Freud compared the mind to the city of Rome

Like most cities, Rome has a rich history. From a series of bronze age hill settlements it developed over time into the bustling metropolis of today.

In other words, Rome has many layers of history.

In Civilisation and its Discontents, Freud suggests a thought experiment.

He invites us to imagine Rome as a human mind:

“Let us suppose that Rome is not a place where people live, but a psychical entity with a similarly long and rich past.”

His next step is to invite us to imagine all its layers of history coexisting, with every layer completely intact. Several buildings from different chapters of its history would share any one spot.

For example, the site of a church would simultaneously be the site of an ancient temple. And, Freud adds:

“The observer would perhaps need only to shift his gaze or his position in order to see the one or the other.”

What is Freud trying to show?

For Freud, the thought experiment is about trying to visualise a peculiar kind of mind:

  • Nothing that forms in the mind (such as an idea or a memory) is ever destroyed
  • The past and the present coexist in the same psychical ‘space’
  • The layers of our personal history are not neatly differentiated: memories from different periods of life interact with each other.