Bruno Bettelheim, “Freud and Man’s Soul”

“Psychoanalysis is in essence a cure through love,” claims Freud in a letter to Jung, and Bettelheim devotes his short book to this proposition (1). Bettelheim focuses on mistranslations of Freud, mistranslations which make his work sound more scientific when its purpose is far more ordinary (2). The word “soul” (Seele), with its attendant notions of a spiritual life and all-too-human struggle, seems to have been written out of his work in translation, often replaced with “mind” (Geist) (3). “Mind” advances the idea that the rational has priority, that the conscious can simply conquer the unconscious. This badly botches the rationale underlying psychoanalysis, pushing it as a medical technique, rather than an intense process of self-reflection which ultimately creates more sensitivity to the human condition (4). Freud’s “greatest hope was that with the spreading of psychoanalytic knowledge, and the insights gained through it, the rearing of children would be reformed. Freud considered this ‘perhaps the most important of all activities of analysis,’ because it could free the largest number of people – not merely the few who underwent analysis personally – from unnecessary repressions, unrealistic anxieties, and destructive hatreds” (5).

Complete liberation from the unconscious is not possible, even though “uncover[ing] the unconscious was intended to give us some degree of rational control over it” (6). Rather, the psychoanalyst herself should make a reflective, perhaps therapeutic journey and more fully realize from where her thoughts and emotions come (7). Freud’s classical allusions only make sense in this context. For him, the classical underworld, a combination of memory and fantasy, reflects one’s grappling with the unconscious. To experience the underworld and leave it we suppose a necessary journey, one which can forge, within limits, a better guide to the underworld in general. On this note, the famous Oedipal complex does not simply reduce to “boys have sexual desires for their mother.” Rather, it is the process of discovering where one’s feelings for one’s parents come from and how they make themselves manifest in our lives. Oedipus’ great love for his adopted parents results in self-imposed exile. His preoccupation with killing them, his enormous anger at himself, culminates in the fury he unleashes on Laius and the near-suicidal confrontation with the Sphinx (8). Oedipus, of course, is not the only person with a problem in his story. Laius and Jocasta did the unthinkable in letting their fear of the future govern them. The Oedipus story is about the unrealistic expectations both parents and children have and their tragic consequences. “We all are projected into deep conflicts by our infantile desires, but also the need to resolve these conflicts through the difficult struggle for, and the achievement of, self-discovery. This is why, as Freud always insisted, the Oedipus complex is central to psychoanalysis” (9).

Perhaps Bettelheim’s best critique of Freudian mistranslation concerns the structure of consciousness: id, ego, and superego are not the terms Freud himself uses, as the German is it (Es), I (Ich), and above-I (Über-Ich) (10). Usually, when we speak of id, ego, and superego, we’ll say the id is the pleasure principle, an unconscious set of drives, the ego is rational, trying to master those drives, and the superego is the seat of moral reasoning and the norms we’ve internalized. We’ll make it sound like all the ego has to do is side with the superego and all human problems are solved. “Es,” “Ich,” and “Über-Ich” go a different direction. They are not stylized, medical-sounding terms, but everyday German, meant to prompt a layman to further examine his own life. The it, yes, is unconscious and concerns pleasure and relief. It is the underworld, a past we carry with us which we haven’t fully come to terms with. One is not simply going to master that past, for any insight into that past is a great achievement, one which can be considered most rational. The above-I, then, can be seen as an obstacle to self-understanding in some cases. We try to internalize normative standards which do not appreciate the justice of our situation, we place heavy moral burdens on ourselves. This is not to say we shouldn’t try to lead more normal lives, nor to say that man will always be discontent with civilization. The whole point of psychoanalysis is to show that our deepest concerns about the world we live in are warranted, and we need to learn to mature with the depth of our own thought and experience. The “I,” then, isn’t really rationality itself, or a rational self. It is the synthesis of the “it” and “above-I,” respectful of the unconscious, wisely critical of society, moving toward rationality. The “I” is simply that, an “I,” a self working toward self-realization.

I could say more about the book, but for those of you who also grapple with the question of the character of political philosophy, you can see how psychoanalysis, or something like it, begins to open a most necessary inquiry. Something about way political philosophy inspired by Leo Strauss is conducted nowadays stays deliberately blind to the educative process. It’s strange how one can detail a number of techniques used by the greatest authors, gain a number of insights, and have nothing to say about who people actually are.


(1) The quote is the epigraph to the book.
(2) Bettelheim, 1984, p. 5-7
(3) p. 70-71
(4) p. 7
(5) p. 33
(6) p. 16
(7) Some important qualifications on p. 33: “Freud… was concerned mostly with broadly conceived cultural and human problems and with matters of the soul.” Also on the same page: “He [Freud] admitted that he was never really enthusiastic about psychoanalysis as therapy.”
(8) p. 20-30
(9) p. 30
(10) p. 53-64


Bettelheim, Bruno. Freud and Man’s Soul. New York: Vintage, 1984.

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