‘Freud’s Last Session’: Discovering Truth with C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud

By: - February 6, 2024

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“From error to error, one discovers the entire truth.”

So goes the final line of Freud’s Last Session (2023), a real-life quote from famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, played in the new film starring Anthony Hopkins opposite Matthew Goode’s portrayal of Christian apologist C.S. Lewis. Freud, a committed atheist, is presented in a fictitious scenario, inviting Lewis to his residence in London to engage in a debate over the existence of God, among other philosophical matters. Though Freud and Lewis never met, their ideas were often in diametric opposition, and Freud’s Last Session hypothesizes how they would have interacted if they had had the chance to discuss them.

Filmmaker Matt Brown (The Man Who Knew Infinity) shares a writing credit with Mark St. Germain, who wrote the stage play of the same name, which premiered in 2009 and had a successful off-Broadway run in New York City in 2010. The play was based on a book entitled The Question of God (2003) by psychiatrist Armand Nicholi. Nicholi taught a course at Harvard comparing the philosophies of Freud and Lewis, both on the subject of God and on other matters, such as human sexuality and the true meaning of existence.

Their disagreements are brought vividly to life in Freud’s Last Session, as the two great minds argue passionately against the backdrop of the dawn of World War II. Set in 1939, shortly before the war’s official beginning and less than a month before Freud’s death by suicide, the story takes place almost exclusively in Freud’s comfortable home. A Jewish Austrian, Freud was forced to flee the Holocaust with his daughter, also a psychoanalyst. This brought the Freuds to London during Lewis’ lengthy tenure as an Oxford don. Thus, the hypothetical meeting could technically have happened, though there is no evidence that it did. The film claims in a closing title card that Freud did indeed meet with an Oxford don in the final weeks of his life, but as the card itself admits, “We will never know if it was C.S. Lewis.”

Despite the fictional nature of the story’s premise, the film depicts Freud and Lewis with remarkable authenticity. The audience is shown Freud’s disconcerting sexual tendencies, complicated relationship with his lesbian daughter, and his pretentious ridicule of religion. Lewis’ post-traumatic stress from his service in World War I, persistent rationalism to the point of obsession, and perpetual struggle with the problem of evil are all laid bare. While these characteristics are often dramatized for maximum impact on the audience, as is the case with any biopic, Brown’s fidelity to these men’s real lives is admirable as he takes these luminaries in their respective fields down from the pedestals upon which posterity has placed them and forces them to face their demons while attempting to make the best case for both their positions.

Those who approach this battle of brains expecting to see their “side” come out on top should be forewarned: This is not a picture that will tell you that your worldview is right. Atheists expecting a curb-stomping by Sigmund Freud will be disappointed to find that Lewis, though he is given fewer lines overall, tends to occupy the rational high ground when compared to Freud’s self-righteous mockery and his emotional dependence on atheism to guard against his own fears. Similarly, members of the Christian audience will not find the film to be a God’s Not Dead–style, ham-fisted sermon for Lewis’ point of view either. Rather than an apology for either Freud or Lewis, Freud’s Last Session simply allows the historical figures to speak for themselves, often using their own real-life quotations as dialogue. This is particularly evident when Lewis wrestles to articulate ideas that would go on to be explored more fully in works that the don had yet to publish, such as The Problem of Pain and Mere Christianity.

Another prime example is the movie’s closing line, read by Hopkins in a voiceover as Lewis departs on a train: “From error to error, one discovers the entire truth.” It is this line that solidifies the thesis of the story: that rational debate draws both parties nearer to the truth, that dialectic is the most effective means of intellectual investigation. There is much that people can learn from one another, the film seems to argue, even if they aggressively and passionately disagree.

Fittingly, given this theme, Freud and Lewis do not achieve agreement before their meeting is concluded, though they part warmly. The closing titles summarize what history also tells us: Freud soon took his own life, never budging from his staunch disbelief in a higher power. Lewis went on to become one of the most famous Christian apologists in history. Yet both men find themselves transformed by their debate.

In the present day, people are discouraged from seeking out their ideological opponents and pursuing a higher level of understanding through intellectual, respectful dialogue. Freud’s Last Session is a brilliant film, but it also ought to be an invitation to imitate the two main characters and reach across the religious, social, and political categories that divide society. Perhaps then, our “errors” can teach us how to live more enlightened, truth-seeking lives.

Image credits: Public domain (Lewis); Public domain (Freud)

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