Book Review: The Future of An Illusion

The featured book is ‘The Future of An Illusion’ by Sigmund Freud in Penguin Books ‘Great Ideas’ series. This is a collection of two of Freud’s papers ‘The Future of An Illusion’ and ‘Mourning and Melancholia’.

In ‘The Future of An Illusion’, Freud writes quite provocatively about religion but along the way tackles the subject of civilisation and culture and produces some interesting quotes along the way! He begins by writing about an attempt to predict the developments of a culture thus:

Any such venture is invalidated from the outset by several factors, chief among which is that only a few individuals are capable of commanding an overview of human activity in all its ramifications. Most people have found it necessary to concentrate on one or a small number of fields; yet the less a person knows about past and present, the shakier that person’s judgement will inevitably be with regard to the future

Freud asks whether there has been any improvement in the process of government to match advances in science and technology and suggests that through history when cultures with what he refers to as dubious values survive they do so by appealing to narcissistic satisfaction –

Narcissistic satisfaction arising out of the cultural ideal is also one of the forces successfully countering cultural hostility within the cultural group….. without such basically satisfactory relationships, it would be a mystery why certain cultures survived for so long, despite justified hostility on the part of large sections of the population‘.

For Freud there is a fundamental reason for culture –

Indeed, the main function of culture, the real reason for its existence, is to shield us against nature

In addressing religion, Freud seems to represent an atheistic stance, one that is more familiar to the readers of Dawkins. He argues for rationalism (‘there is no authority higher than reason’) and discusses religion in terms of delusions or illusions. His use of illusion is idiosyncratic and refers to wish fulfilment. He gives alchemy as an example of an illusion since it has been found possible to convert base metals into gold. Before publishing this paper, Freud had given it some thought.

‘It then occurred to me to wonder whether publication of this essay might not after all do some damage’

His arguments supporting its publication are interesting to see and he particularly refers to his then advanced age as one of the factors facilitating the publication. However he considers that this article might cause damage to psychoanalysis because of the nature of the material but then describes psychoanalysis as merely a tool. The use of psychoanalytic principles occur briefly and he focuses on invoking the ‘childhood neurosis’ into his discussion. He also uses a dialogue with a fictitious critic to move the dialogue forwards but in answering these criticisms uses generalisations about populations.

In ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, Freud draws parallels between mourning and melancholia. He describes this as the beginning of an analysis in this regards and informs the reader that there are limitations on the generalisations that can be drawn. He suggests that the psychoanalytic process can be successfully applied to mania in light of successful examples of this in practice although he himself would have considered organic causes in the absence of such evidence. In psychoanalytic terms he refers to the ego battling complexes in both mania and melancholia. He compares melancholia and mourning by referring to the love object and justifies this by referring to cases in practice. In his argument he refers to wives who berate themselves for being useless but believes that they are referring to their husbands and describes it thus

their reactions….still emanate from the mental constellation of rejection, which has … been transferred to melancholic remorse

Nevertheless the peculiarities of speech (discrepancy between speech and inferred meaning) noted by Freud could represent subcultural norms. Both mourning and melancholia are complex and Freud’s paper represents an initial attempt to apply principles of psychoanalysis to this area which has most likely been based partly at least on his own clinical experience. By elaborating his theory so clearly and its application in different situations, Freud lays the groundwork on which developments could occur by means of systematic research particularly as such theoretical foundations inform interventions.

This book contains translations of two of Freud’s important works, without interpretation but Freud’s style and the translation make this accessible.


Sigmund Freud. The Future of An Illusion. Translated by J.A.Underwood. Penguin Books. 2004.


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The comments made here represent the opinions of the author and do not represent the profession or any body/organisation. The comments made here are not meant as a source of medical advice and those seeking medical advice are advised to consult with their own doctor. The author is not responsible for the contents of any external sites that are linked to in this blog.


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