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A Brief History of Assagioli, Freud and Psychoanalysis

As many of you probably know, Roberto Assagioli (1888-1974) was the first psychoanalyst in Italy. However, soon after presenting his doctoral thesis on psychoanalysis, he found Freudian thought to be limiting and went onto becoming the visionary founder of psychosynthesis. In this brief blog, I attempt to summarize Assagioli’s relationship to Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and psychoanalysis.

Undoubtedly, Assagioli had great respect for Freud as a pioneer of modern psychology, but he also believed that psychoanalysis actually forced you to live in only two dimensions as opposed to psychosynthesis, which opens up a third, higher dimension of the psyche (1). One can actually see this profound difference in the two doctor’s consultation rooms – Freud liked to surround his patients with statues of primitive images, while Assagioli prominently displayed a photograph of the Mother of Horus (the original is at the Louvre in Paris). When Isabelle Bagdasarianz Küng, a student of Assagioli’s, asked why he had placed this photo where all his clients couldn’t help but see it, he told her it was there to “see what patients might associate with it, and thus better understand their spiritual inclinations.”(2)

Obviously, Assagioli’s understanding of psychoanalysis developed over his lifetime. In his first published article, “The Effects of Laughter and their Pedagogical Applications”, written when Assagioli was only 16 years old, he refers to Freud as “one of the most educated and ingenious modern scientists” and references Freud’s book Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious.(3)

Two years later, Assagioli began his studies at the Burghölzli psychiatric hospital at the University of Zürich, where he met Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), then considered Freud’s heir apparent. While no letters between Assagioli and Freud remain, we know that they did correspond based on a letter Freud wrote to Jung noting that the young scholar’s German was “impeccable”.(4)

Jung also wrote the following to Freud; “a certain Dr. Roberto Assagioli … is a very receptive young man who seems to have vast medical knowledge and is also an enthusiastic follower, who ventures into new territory with the impetus that is needed.”(5)

In 1908, Assagioli continued his studies at the Nervenklinik Sanatorium in Münich where he met Ernest Jones (1979-1958), a London-based neurologist who had discovered Freud's writings and begun applying psychoanalytic methods in his clinical work. In the letters exchanged between Jones and Freud, Assagioli is mentioned a number of times. On 5 August 1909, Jones wrote to Freud from the Congrès International de Psychologie in Geneve:

There are a number of “Freudianers” here besides myself. Hart of London, Maeder of Zurich, Schwarzwald of Lausanne, Assagliani Assagioli of Florence (who is writing a thesis on psycho-analysis for his doctorate), and Szesci of Genf (formerly Budapest). The last two have never met any Freudians and have learnt only from reading and applications.(6)

And later, after Jones inquired if Freud had heard from Assagioli, Freud wrote that, “In Zurich, things are quite lively too… Assagioli introduced himself to me by letter.”(7)

Perhaps Assagioli’s greatest commitment to psychoanalysis occurred during the years 1909 and 1911. In 1909, he was admitted into the Freudian Society of Zurich. In March 1910, Assagioli attended an international association of psychoanalysts convention held in Nuremberg where Freud presented a paper on “The Future Possibilities of Psychotherapy”. Later that same year Assagioli presented his thesis on psychoanalysis, with Prof. Eugenio Tanzi giving it a score of 105 points out of 110.(8)

But as Assagioli started to practice psychoanalysis, he soon discovered its limitations, especially regarding its emphasis on sexuality. In 1911, he published his landmark article on the transformation and sublimation of sexual energies in the monthly Zentralblatt für Psychoanalyse in which he criticized Freud’s “tendency to attach extraordinary importance to the inferior and instinctive sides of sexuality.”(9) Instead, with the use of one’s will, Assagioli asserted that we all have the possibility of consciously transforming our sexual (as well as our combative) instincts through the sublimation of these energies. Later Assagioli would point out that Freud himself had ironically said that everything was sublimated. but then sublimation was “forgotten.”(10)

By 1912, Assagioli had moved away from orthodox Freudian teachings. There are some writers today who assert that Assagioli’s break with Freud was partly responsible for Freudian psychoanalysis not having a long-lasting and deep engagement within Italian culture.(11) Nevertheless, after Austria-Hungry declared war on July 1914, Assagioli was helping Jones to correspond with Freud, often mailing letters he picked up from Jones in London and, upon arriving in Florence, sending them onto Freud in Vienna.(12)

Decades later, when in conversation with his collaborator Bruno Caldironi, Assagioli candidly explained that Freud’s fundamental error and that of psychoanalysis in general was that it did not distinguish between the sexual instinct and a person’s desire for self-affirmation. Assagioli said:

Psychoanalysis has lived on a form of sexual infatuation as a reaction to the restricted and excessive moralism that one breathed as part of the ambiance of the time. This, in turn, gave too much importance to sexuality and, in the opposite sense, lived sexuality as if it were a sin. Therefore, with both moralism and Freudian thought there is an inflation of sexuality, which needs to be reduced.

Many things are valid in psychoanalysis: the complexes, certain mechanisms, the projections are true, discoveries that should be appreciated. I don’t find myself agreeing with the theories, doctrines, contrivances, and exaggerations.

I [also] don’t believe that all dreams have a significance. There are a number that are purely rubbish, waking experiences regurgitated from the unconscious or other things that … have a banal significance… There is no one method of interpretation, because dreams are very diverse and you need to look at them case by case. (13)

Views on sexuality, dream interpretation, fractionated psychoanalysis, the Oedipus complex… Assagioli and psychosynthesis continues to challenge many of the core concepts of psychoanalysis. Perhaps the best summary of the differences between the two is by Assagioli himself. The following is a note from his archives, in which, in his own clear, simple way, he distinguishes the two:

DIFFERENCES BETWEEN PA AND PS

PS differs from PA in that:
1. It doesn’t limit itself to the elimination of complexes, resistances and other obstacles, but brings about the training of insufficiently developed functions and of latent energies and possibilities, through the use of active PS techniques.
2. The recognition and awakening of Superconscious facilities.(14)

About the Author

Catherine Ann Lombard, M.A. is a psychosynthesis psychologist, counselor, and researcher. She has published numerous articles on psychosynthesis, including a detailed comparison of Jungian psychology and psychosynthesis. You can download this article (along with others) and follow her bi-monthly blog at loveandwill.com

Photo Caption

Books in Assagioli’s Studio, Florence (Photo by Catherine Ann Lombard)

1. Caldironi, B. (2004). L’uomo a tre dimensioni: Colloqui con Roberto Assagioli [The man of three dimensions: Conversations with Roberto Assagioli]. L. Oretti (Ed.). Ravenna, Italy: Edizioni del Girasole, p. 55. (Note that all translations from Italian to English are mine.)

2. Lombard, C.A. (2017). “Resting on Angels Wings,” Retrieved from https://loveandwill.com/2017/10/19/resting-on-angel-wings/

3. Guggisberg Nocelli, P. (2017). The Way of Psychosynthesis. Lugano, p. 18.

4. McGuire, W. (Ed.). (1974). The Freud/Jung letters, The correspondence between Sigmund Freud and C. G. Jung. Bollingen Series, 94. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

5. Guggisberg Nocelli, p. 19.

6. Letter from Ernest Jones to Sigmund Freud, 5 August 1909, Geneve, in The Complete Correspondence of Sigmund Freud and Ernest Jones, 1908-1939. By Sigmund Freud and Ernest Jones, R. Andrew Paskauskas (Editor), Riccardo Steiner (Introduction), 1995, Belnap Press: Cambridge, Massachusettsp. 28.

7. Ibid., Letter from Freud to Jones, 27 January 1910, Vienna, p. 41.

8. Guggisberg Nocelli. pp. 19-21.

9. Ibid., p. 22.

10. Caldironi, p. 33.

11. For example, see Pasqualini, M. (2002), “The Remote Origins of Psychoanalysis in Italy: Modernism and the Psyche in Florence, 1903-1915.” Culturas Psi, Vol. 0.

12.Letter from Jones to Freud, 10 October 1914, written in London and sent by Assagioli to Freud from via degli Alfani 46, Florence, p. 300.

13. Caldironi, pp. 17, 29-30.

14. Assagioli, R. (n.d.). Archivio Assagioli: Florence, Italy, Archivio Studio, 2023. [Manuscript note]. Retrieved from www.achivioassagioli.org