Developing a better understanding of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud’s works will invariably grant you a better understanding of human history, human behavior, and their causes.
In contemporary society, especially on college campuses, we are exposed to various terms and concepts that relate to political philosophy and psychology. With the advent of the Internet and its memes, we have become more aware of and more open to issues pertaining to self and society.
So, if you read articles from the New York Times or the Huffington Post, you will see editors and columnists parroting their views about Trump and Fascism. If you visit right-leaning websites, you will see articles comparing Bernie Sanders’ socialist ideals with Communism. However, if you spend your time on the Internet browsing Tumblr, 4chan, 8chan, or Reddit, you will see more disturbing content that is dependent on the subreddit or board that you visit. You can almost say that the Internet is a great medium for communicating repressed thoughts and desires.
The three bolded words in the previous paragraph are typically associated with three historic thinkers of the 19th century. The philosopher closely associated with fascism is Friedrich Nietzsche, whose writings are centered on the death of God, nihilism, and the will to power. Karl Marx is widely known for his ideas on class struggle, historical materialism, and his inspiration for the communist ideology. Lastly, Sigmund Freud is famously known for his lasting influence on the development of psychoanalysis, which focuses on how repressed desires of the unconscious mind are manifest in a person’s dreams and behavior.
To those interested in learning more about Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, I would like to direct you to their works: The German Ideology by Karl Marx, On the Genealogy of Morality by Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud’s Five Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Note all of the following quotations arise from the books mentioned here.
The German Ideology is a written work by Karl Marx that emphasizes historical materialism. Marx sets out to refute the Hegelian ideals, from both the Young and Old Hegelians, who were under the impression that history is guided by various abstractions be it God, an Absolute Spirit, or religious concepts such as sin or the fall of man. Both parties share the belief that thoughts, conceptions, and abstractions are part of an external force, the zeitgeist, that influences that structure of society and human interaction. Marx refutes the Hegelian misrepresentation of history by claiming that material surroundings and the production of material goods are ultimately responsible for human interaction and the formation of societies.
According to Marx in The German Ideology, “The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the intercourse of men… as expressed in the language of politics, laws, morality, religion, metaphysics… of a people.” The purpose of Marx’s refutation against the Hegelian view of history is to demonstrate to his contemporary philosophers that they are missing the point. He is telling them to stop pondering on abstractions and start changing the world for the better. As Marx stated in The German Ideology, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” Marx uses this statement as his baseline for his theory on class struggle and revolution in his other writings, which inspired the communist ideology.
Nietzsche’s work On the Genealogy of Morality is a polemic and refutation against the contemporary views of morality espoused by the “English psychologists” such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Nietzsche’s refutation is divided into three essays.
The First Essay delves into the nature of Good and Evil. Here, Nietzsche argues that dichotomy of good and evil were not historically tied a person’s morality or inner nature. Rather these two terms originally described the two warring castes of primitive societies: the strong and noble caste against the weak and slavish caste. From these two castes, Nietzsche introduces the concept about Master-slave morality, a central theme in many of his works, and extrapolates on the transvaluation of morals by the slave caste. This transvaluation of morals is exemplified in Christian doctrines, where qualities such as being meek, sheepish, oppressed, and poor are deemed as virtuous while qualities such as being strong, rich, and noble are deemed as evil. This transvaluation of morals still has an imprint on contemporary society’s view on good/bad or right/wrong to this day.
Nietzsche’s Second Essay focuses on the origin of guilt and bad conscience. Nietzsche argues that the concept of guilt/schuld arises from the relationship between a debtor and creditor, in which the debtor owes/schulden payment to the creditor. In this relationship, should the debtor fail to repay the creditor, the debtor is subject to harsh and cruel measures of punishment by the creditor. The creditor is compensated by the injury done by the debtor from the pleasure that he/she receives from inflicting cruelty to the debtor, which is why guilt has a close relationship with debt.
However, why do you feel the pain and pangs of guilt? This arises from the notion of bad conscience. Nietzsche states, in this essay, that “I consider bad conscience the profound illness which human beings had to come down with, under the pressure of the most fundamental of all the changes which they experienced—that change when they finally found themselves locked within the confines of society and peace… this impoverished creature, consumed with longing for the wild, had to create in itself an adventure, a torture chamber, an uncertain and dangerous wilderness, this fool, this yearning and puzzled prisoner, was the inventor of bad conscience.’”
Man in his essence is a wild beast. He thrives on danger, adventure, and war. However, as time progressed, society and the establishment of peace forced man to succumb to confinement: man had to internalize his aggression. Society dictates that this impoverished creature, consumed with a longing for the wild, for freedom, for the will to power, to be “driven back, suppressed, imprisoned within.” Thus, bad conscience is the soul turning against itself as a result of man suppressing his natural instincts and desire of freedom.
Finally, Nietzsche’s Third Essay focuses on the human will and asceticism. Nietzsche argues in this essay that asceticism is a perversion of the human will, which is enabled by those in the priestly caste.
He states in this essay: “For, generally speaking, with all great religions, the main issue concerns the fight against a certain endemic exhaustion and heaviness. We can from the outset assume…a feeling of physiological inhibition must master wide masses of people, but, because of a lack of knowledge about physiology, it does not enter people’s consciousness as something physiological, so they look for and attempt to find its ‘cause’ and remedy only in psychology and morality…”
Nietzsche argues that the attraction that ascetic priests and religions have on billions of people in the world is ultimately caused by the human need to redress underlying problems in their physiology. Due to insufficient understanding amongst a wide masses of people, feelings of “deep depression, leaden exhaustion, and black sorrow of the physiologically impaired” are believed to be somehow linked to a person’s morality and psychology, when in fact their true origins resides in the deficiencies of the human body. One example would be the Jesus’ healing of the paralytic in the ninth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus causes the paralytic to walk by forgiving his sins and commanding him to rise. This passage in Scripture gives the impression that physical illness is primarily linked with morality and sin, ignoring the physical origins of sickness. Likewise, the ascetic priest, Nietzsche explains, attracts people to his cause by claiming that he has the cure to the physical and emotional pain of existence through the ascetic ideals of religion.
“His existence on earth has had no purpose. ‘Why man at all?’ was a question without an answer. The will for man and earth was missing. Behind every great human destiny echoes as refrain an even greater ‘in vain!’ That’s just what the ascetic ideal means: that something is missing, that a huge hole surrounds man. He did not know how to justify himself to himself, to explain, to affirm. He suffered from the problem of his being. He also suffered in other ways: he was for the most part a sick animal. The suffering itself was not his problem, but rather the fact that he lacked an answer to the question he screamed out, ‘Why this suffering?’ Man, the bravest animal, the one most accustomed to suffering, does not deny suffering in itself. He desires it, he seeks it out in person, provided that people show him a meaning for it, the purpose of suffering. The curse that earlier spread itself over men was not suffering, but the senselessness of suffering—and the ascetic ideal offered him a meaning!”
This aforementioned quote from Nietzsche’s third essay highlights the appeal that ascetic ideals, or religion, has on man in that it offered him a purpose behind his senseless suffering. However, the ascetic ideals of religion teaches its followers to hate the qualities that make them human. It preaches that to achieve enlightenment or God’s grace, you must endure the pain and suffering of human life, reject material possessions, and sacrifice worldly pleasures in hopes of a reward after death. This is what Nietzsche terms as “a will to nothingness, an aversion to life, a revolt against the most fundamental preconditions of life—but it is and remains a will! . . . And to repeat at the conclusion what I said at the start: man will sooner will nothingness than not will [at all] . . .”
Finally, Sigmund Freud, introduces, in his Five Lectures on Psychoanalysis, a new form of psychological inquiry and therapy which is termed as psychoanalysis. What sets this form of treatment apart from its predecessors is that it only involves the exchange of words between the patient and the doctor. The patient talks about his past and present experiences, and confesses his wishes and emotional impulses. The doctor listens and directs the patient towards certain subject matters and then observes the patient’s reaction. The basis for Freud’s psychoanalytical approach stems from anecdotal stories of Dr. Josef Breuer’s patients. Dr. Breuer had experience with patients with severe physiological problems that do not appear to have any physical origin, but originated from an emotional or psychological disturbance. Dr. Breuer observed that when he subjected his patients to hypnosis and had them recount their hidden thoughts and desires, allowing for his patients to vent their emotions, their various physiological symptoms disappeared permanently.
Freud borrowed Dr. Breuer’s approach and noticed that these hysterical and neurological symptoms, which are manifested as debilitating physiological problems, are remnants of certain traumatic experiences that the patients are repressing in their minds. These observations were the baseline that allowed for Freud to elaborate more on the unconscious mind by including topics such as the defense mechanisms that the unconscious mind has on resisting and repressing troublesome memories, how this mechanism of the unconscious mind manifests itself as neurosis or hysteria, how the unconscious mind uses its defense mechanism to suppress socially unacceptable wishes and desires and how these repressed desires are manifest in our dreams, types of defense mechanisms such as sublimation, reaction-formation, and repression, and the concept of the Id, Ego, and Superego.
Now, how does all of this tie into contemporary society and to your life?
Developing a better understanding of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud’s works will invariably grant you a better understanding of human history, human behavior, and their causes. For example, Marx’s interpretation of the world through the lens of historical materialism addresses the development of social classes, political structures, and common modes of thinking in society as being dependent on contemporary economic activity. Nietzsche’s essays on the development of morals in contemporary society lend credence as to why billions hold fast to their religious beliefs to this day, despite its obvious contradiction to modern science. Freud’s lectures on psychoanalysis bring about a richer understanding of what makes us human.
By reading more and more works from these notable thinkers, you will begin to connect the dots and see how the teachings of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud begin to compliment each other. You may be surprised by the results.