…yet the analytic process per se remains alien to the thinking of the twentieth century and is a foreign body in it. — Eissler
I recently read a paper in the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association entitled “Freud and the Psychoanalysis of History” by K. R. Eissler, M. D. It is chilling to read this paper, written in 1963, in the context of the world we find ourselves in today. Eissler explores in this paper the notion of analyzing a culture in the way an analyst would analyze a patient. Freud showed us in his work “Moses and Monotheism” that it is possible to understand a culture by seeing it in the context of history and the psychopathology held by the group in relation to its collective past.
We are told in this paper, that the fall of the Roman empire can be understood from a psychodynamic perspective by seeing that the Roman narcissism was partly responsible for the fall of Rome. In antiquity, the typical Roman was very preoccupied with physical beauty and the power of the human body to do all things. It was not possible for the typical Roman to conceive of a machine being built to do the work of any man. This was in part, as suggested in Eissler’s work, one of the reasons for the fall of Rome. With the decline in the slave labor work force, the infrastructure of Rome began to collapse leading to the “end of an era” as it were.
Christianity, eventual industrialization, and the scientific age, all worked to pull us out of our “physical narcissism” and moved us into a sense of our own smallness and insignificance in the grand scheme of things. This had the effect of moving us more into a position of “narcissism of the mind” as I’ll call it. I find it interesting that none of our modern philosophies seem to be directed at getting rid of our mental narcissism, except psychodynamically oriented therapies that continue to be held out as merely treatments for psychopathology and not as a way of ridding society of its stubborn adherence to this narcissistic trait.
The thing about Eissler’s work that gave me absolute goose bumps, was his statement that mere regression to the narcissistic position of antiquity, which is to say, physical narcissism like what we saw in the times of ancient Rome (and for that matter, in our own modern culture), would not be enough to cause the fall of modern society. What he felt would have to happen would be the freezing of science and scientific achievement and an abandonment of our use of science and technology to aid ourselves in favor of our self-centered belief that we are the most important thing there is. In other words, we are currently living in a society that no longer values education and thumbs its nose at science. This is the very behavior that Eissler warns us about.
This regression to the narcissistic position of antiquity, the self-absorbed notion that our own physical presence is at the center of the universe, also helps us to understand to some extent the racism, xenophobia, and isolationism that seem to be taking control of the world we are currently living in as well. I’ll have more to say about that later.
And never suffers matter of the world Enter his thoughts, save such as doth revolve And ruminate himself — Shakespeare
—Stephen Taylor, MD