Freud's aim in life, as he redefined the way people thought about the world and about themselves, was to "agitate the sleep of mankind." He succeeded in his aim, founding a new field of psychology and creating a new, scientific conception of the individual. Today his legacy lives on in the common acceptance of some of his most fundamental theories. Who, for example, has never heard of the id, does not think of the Oedipal complex, and has never leapt to conclusions on a Freudian slip? Though much of his scientific work and many of his observations and theories have since been debunked by the modern psychologists, eager to clear their own place in history, Freud singly initiated a new, exciting, dynamic, and often threatening theory of the mind and of the world, a theory which to this day has been taken to the hearts not just of the scientists, but of the people.
Freud was born on May 6, 1856, in the Moravian town of Freiberg, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, today a part of Czechoslovakia. He was born into a family full of enough complexity and confusion to give him significant material for his ruminations on the individual mind and its connections with others. His mother, Amalia, an assertive, good-looking woman, was twenty years younger than her husband Jacob. She was his third wife; he was forty at Freud's birth. Freud's siblings were two half-brothers, grown-up, a constant reminder of the oddity of his position. His own confusions, hatreds, loves and desires from this period appear to have had significant impact on his later work on development.
The family settled in Vienna in 1860, where as a Jew he enjoyed potential and respect only recently gained with the opening of the Hapsburg Empire's liberal era. Encouraged to think grandly, he poured his energy and gifts into school, gaining top rank in his class year after year. At age seventeen, he entered the University of Vienna, where he studied in the faculty of medicine. Engrossed in his studies, he did not graduate until 1881. Brought up in a non-religious household, he graduated a stronger atheist than he had entered, convinced of the strictly scientific nature of the world.
He left the university in 1882, secretly engaged, and found a job at the Vienna General Hospital in hopes of earning enough money to be marriageable. Nonetheless, he did not marry until September of 1886, and then only thanks to the generosity of his friends. He and his wife, Martha Bernays, went on to have six children.
Over the winter of 1885-1886, Freud studied in Paris with a French professor of neurology, Jean-Martin Charcot. Under him, Freud practiced and observed hypnosis as a clinical technique, and began to formulate the beginnings of his theory on the mind. Freud went on to make nervous ailments his specialty, concentrating on hysteria. By 1895, the year he published Studies on Hysteria (concentrating on Anna O.) with Josef Breuer, he had made significant progress in mapping out and defining his own theory of the mind.
A period of intense work and self-analysis, further inspired by the death of his father, led Freud to his publication of The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900, and of Psychopathology of Everyday Life in 1901. The latter work, offering amusing and easily applicable anecdotes of Freudian slips, found a wide audience for his still-coalescing theories of the mind. By 1902 he finally gained the position of associate professor at the University of Vienna.
In 1908, he transformed a Wednesday-night club of Viennese physicians into the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, and his new field began to gain wider acceptance. This period was marked by extensive case studies and theoretical work; as well, he published papers on religion, literature, sculpture, and other non-scientific fields.
Despite some contentious internal politics, psychoanalysis continued to flourish, until World War I took the subjects to the front lines and the analysts to the medical corps. But Freud was not idle: in 1915, he delivered a series of introductory lectures at the University of Vienna, lectures which, when published in 1917, secured him a wide popular audience.
A flurry of work, inspired by the death of his daughter Sophie, resulted in the 1920 Beyond the Pleasure Principle and the 1923 The Ego and the Id. The latter work contained a final formulation of his structural theory of the mind.
Even while he became a household word, while his ideas were absorbed by an eager populace, Freud was undergoing painful surgery for cancer in late 1923. Though he did not die, the rest of his life was marked by pain and discomfort.
The remainder of his life, he published ever more controversial works, including a series of papers on female sexuality, the 1927 The Future of an Illusion, which debunked religion on scientific grounds, and the 1930 Civilization and its Discontents, a picture of modern civilization at the brink of catastrophe.
He remained in Vienna despite the rumblings of this catastrophe, as Hitler rose to power and Anti-Semitism swept Europe. Only the 1938 invasion of Vienna could inspire him to emigrate, and within three months he was on his way to Paris, then to London. There, he continued to write, until on September 23, 1939, he finally demanded of his physician a lethal dose of morphine.
He died bravely, nobly; eventually his works succumbed similarly. Today Freud falls under criticism from most sides, as his highly speculative psychological theories fail to find support one by one. Of course, he still retains a following: believers in Freud still speckle the intellectual landscape. Yet his impact on a society which was learning a new way of thinking in a modern world is inestimable. Freud's years of work put a new way of thinking into the head of society, and challenged the assumptions and suppositions of a changing world. His legacy lives on in the everyday vocabulary and thoughts of millions, despite the drubbing his works have taken.
Last modified 1998