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A Corner of My Mind: Great Visionaries of the 19th and 20th Centuries

Most of us look inward at our mental landscapes and every once in a while we get a glimpse of something beyond. We call it an an epiphany. Those who live their lives beyond the mental horizons that wall in the rest of us are referred to as geniuses.

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries produced four that I can think of: Freud, Darwin, Lenin, and Einstein. Each reached heights in his chosen field that allowed him to look above those horizons to some landscape that only he could see and understand. Each brought back gifts to humanity from those exalted realms, although we did not always accept the gifts graciously and sometimes we used them for destruction. So goes it with one aspect of humanity.

“Know then thyself, presume not God to scan

The proper study of mankind is man.”

In this week’s column, I’d like to take a short look at the lives and works of Sigmund Freud and Charles Darwin. In next week’s column, I’ll tackle Lenin and that greatest of minds: Albert Einstein, who looked beyond his horizons and even the stars.

Sigmund Schlomo Freud (1856- 939) was an Austrian neurologist who founded the discipline of psychoanalysis and gave Western civilization a way of interpreting history and culture through methods that improved our understanding of our own minds. “Freud’s discoveries concerning the unconscious mind have had a major influence on Western thought and have permeated contemporary culture. His development of psychoanalysis contributed an essential method for the understanding, treatment and research of psychological disturbance.”

Here was a man who used his mind to study the human mind. “... Freud’s discovery of the Oedipus Complex and other essential contents of psychoanalysis and routine self-analysis ...” was performed to check his own unconscious psychic life. He maintained that the analysis of the dream is not complete, but he asserted that “dreams are the disguised fulfillment of unconscious wishes.”

“In Freud’s “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life,” he offers room to focus on “... the analysis of faulty and symptomatic actions ... it proves neurotic features are present not only in sickness but also in health. The difference does not lie in quality but in quantity. Repression is greater with the sick and the free libido is sensibly diminished. Therefore, it is for the first time in the history of psychopathology that Freud overrules the difference between pathology and health ...”

On religion, Freud regarded “... the monotheistic god as an illusion based upon the infantile emotional need for a powerful, supernatural pater familis.” He believed it could be set aside in favor of reason and science.

“In 1930, Freud was awarded the Goethe Prize in recognition of his contributions to psychology and to German literary culture. In January 1933, the Nazis took control of Germany, and Freud’s books were prominent among those they burned and destroyed. Freud quipped: ‘What progress we are making. In the Middle Ages they would have burned me. Now, they are content with burning my books.’”

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) looked at the flora and faunas of the Galapagos Islands and found in their variations and adaptations a revelation that natural selection was the driving force in the incredible variety of life on earth.

Darwin’s theory of evolution, expounded in “On the origin of Species,” (1859) was not really new. Those ancient free thinkers, the Greeks, and the Romans, the Chinese, and medieval Islamic science,all beat the English naturalist to that theory.

While “... the established churches (of England and Scotland) and the English universities remained insistent that species were divinely created and man was distinct from the “lower orders”, the Unitarian church rejected this teaching and even proclaimed that the human mind was subject to physical law.”

Although Darwin attended Christ’s College, Cambridge, and initially liked the idea of becoming a country clergyman with a comfortable living, there were stirrings that went against the Christian view of creation, with radicals in danger of imprisonment for blasphemy. Yet some prominent Christians held strong views on the scientific search for the laws of nature. For these men, the study of nature was the study of the works of the Lord and science could not be out of harmony with religion, and in a sense it was religion.”

In a time when street protests demanded equality for women and of religion, Darwin was steeped in the study of Christianity. But the future clergyman also read books with a different view than Design by the Creator.

Then came Darwin’s historic voyage on the HMS Beagle, a trip he made before he planned to settle down to a comfortable life as a country clergyman, and where he visited the Galapagos Islands for a mere two weeks. And there the horizon expanded for the young clergyman. And there, among the finches and tortoises and iguanas, Darwin would present humanity with a gift called Natural Selection, a bit of a Trojan Horse, and the world would never again be the same.

What was the young clergyman’s revelation, the epiphany of a genius, that others had missed? What led him to his mind-altering view of evolution? God knows. It was not a concept that won Darwin friends within some circles, yet in contemporary times, science would sustain a hole in the tapestry of its carefully woven disciplines without the concept of evolution and a planet that is four and a half billion years old.

It’s never comfortable to have to alter our beliefs and open our minds to new concepts that smash the foundation columns of our realities. It was not easy either for Charles Darwin, the comfortable country clergyman, but he had the fortitude to explore a very uncomfortable theory.

His open-minded and religious wife, Emma, was concerned that her closely-held belief that she and Charles would be together for eternity, was now in question by his concepts. Emma feared that Charles’ beliefs in evolution and his diminishing belief in the Church would separate them. On Sundays Charles would walk his wife and children to the church, then turn and go for a walk.

As disbelief later gradually crept over Darwin, Emma wrote in a letter: “He can hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.”

After the death of their beloved 9-year-old daughter, Annie, Emma explained to her other children that Annie was with God, while Darwin concluded that he no longer believed in an afterlife.

“In his autobiography, written in 1876, Darwin recalled that at the time of writing On the Origin of Species, the conclusion was strong in his mind of the existence of God due to “the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist.”

Personally I feel that it’s unfortunate that a belief in some God and a pursuit of science with its meticulous and truth-seeking studies, can’t be brought into harmony, as with Michelangelo’s hand of man and hand of God in The Creation of Adam.

Some physicists have developed a theory that within our brains there are quantum particles that exchange information. They wonder about calling it “consciousness.” They’re considering the possibility that these quantum particles may continue after the brain has died. Some say that they’re closing in on the soul.

Isn’t it fun to live in interesting times? Hold onto the columns of your foundations.

References:

Sigmund Freud’s Self-Analysis — Jean Chiriac

freudarchives.org/

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sigmund_Freud

Essay on Man — Alexander Pope

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Darwin

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