The Failure of Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud’s Objection to Thomistic (Objective) “Truth” and “Right”

Due to the centrality of God in his philosophy, Thomas Aquinas is dismissed as an “idol” in the project of Friedrich Nietzsche and a victim of “wish-fulfillment” in Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis. In other words, Aquinas builds his account of truth on religious presuppositions where “the effect of what is believed true is mistaken for truth” hence “falling entirely under the psychology of error”[1] (Nietzsche’s position broadly stated) or he “maintains that religious doctrines are outside or above the jurisdiction of reason,”[2] thus falling into an illusion “derived from human wishes” (as Freud asserts). For Nietzsche and Freud, Aquinas errs respectively in presenting a view of the world that is neither objective (as it proposes to be) nor able to be subjected to scientific analysis. These initial critiques raised against Aquinas (or Realist and systematic theologians in general) by Nietzsche and Freud lead to contradictions in both critics’ positions. Nietzsche’s call for a revaluation of all values, despite his assertion that we cannot observe “outside” a phenomenon such as life from an objective position, begs the question of why he proceeds to do so in his work. Hence, his project’s ultimate destination becomes either relativism (a relativism not wholly defined apart from skepticism) or contradiction. For Freud to posit the only grounds for epistemology as the scientific method (an ostensibly total empiricism), he must explain this in relation to a seemingly relativistic ethics and ontology, as well as somehow provide for “falsifiableness” in his assertions. He does not, thus leaving two choices for the evaluation of his claims: either relativism or contradiction. For both thinkers’ notions to avoid contradiction they must either admit to relativism or recognize the same premises that “systems” such as Aquinas’ are built upon, hence entering into the competition amongst other worldviews and validating the possibility of those positions’ correctness.

And so it is evident that as to the general principles of reason, whether speculative or practical, there is a single standard of truth and right for everyone which is known by everyone.  However when it comes to the specific conclusions of the speculative reason, the truth is the same for everyone but everyone does not equally know it.[3]

In proposing a single and objective standard of truth and right, Aquinas draws upon the Realist tradition after the manner of Aristotle. Though Aquinas does not assert that complete truth is divulged through reason alone (for faith communicates additional truths and values beyond the scope of rationality), he does argue that human beings can discover the eternal, natural law through “speculative and practical reason.” As quoted above, however, though the possibility exists for every human being to reach the summit of what reason reveals, it is not reached by all (for reasons of conditioning, hard-heartedness, defective faculties, etc.). For those who are able to reach the summit, what is found is a universal moral law of right and wrong commonly referred to as Aquinas’ natural law (one of the four possible laws applicable to human beings).

It is not the case that Aquinas’ notion of truth may be distilled and separated from his notion of and belief in God. Aquinas sees truth as proceeding from God, yet God is also the highest and first truth itself.[4] God possesses truth to a capacity exceeding that of human beings, which in turn acts as an ultimate “ground” of truth in human experience. In matters theological, God’s excess of truth allows the choice to divulge more of it by means of revelation (or faith). 

To synthesize more concretely, truth is interchangeable with being in Aquinas’ thought. When applied to objects in the world, truth is synonymous with being through a proposition asserting simple material identity. Every being conforms to the divine intellect and thus can be conformed to the human intellect. If truth is understood in terms of its utilization by intellect then it can be interchanged with being outside the human intellect in light of an expression of a certain conformity (that is, between divinity and humanity).  Aquinas sees every understanding of truth as referential to being and everything with being as corresponding to truth. This line of reasoning places truth in God primarily and in the human secondarily. Human ability to conjecture through applied reason allows for access to truth, yet truth has its ultimate actuality in its conformity to God as opposed to its relation to the truth of human experience.

For Aquinas, though the “full extent” of truth given through revelation is non-rational, it does not contradict the intellect, or the truth rightly deduced from reason alone. This concept of truth involving both “speculative and practical reason” and “revelation” provides the framework by which his moral arguments are constructed, implicitly asserting that there is an objectively true and right way for human beings to act. Truth provides the foundation for morally right action, which in turn leads to the teleological end of the human being.[5] This end, for Aquinas, is conclusive happiness. Truth that fosters morally right action is that which is conducive to the ultimate end of human beings (the ancient Greek notion of perpetual reflection of the Good). Since this end is definitive in all human beings (given Aquinas’ presupposition of natural law), a significant obstacle in reaching ultimate human happiness is presented when truth is equated with relativism.

The point in contrasting Aquinas’ position for a single standard of truth and right against that of Nietzsche and Freud’s views is to emphasize Aquinas’ belief that there is one correct way of knowing and participating in the world; a claim both Nietzsche and Freud reject in their implicit relativism. Relativism is the argument that truth and knowledge are relative to one’s “point of view,” an era, a location, or a cultural-cognitive limitation. In this view, truth and knowledge are no longer truth and knowledge. Truth, as the correspondence between what one says and “how things are,” an appropriate bearer of the veracity or falsity of statements, sentences, assertions, and beliefs, is here traded in for skepticism, the assertion that nothing is—or more radically, can be—known. Hence, a presupposition of this paper is that relativism is skepticism in disguise. The basis for rejecting both is the same: if we know nothing, then we do not know that we know nothing. The argument is self-defeating. Likewise, if my view of how the world is is exactly opposite of another’s view of the world, and both views claim to be the “actual” way the world is, any claim that both are equally true denies the correspondence of “truth” to reality.

How do Nietzsche’s arguments lead to relativism? The initial question that begins Nietzsche’s descent becomes why do human beings come to value certain ideas, standards, or objects and not others? He answers in proposing projectivism, the assertion that human beings project value into the world based on their conditionings and sentiments: “Judgments, value judgments concerning life, for or against, can in the last resort never be true: they possess value only as symptoms, they come into consideration only as symptoms—in themselves such judgments are stupidities.”[6] Thus, the traditional virtues may now be discarded and replaced by Nietzsche’s “Will to Power.” This, he posits, is the naturalistic, unconscious force “within,” driving all of human behavior. Ideally, this striving for power should be nurtured in opposition to the sentimental, conditioned values of the “idols.” When this power is released without limitation one may become an individual capable of luxuriating in every decision made during his life (which Nietzsche deems the “Superman”).

This leaves Nietzsche’s position only one possible “ethics”: might makes right. For the Superman, moral action does not rest on any objectively defined or justified principle. This amounts to the powerful being able to act as he or she wishes. Man thus becomes the measure of all things, hearkening back to Sophist philosophy such as that put forth by Protagoras, and magnifying the notion that there is no objective truth in virtue of which an individual’s views or actions may be established as more right than another. This is the very definition of relativism.

Despite Nietzsche’s argument for the Superman as the ideal illustration of man, he contradicts himself in asserting that value may not be assigned by men in the world: “One would have to be situated outside of life…to be permitted to touch on the problem of the value of life at all: sufficient reason for understanding that this problem is for us an inaccessible problem.”[7] It is not possible for Nietzsche to hold this “inaccessibility” view and his notions of the “Will to Power,” the “Superman,” or any assertion that places value on a certain way of life over another. Nietzsche does not recognize his contradiction in asserting there is no possibility of discerning objective value in life, yet stating that Christianity’s emphasis on charity and suffering makes an individual “weak,” thereby agitating that individual’s innate Will to Power and making him “sick.” This inherently assumes that sickness is bad, weakness is bad, and power is good; all of which are value judgments forbidden by relativist presuppositions.

In similarity with Nietzsche, Freud proposes an implicit relativism as well. Freud constructs a thorough account of the psychological origin of religious ideas, concluding that in reality, religious notions are illusory: “These [religious ideas] which are given out as teachings, are not precipitates of experience or end-results of thinking: they are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind.”[8] In seeking to develop this view of religion more fully, and responding particularly to the foreseeable objections that the “Victorian” ethos of the time might produce, Freud constructs an argument against his position in a sort of “devil’s advocate” manner.[9] The fictitionally (though realistically) proposed objection positions itself against the notion that Freud has any way of asserting religion as “truly” an illusion and psychoanalysis as not. In response, Freud states:  “But I will moderate my zeal and admit the possibility that I, too, am chasing an illusion…I do not know and you cannot know either…but you must admit that here we are justified in having a hope for the future.”[10] Hence, for Freud, neither “you nor I” may know the world objectively, as it is in truth. It is therefore the battle of rhetoric that ultimately decides truth and right since one cannot know objectively. In this way, relativism heavily coats the nature of his argument, this time with a much more overtly skeptical hue, unveiling a significant component of failure in Freud’s theory.

In complete contradiction to Freud’s relativism, however, is his vocal faith in the scientific method. This is problematic foremost in that Freud admits the fluctuation of scientific positions over time and experimentation, yet he also treats the scientific method as convincing enough to remain a valid basis for epistemology. In one regard this seems to fit his view of relativism in that knowledge is ethereal and thus changing with man’s tendencies to view the world differently or relativistic to human beings’ biases in any given generation. However, Freud appeals to scientific methodology in his critique against religious appraisals of the world: “Criticism has whittled away the evidential value of religious documents, natural science has shown up the errors in them, and comparative research has been struck by the fatal resemblance between the religious ideas we revere and the mental products of primitive people and times.”[11] Indeed, for Freud “scientific work is the only road which can lead us to a knowledge of reality outside ourselves.”[12] Of what value is an assertion of “knowledge,” outside or inside ourselves, when “neither you nor I” can assess whether or not that knowledge is really an illusion? The scientific method cannot be set forth as providing true and right knowledge when one holds a relativistic view of value in the world. Yet Freud attempts to present both together.

Freud’s contradiction becomes more pronounced when asserting that his theory of the human psyche is established by scientific method. He proposes many concepts in his theory of the human psyche without the very scientific validation he purports is needed in a valid assessment of reality. The existence of “unconscious” mental states that cannot become “conscious” under normal, everyday circumstances brings forth the question of how Freud himself acquired such knowledge. “Instincts,” as the motive forces within us, driving us to think or act in a certain way, carries the same burden of proof he wishes to confine “religious ideas” to. The notion of the id, the ego, and the superego seems to be mere conjecture based on correlation between phenomena, as opposed to a causality within observable physical states (like those, say, in the brain or nervous system). Ultimately, when such a serious argument for the scientific method as the basis for acquiring knowledge is set forth, as is the case with Freud, what empirical evidence is provided for Freud’s defense? Many psychologists today question Freud’s psychoanalysis with regard to its scientific essence, which brings to mind his own statements surrounding the continued use of his theories: “If experience should show—not to me, but to others after me, who think as I do—that we have been mistaken, we will give up our expectations.”[13]  Scientific theories must be falsifiable in some feasible manner (“if we find X, there is good evidence for us to abandon our theory Y”). To simply assert the existence of the id, the ego, instincts, or drives without a way of addressing how they might be proven wrong leaves no possibility of validating such theories either. Freud’s appeal to the scientific method as the basis for truth (which he does not even agree can be known) does not support his own notions of the human psyche and how it operates. Once again, contradiction is the outcome.

With regard to the relativistic constitution of their views, Nietzsche and Freud object to Aquinas’ assertion that “the truth is the same for everyone,” emphasizing the detrimental quality of any religious worldview that asserts so. Neither Nietzsche nor Freud propose a consistent argument for truth based on an all-encompassing, objectively determined corresponence to “how things are” (although Freud, in opposition to his statements concerning what we may know, seeks to establish the scientific method as such a means for discovering a correspondence). This inevitably leads to a non-cognitive ethics whereby each individual projects his own truth into the world. As shown above, Aquinas rejects such a position in light of its obstruction to the ultimate end of human beings that is final happiness. Instead he argues for the universality of right and wrong found through the prudent selection and use of truth whereby such an end may be reached.

With regard to the inherent contradictions in both Nietzsche and Freud’s presentations, they lose validity in their critique of religious thinkers such as Aquinas. Indeed, Freud’s argumentation against religious persons criticizing his view could be reversed and sarcastically (though quite effectively) restated against both himself and Nietzsche: ‘In light of their arguments’ inherent contradictions, Nietzsche and Freud prove nothing for their own assertions, but in addition, do nothing to lessen the validity of religious claims to truth either (especially since their claims do not measure up to any objective scrutiny)’.[14]


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche  Twilight of the Idols/The Anti-Christ  (Penguin Books: New York, 1990), 64.

[2] Sigmund Freud The Future of an Illusion (W. W. Norton and Co.: New York and London, 1961), 35.

[3] St. Thomas Aquinas  St. Thomas Aquinas on Politics and Ethics  (New York: Norton and Co. Inc., 1988), 50.

[4] St. Thomas Aquinas  Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas Vol. One  Edited and Annotated, with Introduction by Anton C. Pegis  (New York: Random House, 1945), 168-179.

[5] St. Thomas Aquinas  Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas Vol. Two Edited and Annotated, with Introduction by Anton C. Pegis  (New York: Random House, 1945), 3-112.

[6] Nietzsche, Twilight, 40.

[7] Ibid., 55.

[8] Freud, Illusion, 38.  See also William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, particularly chapters 1, 3, 17, and 18.

[9] Ibid., 58-59.

[10] Ibid., 61.

[11] Ibid., 49.

[12] Ibid., 40.

[13] Ibid., 67.

[14] Ibid., 68:  “The weakness of my position does not imply the strengthening of yours.”

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