Freud on dreams

Freud was not the first to systematically study dreams, and credits several predecessors in his own The Interpretation of Dreams (1899). But Freud was the first to claim a systematic analysis of the meaning of dreams and to provide a code for deciphering them, if not actually interpreting them. He took the theories of dream origins — external sensory stimuli, internal sensory excitations, and internal organic somatic stimuli — and went one step further by identifying psychic sources of stimuli and distinguishing manifest and latent content.

Freud’s famous conclusion was that “A dream is the fulfillment of a wish.” Unlike his predecessors who saw dreams as a kind of bodily detritus, Freud insisted that dreams

are not meaningless, they are not absurd; they do not imply that one portion of our store of ideas is asleep while another portion is beginning to wake. On the contrary, they are psychical phenomena of complete validity — fulfillments of wishes; they can be inserted into the chain of intelligible waking mental acts; they are constructed by a highly complicated activity of the mind.

Dreams are like fairy tales, which present symbols to fit preconceived meanings. However, dreams are distorted narratives hedging against unpleasant reality, a disguise to the dreamer. Thus Freud refines his definition to indicate that a dream is “a disguised fulfillment of a (suppressed or repressed) wish.” This disguising Freud calls “censorship.”

The content of dreams is memory, from the impressions of the day as recent memory to impressions going back to childhood which seem on the conscious every-day level to be trivial. It is at this point that Freud declares no dream material to be “innocent” — all dream material is sexual in nature. Thus dream content represents suppressed and forbidden wishes of childhood, such as in the dream of the death of a person of whom the dreamer is fond, revealing Oedipal content or sibling rivalry.

Freud is usually identified as placing sexual factors exclusively at the forefront of psychological explanations. But it is true that he was referring to neurotics and, in part, to his own dreams. Freud does use dream content as a means of identifying dream mechanisms and does open a method for understanding broader symbolism in dreams. But he did not budge from his conclusion about the sexual nature of dreams. To go beyond that was the work of others, such as Jung. Freud had neither the means, time, or disposition, to explore remnant instincts in the human mind, though he eventually identified broader concepts of life and death forces, to which sexual factors could be subsumed. But at the turn of the century, some 40+ years of age, Freud made conclusions that he did not and could not pursue directly or clinically. Thus has he been called a philosopher of dreams as much as an analyst.

Among dream mechanisms are 1) condensation (of time and space), 2) censorship, 3) displacement (of psychical intensities), and 4) representation (of causal relations). These are now familiar mechanisms. The latent content or dream-thoughts are transformed to dream-content or manifest content through visual images, which in turn become symbolic actions. The symbols, as identified by the dream interpreter, are derived in part from the study of myth, folklore, legends, and — Freud adds pointedly — jokes. Writes Freud, “Dreams make use of this symbolism for the disguised representation of their latent thoughts.”

But Freud returns to the sexual nature of dreams in elaborating on symbolism. To him, every object in a dream is a symbol, specifically a sexual one. Thus elongated objects versus containerized objects, horizontal versus vertical, and so forth. No wonder that Freud himself admits of “no possibility of explaining dreams” [emphasis his], but an admission by which he only means that no explanation is really necessary since the narrative of the dream can be reduced to symbolic formula, decoded, as it were. The processes and mechanisms could be identified clearly enough, but only psychoanalysis and a knowledge of the individual’s past could reveal facts that would allow for interpreting dreams.

The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind [emphasis his]. By analyzing dreams we can take a step forward in our understanding of the composition of that most marvelous and most mysterious of all instruments. Only a small step, no doubt; but a beginning.

Tempering his conclusion, Freud reminds the reader that he is concerned with the pathological and the neurotic, with what he called functional illnesses. He did not back away from a somewhat crude explanatory symbolism at this point. Only later did he refine a universal explanation for behavior as psychical forces of Eros and Thanatos. In the intervening years, the study of dreams would point to knowledge, if only knowledge of the individual’s past. By presenting dreams as fulfilled wishes, dreams foretell the future, he states, the future of that dreamer, for dreams indicate the progression of our psyche.

This last conclusion, folded into Freud’s overall exploration of dreams, is probably the most startling of his entire work.


Retribution is an important ethical issue relevant to an ethos of eremitism. By definition, retribution is a paying back, a compensation, an eye for an eye, an equivalence of “insult.” But on a social and ethical spectrum, retribution is nothing less than the claimed right to equalize perceived imbalance, and is the basis of what is called “justice.” The nature of retribution is at odds with the depicted expressions of this spectrum:

revenge –> retribution –> justice

Revenge is negative compensation dominated by emotion. Revenge was the earliest behavior suppressed by the group, for the sake of the group and social order. Thus, in the scriptural Decalogue, the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” forbade vengeance taken up by an individual or clan member in favor of decision-making by the authorities of the clan. The commandment did not forbid killing of enemies of the clan, of outsiders — only of members. The extraordinary power of the Roman paterfamilias was gradually transfer to political authorities. And when a clan member wronged another in Northern Europe until late in the Middle Ages, feuds and blood-killings were unchecked until stronger authority seized the mechanisms of power. Revenge as a right or prerogative was transferred from the individual and the family to the clan and, ultimately, to the state.

Whether conceived as social contract or coercion of the state, the transformation of revenge to retribution was a historical transition. Where authority compensated for crime, the motive was not vengeance because ostensibly authority is oblique and disinterested in the emotional aspects of the original act and the sorrows of the offended kin. The motive of the authority was to compensate or rectify a societal imbalance, an offense to order. A purely monetary compensation was the historical code. In Germanic law, weregild assigned a monetary value to the slain. A peasant or serf was worth little. A bishop was worth a great deal. The system reinforced order of a sort, based on the privilege of the victim.

Eventually authorities recognized that such a system was not a sufficient retribution or equalization in theory or practice, and embraced both a harsher retribution and a loftier motive. The harsher retribution was capital punishment. Capital punishment rather than weregild equalized the victim but more specifically equalized the perceived balance or retribution offered by the authority. Hence “an eye for an eye” was more clearly symmetrical and appealing from the point of view of the authorities if not to kin in the resolution of crime or passion.

The loftier motive was an inevitable mechanism in authority’s justifying its power to make blanket social decisions once reserved to individuals, families and clans. A concept of retribution was inadequate to an authority that had historically abused its power while simultaneously regulating power and abuse among its members. Power reserved to itself the old prerogatives, but retribution does not adequately cover the motives of power. These motives reduce to revenge and the reservation to authority to create disorder and chaos, abuse and punishment, within its own autonomous sphere. As this sphere grew, the weighty need for explication emerged among the intelligentsia. Hence the notion of justice emerged. Hence, too, the just war theory.

Justice is moral justification for power, or, rather, how the powerful explain the motive of their actions. These actions are the exercise of power — not the exercise of virtue, creativity, conviviality, or harmony.

Justice and justification thus become circular: power is just because it exists; power exists legitimately to the degree that it is just. The exercise of power is just because the existence of power is just. When authority intervenes in society (its own or another), its motive is considered impartial and balanced if it is just, but it takes upon itself power to coerce and punish deviations of order when it perceives threats to power. Threats to power are not necessarily threats to individuals or groups — they are foremost threats to the powerful. An entire apparatus of force is created as the enforcers of justice. Justice not being indifferent to perceived, potential or theoretical threats to itself, justice (or power in the guise of justice) preempts situations, actions, even thoughts. The preemption is punishment, either vicarious or to reassert order. The evolution of justice theory from the raw emotion of revenge is not entirely progress. The mask of power obscures the face of justice’s reasoning or the relativity of justice in a world dominated by power.

Authority and power will not likely budge from a posture entangled in a rationalization of revenge and retribution on a state level. The individual who seeks a zone of right conduct must transcend the pinnacle of rationalism in justice and move on to a different plane. To imitate the justice of authorities and powers is to give them credence, to sacrifice one’s integrity to them, blind to the reality that the motive of power is not justice as conventionally pictured: fairness, tolerance, order. Justice is tempered anger, wrath held back, the gloved fist. Justice is privilege, power, immunity from morality.

The ethical spectrum must be extended:

revenge –> retribution –> justice –> mercy

Mercy is a virtue considered optional to the rationalist and the realist. Indeed, mercy ignores justice and the need for punishment, power, and the execution of law. Mercy actively undermines power, and in the eyes of power becomes an enemy, introducing chaos into the order maintained by power. Further, mercy is haphazard and individual. It has no philosophy, no legal or political theory. Granted, mercy is invoked by the powerful as a way of tempering its harsh face, as a diversion and deception. With craft, the deigning of mercy on an impotent enemy or criminal gives a humane appearance to power. But only the individual can give mercy. Mercy is not a tactic.

Mercy is a forgetting. The popular phrase “forgive and forget” takes into account two trajectories of mercy. To forgive is to place an insult into context, to perceive an insult as the weakness and foible of the offender, who is subject to many forces and dependent. In this sense, forgiveness can be haughty or be more like its counterpart forgetting. For to forget is to make oblivious, to not hold anything for retribution, to give up to fate or God or karma that insult taken but not held. Mercy takes the position of a recipient of insult having nothing which can by injured, nowhere that the insult can “stick.” The insult is forgotten because the act is deliberately forgotten, is not remembered. Thus mercy transcends both the emotion of revenge, the calculation of retribution, and the obtuse rationalism of justice.

But to make mercy no longer dependent on individual insults, to make mercy a form of right behavior that does not depend on insult — for many things in life can provoke anger and resentment within the mind, heart and soul — the individual must reach a state of compassion. Hence the spectrum:

revenge –> retribution –> justice –> mercy –> compassion

Compassion is a state of mind rather than a response to insult. Compassion is the active engagement of events and situations that require addressing and rectifying, rather than a response to personal insult or injury. But an event or situation provoking mercy is not an occurrence in the eyes of compassion but, rather, the very condition of solitude and suffering that is universal. This universality is where compassion enters and identifies. The important characteristic of compassion is that it bypasses institutions, authorities, and powers, and enters directly into the psychological and spiritual condition of all. There is no crime, offense, or insult for which to compensate. Compassion knows that each individual is to every degree a bundle of causes and circumstances, and that their inner self is nothing but a churning sea of suffering and solitude. Bypassing the rationalism of power and justice, and not awaiting an injury for which to show mercy, compassion enters the subjective and discovers the true nature of the human situation.

The mindset of compassion is relevant to eremitism because it frees the self from worldly encumbrances, be they emotional, material, or social. The goal of the hermit is not simply to understand solitude but to enter it unflinchingly, leaving nothing behind that calls for compensation.


In A Book of Silence, Sara Maitland points out the difference between ancient and modern eremitism, that is, the eremitism of the ancient desert hermits (but analogies to medieval Western and to Asian hermit traditions apply) contrasted to the English Romantics such as Wordsworth. In part, this difference is the result of time and culture, but an important psychological factor affects consideration of both.

Maitland went on retreat to the Sinai in the footsteps of the Christian desert hermits and trekked Galloway in northwestern Scotland in a wilderness that has not changed significantly over the centuries. Emblematically, she took one book on each trip: Helen Waddell’s Sayings of the Desert Fathers on the first trip and Wordsworth’s Preludes on the second.

The ancient hermits sought self-effacement, the reduction of the ego or self to the point where emotions and psychological turmoil evaporated and nothing was left but God (or Emptiness, or other equivalent in the East). The English Romantics, on the other hand, sought settings such as Nature in order to build up the self, plunge into self-realization, and thereby develop the insight, imagination, and fortitude to deal with the world and gradually give it up. The Romantics saw the need to develop a self in order to get rid of the self. According to the Romantics, the inputs of society and culture frustrate development of an independent self, a self realized.

Romanticism was a revolt against rationalism’s reduction of the human being to reason alone. At the same time, rationalist philosophy bolstered the power interests of the era in the land enclosures that plunged small farms and villages into poverty and with the transformation of rural areas into accessible mines, logging grounds, agricultural fields and estates for the wealthy through industrialism.

Maitland outlines the philosophical attitudes of the Romantics:

  • elevation of emotion over reason and of the senses over the intellect;
  • Introspection and a fascination with the self; a sort of heightened awareness of one’s own moods and thoughts;
  • fascination with the genius, the hero, and the exceptional personality, and particularly his inner struggles;
  • construction of the artist as a free creative spirit — whose expression of authentic personal emotion was more important than form;
  • emphasis upon imagination and spontaneity as a way to spiritual truth;
  • idea that children were born naturally free and even perfect — and that social life and its demands corrupted them. They came into the world “trailing clouds of glory” and “shades of the prison house” ensnared them all too fast;
  • heightened appreciation of he beauties of nature, particularly the sublime.

This useful distillation points to the Romantic project of finding the whole self, beyond only the reasoning intellectual self or the emotional self common to everyone in society — base, reactive, instinctual.

Romanticism extols the genius and hero as an assertion of self and triumph over the dominant social values. This genius and hero is not a political or military figure or a captain of industry or political office, of course. The poet, artist, wanderer, adventurer, seer — these are the heroes of Romanticism. In this vein, the ancient Celtic heroes of Britain are the hermits, and evidence of the ancient past such as Tinturn Abbey need not be literally ascribed to hermits as long as it was a provocation to the imagination. A natural setting, wild and untouched, is the ideal setting for imagination and reverie.

The reference to childhood hearkens to Rousseau and Blake. Childhood is the only opportunity to present vivifying images and experiences to the mind and spirit prior to the intermediary social and cultural corruption. Inevitably, the recreation of childhood experience escapes the adult Romantic. Today, alternative education can present methods of tapping sensitive channels in the child through music and the presentation of world literature: fairy tales, fables, and stories. Such literature is quite relevant to developing the adult sensitivity as well, for it distills the human experience and delineates universal values.

Children also profit greatly from being outdoors, in nature, for the psychology of the self ought to include not merely the imprint of other people but the impression of animals, fields, forests, seas — whatever can become private to the onlooker and a source of imagination. Ultimately, the influence of “field trips” and exposure to nature cannot be quantified, and the process is difficult to understand because it is not rational, only partly cognitive, and not merely aesthetic. So, too, in adults.

The Romantic agenda is both a revolt and an affirmation. The hermit easily fits the portrait of revolt, even when only a withdrawal from society, and similarly fulfills the expectation of an affirmation. The Romantic effort to build a self in order to withdraw from society becomes a single process, like that of the solitary pursuing an eremitic life. But like every historical movement, Romanticism fell against the shoals of violent 19th-century social and technological changes. Worsened conditions of daily life for the majority of people hardened the spirit of revolt without the prospect of affirmation. How could the sensitive observer give up a self when so many inimical social and cultural forces wanted to wrest it away?

Historical romanticism no longer resonates for those for whom Nature is an abstraction and the imagination a byproduct of ego and popular media. Maitland’s juxtaposition points us to both the next step of Romantic eremitism and of “ancient” eremitism. For the West the next step is an intensification of solitude and silence, justified by a somewhat intellectual analysis. Otherwise such a step can devolve into the recluse’s psychological dysfunctionality. Ancient eremitism, including Western medieval and Eastern forms, offers two trajectories: 1) a strong intellectual or philosophical critique of the modern world as a justification for non-participation, and 2) a strong meditative philosophy of withdrawal, whether in the world or out of it, based on spiritual, psychological, artistic, or cultural values. The latter can be further helped by an intellectual understanding of society and culture; the former can be helped by an intimation (to use Wordsworth’s favorite term) of what is wrong with the zeitgeist, the spirit of the world.

However we approach eremitism, retracing the experience of Romanticism helps clarify the role of the self in the many settings one is heir to.

Critical thinking

“Critical thinking” is traditionally the processes of thought combined with an analytical viewpoint -– as opposed to an aesthetic one, for example.

But critical thinking today has been adapted to a defense of modern science and technology. To demure from science is to be considered uncritical and irrational in the modern use of “critical thinking.” The modern version appeals to the historical continuity of Anglo-American philosophizing, to logical positivism, logical analysis, utilitarianism, and scientism. In the realm of economics, “critical thinking” assumes that corporate or financial capitalism is the rational and objective basis of a society and politics based on science and technology.

But the foundation of “critical thinking” on science is itself a grand presumption. Three points show why science is an expression of culture and not a rational, objective methodology independent of users and their points of view:

1) science is dependent on previous research, such that if previous research is flawed, the new results will similarly be flawed. Science proceeds from experience, and the contemporary experience must resonate with the previous one. But if “subjective” factors don’t enter the scientific process to check the results of the new experience against other touchstones of reasonableness, logic, purpose, and context, then the new experience will be as flawed as the previous one.

Thomas Kuhn’s “scientific paradigms” referred primarily to new breakthroughs. But the concept works in the opposite way, too. Scientific paradigms may become absolutisms without input from other sectors of society and thought. They become counterparts to the way a society’s new elites think -– with all the characteristic flaws.

2) science is a product of contemporary culture and viewpoints, just as are religion, politics, and socio-economic conditions. Although religion and philosophy posit transcendental values or beliefs, there is a clear basis in the given culture. In fact, the resonance of a religious or philosophical view often depends on the particular genius of some aspect of the culture that nurtured the idea, just as the cultural shortcomings or the personality of a given culture may be the reason for why the ideas are the way they are.

3). Building on these two observations, it becomes clear that science and technology are dependent on an institutional system of control, promotion, validation, and funding. There is very little that is original to science and technology in a practical or ethical sense. Technology proceeds as byproducts to an ideology of control and authority. Recent inventions in robotics and systems, for example, reveal a distinct direction toward military dominance and control of the individual. But traditional technology did the same thing. Ultimately, the paradigm of science under the control of society’s elites is to create a system that supports that control, and a paradigm of “critical thinking” that validates and reasserts it.

When green technology is popularized, for example, it solves no particular environmental problem because it is not part of the dominant paradigm, only “window dressing.” Such technology is surreptitiously presented as a panacea, a cheap byproduct, an unfunded novelty that hardly represents the interests of the larger agenda of science and technology, which still works within an old and comfortable paradigm of power. Nor will this situation likely change. Who has the resources to decree what is good or bad in science and technology?

With this power structure in place, advertising — stemming from the genius of Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays (1891-1995) from the 1920’s and on to the present — has successfully shaped the public mind to an existing scientific and technological paradigm. The goal of advertising and propaganda (the original definition being merely “to propagate”) is to fit the paradigmatic set of elite values parallel or complementary to psychological and instinctual flaws in human beings. Thus society and individuals are controlled by manipulated their most vulnerable instincts — for consumption, for types of food, for fashion, entertainment, competition, social envy, for pleasure, for assumed intelligence, for social herding around moribund institutions, for conformity and consensus around supposedly important social issues.

Yet the apparatus for approving and supporting such an unnatural system is considered to be “critical thinking” –- especially in circles that promote ruthless utilitarianism and hostility towards empathy and equanimity. Such manipulated mass thinking is dubbed the “market.” While no science can prove the existence of the market, it nevertheless becomes inviolate, all the while manipulated from elsewhere.

To resolve problems, to truly think critically, and to make decisions based on nature and harmony, one cannot assume a rational or critical character to the “world,” to the established social order, or to its paradigms and byproducts. The solitude of modernity is unique in that the very heavens are blotted out from the eye, and nature itself -– the model for harmony -– is plundered.