their children. Consider, for example, Euripides’ Agave (of the Bacchae) as well as his Medea. How should the Freudian understand the passions, in the human soul, that account for the enduring interest (and hence for the “appeal”) of such plays?

V.

           What might all this suggest to us, in turn, about how Freud understood his patients? Are their stories misread somewhat in the fashion that Oedipus’ story is? And yet, Freud’s interest in them can be interesting.

Indeed, such an interest can itself be therapeutic, if only that it assures patients that someone “knows” them and cares about them. And this in turn can permit natural processes, of a cathartic character, to do their work. May not both doctor and patient somehow sense what is truly needed, however dressed up in the language and concepts of the day?

Indeed, it can be wondered whether the great tragedians discussed by Aristotle served instinctively, with their cathartic ministrations, as the public “psychiatrists” (or soul-doctors) for the Athenian demos. Natural processes may have been thereby served by them. Does this suggest that Nature provides, in these matters, a better guide than Freud seems to recognize?

VI.

            An overriding question for us here can be as to how the Classics should be read. It is not only Freud who can be suspected of using, if not even of manipulating, the Classics rather than seriously studying them. A hint of his limitations is that his many references to Classical items in the Index for The Interpretation of Dreams do not record any use by him of Socrates (the kind of omission, by the way, that may be revealing as well for the career of Martin Heidegger).

The career of Socrates reminds us that there are better and worse ways of responding to oracles. Certainly, Oedipus’ panic upon learning, as a young man, what he was told at Delphi, did not help, especially considering the question about his parentage that had led him to consult the oracle in the first place, and we are reminded, in Oedipus’ assessment (years later) of the death of Polybus (whom he had continued to regard as his father)—we are reminded that there are better and worse ways of fulfilling ominous-sounding oracles.

We can be reminded as well that relevant answers may come in different (in quite different) forms when we notice that Sophocles leaves technically unresolved whether King Laius had been killed by one or by many. One need not deny that it had been Laius that Oedipus had confronted at the Crossroads. But is not one encouraged, by the instructive elusiveness of Sophocles here, to notice that several people (including, perhaps, divinities) contributed to what happened to Laius (even though Freud may have been mistaken in assuming that what was fated to happen to Sophocles’ Oedipus was due to the will of the gods).

VII.

            It is prudent, in thinking about the challenging texts one inherits, to be aware of the role of chance in affecting even what one notices and what one can make use of. What should be made of the fact—if fact it is—that most of us do not recall the kind of passions with respect to our parents that Freud makes so much of? Have we repressed such memories—but how would we as adults feel differently if we had never had them in the way that Freud insists?

I have polled students in their twenties, who almost all claim that they have no memory of the feelings alleged by Freud. Of course, he would reply, they have (properly enough) repressed such recollections. But I find it hard to understand why it would be that young women (who are, I note in passing, not at the focus of Freud’s Oedipus Complex), upon being asked by me, do not remember that their brothers ever indicated feelings about their parents of the character and intensity that Freud makes so much of (feelings by their brothers that the sisters would be less inclined to “repress”?)

I do not mean to suggest, on this occasion, that Freud is not a gifted student of the human soul, but in this he is himself much more the poet than he is either the scientist or, of course, the philosopher. His own gifts are evident in his nomination of the “nicest instance of a dream-interpretation [based on a play upon words] which has reached us from ancient times,” an instance drawn from the career of Alexander the Great. It is, Freud recalls, told by Artemidorus (The Interpretation of Dreams, Avon edition, p. 131n):

I think too that Aristander gave a most happy interpretation to Alexander of Macedon when he had surrounded Tyre [Túros] and was besieging it but was feeling uneasy and disturbed because of the length of time the siege was taking. Alexander dreamt he saw a satyr [saturos] dancing on his shield. Aristander happened to be in the neighborhood of Tyre, in attendance on the king during his Syrian campaign. By dividing the word for satyr into sa and turos he encouraged the king to press home the siege so that he became master of the city (sa Turos  = Tyre is thine.) [The words Turos, saturos, sa, turos, and sa Turos are provided by Freud in Greek letters.]

VIII.

            An underlying question here may be as to how seriously we should take the suggestion (by Aristotle and others) that all human actions aim at the good. We can be reminded here of “the Mystery of Evil,” something one can be challenged by upon confronting such moral monstrosities as the Holocaust of the 1940s. When we notice how trivial (if not even perverse) pleasures (or goods) can be “purchased” at great moral cost, we can be reminded that some people’s aim is far better than that of others.

I included, in a 1973 talk on this campus about “the Freudian persuasion,” these suggestions (The American Moralist, pp. 137-38):

The critical difference between the ancients and the moderns may be stated in still another way. The ancients believed, or at least believed it salutary to affirm, something that the moderns tend to deny: a judgment of whether a human activity is natural or unnatural, good or bad, is an essential, perhaps even the most important part, of any description of it. It is partly in reliance upon this opinion that Plato and Aristotle always had in view the best in all their efforts to describe what is and what may be, and hence in their efforts to guide both the human being and the community to achieve what they could in their circumstances.

One must, the ancients seem to say, be at least aware of the highest if one is to make a serious attempt to understand anything, even the lowest things. A critical feature of the lowest is that it is clearly low. Common sense, reflected in everyday language, does depend on a grasp of things that distinguishes the high from the low, the noble from the base. Intellectuals tend to suppress what men have “always known” about such things, including about the distinction between human and inhuman. But modern intellectuals do share the general awareness, however much they sometimes insist upon the importance of the animal element in man, that when the reason goes, the decisively human element is gone. Does not psychoanalysis itself depend on the assumption that the most disturbed of men can usually be talked to, that reason is somehow vital to man?

It should be remembered, on the other hand, that Socrates seems also to have recognized the erotic element as a vital part, however transformed, of the psyche of the philosophical man, of the human being who is truly and fully reasoning. Perhaps it would provide an appropriate starting-point for any discussion of the differences between the ancients and the moderns to examine how the transformed eros in Socrates is to be compared with the phenomenon of sublimation in Freud.

 

I concluded those 1973 remarks with this question (The American Moralist, p. 138):

Does not one of these approaches suggest that a man can know what he is doing and thinking and that he can at least begin to know what it is to know, while the other approach reflects the opinion that knowing, whether about one’s self or about the nature of things, is an illusion without a respectable future?

That discussion four decades ago had been introduced by me with an observation by Leo Strauss:

It is safer to try to understand the low in the light of the high than the high in the light of the low. In doing the latter one necessarily distorts the high, whereas in doing the former one does not deprive the low of the freedom to reveal itself fully as what it is.

The enduring challenge usefully posed by Freud is distinctively modern, especially as to the status of nature in the governance of human affairs. He does recognize, of course, the impulses and passions (as well as the vital needs) grounded in nature. But does he, as a Modern very much influenced by Science, recognize as well the guidance provided by Nature as to how one should live, guidance that is grounded ultimately in one’s understanding?

IX.

            It can be considered providential that we have available today, for our reflections upon the attractions and limitations of Modern Science, the proceedings of the most recent Physics Department Colloquium (of April 14, 2011) on this campus. We were told last Thursday about “Recent Results for Collider Experiments.” The account, illustrated by an abundance of complicated charts, was summed up in this fashion by the presenter:

There are currently two hadron colliders in the world. After 10 years of colliding protons and antiprotons at a center of mass energy 1.96 TeV, the Tevatron at Fermilab is in its final months. The Large Hadron Collider as CERN began colliding protons and protons at 7 TeV about a year ago. In just one year the LHC experiments have been able to make contributions to the study of high energy strong interactions, re-establish much of the standard model and its experimental parameters, and search for new physics contributions to the standard model at energy scales not previously accessible. The first year of physics at ATLAS has exceeded expectations and the next decade is sure to generate a wealth of new physics insight. I will describe the experimental components of collider particle physics and how these projects have evolved from Tevatron to LHC. I will show new results from ATLAS, and how they compare to the mature physics program at the Tevatron.

Of course, there was little that I could truly follow during the presentation on that occasion (something that I have long been reconciled to in these weekly physics colloquia). But the question-period included, from a Nobel Laureate in the audience, a wonderfully illuminating caution:     Were the researchers whose preparations had just been described, in such impressive detail, equipped to notice the unanticipated? This question itself was not anticipated. It was evident, at least to me, that quite competent investigations can be trapped by the elaborate apparatus (both mechanical and intellectual) that they come to rely upon.

I was moved to wonder, of course, how this salutary caution, about one’s ability even to notice the unanticipated, applied to the remarkable career of Sigmund Freud. What “had” to be systematically overlooked, in what both his patients and Sophocles had said, in order for Freud to construct the remarkable edifice he did? I was reminded, upon contemplating the intimidating language of modern science—I was reminded last Thursday of a remark (recalled at another Physics Colloquium earlier this year), a remark by Enrico Fermi upon being confronted by an ever-growing array of names for particles (but not the Ultron!), “If I could remember the names of all these particles, I would have been a biologist.”

These remarks were prepared for a Staff Briefing, on April 16, 2011, of the faculty of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, The University of Chicago. The test discussed on that occasion was Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (Avon Books, 1965). See, on the Ultron, George Anastaplo The Artist as Thinker: From Shakespeare to Joyce (Ohio University Press,, 1983), pp. 252-55, 474; Anastaplo, Life, Death, and the Constitution (University Press of Kentucky, 2009), p. 250.

 

George Anastaplo is Lecturer in the Liberal Arts, The University of Chicago; Professor of Law, Loyola University of Chicago; and Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Philosophy, Dominican University, See http://www.anastaplo.wordpress.com.

 

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