The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life by Armand M. Nicholi Jr.11 March 2008
Today’s reviewed book ended up as a four-hour series on U.S. public television a few years ago. I don’t know if it’s been rebroadcast since then, though anyone with enough interest in seeing it should be able to purchase it without much difficulty.
The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life by Armand M. Nicholi Jr.
Harvard professor Armand Nicholi has been teaching a class about Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis for the past decade or two. In his class, he compares the lives and philosophies of the two men, focusing in particular on their very different perspectives on religion, sex, love, friendship, and other overarching questions of life. In The Question of God, Nicholi has turned his class notes into a book, one which uses Lewis and Freud’s writings to look at how these two men approached belief, disbelief, and everything in between.
Nicholi has certainly done his homework for this class. The book looks at both Freud and Lewis’s public and private writings, incorporating published works and letters in an attempt to examine how their personal philosophies shaped their attitudes towards family members, friends, colleagues, and the general public. It’s fascinating and quite insightful to see the two men’s opinions on various aspects of life laid out side by side, and Nicholi finds a number of interesting parallels between them. Both Freud and Lewis had poor relationships with their fathers and with their fathers’ ideas of religion, and suffered deep personal losses early in their childhoods that seriously affected their outlooks on life from a young age. Freud ended up rejecting religious belief entirely, and Lewis himself admits that he was essentially dragged into Christianity kicking and screaming (in a metaphysical sense). Nicholi puts together a good narrative for their stories. Yet by the end of the book, I realised that Nicholi’s thesis could be boiled down to a single sentence — ‘Freud was a depressed and depressing old chain-smoking misanthrope, and he makes Lewis (and, by extension, Lewis’s answer to the question of God) seem the very embodiment of happiness and personal fulfilment by comparison’.
Even if Nicholi tries not to sound biased towards either Lewis or Freud, the very method of his comparison paints Freud and his opinions in an almost unrelentingly dismal light. Nicholi clearly finds Lewis to be the more compelling figure of the two, and he takes pains to compare Lewis’s conversion experience with his own studies into the conversion experiences of young adults. By contrasting Lewis’s deep, long-lasting friendships and late if happy marriage with Freud’s penchant for alienating and disowning his colleagues and the puritanical froideur of his marital life…well, it is little wonder that Lewis and his philosophies on life seem to come out the better for it. Nicholi never openly says that Lewis’s world-view is the better, but from the evidence he has assembled, he doesn’t exactly need to. So even though the book is written well and seems to stem from an interesting and original premise, fans of both Lewis and Freud would be wise to read it with a skeptical eye.