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American Imago 60.4 (2003) 537-544
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During the Freud wars of the '90s, Jonathan Lear's voice stood out for its eloquent defense of Freud's enduring importance for our culture. In the essay, "On Killing Freud (Again)," which originally appeared in 1995 in the New Republic (and was reprinted in Open Minded ), Lear makes the case passionately but not heatedly that psychoanalysis—far from being marginal—is consistent with the deepest thinking in Western culture because of its refusal to neglect, deny, or soften human suffering. The commitment to the unconscious, according to Lear, gives psychoanalysis a distinctive understanding of the limits of self-knowledge and the inevitability of self-deception. Lear's avoidance of the use of technical language in explicating psychoanalysis to nonpsychoanalytic readers is especially noteworthy.
It is in this context that Lear also makes the bold proposal that psychoanalysis is a necessity, rather than a luxury, to a democratic society. Lear has not developed this idea as far as I am aware, and others seem to have overlooked it; yet, it has become even timelier now that we have new cause to reflect on issues concerning tolerance and freedom in a democratic society. One can only hope that Lear's intriguing idea might be taken up for further discussion and debate.
Lear always has been captivated by common themes in ancient Greek philosophy and psychoanalysis, and a number of essays in Open Minded grappled with these two perspectives. In Happiness, Death, and the Remainder of Life, which was originally delivered as the Tanner Lectures at Cambridge University, Lear meditates on Aristotle and Freud, both comparatively and individually. One can summarize the overall argument easily enough: psychoanalysis cannot be assimilated into ethics merely by acknowledging the unconscious as an obstacle to our aspiration to be virtuous. As Lear sees it, [End Page 537] psychoanalysis offers a fatal objection to the possibility of living a good life as defined by ethical principles: "the unconscious is too disruptive to be contained in any straightforward account of character formation" (3). Happiness is more realistic, therefore, if we give up the illusion that principles can be consistently followed. Although Lear moves on to reflect on the new possibilities that this insight produces, there remains much more that needs to be said about the social ramifications of abandoning the notion that principles can guide our lives.
On a cursory level, it might seem as if Lear's intention is to vindicate Freud against Aristotle. On closer inspection, however, this is not really the case. After beginning with a critique of how Aristotle's eudaimonic ethics seductively conceals an unconscious agenda concerning happiness that undermines the theory itself, Lear presents a critique of how Freud equally conceals an unconscious agenda concerning the death drive that threatens the theory of psychoanalysis. The argument here is subtle and incisive, and the result is a relentless investigation into self-deception in two of the most important thinkers in Western culture. Ultimately, Lear offers a challenge both to psychoanalysts and to philosophers to confront the implications of the power of the unconscious to disrupt the mind. This is a book that rewards careful reading, and my review will be able only to scratch the surface of its many merits.
Let us turn to elucidate Lear's argument in the first part of the book, which is titled "Happiness." Lear shows that Aristotle's equation of the supreme good with happiness serves as an "enigmatic signifier," which seductively establishes a high ethical standard that can only be attained, it turns out, through a nonethical concept that Aristotle dwells on late in the Nicomachean Ethics, namely, contemplation. Aristotle (unconsciously) maneuvers to seem as if he is answering, rather than presupposing, his perspective on human flourishing.
Lear argues that in construing happiness as beyond desire, Aristotle is recommending a kind of living death. In Lear's interpretation, "the fantasy of a happy life becomes tinged with...