Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Between the Quills: Schopenhauer and Freud on Sadism and Masochism

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Between the Quills: Schopenhauer and Freud on Sadism and Masochism

Article excerpt

It is a matter of common knowledge that Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) shared a common worldview. Everyone familiar with the works of these two thinkers should recognize their general philosophical affinities. Both men were pessimistic about the power of human reason and attributed human behavior to powerful unconscious forces and, as a result, both were deeply skeptical about the future of human society. Drawing from previous literature, this essay compares the philosophical theory of Schopenhauer with the psychoanalytic theory of Freud. We find that, while Schopenhauer and Freud share a common philosophical orientation and diagnosed the same fundamental problems with life in civilization, they proposed some ostensibly similar, yet ultimately very different solutions. Focusing on each thinker's respective notion of sadism and masochism, this paper tries to understand and come to terms with the dimensions of this radical pessimism.

Keywords: history of psychoanalysis, interpretation, metapsychology


Everyone familiar with the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) and Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) should immediately recognize their philosophical affinity. Many obvious parallels strike even the casual reader. Both thinkers conceived that sexuality played an enormous role in human behavior, far beyond the limited area granted it by their respective contemporaries. Both believed that the vast majority of mental activity proceeds unconsciously and that the role of the conscious mind had been greatly overestimated by the philosophical tradition. Both men understood human behavior as the product of powerful and often conflicting drives. Each thinker held that mental illness involved a disorder of memory. And perhaps most importantly, they shared a pessimistic view of human nature, which required them to confront the complexities of human aggression and the problems of life in civilization.

The first section of this essay focuses on the many structural similarities of their general theories and the second attempts to examine their respective theories of human aggression. The problem of sadism and, perhaps most importantly, masochism consistently occupied both thinkers throughout their intellectual careers. These theories allow us to see the underlying reasons for their pessimistic view of human life in society, which is little more than a fraught and tenuous alliance generated by the forced repression and sublimation of our dark essential nature.

The large extent to which psycho-analysis coincides with the philosophy of Schopenhauer - not only did he assert the dominance of the emotions and the supreme importance of sexuality but he was even aware of the mechanism of repression - is not to be traced to my acquaintance with his teaching. I read Schopenhauer very late in my life.

(Freud, 1925, pp. 59-60)

With any study that compares the thought of two monumental figures, there inevitably arises the question of influence. It is certain that Freud read Schopenhauer as he readily admits to having done so. It is not a matter of if Freud read Schopenhauer, but when. While Freud claims that he read Schopenhauer "late in life", many authors, including, notably Young and Brook (1994), have questioned Freud's claim. In this essay, I refrain from any speculation as to whether Freud took his ideas directly from Schopenhauer, as my intention is not to undermine Freud's originality, but to advance our interdisciplinary understanding of sadism, masochism, and human aggression. In my view, even if Freud gained his initial orientation directly from Schopenhauer, Freud's dynamic and novel insights into the human mind and his singlehanded invention of psychoanalytic method go far beyond what Schopenhauer could have ever conceived. Thus I leave the question of Schopenhauer's influence on the father of psychoanalysis to the educated reader.

1. Some notable similarities

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