Spinoza with Luther? Desire and the Problem of Evil in Lacan’s Seminar on the Ethics of Psychoanalysis


In this article Lacan’s seminar VII is portrayed as a text on desire and the problem of evil that combines Spinozian with Lutheran insights. Spinozian are: desire as the essence of man; ethics without a moralizing message; the disenchantment of anthropocentricism; the rejection of a possible natural knowledge of the proper distinction between good and evil; and the recognition of immanent causality. Luther is presented by Lacan as the first theologian to articulate the modern crisis in ethics: the problem of evil in his concept of sin as the desire for those objects that make one suffer; the emphasis on the fundamentally bad character of man’s relationships; the recognition of hatred being the fundamental human passion and the foundation of the Law. Reading this seminar from this perspective not only draws attention to the fundamental problems psychoanalysis addresses, but also contributes to clarifying the relation between psychoanalysis and Judeo-Christian tradition.


Jacques Lacan’s interest in religion, theology and moral philosophy is not only rooted in Freud’s writings in the field of applied psychoanalysis and his views on the relation between religion and morality, but also expresses Lacan’s intention to relate Freudian psychoanalysis to a Western philosophical and theological tradition. Throughout his writings Lacan refers to central figures in Western philosophy and Christian theology, who intuitively expressed psychological insights to which Freud gave his official approval, and who inaugurated new ways of thinking, defining problems and insights with which psychoanalysis connects in its own unique way. Two of these thinkers – Martin Luther and Baruch de Spinoza – are either explicitly or implicitly strongly present in Lacan’s 1959–1960 seminar on the ethics of psychoanalysis. In this article I will argue that Lacan’s seminar as a text discussing the dynamics of desire (and the law) in relation to the problem of evil, falls back on and approves of aspects of Spinoza’s ethics and Luther’s theological thought. Such reading not only highlights key notions from this seminar from a perspective that is slightly different from the usual. It also contributes to elucidating the relation between certain key aspects of Freudian-Lacanian psychoanalysis and Luther’s theology – understood as the early modern discourse that radically articulates what Lacan will identify as the crisis in ethics that, in turn, results from the collapse of the medieval Aristotelian natural order of being. It is this unsolved crisis that is in the heart of the seventh seminar.


Kant – High Point of a Crisis in Ethics

In most philosophical studies and commentaries on Lacan’s seminar on the ethics of psychoanalysis, Spinoza and Luther are not the focus of attention (Moyaert 1994; Zupančič 2000; Boehme 2005; De Kesel 2009). Immanuel Kant is, and clearly with good reason. Kant is present from the first pages of the seminar onwards. That is to say, Kant is already implied in Lacan’s outline of the seminar. Lacan’s intention is to comment Freud’s cultural studies such as Totem and Taboo and Civilization and Its Discontents, a work Lacan describes as ‘an indispensable work’ and ‘the summation of [Freud’s] experience’ (Lacan 1992, p. 7). ‘We are faced with the question of what analysis allows us to formulate concerning the origin of morality’, says Lacan referring to Freud’s Totem and Taboo project of reconstructing the origin of the development of civilization – a reconstruction that was in fact the final stage of an archaeology of the taboo. Freud was interested in the taboo, not because it was some estranged interesting primitive artifact, but because the taboo was still present and operative in modern civilization in the form of the categorical imperative operating ‘in a compulsive fashion’ and rejecting ‘every conscious motive’ (Freud 1912–13, p. 14). This implicit presence of Kant soon becomes explicit when Lacan writes that ‘it is impossible for us to make any progress in this seminar relative to the questions posed by the ethics of psychoanalysis’ if one does not have Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason as a reference point – the Critique is mentioned as ‘the high point of the crisis in ethics’ (Lacan 1992, p. 72, p. 76). By then Lacan has already introduced the concepts and problems around which his seminar will evolve and which also echo Kant: the concept of das Ding, the separation of ‘das Wohl’ and ‘das Gute’, that is to say, the notion that any conception of the good cannot be derived from man’s nature and the pleasure principle as the guidance of action – quite the contrary: what one considers as the good is also that which causes ‘unpleasure’ and pain, says Lacan with Kant (Kant 1788, 5:58–63). And what does Lacan mean by this high point of the crisis in ethics? Well, it is the historical point where traditional morality as concerned with ‘what one is supposed to do ‘insofar as it is possible’’ is unmasked as impossible because of ‘the topology of our desire’. This breakthrough and insight is achieved by Kant when he defines the moral imperative not as a practical rule of what may be done and what should be avoided, but as the mere formal duty ‘Thou shalt’ (Lacan 1992, pp. 315-316).

Kant is the high point of a historical development that Lacan elsewhere in his seminar describes as ‘a new direction of thought – one that is apparent at the break which occurred toward the beginning of the sixteenth century’ (Idem, p. 97). This remark is made in a passage where Lacan discusses the filiation or cultural paternity between Freud’s intellectual project and Luther’s theological project. The step from Luther to Kant is not a large one. Those who have read for example Kant’s Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason cannot but recognize the Lutheran theological schemes and structures that lay behind Kant’s thought on radical evil. And also for example, the idea in the Critique of Practical Reason that the law causes pain as it smashes imaginary self-perceptions (egocentrism, arrogance) to pieces has clear Lutheran roots. We find similar ideas in Luther’s thought when he argues that the law brings a painful awareness of sin and even an abysmal feeling of despair. This is highly significant for interpreting Lacan’s references to Luther and Kant, since the distinction between das Wohl and das Gute, the radical denial of an ethics based on the pleasure principle, and the idea that only through the law man is able to make a proper distinction between good and evil transforming an animalistic being into a moral subject, are already preluded in Reformation theology. In short there is a theological tradition of which Kant is the high point: a tradition that via Luther connects with an ‘authoritative Christian tradition, from the words of Christ to Saint Paul, Saint Augustine and the Church Fathers’ in which a natural moral instinct is radically denied, and in which nevertheless the subject of the Sovereign Good is still a central notion. There is thus a long theological tradition that articulates a key problem in ethics. This problem in ethics is in a word, the problem of evil – a problem that in Lacan’s seminar concerns the Sovereign Good as the forbidden good that is actually an evil ‘good’, das Ding. This is the ultimate object of ‘a useless passion’ (Lacan 2007, p. 687), a transgressive, pure and absolute desire that brings jouissance, pain and suffering. This Ding is not the object of conscious intentions, but the ultimate object of an unconditional desire that cannot and will not be mastered by restrictions or sanctions, laws or common sense. In other words, Lacan points at a tradition of which Kant is a high point, the tradition in which not the ignorant sinner who possibly pursues das Wohl of himself and others, but only the believer to whom the law has been revealed recognizes himself as sinner, as desiring the forbidden evil ‘good’, which gains weight and importance by being forbidden.

Not only Luther, but also Spinoza – like Freud a representative of a Jewish intellectual and religious tradition in his own unique way – plays a crucial role in the background of some of Lacan’s references to Kant, for example when he mentions Kant as a moral philosopher who is ‘not concerned with what may or may not be done’ (Lacan 1992, p. 315). In other words, Kant posits a formal imperative – ‘Thou shalt’ – that also introduces a void as regards concrete practical prescriptions and regulations of conduct. This void is important and significant when we consider the fact that Lacan’s seminar on the ethics of psychoanalysis is always also a polemic against ego psychology (and various other psychoanalytical schools) that have betrayed the Freudian project when aiming at the development of a strong self-conscious ego being able to adjust to societal norms.[1] According to Lacan, the problem with ego psychology is that the human instincts are constructed in such a way that they are made into ‘the natural law of the realization of harmony’, or in other words, that the instincts are only meaningful and treated accordingly in so far as they can be made fruitful for what Lacan calls the ‘the service of goods’, that is to say, ‘private goods, family goods, domestic goods, other goods that solicit us’, etcetera (Lacan 1992, p. 303). Ego psychology is supposedly only interested in those instincts and inclinations that as individual needs, demands and wishes could be instrumentalized and utilized for societal demands. Ego psychology thus takes up a role in the production of – in a word – civilians. As such, Lacan has no problem with concepts such as societal demands or common welfare: the necessary introduction into the symbolic order implies socialization – what could then go wrong with reasonable societal demands? The real problem is that ego psychologists as psychoanalysts choosing a middle path of modesty and temperateness become the guarantors of the bourgeois dream and as such avoid a true ‘confrontation with the human condition’ (ibid., p. 303, pp. 312-314). What they thus avoid is the confrontation with desire as far as it cannot be applied and socialized in the service of goods. Hence, for Lacan ego psychology is the betrayal of the Freudian project, firstly, because of its moralizing message and practices, secondly, because of its refusal to deconstruct or unveil imaginary constructs and illusionary narcissistic self-perceptions of being a good person, and, thirdly, because of its denial of the dynamics of desire in the human condition. It is exactly in this critique of ego psychology that one can already recognize the influence of Spinoza: an ethics without moralizing message, and the disenchantment of anthropocentricism, self-control and autonomy.

To recapitulate: behind Kant as the high point of a crisis in ethics, we can envision a theological tradition in which Luther is the central figure and Reformation a historical break in moral philosophy. We can also recognize some important Spinozian traits in Lacan’s ethics. I will further elaborate this in the following paragraphs.


Traditions and Breakthroughs

When Lacan speaks of authoritative traditions, new directions of thought occurring toward the beginning of the 16th century, and about historical breakthroughs and high points, he is in fact elaborating a few basic axes in the history of philosophy and theology mentioned in earlier seminars. In his seminar on the psychoses, Lacan distinguishes two major traditions in Western thought. On the one hand there is an Aristotelian tradition of rationalism and intellectualism, which ‘for a long time inhabited Christianity itself, the medieval Christian tradition’, and in which natural inclinations towards the good and the pleasurable were attuned, embedded in and guaranteed by a universal order of being. On the other hand there is a Judeo-Christian tradition of theological voluntarism that, according to Lacan, proposed a unique principle as the foundation ‘not only of the universe, but also of the law’: the principle of creatio ex nihilo (Lacan 1993, pp. 64–66). The central issue here is the foundation of the law and the question whether the law is good because it expresses what is good in se (a universal natural order of being; God) or whether the law is good because God willed the law for some unknown obscure reason. Lacan’s references to theological voluntarism are not intended to speculate about some transcendental origin of the law – moreover, God does not exist, he says – but to emphasize the arbitrariness of the law and the symbolic order. It is this voluntarist tradition that Lacan identifies as the Judeo-Christian tradition that in its most radical forms denies any relation between a natural order of being and the good. Kant’s distinction between das Wohl and das Gute obviously stands in this tradition.

In his sixth seminar on desire and its interpretation Lacan again sketches some rough historical lines. He writes of Spinoza, and also of the English Puritan poet John Donne, as two thinkers – the one Jewish, the other a Calvinist – who had recognized desire being the essence of man. Opposed to these thinkers on desire, Lacan identifies a ‘hedonist tradition’ that starts with Aristotle, and that is characterized by the convergence of pleasure and the good within boundaries set by moral authorities disciplining, controlling and regulating the subject’s habits and behavior. In such ethics, desire is repressed and exiled from the social playground into the realm of bestiality and perversion (Lacan 2000, p. 13ff). Again, there is an Aristotelian tradition, this time not opposed to voluntarism, but to some distinct thinkers that recognized the nature of desire guiding every lived experience at some deeper level, and yet without exiling it into terra incognita.

In the seminar on the ethics of psychoanalysis an Aristotelian intellectual tradition is again mentioned as hedonistic, for example when Lacan discusses the traditional Christian ethics of Thomas Aquinas that is developed ‘along the paths of an essentially hedonist problematic’, that is to say, an ethics that relates the good to the pleasurable discerning ‘not true pleasures from false (…) but the true and false goods that pleasure points to’ (Lacan 1992, p. 221). In other words, the good was contemplated ‘as a function of the index of pleasure’. The nature of pleasure was not questioned; this ethics was merely concerned with the actualization of desire relative to a casuistry of good and bad objects, a ‘calculation of the proper paths to follow’ according to the standards set by moral authorities and shared principles. Lacan’s reference to Aquinas is telling, for, the nuclear idea of Aquinas’ moral philosophy and the central concept of synderesis (indicating the natural innate habit or disposition of the human mind by which man apprehends general and basic moral principles) and natural law was indeed the convergence of the knowledge of the good and the pleasure that was to be gained from desiring the good. It is in this context of scholastic thought that we should actually situate Lacan’s remark, already quoted in the context of Kant, on what one is supposed to do ‘insofar as it is possible’. This formula is nothing else as what in scholasticism and mild forms of nominalism is known as the facientibus-principle: the idea that man naturally knew the basic moral principles and that sufficient moral efforts would guarantee salvation, e.g. access of the good. This scholastic principle is definitely unmasked, not so much by Kant, but rather by Luther in his critique of scholasticism. Lacan recognizes the importance of Luther’s thought as a break within the Christian tradition, and as a crisis in moral philosophy. Scholastic moral thought was concerned with natural instincts, that is, with a natural desire towards the good and pleasurable, with conscience as the application of these moral instincts in moral acts, and with the facientibus-principle as a principle of sufficient moral effort. Here, the focus was on moral acts and behavior, on good works – sin was merely the absence of such acts and efforts. In Luther’s thought there is a shift of attention from acts and efforts to what one might simply call the truth about human being. For Luther, man’s nature is fundamentally corrupt, and even a virtuous person doing the best he can insofar as it is possible, is a sinner and should be identified as such. Lacan recognizes that at the start of modernity which coincides with the collapse of the Aristotelian universal order of being, Luther introduces a radical idea, namely that underlying moral acts and efforts there is a deeper sin bound to the human condition, an enigmatic evil core in body and soul, a desire for those things that make man suffer, a passion that disrupts all good intentions and purposes.

When Lacan defines ethics as man’s reflection ‘on his condition’ and on ‘the calculation of the proper paths to follow’, he detects an oscillatory motion throughout history stressing either this calculation (which includes a neglect of the reflection of the truth of human nature), or indeed the reflection of man’s condition – a reflection that suspends and puts in perspective moralizing messages and precepts of behavior. It is within this framework that Lacan associates Aristotelian-Thomistic moral philosophy, utilitarianism and ego psychology with calculation on the one hand, and thinkers such as Saint Paul, Luther, Spinoza and Freud with a demystifying reflection on the human condition on the other hand.



The Leitmotiv of Lacan’s seminar on the ethics of psychoanalysis is Spinoza’s definition of desire mentioned by Lacan in his sixth seminar: ‘Desire is the very essence of man’ (Spinoza 1677, III: 59.1). Elisabeth Roudinesco is right when she writes: ‘The Freudian ethic is a Spinozian ethic, tending to see the truth of being in the deployment of desire’ (Roudinesco 1993, p. 581; 1997, p. 312). Several authors have rightfully argued that Spinoza’s concept of conatus indicating man’s embodied striving or drive for self-preservation cannot simply be equated with Freud’s concept of libido, which is primarily linked to pleasure in a theory of the drives that is not monistic but dualistic (Foti 1982; Yovel 1989, pp. 145f.). However, Lacan’s thought on an undivided desire and, closely related to this, his reformulation of Freud’s drive theory (saying that all drives are both sexual and destructive) puts in perspective Freudian drive dualism and more strongly resembles Spinoza’s conatus – striving or desire. This Spinozian desire is always desire of the other: it is not only a mode of expression of the substance (called God) and therefore of the fact that one’s essence is not one’s own, it is also – as the source of all passions – constantly affected and redirected by objects it encounters (it is not because of the nature of the subject’s desire that a person desires a certain object, but is because a certain object is desirable that a person desires it). This desire is the source of all thoughts and passions that guide man’s (moral) actions (Spinoza 1677, III: 9).

It is this Spinoza inspired notion of desire as the essence of man and as source of all moral thoughts, passions and actions that is at the heart of Lacan’s seventh seminar on the ethics of psychoanalysis. Central in this seminar is the idea that ethics is primarily a reflection of the human condition, which includes the recognition of desire as one’s essence underlying all moral thoughts, motivations and behavior. Psychoanalysis is about considering the causal ‘relationship between action and the desire that inhibits it’ (Lacan 1992, p. 313). This causal relation is central in Spinoza’s Ethics, notably in the parts II and III where he discusses human nature, knowledge and desire. The point of departure here is the idea that all human thought activities are to be understood as a creative and aimless thought activity of God, since the human mind is part of God’s infinite intellect (Spinoza 1677, II: 1; De Dijn 2009, p. 39). This God, who is ‘the immanent but not the transitive cause of all things’ (Spinoza 1677, I: 18; Kiarina Kordela 2007, p. 31) is interpreted by Lacan as the God who is unconscious and reduced to being nothing but the discourse of the Other causing individual conscious thought activity (Lacan 1994, p. 275). Hence, Spinoza’s proposition that God is something thinking and that every conscious thought is an expression of God (Spinoza 1677, II: 1), is translated by Lacan in terms of the unconscious as the reservoir of signifiers.

This reflection of the human condition results a next aspect of Lacan’s thought that can be described as a Spinozist interpretation of Freud’s view on the aim of the psychoanalytic cure. Freud had clearly stated that a person should hold himself responsible for his unconscious thoughts and wishes, notably also the evil impulses that were all to easily denied by whomever liked to consider himself ‘better than he was created’ (Freud 1925, p. 134). Lacan gives his own twists to Freud’s concept of moral responsibility and the knowledge of the individual ‘truth’. In his exegesis of Freud’s famous and much-discussed sentence Wo Es war, soll Ich werden, Lacan stresses this soll as an imperative, ‘a duty in the moral sense’ (Lacan 2007, p. 417, p. 801, p. 865; Van Haute 2002, pp. 52–57). This duty is ‘to assume my own causality’, that is to say, to recognize and admit the symbolic causes or determinants of one’s being (Lacan 2007, p. 865).[2] One should recognize oneself not in the conscious and supposed free-willed actions, but as being determined by the discourse of the Other. Lacan explicitly associates this causality with ‘the Spinozian self-cause’ that ‘takes on the name of God’ (ibid.). To assume this causality in self-knowledge, in reflecting one’s condition, implies the deconstruction of narcissistic illusionary constructs in favor of an acceptance of life as being-for-death, that is to say, being a particular person expressing one’s desire by means of the chain of signifiers of the symbolic order, e.g. the desire of the Other as immanent cause. This, moreover, recalls Spinoza’s conatus as the essence of man in relation to the causal context of Deus sive Natura. Both Freud and Lacan like Spinoza stress the recognition of the causal structures of this context that Spinoza’s calls Natura or God, Freud addresses as Ananke, and Lacan names symbolic order or the Other.

And yet, despite the Spinozist outline of Lacan’s seventh seminar, there is a limit to identifying the ethics of psychoanalysis as Spinozian. The first important point here is the fact that Lacan sharply attacks the hedonist tradition including ego psychology because of its intention to harmonize the subject’s motivations with cultural demands and ideals via the ‘middle path of modesty’ (Lacan 1992, p. 314). Spinoza very much favors modesty and temperance subjecting emotional life to deliberation (Spinoza 1677, III: 59; O’Sullivan 2010, p. 54). It is the soft voice of reason that determines Spinoza’s optimism on human nature and its capacities to advance in intellectuality. Related to this optimism is Spinoza’s denial of sin and evil as having a positive existence. In the state of nature there is no sin. From a divine perspective sin is merely the lack of something in comparison to something else, like blindness is a lack of sight in comparison to those who can see. Evil is only a term relative to our imperfect knowledge (Spinoza 1677, IV: 37; 1966, Letter 21). As regards Spinoza’s Amor intellectualis Dei and the problem of evil Lacan writes that Spinoza’s transcendental love ‘is not tenable for us’. The reason for this is that Spinoza cannot account for the evil that man, both individual and collective, is capable of. Spinoza regards living ‘according to the laws of desire’ the sovereign right of the individual (whether reasonable and sane, or not). A person should be allowed ‘to exist and act according to its natural conditions’, that is, ‘to do all that he can’ according to the rules of nature and his own powers – just like fishes desire and enjoy the water since they are conditioned for swimming. Spinoza’s blind spot is the fact that ‘desire in its pure state’ culminates in sacrifice, murder and all the monstrosities enacted in history, says Lacan. In Spinoza’s ethics this is expressed when he argues that nothing which might destroy the body or one’s existence can exist in man (since his essence is the desire for self-preservation) (Spinoza 1677, III: 4; Mack 2010, p. 197). Hence, according to Lacan, Spinoza fails to see that desire is ultimately destructive and excessive (Lacan 1994, p. 275; Kiarina Kordela 2007, pp. 12–14). In short, Spinoza sharply envisioned the immanent cause of man’s subjectivity, and embodied desire as the essence of man and the source of all thought, passions and actions, yet, failed to see that the desire is ultimately destructive and that thus at the heart of man’s destiny is the problem of evil, the Ding. According to Lacan, Freud had not only recognized the importance, the weight of desire, that is to say, the repressed wishes and needs as the inner source of morality – he had also shown that there is desire beyond the pleasure principle, a desire for pain and suffering, a desire for not wanting to be cured (negative therapeutic reaction), or, when translated in ego psychological categories, for not wanting to become a good person. This death drive is unthinkable in Spinoza’s account of desire.


With Luther

According to Lacan, Luther is a central figure in the history of moral philosophy, connecting the authoritative Christian tradition of Saint Paul and Saint Augustine with a new direction of thought that starts in Wittenberg and finds its zenith in Königsberg. The former Augustinian monk Luther radically dismisses the hedonist Aristotelian-Thomistic order of being, the convergence of the good and the pleasurable, the importance of innate moral principles, of doing good insofar as it is possible, and of knowledge of good and evil based on the perception of the order of nature.

The idea that Luther is a kind of mad genius introducing a new direction of thought, as Lacan suggests, is open for critique since his theology is in fact firmly rooted in medieval thought. This is evidenced by the fact that he is deeply concerned with the theoretical problems Ockham’s nominalism and voluntarism had created (the problem of God’s sovereignty and freedom in deciding and changing moral order in relation to his reliability and the believer’s obedience[3]) and finds his own solutions to these problems by combining aspects of the via moderna (for example the distinction between God’s potentia absoluta and potentia ordinata[4]) and the schola Augustiniana moderna, notably Gregory of Rimini’s negation of human free will and his teachings on God’s double predestination before the foundation of the world. And yet, there are good reasons for calling Luther’s Reformation a historical break, ‘the essential turning point of a crisis from which emerged our whole modern immersion of the world’ (Lacan 1992, p. 93). It is an innovative moment in an intellectual continuity. Confronted with the decomposition of the Aristotelian universe, Luther defined and occupied the archaeological site of modern subjectivity (Schürmann 2003, p. 353).[5] This site is the inner arena of the soul, the interior world of faith in God, of conscious thoughts, unconscious desires and inclinations that nevertheless can be observed. This turn inwards is extremely important, since it means that the inner dynamics of the psychic apparatus and the relation with God in faith are no longer mirrored in the outside world nor naturally attuned to the demands and ideals of culture and moral authorities. This turn inwards is subsequently related to Luther’s teachings on the two Kingdoms, the distinction between the natural law inscribed in the hearts of sinners and gentiles necessary for the basic regulation of society and guarded by civil government on the one hand, and conscience judging a person’s inner life coram Deo on the other hand. In short, there is the distinction between outward behavior and an inner disposition and motivation. As a result Luther can put good works in perspective: coram Deo good works resulting from natural law are completely irrelevant – they mean nothing as long as the inner life is corrupt. This corruption is nothing else but the sin inherited from Adam. The Schoolman had neglected this original sin, this innate evil that cannot be mastered by the subject, lying at the root of actual sins (Luther 1536, III: 191).

Luther’s distinction of inner life and outward behavior is part of what Lacan describes as the filiation between Freud and Luther, and as ‘the kind of problems Freud’s intellectual project addresses’ (Lacan 1992, p. 97). Lacan makes very clear throughout his seminar that psychoanalysis is not concerned with utilitarian approaches making proper moral behavior the criterion for a psychology that aims at strengthening the ego against the Id. Freud, who finds in his neurotic patients that good works and virtues are merely the counter formations of what is repressed, thus implicitly approves of Luther’s disavowal of the meaning of good merits, says Lacan. Freudian psychoanalysis focuses on the inner life, the arena of conflicts between drive and morality, between what Lacan renames as desire and law. Luther recognizes the character of this dynamics of desire, the original sin that is all too human, when emphasizing ‘both the fundamentally bad character of the relations between men and the fact that at the heart of man’s destiny is the Ding (…) the cause of the most fundamental human passion’, says Lacan (ibid.). According to Luther, sin was indeed not simply the lack or privation of goodness, but ‘a propensity towards evil’, ‘a delight in darkness’ and ‘a desire for those things that make man sick’ (Luther 1515–16, p. 299). Such desire is the fundamental human passion that flares up and gains weight in relation to the law – Lacan gives a profoundly Lutheran exegesis of Saint Paul’s discussion of the relation between Law and sin in his Epistle to the Romans: it is the Law that reveals the excessive character of sin; it is the Law that gives weight to the problem of evil; it is the Law that reveals the Ding (Lacan 1992, pp. 83–84).[6] And yet, sin is not only the effect of the Law – it is also its (repressed) cause. Lacan points at this when he mentions Luther’s thoughts on Deus absconditus, on the hidden God, that is to say, God in as far as He has decided not to reveal himself as a loving God (Deus revelatus), the God that hides his essence and will from human beings. According to Lacan, Luther writes of ‘God’s eternal hatred of men (…) a hatred that existed before the world was created’ (ibid., p. 97). He focuses on this radical aspect of Luther’s thought in order to point at the structural parallel with Freud’s myth of the primal murder: there is the tyrant’s hate – or more precisely, his indifference of the individual and collective consequences of being the omnipotent and admired Other – that provokes the original crime of the brothers. This crime results in guilt formations and the first prohibitions. In this way, this tyrant (as the dead father-God) introduced the law, the unmotivated categorical imperative, as the condition of all social life.


Concluding Remarks

Elisabeth Roudinesco has put Lacan’s relation to the Judeo-Christian tradition in a simple formula: ‘Lacan translated Freudian discourse into a language familiar to Catholic tradition’ (Roudinesco 1990, p. 262).[7] Many scholars have approved this assessment. And yet, given Lacan’s critique of Aristotelian-Thomistic moral philosophy, his sympathy for a voluntarist tradition in Christianity, the analogies he detects between Luther and Freud, his ‘Lutheran’ reading of Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, and the omnipresence of Augustine throughout his seminars and writings, there is good reason to doubt this formula. The formula neglects the filiation between Luther, the new direction of thought that starts with him, and the Lutheran roots of Kant’s moral philosophy, and therefore risks running into what Lacan describes as ‘a fundamental misunderstanding of the kind of problems Freud’s intellectual project addresses’ (Lacan 1992, p. 97). The problems at which Lacan is pointing concern the dynamics of and relations between desire, law (symbolic order) and the Ding as the problem of evil.

Associating Freudian psychoanalysis to religious and philosophical traditions is one of the traits of Lacan’s writings. Translating psychoanalytic discourse into a quasi-religious discourse is just one side of a coin. The other side is related to Freudian archaeology and his recognition of the importance of historical developments for the establishment of mentalities – one only needs to think of Freud’s early discussions of Oedipus and Hamlet and the importance of recognizing the different ‘cultural epochs of mankind’ and the ‘secular advance of repression in the emotional life of mankind’ (Freud 1900, p. 264), or his late reconstruction of Jewish moral character as the result of a unique history. Freudian psychoanalysis is undeniably a theory of the recognition of the (meaning of the) past in the present of the individual and of society. This not only includes the issues that Enlightenment thought had repressed from its official agenda and that Freud subsequently excavated – the body, the unconscious, the irrational, the pathological, the embodied drives and desires, but notably also the return of fundamental problems and insights from the past (religious traditions and moral philosophies) in psychoanalytic (secular) discourse. My reading of Lacan’s seminar, focusing on Luther and Spinoza, points at psychoanalysis’ heteronomy and contributes to clarifying the relation between psychoanalysis and certain intellectual traditions. ‘For the good of whom?’ we may ask with Lacan. First, for the good of psychoanalysts, because it contributes to the understanding of the intellectual roots of psychoanalysis in general and Lacan’s work in particular. Secondly, for the good of psychoanalysts, moral philosophers and theologians, because it conceptualizes the problem of evil in relation to desire and the law in their mutual discourses – this problem of evil/sin is still one of the major challenges for both philosophical and theological anthropology, ethics and also psychoanalysis. The discussions on the ethics of psychoanalysis have certainly not been closed. In some psychoanalytic studies on the issue, the clear focus is on a degree of mature self-control and willingness to meet societal obligations and duties. Knowledge of one’s desires and impulses enables a person to modify and even renounce them ‘in the interest of greater adaptation and maturity’, or to integrate them ‘in more effective and productive ways’ (Meissner 2003, p. 207). Lacan’s ‘return to Freud’ reasoning that psychoanalysis confronts with man’s ‘evil nature’, e.g. with ‘the constitutional inclination of human beings to be aggressive towards one another’ remains important as critique of such interest in adaptation: true self-knowledge is necessary since it puts ‘the ethical narcissism of humanity’ in perspective (Freud 1925, p. 134; Freud 1930, p. 142) and questions the submission to moral authorities that define the realm of adaptation and production. After all, psychoanalysis aims at bringing desire into existence. It is the articulation of desire that, being symbolically expressed, can be recognized and assumed without resulting in an evil act – the articulation is itself already a satisfaction. It is only by understanding man’s desire that we can understand man as a moral agent.


Boehme, T. (2005) Ethik und Geniessen. Kant und Lacan (Vienna: Turia & Kant).


De Certeau, M. (1986) Heterologies. Discourse on the Other (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).


De Dijn, H. (2009) Spinoza. De doornen en de roos (Kapellen: Pelckmans/Klement).


De Kesel, M. (2009) Eros & Ethics. Reading Jacques Lacan’s Seminar VII (Albany: SUNY Press).


Foti V. (1982). ‘Thought, Affect, Drive and Pathogenesis in Spinoza and Freud’, History of European Ideas 3(2), 221-236.


Freud, S.:

– (1900) The Interpretation of DreamsSE 4.

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– (1925) ‘Some Additional Notes on Dream-Interpretation as a Whole’, SE 20.

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[1] In the mid-1950s Lacan first broke with the Société Psychoanalytique de Paris, then founded with some other psychoanalysts a new society, the Association Française de Psychanalyse, that was not accepted by the International Psychoanalytical Association. In 1964 Lacan eventually founded his own society, the École Freudienne de Paris (Roudinesco 1997).


[2] Simon O’Sullivan has rightfully pointed at the affiliation between Spinoza and Lacan as regards causation. He writes: ‘For Spinoza, as for Lacan, the relentless pursuit of causation will necessarily go beyond the mere ‘knowledge’ of the causation. Indeed, the avowed goal of analysis, ‘to become a cause of oneself’, is the same as the goal of Spinoza’s Ethics, namely to ‘arrive’ at a state of being when one is no longer subject to the world (and to those within it), but authors oneself (O’Sullivan 2010).


[3] William of Ockham stresses God’s freedom and omnipotence, arguing that God is able and free to actualize any hypothetical possibility provided that what He wants is not self-contradictory. What God wills does not depend on what from a human perspective seems morally appropriate, but depends upon whether these choices serve his hidden purposes. Though Ockham’s teaching stressed the necessity of contingency on logical grounds without the intention of equating contingency and unreliability, from a logical point of view this was negated by his ‘commitment to a divine power that determined everything absolutely but did so in an utterly arbitrary and therefore unpredictable way’ – hence, as Michael Gillespie concludes, nominalism ‘revealed a capricious God, fearsome in his power, unknowable, unpredictable, unconstrained by nature and reason, and indifferent to good and evil’ (Gillespie 2008, p. 29).


[4] The distinction between potentia absoluta and potentia ordinata was made by Ockham to ensure that ‘God could be said to act reliably without simultaneously implying that he acted of necessity’: God was absolutely free (potentia absoluta) but also imposes upon himself the obligation to respect the established order (potentia ordinata) (McGrath 1987, p. 78).


[5] Mark Taylor holds a similar view, arguing that modernity is a theological invention with Luther being the central figure, because of his ‘radical notion of the self and human subjectivity’, that is to say, both man’s heart-felt inner corruption and his existential trust in justification through a privatized faith-relation with God/Christ. Luther’s believer as simul iustus et peccator is a first articulation of modern man as divided subject (Taylor 2007, ch. 2).


[6] In The Bondage of the Will Luther writes that the function and effect of the law is to disclose ‘sickness, sin, evil, death, hell, the wrath of God, though it affords no help and brings no deliverance from these’ to the ignorant. In another text he remarks on this revelation of sin through the Law: ‘So the law reveals a twofold evil, [one] inward and [the other] outward. The first, which we inflict on ourselves, is sin and the corruption of nature; the second, which God inflicts, is wrath, death, and being accursed’ (Luther 1525, III: 262; compare Luther 1521, III: 224).


[7] Michel de Certeau writes of Lacan’s discourse and its theoretical loci as ‘Christian’ from start (the dedication to his ‘brother in religion’ Marc-François Lacan introducing his 1932 thesis) to finish (the discussions of mysticism in his latest seminars) (De Certeau 1986, p. 59).


Herman Westerink (1968) is assistant professor for Psychology of Religion at the University of Vienna, Austria. His most recent book publications include A Dark Trace: Sigmund Freud on the Sense of Guilt (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2009) and The Heart of Man’s Destiny: Lacanian Psychoanalysis and Early Reformation Thought (London: Routledge, 2012).

Publication Date:

January 18, 2014

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