Voegelin, Freud and Totem and Taboo

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In his writings Voegelin makes several references to Sigmund Freud, but he never engaged in the type of sustained philosophical analysis that he carried out with figures like Hegel, Marx, or Nietzsche. However, he did make enough comments to make it clear that he regarded Freud as falling within the same cultural matrix that produced the revolutionary figures of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. In the essay, Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme,[1] Voegelin mentions Freud in connection with the type of analysis that he carries out on Marx. He does so while explaining the way that Marx used the element of “analytical obscurity” in order to have his counter-image of reality eclipse our true image of reality. Voegelin writes: “It will perhaps not be superfluous to add that the same problem of analytical obscurity would have arisen if the example chosen had not been the construction of Marx but that of Comte, Hegel, or Freud.”[2]

In his essay on Reason, Voegelin again places Freud within the same revolutionary context:

“Phenomena in the metaxy, of an economic or psychological nature, are rashly fused in an act of libidinous transgression with the apeirontic depth in such symbols as the Marxian Being which determines Consciousness, or in the Freudian symbol of the Libido, with the declared purpose of mobilizing the authority of the Acheronta against the authority of Reason.”[3]

A comprehensive study of the figure of Freud would require more than an essay. So I will restrict myself to a brief outline of a Voegelian approach to Freud with some references to Freud’s Totem and Taboo.[4]

In treating revolutionary figures like Hegel or Marx, Voegelin placed them within an anthropological and a historical framework. As human beings they shared the common human mode of participation in reality which has as an essential element consciousness of existing in an “in-between” state; of living “in-between” mortality and immortality, immanence and transcendence Along with this there is the awareness of being called to attunement with the divine ground and that to be fully human one must be more than human. As a third element there is the experience of being free to choose how to respond to this calling. The two basic possibilities are to choose attunement to the divine ground, or to refuse such attunement. It’s either humble submission or hubristic revolt lived within the tension of pulls and counter-pulls.

For the concrete individual this drama of human living takes place in a particular historical age with its characteristic quality and intensity of the experience of luminosity that lights up consciousness. However, a growth in luminosity has as it were the qualities of a two-edged sword. On the one side there is the discovery of a greater depth of spiritual possibility within the soul. But, realizing that possibility requires an even greater degree of submission to the divine ground. The danger is that it may provoke a more intense and even furious revolt against attunement to the divine ground. Voegelin identifies two major outbursts of luminosity in the Western tradition in the ancient Greek philosophers and the Judaeo-Christian experience. He characterises nineteenth century Europe as an age of revolt, a revolt which had the same degree of intensity as the noetic and pneumatic luminosity of the Greek and Christian experiences. If the ground and source of noetic and pneumatic luminosity lies in the Transcendent Being, for the revolt to succeed the revolutionaries must attempt to eclipse it and replace it with themselves as sources of a new and brighter luminosity. When the revolt is specifically against Christianity, they must set themselves up as new “Christs” who now have a definitive message of salvation for the world.

However, in order not to be dismissed as a mere crank or a psychiatric case, the revolutionary must find a way to appear to be telling the truth about reality, even though what he is proposing is a false reality dreamt up in his imagination. Just as a magician appears to pull a rabbit out of an empty hat, the activist dreamer must appear to have remade reality even though reality cannot be remade. He must be able to switch what Voegelin terms his “Second reality” for the First Reality of experience without the audience noticing what has happened. In the essay Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme Voegelin notes:

“[There is] the activist’s faith in his power to transfigure the structure of reality. When he acts, he expects such action to form the first reality into conformity with the Second Reality of his dream. The activist dreamer must know the trick action, as distinguished from ordinary action, that will have the extraordinary result of transfiguring the nature of things. He must imagine himself to be a magician.”[5]

In an essay on Hegel, Voegelin describes the process at work:

“[Hegel is engaged in] the game of replacing the First Reality of experience by the Second Reality of imaginative construction, and of endowing the imaginary reality with the appearance of truth by letting it absorb a piece of first reality.”[6]

Can we find any of this in Freud’s Totem and Taboo? Let’s start with Freud’s imaginary reality. It reads like a fairy-tale. Once upon a time there was a jealous father who kept all the females for himself and drove his sons away. One day the sons returned and killed their father and ate him. By devouring him they each acquired a part of his strength. However, soon their tender feelings towards their father began to re-appear in the form of remorse and a sense of guilt. They could not bring back their father so they substituted him with an animal which became the totem of the tribe which could not be killed. They also denied themselves the wives of their father and thus the taboo against incest took root. Through their protective treatment of the totem they achieved a kind of reconciliation with their father. In front of the totem the brothers became children again seeking protection from the totem. Thus began the first manifestation of what would later develop into religion in all its various forms.

However, the sons maintained an ambivalent relationship with the surrogate father. They were also proud of the deed of eliminating their overbearing father. And so once a year they had the totem feast during which they were permitted to slaughter the totem animal thus re-enacting the original act of parricide. And by eating it they once again acquired the power and strength of the father. Nonetheless, the longing for the father grew and became so intense that the father was deified. In this way the idea of God emerged in human culture. The killing of the animal now became a sacrifice directed towards appeasing the father God. However, the hostile feelings towards the father remained. Animal sacrifice was replaced by human sacrifice where the one sacrificed represented the deity. On the surface level the human was sacrificed as an offering to God, but this masked the real intention which was to once again kill the father who had now become God. The Christian religion brings all of these elements together. The sons have killed their father, but they need to assuage their sense of guilt. The Son of the Father takes upon himself the guilt of the sons and in an act of self-sacrifice pays the ultimate price which will definitively remove the sense of guilt. In doing this he becomes God and the sons now eat his sacrificed body and so acquire his divine power. The sons are now as powerful as the Father.

This is a condensed summary of Freud’s imaginary second reality, but which he wants us to accept as actual first reality. How is he going to manage such a feat? He will begin by finding a connecting link to first reality. The first point of contact is that totems and taboos do actually exist. So by attempting to explain their genesis, Freud gives us the impression that he is working within the real world. Also, he continually makes references to a whole range of cultural anthropologists who have carried out observations on first reality. In doing this he makes us believe that he is making a legitimate contribution to cultural anthropology by putting forward theories that are based on an empirical study of first reality. In his introductory remarks he prepares the reader to accept that his second reality theory is a legitimate hypothesis about a first reality phenomenon:

In this book the attempt is ventured to find the original meaning of totemism through its infantile traces, that is, through the indications in which it reappears in the development of our own children. The close connection between totem and taboo indicates the further paths to the hypothesis maintained here. And although this hypothesis leads to somewhat improbable conclusions, there is no reason for rejecting the possibility that it comes more or less near to the reality which is so hard to reconstruct.

Chapter One opens with an affirmation that is firmly grounded in first reality:

“Primitive man is known to us by the stages of development through which he has passed: that is, through the inanimate monuments and implements which he has left behind for us, through our knowledge of his art, his religion and his attitude towards life, which we have received either directly or through the medium of legends, myths and fairy tales.”

But just a few sentences later Freud leads his readers into his second reality. He introduces us to the “psychic life” of “primitive peoples” and says that we can recognize in their psychic life “a well-preserved, early stage of our own development”. Once he has got us here he can then lead us a step further into his second reality. He writes:

“If this assumption is correct, a comparison of the ‘Psychology of Primitive Races’ as taught by folklore, with the psychology of the neurotic as it has become known through psychoanalysis will reveal numerous points of correspondence and throw new light on subjects that are more or less familiar to us.”

If we take the bait he has us hooked. We are no longer capable of distinguishing between the first reality of totems and taboos as they actually exist in real cultures and his second reality of “primitive peoples” whose behaviour is remarkably similar to “the psychology of the neurotic” He can now move back and forth between the two realities with remarkable ease, demonstrating apparently brilliant, original insights. In Chapter Two he can state:

“It may be surmised that the taboo of Polynesian savages is after all not so remote from us as we were at first inclined to believe; the moral and customary prohibitions which we ourselves obey may have some essential relation to this primitive taboo the explanation of which may in the end throw light upon the dark origin of our own ‘categorical imperative.”

Here Freud passes from “the taboo of Polynesian savages” (first reality) to Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’ (first reality) to his own theory of how the two are linked (second reality). In case the reader begins to have doubts about the explanatory power of psychoanalysis with regard to taboos, Freud re-assures his readers that he too is aware that he should not be over hasty in his attempt to demonstrate the connection.

There is one warning to which we shall have to give heed in making this attempt. The similarity between taboo and compulsion disease may be purely superficial, holding good only for the manifestations of both without extending into their deeper characteristics. Nature loves to use identical forms in the most widely different biological connections, as, for instance, for coral stems and plants and even for certain crystals or for the formation of certain chemical precipitates. It would certainly be both premature and unprofitable to base conclusions relating to inner relationships upon the correspondence of merely mechanical conditions. We shall bear this warning in mind without, however, giving up our intended comparison on account of the possibility of such confusions.

Freud is assuring us that he is a man of science who knows about “coral stems” and “crystals” and “chemical precipitates” and that he would never entertain premature conclusions. We can therefore trust him when he writes:

“We may now make the attempt to study taboo as if it were of the same nature as the compulsive prohibitions of our patients. It must naturally be clearly understood that many of the taboo prohibitions which we shall study are already secondary, displaced and distorted, so that we shall have to be satisfied if we can shed some light upon the earliest and most important taboo prohibitions. We must also remember that the differences in the situation of the savage and of the neurotic may be important enough to exclude complete correspondence and prevent a point by point transfer from one to the other such as would be possible if we were dealing with exact copies.”

He will demonstrate the essential connection between taboo and neurotic compulsion, but even where there doesn’t seem to be a correspondence we should not take this as evidence that his hypothesis is false. Having covered his back as it were, he can proceed with his theory: “The oldest and most important taboo prohibitions are the two basic laws of totemism: namely not to kill the totem animal, and to avoid sexual intercourse with totem companions of the other sex.”

It would therefore seem that these must have been the oldest and strongest desires of mankind. We cannot understand this and therefore we cannot use these examples to test our assumptions as long as the meaning and the origin of the totemic system is so wholly unknown to us. But the very wording of these taboos and the fact that they occur together will remind anyone who knows the results of the psychoanalytic investigation of individuals, of something quite definite which psychoanalysts call the central point of the infantile wish life and the nucleus of the later neurosis.

Again we are witnessing a game of moving back and forth between first reality and second reality. In real cultures taboos about the totem animal and sexual intercourse really do exist. If we are not aware of what’s going on, without realizing it we then find ourselves in the terrain of Freud’s second reality of “infantile wish life” as “the nucleus of the later neurosis” used as concepts with the power to explain the first reality phenomena of totems and taboos. However, there are times when it seems Freud has let his guard down. He must keep his readers with him and therefore he sometimes has to make real statements to justify what he is about. For example when he writes:

“We can shape our investigation so as to ascertain whether a part of the assumptions which we have transferred from the neurosis to the taboo, or the conclusions at which we have thereby arrived can be demonstrated directly in the phenomena of taboo. We must decide, however, what we want to look for. The assertion concerning the genesis of taboo, namely, that it was derived from a primitive prohibition which was once imposed from without, cannot, of course, be proved. We shall therefore seek to confirm those psychological conditions for taboo with which we have become acquainted in the case of compulsion neurosis.”

In order to prove his theory he must find direct evidence of neurotic behavior in the taboo. But to do this he needs to decide what “to look for”. For anyone familiar with scientific method this should immediately set off alarm bells. If you are looking for the shapes of animals in clouds you will easily find them. But at this stage Freud seems already convinced that he has won the reader’s trust in his scientific credibility. This is how he goes about finding what he is looking for. He says that psychoanalytic study shows that neurotic behavior is always ambivalent. So if we find ambivalence in the behavior concerning taboo we will have demonstrated beyond doubt the connection between the two. And of course he does find what he is looking for:

“When the See-Dayaks of Sarawak [Borneo] bring home a head from a war expedition, they treat it for months with the greatest kindness and courtesy and address it with the most endearing names in their language. The best morsels from their meals are put into its mouth, together with titbits and cigars. The dead enemy is repeatedly entreated to hate his former friends and to bestow his love upon his new hosts because he has now become one of them.”

For Freud, the ambivalence demonstrated here is essentially the same as the neurotic ambivalence of a wife who obsessively cares for her husband while at the same time wishing that he was dead. On the surface it appears that Freud is surveying a vast amount of anthropological data which then leads him to gain insight into common patterns underlying the data. What is actually happening is that he has at hand his theory of the origin of neurotic behaviour and he wants us to be impressed at how his theory explains what otherwise we would consider as the bizarre customs of “primitive peoples”.  But he doesn’t stop there. He wants us to see the insights of psychoanalysis as providing a grand theory which explains the full range of human culture. His step-by-step reasoning begins with the “primitive” urge for murder and sexual violation. This gives rise to all the social forms of taboo that we find in “primitive peoples”. In the modern neurotic this taboo has taken on the form of compulsive behavior characterized by apparent altruism which masks the “primitive” urge. He gives as an example the taboo against touching the King and the neurotic’s repression of a sexual urge. Freud concludes:

“From this single example of a comparison between taboo and compulsion neurosis it is already possible to guess the relation between individual forms of the neurosis and the creations of culture, and in what respect the study of the psychology of the neurosis is important for the understanding of the development of culture.”

In one way the neuroses show a striking and far-reaching correspondence with the great social productions of art, religion and philosophy, while again they seem like distortions of them. We may say that hysteria is a caricature of an artistic creation, a compulsion neurosis, a caricature of a religion, and a paranoic delusion, a caricature of a philosophic system.

At this point we are now deep into Freud’s second reality. If we have stayed with him thus far we are ready to accept anything he proposes. But Freud also has his eye on the wary reader who may not yet be convinced. He wants to assure those who may think that he is asserting more than can be reasonably affirmed that he is proceeding with the utmost caution:

The reader need not fear that psychoanalysis, which first revealed the regular over-determination of psychic acts and formations, will be tempted to derive anything so complicated as religion from a single source. If it necessarily seeks, as in duty bound, to gain recognition for one of the sources of this institution, it by no means claims exclusiveness for this source or even first rank among the concurring factors. Only a synthesis from various fields of research can decide what relative importance in the genesis of religion is to be assigned to the mechanism which we are to discuss; but such a task exceeds the means as well as the intentions of the psychoanalyst. Freud is so confident in his ability to captivate his readers that he can tell them not to fear that he will do what he is actually doing. He has in fact been tempted to derive religion from a single source. He does claim exclusiveness and first rank for his theory.

Now comes the final part where he will put forward his most outrageous claim. He prepares the ground when he writes:

“But if we associate the translation of the totem as given by psychoanalysis, with the totem feast and the Darwinian hypothesis about the primal state of human society, a deeper understanding becomes possible and a hypothesis is offered which may seem fantastic but which has the advantage of establishing an unexpected unity among a series of hitherto separated phenomena.”

He remains the scientist by linking his hypothesis to the respected figure of Darwin. Arguing from a Darwinian world view, Freud suggests that in some primordial time a band of brothers ganged up on their father, killed and ate him and shared out his wives. He continues:

“In order to find these results acceptable, quite aside from our supposition, we need only assume that the group of brothers banded together were dominated by the same contradictory feelings towards the father which we can demonstrate as the content of ambivalence of the father complex in all our children and in neurotics. They hated the father who stood so powerfully in the way of their sexual demands and their desire for power, but they also loved and admired him. After they had satisfied their hate by his removal and had carried out their wish for identification with him, the suppressed tender impulses had to assert themselves. This took place in the form of remorse, a sense of guilt was formed which coincided here with the remorse generally felt. The dead now became stronger than the living had been, even as we observe it to-day in the destinies of men. What the fathers’ presence had formerly prevented they themselves now prohibited in the psychic situation of ‘subsequent obedience’, which we know so well from psychoanalysis. They undid their deed by declaring that the killing of the father substitute, the totem, was not allowed, and renounced the fruits of their deed by denying themselves the liberated women. Thus they created the two fundamental taboos of totemism out of the sense of guilt of the son, and for this very reason these had to correspond with the two repressed wishes of the Oedipus complex.”

He goes on to repeat again his grand theory of the origin of religion:

“The totem religion had issued from the sense of guilt of the sons as an attempt to palliate this feeling and to conciliate the injured father through subsequent obedience. All later religions prove to be attempts to solve the same problem, varying only in accordance with the stage of culture in which they are attempted and according to the paths which they take; they are all, however, reactions aiming at the same great event with which culture began and which ever since has not let mankind come to rest.”

But for Freud the great competing reality to his imaginary reality is the Christian religion. If he is to be the last man standing when it comes to explaining reality he must undermine the very foundation of this religious tradition. Actually, it falls into place very easily if we have been following him up to this point. Christianity has at its centre the Father-Son relationship. The band of brothers at the dawn of time ate and killed their father. They projected their relationship onto a divinised Father, but their sense of guilt remained. They project their relationship with the Father onto a divinised Son who then sacrifices himself as a definitive payment for their crime. They consume the body of the sacrificed Son and so partake of his divine qualities. Freud writes:

“Thus in the Christian doctrine mankind most unreservedly acknowledges the guilty deed of primordial times because it now has found the most complete expiation for this deed in the sacrificial death of the son. The reconciliation with the father is the more thorough because simultaneously with this sacrifice there follows the complete renunciation of woman, for whose sake mankind rebelled against the father. But now also the psychological fatality of ambivalence demands its rights. In the same deed which offers the greatest possible expiation to the father, the son also attains the goal of his wishes against the father. He becomes a god himself beside or rather in place of his father. The religion of the son succeeds the religion of the father. As a sign of this substitution the old totem feast is revived again in the form of communion in which the band of brothers now eats the flesh and blood of the son and no longer that of the father, the sons thereby identifying themselves with him and becoming holy themselves. Thus through the ages we see the identity of the totem feast with the animal sacrifice, the theanthropic human sacrifice, and the Christian eucharist, and in all these solemn occasions we recognize the after-effects of that crime which so oppressed men but of which they must have been so proud. At bottom, however, the Christian communion is a new setting aside of the father, a repetition of the crime that must be expiated.”

Freud now begins to bring his study to a close and writes:

“In closing this study, which has been carried out in extremely condensed form, I want to state the conclusion that the beginnings of religion, ethics, society, and art meet in the Oedipus complex. This is in entire accord with the findings of psychoanalysis, namely, that the nucleus of all neuroses as far as our present knowledge of them goes is the Oedipus complex.”

However, before this final summing up there is a curious reference to the myth of Orpheus. Freud says he is following a hint that is contained in Salomon Reinach’s treatment of the myth and its evocation in Greek tragedy. Here is how Freud presents it:

“A group of persons, all of the same name and dressed in the same way, surround a single figure upon whose words and actions they are dependent, to represent the chorus and the original single impersonator of the hero. Later developments created a second and a third actor in order to represent opponents in playing, and off-shoots of the hero, but the character of the hero as well as his relation to the chorus remains unchanged. The hero of the tragedy had to suffer; this is to-day still the essential content of a tragedy. He had taken upon himself the so-called ‘tragic guilt’, which is not always easy to explain; it is often not a guilt in the ordinary sense. Almost always it consisted of a rebellion against a divine or human authority and the chorus accompanied the hero with their sympathies, trying to restrain and warn him, and lamented his fate after he had met with what was considered fitting punishment for his daring attempt.”

If we employ a “hermeneutic of suspicion” it seems legitimate to ask if Freud sees himself in the figure of the hero Orpheus. Could he be the “single figure upon whose words and actions they are dependent”? And could “they” refer to his followers. Does Freud see himself in “rebellion against a divine or human authority”? Our suspicion seems as least possible when we read what follows:

“But why did the hero of the tragedy have to suffer, and what was the meaning of his ‘tragic’ guilt? We will cut short the discussion by a prompt answer. He had to suffer because he was the primal father, the hero of that primordial tragedy the repetition of which here serves a certain tendency, and the tragic guilt is the guilt which he had to take upon himself in order to free the chorus of theirs. The scene upon the stage came into being through purposive distortion of the historical scene or, one is tempted to say, it was the result of refined hypocrisy. Actually, in the old situation, it was the members of the chorus themselves who had caused the suffering of the hero; here, on the other hand, they exhaust themselves in sympathy and regret, and the hero himself is to blame for his suffering. The crime foisted upon him, namely, presumption and rebellion against a great authority, is the same as that which in the past oppressed the colleagues of the chorus, namely, the band of brothers. Thus the tragic hero, though still against his will, is made the redeemer of the chorus.”

Is Freud the ‘suffering hero” and does the “refined hypocrisy” refer to those who act as if they are his followers but who are waiting in the wings with their knives already drawn? We cannot be sure of this, but it’s worth taking into account what Salomon Reinanch says in his Orpheus:  A General History of Religions:

“Orpheus was also, to the ancients, the theologian par excellence, founder of those mysteries which ensured the salvation of mankind, and no less essential to it as the interpreter of the gods. Horace designates him thus: Sacer interpresque deorum. He it was who revealed first to the Thracians and afterwards to the other Greeks the necessary knowledge of things divine.”[7]

Freud goes one step further. He is not just the interpreter of the gods, he is their destroyer, reducing them to nothing more than fantasy figures in childish minds.


It doesn’t take a lot to see how much Totem and Taboo falls short of any reasonable standard of empirical scientific method. The whole thing is fabricated in Freud’s mind. It’s an imaginary construction which has little or no connection with the real world. If the Emperor is not entirely naked then he seems to be covered with little more than a fig leaf. Some of Freud’s critics say the same thing about the whole of his “science” of psychoanalysis.[8] If this is so, we can ask: How is it that Freud became such a revered figure over the past century, not just in popular culture but at the highest levels of academia? An attempt to answer that question would require at least another essay. It’s a question worth asking because unlike Marx’s utopian project which seems to have run its course, the sexual revolution which has its roots in the revolt against sexual restraint seems to be in full swing.



[1] Eric Voegelin, Published Essays 1966-1985, Louisiana State University Press, 1990  pp.315-375

[2] Ibid., p. 320.

[3] Ibid. pp.283-284.

[4] All quotations from Totem and Taboo are from the Gutenberg online edition  http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/41214.

[5] Ibid. p. 324

[6] Ibid. p.224.

[7] Salomon Reinach, Orpheus:  A General History of Religions, Kessinger Publishing,1995, Preface p.v.

[8] See for example, Frederick Crews, Freud: The Making of an Illusion, Metropolitan Books, 2017.

Robbie Young

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Robbie Young has his doctorate degree in education and is interested in philosophy, history, politics, and contemporary cultural issues. He studied under Brendan Purcell at the University of Dublin and is currently a cultural attaché in the Apostolic Nunciature in Pretoria, South Africa.