The Incredible Shrinking God

Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung presented themselves as scientists—but functioned as gurus.

By Marian M. Jones, published March 1, 1998 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Freud, Jung, and their Followers

Not all gurus wear robes. "If someone were to do today what some of the early psychoanalysts did, you would say that person was a megalomaniac," says psychiatrist Peter Kramer, M.D., of Listening to Prozac fame -- and a bit of a reluctant guru himself. If psychology has often been called a secular religion, do two of its most memorable pioneers qualify as saints or as sinners?

"In Freud's presence, people felt there was this penetrating power," claims Frederick Crews, professor emeritus of English at University of California at Berkeley and author of The Memory Wars, a book compiled from one of the most controversial sets of essays the New York Review of Books ever published. In those essays, Crews took pleasure in brilliantly dismantling the "cult of Freud" and its stepchild, the recovered-memory movement. Though Freud presented himself as a scientist, Crews argues that he operated more like a guru, convincing people of the superb rightness of his ideas through the sheer force of his personality rather than through their objective validity.

Who's Afraid of Sigmund Wolf?

Crews thinks there was a dark side to Freud's charisma. "People were afraid of Freud, and would do anything to avoid his disapproval. They became abject in his presence, and this abjectness was itself indoctrinating. If you give up your intellectual independence in somebody's presence, that person becomes all-consuming. The message Freud gave his followers was that he personified psychoanalysis. He was psychoanalysis."

Yet, says Crews, Freud understood from the very beginning that his patients were not getting cured. "As late as 1906, he writes to Jung that he has not successfully completed a single psychoanalysis." Freud's scientific contemporaries criticized him for this, but much like the gurus described by British psychiatrist Anthony Storr, Freud resisted any criticism. He called these attacks manifestations of unconscious resistance, and claimed that critics needed to be analyzed to understand psychoanalysis properly. "What Freud is saying to the world is, `If you disagree with me it's because you're not an initiate,'" Crews says. "'You have not had the experience that creates true belief.' The whole history of religion is a history of placing faith ahead of knowledge. If you can acquire the faith, you will get the knowledge. If you can be a member, you will understand why we make the assertions that we do." For Frederick Crews, Freud was a guru with a dark pedigree.

Once psychoanalysis had been evangelized by Freud, he attracted priests for his new religion. "[In 1912] Ernest ones and Salvador Ferenczi, two of Freud's most loyal disciples, came to him with the idea that they should have a secret central committee of psychoanalysis," Crews says. "They would monopolize the psychoanalytic channels, and plant negative stories about defectors. Freud was so thrilled with this idea that he went out and had rings made for the members of the committee; he then held a private ceremony in which members acquired their rings and swore loyalty." Crews sees this as a cult-like experience of having the master metaphorically lay hands on his disciples through personal psychoanalysis.

If Crews sees Freud as a shameless guru in scientist's clothing, Peter Kramer differs: "Given the high regard Freud was held in, be could have been far worse." Kramer points out that Freud's ideas were novel and threatening in a way that late 20th century Westerners cannot even imagine, and that his secrecy and defensiveness in the face of criticism might have been a protective mechanism. Freud 'was trying to create a scientific movement in an area where he felt there was going to be natural resistance to the viewpoint. My sense of the guru is that it corresponds more to what Carl Jung did."

The Jung and the Yang

Kramer recounts a famous instance in which Jung diagnosed Sabrina Spielrein, his first patient, as schizophrenic, then seduced her and asked his wife to take Spielrein into their house; he then allowed her to idolize him.

Jung seemed to be very comfortable in the role of idol, even in the role of a secular religious leader, Kramer says. "Jung was much more invested in his own omniscience than Freud." While Freud discussed his dreams, Jung wrote about numerous waking visions. including one in 1913 where he saw a great red flood over the Alps, which he later interpreted as a premonition of the first World War. He also unabashedly expressed his belief that God himself implanted dreams in his head, and that he had a special connection to a higher power. He promoted neo-religious ideas such as that of a collective unconscious which exists outside individual human life, and synchronicity, a kind of coincidence. Some think Jung saw himself as an Aryan Christ, and though these claims are not widely held, Jung's followers did virtually enslave themselves to him, Kramer says. "While Freud's ambition may have caused him to cut corners scientifically, Jung aspired to the guru's mantle."

Freud's guru-like greatness, in the end, did transcend the foibles of the psychoanalytic movement. Part of this can be attributed to the times in which he lived, Kramer thinks. Before the world wars, "there was a willingness to accord great mental powers to certain people, which was part of a more general belief that human beings were on a progressive course and that leaders were sort of the advance guard. It was a time of genuine, widespread hero worship."

LOVE OR LIBIDO This cult of the hero not only warped the guru but it warped the teachings as well. Freud's image in America as the source of sexual liberation is a striking example.

"America embraced Freudianism in a spirit that Freud himself found ridiculous," Crews says. While Freud himself had mixed feelings about sexual freedom, America has always been about overthrowing the past. In the 20th century, when we discarded the mores of our sexually puritanical past, we needed somebody to personify that, someone who could give a scientific and medical blessing to the idea that unqualified sexual freedom is a good thing.

"What Freud wanted was more civilization," says Crews. "But people didn't care. They cared about finding someone to validate the tendency that they were already inclined to follow." And this is, after all, one of the main reasons that people seek out gurus in the first place.