The Importance of Understanding History in Darwin and Freud

For both Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud, understanding history is, ultimately, understanding humanity. They both try to answer the question “How did man come to be the way he is now?” As Darwin puts it, “It seemed worth while to try how far the principle of evolution would throw light on some of the more complex problems in the natural history of man.” It is important to notice that both thinkers are scientists, not really interested in metaphysical speculation, or literary metaphors and symbolism. They always try to provide scientific, objective, rational, and logical proof for their theories. As again stated by Darwin, “[f]alse facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, for every one takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness: and when this is done, one path towards error is closed and the road to truth is often at the same time opened.”

What draws them apart is their approach. Darwin is interested in the physical aspect. He tries to understand (and explain) the physical development, the evolution of man. The naturalist presents compelling evidence “that man is descended from some lowly organised form”. In regards to the moral development of man, Darwin has also a naturalistic/physical view: “the moral sense follows, firstly, from the enduring and ever-present nature of the social instincts; secondly, from man’s appreciation of the approbation and disapprobation of his fellows; and thirdly, from the high activity of his mental faculties, with past impressions extremely vivid; and in these latter respects he differs from the lower animals.”

Freud, on the other hand, is more interested in the psychological aspect: “We will therefore turn to the less ambitious question of what men themselves show by their behaviour to be the purpose and intention of their lives. What do they demand of life and wish to achieve in it?” For him, the answer is obvious: “They strive after happiness; they want to become happy and to remain so.” The main problem against it appears under the form of sexual repression. Going back at the beginnings, “we should find that the deepest root of the sexual repression which advances along with civilization is the organic defence of the new form of life achieved with man’s erect gait against his earlier animal existence.” The man’s constant struggle for happiness “has two sides, a positive and a negative aim. It aims, on the one hand, at an absence of pain and unpleasure, and, on the other, at the experiencing of strong feelings of pleasure. (…) In conformity with this dichotomy in his aims, man’s activity develops in two directions, according as it seeks to realize – in the main, or even exclusively – the one or the other of these aims.”

The two thinkers give us in their works a complete picture of man’s history, presenting us his physical origins, and his mental/psychological development. Their theories may have suffered changes throughout the years, but the message is clear: only by understanding where he comes from, who he really is, and what he really wants, man can truly evolve.

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Works cited:

(1) Darwin, Charles – “Conclusion” from The Descent of Man (1871)

(2) Freud, Sigmund – Civilization and its Discontents (1930)


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