I started writing this about a month ago, but then misplaced the book, so my memory might be a bit fuzzy. I could go back and re-read the early chapters, but it’s not like I’m getting paid for this.

Chip lent me a number of books he rightly figured would be up my alley and the first one I went for (albeit after reading all the intros in Rants) was Thomas Szasz’ “The Myth of Psychotherapy”. This is my first direct dose of Szasz, with my previous readings coming from people like Bryan Caplan. It builds on his previous work like The Myth of Mental Ilness, which I think I’ve gotten the gist of well enough that this seems no major leap. Perhaps my knowledge about Szasz was deficient because a number of things caught me unexpected.

Szasz is perhaps best known as an “anti-psychiatrist” like R.D Laing, but he lampoons them saying “anti-psychiatrists and radical psychiatrists now pit their own charlatinisms against those of the regular psychiatrists” and on Laing specifically says that the recurrence of Franz Mesmer’s ideas in his and David Copper’s writing “illustrates the poverty of the revolutionary-messianic imagination”.

Szasz approvingly cites Richard Weaver, the famous (among traditional conservatives) Southern Agrarian on ideas and rhetoric. Szasz was hardly a southerner, even at heart, and even calling him a “cultural conservative” like Murray Rothbard might be a stretch. Weaver was also apparently a Platonist, and Szasz lambastes Plato and philosophers like him in ancient Greece as proto-psychiatrist “soul doctors”, praising Aristotle for breaking with Plato’s ideas. I thought of Szasz as hostile to the religious (at least the Western variety) for saying mankind was “plagued” by “monotheism, monarchy, monogamy and, in our age, monomedicine”. But in this book Szasz promotes Jesus and Martin Luther, admittedly in contrast to the Pharisees and Catholic Church, but in part because they were genuinely religious (this may be why he prefers Jung to Freud).

Szasz really despises Freud and gets into Kevin MacDonald territory when discussing him (speaking of whom, I received an email from a reader thinking I would be interested in claims that MacDonald uses forgeries and misquotes, though I don’t know how I signaled interest). As Szasz is ethnically Jewish himself, he can more easily get away with this sort of thing. He titles one chapter “Sigmund Freud: The Jewish Avenger”. As it was written in 1979, he doesn’t cite Kevin but did put John Cuddihy’s “Ordeal of Civility: Freud, Marx, Levi-Strauss, and the Jewish Struggle With Modernity” in the footnotes (the first two are major topics of MacDonald’s, but his writing has concerned a different Strauss). Szasz views Freud as a man who only claimed to reject religion in general but was in fact a believing Jew who invented psychoanalysis as a weapon against Christians/gentiles and only sought to undermine their religion. I did not find his evidence for at least the first part convincing in the slightest. There is so much I find faulty in that chapter it will take me a while to run through it.

Freud’s pro-Zionism does not indicate religious belief, as many ethnic Jews have fought for Israel while regarding their religious comrades as deluded. Zionism is just another nationalist movement that emerged as the nation-state triumphed over churches. That Freud sent cablegrams to his family on High Holidays just says to me that he wasn’t Scrooge.

The best bit of evidence Szasz presents for a religious rather than ethnic/racial identification is Freud’s quote that “My parents were Jews, and I have remained a Jew myself”. That would seem to imply he could do otherwise, but Szasz himself (I don’t know why, as it goes against his argument) says that we need to closely examine just what Freud meant by that. Szasz’ interpretation rests on a quote from Freud that he refused to feel ashamed or inferior due to his “descent” or “‘race’”, which is a matter of ethnic/racial identification rather than religious. Szasz precedes by the former Freud quote by wondering why he never declared himself an atheist or agnostic, but in a letter to a pastor he contrasts himself as a “completely godless Jew” to “all the pious”. His criticism of religion doesn’t even have the ‘mono’ qualifier that Szasz gave, saying “all of them are illusions”. Szasz himself notes that Nietzche and Voltaire said many similar things (although like another anti-clerical Frenchman the latter despised atheism).

Freud explicitly summed it up with “Although I have been alienated from the religion of my forebears for a long time, I never lost the feeling of solidarity with my people”. He emphasizes this racial rather than religious aspect with his references to “Aryans” rather than Christians or even Gentiles. Szasz thinks he catches Freud in contradiction for claiming at one point that “we lack that mystical element” (Szasz inserts “[Jews]” there) and elsewhere referring to the commonalities that form a bond among Jews as “miraculous”. The language certainly owes a debt to religion, but this is really just the brain-numbing effect of Einstein’s “infantile disease” (which Einstein himself was susceptible to). The characteristics of Jews that Freud harps on admiringly are their “tenacity” and being “tough” even (or especially) in contrast to a “Royal Prussian Teuton”, common traits that nationalists ascribe to their brethren.

Szasz recounts how Freud admired Hannibal against the Romans, and tellingly how he viewed their struggle as symbolic of that between Jewry and the Catholic church. Szasz refers to Hannibal as an “African” and does follow Freud in calling him Semitic without adding scare-quotes. But in fact Hannibal’s Carthage was a Phoenician colony merely located in (northern) Africa, and the Phoenicians were a Semitic people. As a pagan, Hannibal had nothing for a Jew to find appealing religiously, but in fact worshiped the figure most frequently denounced in the Hebrew Bible, Ba’al. Freud’s symbolic explanation fits perfectly with Szasz’ theory, but the normality of admiration is testified by the comparative infrequency of people who can name his Roman opponents (don’t do it in the comments).

The one area recounted where Freud slightly subverts Jewish ethnic/racial pride is in his analysis of Moses, who believed was not a Jew at all but an Egyptian. As Moses is one of the most revered human figures in the Jewish religion, I don’t think that’s a minor dissent. Szasz downplays it and tries to contrast his hostility to other figures including Jesus by quoting a remark Freud made to an acquaintance Jesus “could have been” deluded. The famous Christian apologist C. S. Lewis declared that Jesus was certainly insane if he was not in fact God incarnated, which makes Freud sound quite wishy-washy. Szasz claims that because of his Jewish feelings Freud spared Moses any ascription of mental illness, but in The Psychology of Prophetism Koenraad Elst claims that Freud diagnosed Moses with a “reactive psychosis”. The piece of evidence Szasz labels “decisive” is that on fleeing the Nazis for America Freud wrote “It is high time Ahasuerus came to rest somewhere”. Ahauserus is a legend made up by European Christians, not by Jews who wouldn’t think Jesus capable of cursing anyone. His comment smacks more of self-pity than “anti-Gentilism”.

Szasz himself seems caught in contradiction, at least with those he lets speak for him. He quotes Rothman and Isenberg on Totem and Taboo: “The volume ostensibly deals with the origins of religion. Yet it is Christian practice and ritual that are examined in terms of primitive drives and defense mechanisms”. I haven’t read the book and don’t know whether it singles out Christianity and leaves Judaism unscathed, but elsewhere Szasz writes that Freud’s assertion of alienation has been shown false and his merely not practicing rituals was “a very different thing”. To the extent that rituals are unimportant that undermines the claim of his specific attack on Christianity and to the extent that they are it undermines that of his lack of religious faith.

One bit I thought curious is a quote from Carl Schorske claiming that Freud was hostile to both the Roman Catholic Church and the Habsburgs of Austria-Hungary. Perhaps because Szasz did not think much of it no evidence is given for the latter. Earlier in the book Szasz indicts Freud for defending Julius Wagner-Jauregg and his use of electroshock treatments (which Freud by then regarded as quackery) during the Great War on the Empire’s soldiers with “war neuroses”. That would have been a fine time for an enemy of the regime to denounce them (and their military, which according to Karl Popper erected more barriers to Jewish advancement than other aspects of Austrian society) and the Austrian noble-born Ritter von Jauregg for their brutality. That he did not do so lends support to the claim that he in fact supported the rather liberal Habsburgs and rightly feared the nationalism that would replace the dissolution of their empire. I’ll note hear that his fellow Jewish-Austrian Habsburg fan Ludwig von Mises. Due to the new paleolibertarian “fusionism” we now see visions of Von Mises Washed in the Blood of Jesus, but in fact he thought religion incompatible with a rational economic system.

Szasz approvingly quotes Karl Popper saying “Admittedly, it is understandable that people who were despised for their racial origin should react by saying that they were proud of it. But racial pride is not only stupid but wrong, even if provoked by racial hatred”. I suspect many people would agree with the sentiment behind that statement, but not take it quite so far. Although both of Jewish descent, neither Popper nor Szasz identified as Jewish. I think it is that unusually strong distaste for nationalism or ethnic pride that causes Szasz to accuse Freud to misrepresent his religious beliefs when it is actually Szasz misrepresenting Freud in that regard.

Phew! Done with Freud. Szasz devotes fewer pages to Jung, which I’m sure is due in part to his relative insignificance compared to Freud but also because Szasz doesn’t dislike him as much. Jung was of course an early adherent of Freudianism and committed many of Freud’s sins, so Szasz can’t let him off completely. It is precisely because Jung went in even more ridiculous directions and admitted that what he was doing was not merely science but religion (at least some of the time) that Szasz goes easy on him. Jung was the son of a pastor and abandoned Christianity at an early age. However, while Victor von Weizsacker is quoted as saying that Jung maintained a resentment against the religion of his birth, he was certainly not hostile to religion generally. He regarded mental ilness as the result of a decline in religion in Europe and that the psychoanalytic cure for it would have to be a spiritual one, even as Freud was fighting such accusations of founding a pseufo-religion from their opponents. In recalling his dissapointment over the mystery of communion he recalls “‘Why, that is not religion at all,’ I thought ‘It is an absence of God; the church is a place I should not go to. It is not life which is there but death.’” No true Scotsman, anyone? Later in praising Jung’s more individualistic, sympathetic and admittedly rhetorical (as opposed to scientific/medical) to his patients Szasz says the Swissman has summed up “the essence of true psychotherapy by whatever name it might be called”. What is this about “true” psychotherapy? It seems to me that Jung and Szasz are using words like “real” and “true” to mean “what I approve of”. If Szasz believed in such a thing as “true psychotherapy” then it was a poor decision to title his book “The Myth of Psychotherapy”.

In contrast to the more openly mystic Jung, I think Freud’s grasping at scientism has some merit that Szasz derides. Szasz doesn’t seem to think much of Freud’s distinction between the conscious and unconscious, although he also attacks him for dismissing such a distinction in his defense of Wagner-Jauregg. I don’t see why that would be controversial. Our stomach, heart and lungs (in decreasing order) all operate independently of our conscious direction. It is not necessary for us to think about their operation and if the job was entrusted with our frontal cortex it would probably screw things up. When the doctor hits our knee with the mallet we see the same unconscious action in an organ we normally exercise more control over. Much of our thought is not explicit reasoning but rather automatic (I frequently follow the wrong directions somewhere because I am more in the habit of going nearly that way to a more common destination), so it should not be surprising that much of what goes on in our brain is not at the forefront of our consciousness. Studies done on people with a split corpus callosum show how unaware we can be of the cause of our actions. Freud, like Leo Strauss, was not wrong in declaring that there was something hidden from us. They were wrong to think they had the explanation for it. And Freud may have misused Martin Luther (as with the Odysseus myth) in denying free-will, but that doesn’t refute John Calvin. If we reject the existence of a soul or “life-force” then we are left with materialism and a biological brain. It may be true that we can better model Kasparov by thinking about his goals than the inner-workings of his gray-matter, but that doesn’t mean the processing in his mush isn’t the cause of Kasparov’s moves. We just don’t know enough about the mush or what are good chess moves.

It may sound like I’m down on Szasz, or this book, but I actually enjoyed it. There’s a lot of weird, interesting history he gets into and the people and practices he mocks have it coming. One of the best parts is in the last chapter where he simply has a long string of quotations on mental “ilnesses” and “treatments” that he feels free to leave stand without comment, as they simply mock themselves. That goes pretty well with Tom Wolfe’s The Me Decade. As enjoyably mockable as that is, I now wish I had started with Szasz’ previous attacks on our conceptions of mental ilness and the state apparatus around it.