Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Friday, October 10, 2014

FREUD: On Dreams (Psychology and Mythology)

In our last reading Oedipus the King had a most unhappy fate, just as the gods had predicted. Some people think the culture of classical Greece, with its belief in magic, Olympian gods and fate is so far removed from our own (American) experience of the world as to be almost unrecognizable. Why? Are we smarter than they were? They weren’t fools. They left Western civilization a remarkable cultural heritage of democracy, science, philosophy, art, architecture and dramas like Oedipus the King. So we ask how could they have been so wrong about so many things; the nature of the gods, magical tales, and Fate? Maybe we should turn the tables and ask a different question. In Sophocles’ play Oedipus blinded himself because he had been “blinded” by his culture. Might our own culture also be blind, only in a different kind of way?
Let’s make a simple comparison between modern and ancient worldviews. Has modern science given us a more powerful view of reality and truth? For example, this week’s reading is about dreams. So let’s take dreams as a starting point. What is the nature of dreams? Where do they come from? What do they mean? The ancient world was very interested in dreams. Genesis tells us Jacob dreamed about angels going up and down a ladder to heaven. That seems pretty important. But does it mean anything? And if we can’t interpret what dreams mean, then what’s the point of having them? Also in Genesis Joseph had a gift for interpreting dreams and this gift changed the whole course of history. So maybe dreams are more important than we think.
On the other hand, all that stuff in Genesis happened a long time ago (if it happened at all). And some authors refer to the Genesis and Greek epochs of history as “prescientific” times. Freud is one of those. He says “during the epoch which may be described as prescientific, men had no difficulty in finding an explanation of dreams. When they remembered a dream after waking up, they regarded it as either a favorable or a hostile manifestation by higher powers, demonic and divine.” How does Freud know what prescientific men thought? But let’s assume Freud is right and assume that for ancient people dreams were in fact a “ladder” to higher powers. Dreams could then put us in touch with higher realms of being. This seems like a worthy goal, not all that much different from Socrates’ ladder in Plato’s Symposium. Moderns reject this idea. What’s really at stake here isn’t the nature of dreams; it’s the nature of reality. In the ancient worldview dreams are a gateway to another world; the world of mythology. And Freud classifies mythology as superstition. He says “when modes of thought belonging to natural science began to flourish, all this ingenious mythology was transformed into psychology…”
Freud believes modern science has transformed superstitious myth into rational psychology. Now we come back to the question of Oedipus and blindness: what are our own potential modern-day blind spots? Why do most of us prefer rational psychology over superstitious myth? Better yet, drop the adjectives. Rational sounds too positive, superstitious too negative. Then why do we prefer psychology (science) over myth? Does science give us a more powerful view of reality than the vision offered by myth, legend and magical tales? Freud prefers science and tries to convince our minds with rational arguments. Sophocles relies on myth and wants to move our hearts with poetry and drama. But it’s not like Freud is new wave and Sophocles is old school. The old Greek Aristotle preferred logical persuasion and clear thinking. The modern writer Kierkegaard thinks logic is too dry and turns wine into water; it drains all the juice out of life. Freud and his kind think faith in myth and magical tales only retard human progress. Sophocles and his kind think magic and myth is the juice (and wine) of life.


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