Freud’s “Future of an Illusion” is not usually treated as a seminal work of political philosophy. It is usually treated as a text which raises questions concerning God’s existence. However, his theory concerning the origin of humankind’s ideas of God are closely intertwined with his theory of the origin of society. Further, his ideas concerning human progress also have a profound impact on the foundations of the laws which are needed to sustain society. So, the work can viably be treated as a political text which deeply involves questions of religion, since one of the key points of the work is to warn of the dangers of basing our modern societies on religion. In what follows, I will attempt to explain Freud’s views on the origin of the idea of God and its relation to his political philosophy. Second, I will consider some objections that may cast doubt on whether or not his solution of founding society’s laws on reason is as hopeful a vision as he presumes.

For Freud, the only thing that can make human society work, the only thing that can prove to be the bond of human association, is the renunciation of the instinct of the individual.[1] He believes that in all people, there are anti-social instincts which threaten the possibility for society. Anti-social in this case does not mean that all people are somehow introverts instinctually rather than extroverts, this would be our common understanding of the term today. Rather, what is meant by anti-social instincts in the way that Freud uses it is that there are certain tendencies towards actions or forms of character that all people have within them that, when acted upon or materialized, deteriorate the bonds that hold a society together in stable order. That is, these tendencies are detrimental to society, anti-social. Examples of this kind of behavior fall under the same criteria of Kant’s categorical imperative formula of the universal law. For instance, murder is anti-social, because if everyone did act on the maxim of murdering to achieve their ends, society would not function properly. Again, if everyone lied and was untrustworthy, the functionality of society would be greatly reduced, perhaps to a point of complete dissolution. There are, for Freud, dark and irrational forces that move people to be a detriment to society.

Freud takes a quite traditional, Hobbesian, approach to how societies are formed while these anti-social tendencies are in play. The answer is coercion. It will take some form of coercion such that the threat of it or carrying out of it will prove fearful enough to cause the masses to renounce their anti-social instincts which threaten society. This coercion comes from the laws of a society which stand with their respective punishments to drive the wills of the masses away from acting upon desires deemed anti-social. Freud makes distinctions between two different foundations on which these laws can rest, and they line up with his view of how society has progressed, or is progressing, through time.

The earliest laws in history, which managed to bring together the first societies through its coercive properties, had a religious foundation. What this means for Freud is that the founders of the early societies did not say “murder is bad, because look at how it harms society”, but they said, “God said we should not murder”. In other words, they did not reason with the masses, but they simply told them that God said murder should not be committed and that if it was committed, the one who did so would suffer grave punishment both at the hands of the rulers of the society and God. The foundation of the laws was God, not any kind of philosophical “insight into social necessity”. [2]

Freud’s reason for this has to do with his view of human progress and its relation to the idea of God which he calls an illusion. He says that the earlier humans first developed the illusion of God out of fear of natural forces. These natural forces, famine, tempests, plagues and the like, threatened individual survival. As a kind of therapy for this fear of nature’s wrath, humans began to make the natural forces into personal beings or a personal being who dictated nature. Since these beings were personal and possessed similar characteristics to humans, they were comforted by the fact that they were not threatened by a wild, mechanistic nature, but by beings who were like them.[3] This resulted in, perhaps, the formation of very informal gatherings of people into what may be called unlawful societies which existed to help meet the needs of the individuals which composed the community.

However, it was discovered, as humanity’s reason progressed, that nature was not personal, but operated mechanistically and out of necessity. The idea of a personal, God-like beings who controlled nature, fell by the wayside or at least became less mainstream. Nature’s threat to individual survival was somewhat bolstered by this early society, there still remained a great threat to both the survival of the community and individual. This was the threat of person against person, immorality. The conduct of the people had to be controlled through laws, lest the ties that bound the society would be ripped asunder and human well-being would deteriorate. It is Freud’s view that, at this stage in history, human reason had not yet progressed to a point were laws based on philosophical reasoning could be made by the elite, nor accepted by the masses. What happened was that it became “the task of the gods to even out the defects and evils of civilization”[4]. The gods who once were viewed to control nature, were cast as being concerned with the quality of human relations, justice and morality. Thus, laws whose foundations were not of reason, but the will of God were formed. In this way, laws were made that kept early humans in a relative state of obedience, their anti-social tendencies were kept relatively in check, and societies were made relatively peaceful and stable.

But Freud believes that humanity has progressed beyond this stage of development. He believes that the reasoning capabilities of humans have progressed to a high enough degree that laws need not be bound to religious precepts. For with the heightened reasoning capabilities which the rulers and subjects of society now have, laws can now be effective by simply basing them on philosophical reasoning. This means two things for Freud. For one, it is now dangerous to continue to base society’s laws on religious foundations. Second, that laws based on reason will prove to be more effective and less oppressive than religious based laws.

He believes that it is dangerous to base the laws of today’s societies on religion, because with heightened reason, people are beginning to come to the realization that God was simply an illusion, or a tool used by earlier peoples to control the masses. Just as the people in the past held that behind nature was a personal force and then learned otherwise, so now people are learning that the God of morality is an illusion. The great danger of this is that when a law is supported by the fact that God wills it, it brings about two adverse reactions in our modern, more enlightened, rulers and subjects. One reaction that it brings about is that the authority of the law is called into question. After all, if God is an illusion, the claim that God wills a law carries no weight on the conscience of a person who does not believe God. The second reaction, which follows from the first, is that any law which is based on a religious foundation is immediately suspected of being oppressive. The people under the law immediately assume that the only reason why the rulers say “follow the law because God wills it” is because there is no legitimate philosophical reason for doing so (even if there are actually good reasons that could be made). Thus, the religious foundation of a law is viewed as a scare tactic to oppress the people and allow the rulers to say whatever they want. This may not be the case. There may actually be good reasons for why one should not murder, but suspicion is raised when that is not the primary anchor for the law.

The religious foundation becomes dangerous because it no longer is able to coerce the anti-social instincts of the people. Even though humanity has advanced, there is still an anti-social instinct which needs to be curbed and if the laws lose their authority over the minds and consciences of the masses, the unbridled instincts will prove to be the doom of any society and the return to the state of nature would not be a pleasant one.                                        

With the increased reasoning capacity of our modern humans, Freud thinks that the religious foundation of law has become outmoded. That it is now incompatible with our mental environment. We have become too wise and rational to let laws be accepted and obeyed on such irrational, religious, grounds. What is needed now is a foundation for laws which aligns with our present state of rational enlightenment, and this is reason. So far, I have only mentioned the danger that comes along with basing laws on a religious foundation, but merely showing the danger of the religious foundation is not a sufficient to show that reason founded laws would fair better. Freud knows this and tells of the advantage of reason. Because people have such reasoning capabilities themselves, they can look into the rational foundations of laws and find them to be either satisfactory or not. If laws are found to be satisfactory according to reason, then those laws would gain the respect and honor that is needed by them, that they may bind the masses against anti-social instincts. Or as Freud says, “People could understand that they [laws] are made, not so much to rule them as, on the contrary, to serve their interests; and they would adopt a more friendly attitude to them, and instead of aiming at their abolition, would aim only at their improvement.”[5] In this way, the rational foundation would hope to “reconcile” the people to what Freud refers to as the “burden of civilization”[6]. That is, the feeling of coercion which the people feel when they must sacrifice their anti-social, selfish, instincts for the sake of the society’s survival. Freud does not say that this burden will go away, nor does he say that the rational foundation will lessen the burden, after all, to sacrifice the right to kill another is still the same and equivalent sacrifice regardless of the reason or grounds for it may be. But he does believe that with a rational foundation, modern people may be better able to see the beneficial nature of such a sacrifice than they would if this sacrifice was based on religious grounds. Since the laws would be looked upon by the people with this rational favor, the people would more willingly sacrifice their anti-social tendencies for their sake. Thus, our modern societies would be more stable than they would be if they continued to rely on the outdated, religious, foundations of laws which offend our modern rationality.

            It seems that this rational attempt has been made in the past. Indeed, Freud, in one of his self-imposed objections, notes that the French Revolution was such an attempt of overthrowing religious foundations with new, rational ones. I think the connection between the similarities of Freud and the Revolution is a fair one. Even if there are some differences, they share the same core motive of the overthrow of religious foundations in favor of reason. Due to their similar nature, it may be beneficial to see how the critiques of the one also works as critiques for the other. One of the staunchest critics of the French Revolution was a man who lived through it, Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821). It is my hope that, by introducing de Maistre, we can come into contact with some critiques from someone who has dealt heavily with a similar kind of project to Freud’s.

            The first objection of de Maistre I will base on a passage from his work “Considerations on France”, from chapter five:

            “Institutions are strong and durable to the degree that they are, so to speak, deified. Not only is human reason, or what is ignorantly called philosophy, incapable of supplying these foundations, which with equal ignorance are called superstitions, but philosophy is, on the contrary, an essentially disruptive force.”[7]

The first objection comes from his characterization of philosophy or reason as a disruptive force by its nature. What de Maistre means by this is that reason is always susceptible to reason. Whereas religious dogmas prohibit any kind of destructive reasoning, to do so would be “sinful”, reason is a kind of open court in which anyone with reason (which would mean everyone) might question or critique the reason of another. Reason invites debate. This is because everyone has reason and there is no clear indication as to whose reason holds supreme authority. Even though Rousseau or Locke may prove that one form of government is the best, should their reason hold primacy over the reasoning of others? Certainly, those who have reasoned differently would not think so. And so, as far as de Maistre is concerned, what you get when you base your institutions on reason is a collection of differing opinions, thrown together pell-mell, all at war with each other. And the debate about which one is authoritative or correct is never settled and a solid foundation for society, which is needed for its survival, is never attained. Once the open court of reason is allowed, you are left with intellectual anarchy and the laws which are based on reason, so criticizable by nature, fail to wield that authority which will coerce the anti-social instincts of the masses.

            However, it might be said that, that the reason or opinion which the majority follows will achieve a high enough sense of authority to curb anti-social passions. I would like to know what this opinion is exactly, after all, the history of political philosophy shows that agreement to such a high degree is rare, but I will consider this since it does bring me to the second objection.

            Supposing that a majority of opinion among the masses is achieved and that a line of reasoning or a foundational principle is agreed on for the most part, it is not guaranteed that this principle is sensible or very reasonable. De Maistre would accuse Freud’s political theory which involves the advancement of human reason as making a fundamental empirical error. This is that Freud assumes that the masses are, on the whole, rational and sensible. Freud is certainly not alone in this mistake; most political philosophies assume that the majority of people are rational and trained in philosophy. But it is surprising that Freud has this kind of hope also, especially because earlier in his work he refers to them as “lazy and unintelligent”[8]. But on this score de Maistre is in agreement with Freud. He believes that the masses are more like a mob rather than a group of thoughtful individuals. And this leads to a big problem with Freud’s theory concerning humankind’s reconciliation to the burden of civilization. This is because the reconciliation takes place because of the ability of the masses to take the time to understand, rationally, the philosophical foundations of the laws which demand a sacrifice from them. And while it is not a real problem to assume that those of the higher echelon of society are smarter than the philosophers of the past who needed religious founded laws, it is a stretch to assume that the masses can attain this kind of enlightenment. A nation of philosophers seems altogether unlikely, and if de Maistre is right about the disruptive nature of philosophy, it is undesirable. Moreover, an investigation of our own political climate today may confirm our suspicions that the masses are generally motivated by irrational impulse, having only very little knowledge of philosophical foundations for their actions or motives, and that only a small minority are actively engaged in political affairs in a way that is genuinely rational and that shows that they know the foundations upon which the society’s laws rest. The problem is that, if only a minority are insightful enough to familiarize themselves with the reasoning behind the laws, then the effect of basing your laws on reason alone will not have an effect on the uninquisitive masses. Further, if it fails to reconcile the masses, then it is a failure.

            This seems to put Freud’s position on the horns of a dilemma. Either the masses are capable of understanding the reasons that found society’s laws or the masses are not capable of this. In the first case it is a question of whether or not the reason of the individual is more authoritative than the reason of another. But it is also the question of whether or not a person will have admiration for a law they so thoroughly understand. It is assumed by Freud that, if a foundation for a law is understood, it will be friendly to the perceiver. But is it not often the case that the more a person investigates a law’s foundation, the more unstable that foundation appears? For de Maistre, it is the worst possible idea to let the roots of a law become clear to the masses, for to do so would mean to enable anyone to criticize it with ease, which is why he writes fervently against written constitutions. In the second case, if the masses are unintelligent or do not care to know the foundation of laws, then Freud’s dream of reconciliation is not possible. And it is these considerations that cause me to doubt whether Freud’s self-proclaimed “illusion” is possible or, even, if possible, whether or not the picture of the world it creates is a very good one.


[1] Sigmund Freud and James Strachey, The Future of an Illusion (New York: W. W. Norton, 1961), 7.

[2] Sigmund Freud and James Strachey, The Future of an Illusion (New York: W. W. Norton, 1961), 42.

[3] Ibid, 16-17.

[4] Ibid., 18.

[5] Sigmund Freud and James Strachey, The Future of an Illusion (New York: W. W. Norton, 1961), 41.

[6] Sigmund Freud and James Strachey, The Future of an Illusion (New York: W. W. Norton, 1961), 41.

[7] Joseph Marie Maistre, Considerations on France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 41.

[8] Sigmund Freud and James Strachey, The Future of an Illusion (New York: W. W. Norton, 1961), 7.

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