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(Original article by John Gray at Prospect Magazine...)

"In accepting that illusion could be productive, Freud was retracing the steps of Schopenhauer’s errant disciple Nietzsche. At the same time Freud was making a decisive break with a dominant strand of Enlightenment thinking. According to Alasdair MacIntyre, who developed the idea in his book After Virtue (1981), Nietzsche brought the Enlightenment to a close by showing that the project of a morality that rested solely on human will was self-defeating. MacIntyre’s argument has the merit of recognising that Nietzsche was an Enlightenment thinker—rather than the crazed irrationalist of vulgar intellectual history—as well as one of the Enlightenment’s more formidable critics. It was Freud, however, who made the more radical break with Enlightenment thinking. Even if he confines its scope to the absurd figure of the Übermensch, Nietzsche remains a militant partisan of human autonomy. Freud, by contrast despite almost everything that has been written about him—aimed as much to mark the limits of human autonomy as to extend it. His words of advice to a patient indicate how much his thinking diverged from the view of open-ended human possibilities that is asserted adamantly today: “I do not doubt that it would be easier for fate to take away your suffering than it would be for me. But you will see for yourself how much has been gained if we succeed in turning your hysterical misery into common unhappiness. Having restored your inner life, you will be better able to arm yourself against that unhappiness.” The tone of this injunction—with its use of the language of fate, prohibited among progressive right-thinking people—could not be further from contemporary ways of feeling and thinking...

...In a well-known passage at the end of Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), Freud declared: “I have not the courage to rise up before my fellow-men as a prophet, and I bow to their reproach that I can offer them no consolation…” What is most in demand at the start of the 21st century, in contrast, is consolation and nothing else. Enlightenment fundamentalism—the insistence by writers such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins that our salvation lies in affirming a highly selective set of “Enlightenment values”—serves this emotional need for meaning rather than any imperative of understanding. Like the religions they disparage, but with less profundity and little evident effect, the varieties of Enlightenment thinking on offer today are balm for the uneasy soul. The scientific-sounding formulae with which they appease their anxiety—the end of history, the flat world, the inexorable but forever delayed process of secularisation—are more fantastical than anything in Freud’s “gloomy mythology..."


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