Civilization and its Discontents

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Freud's Assumptions:

1. Modified Darwinism: Freud thinks that we can reason back from given phenomena to their causes. Darwin sees the diversity of species, and comes up with a natural mechanism to account for it. Freud sees human behaviour, both individual and collective, and thinks he can also come up with a mechanism to account for it. It is "modified", though, because Darwin didn't hold to progressivism, while Freud does. Freud thinks that civilization progresses, and like the development of the person, becomes locked in ways of coping with uncertainty which are not healthy.

2. Archaeology is a good model for understanding the self, and for understanding society.

3. Understanding the nature of civilization requires interpretation. The evidence on the surface tends to mislead, so we have to delve further.

4. Phylogeny mirrors ontogeny - The (discredited) biological principle of "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" is reversed. Ontogeny is the development of the individual, and phylogeny is the development of the species or group. The biological principle held that you could see the development of a species if you looked at the development of an individual. So, early in development, a fetus might look like an ape, and then develop toward looking human. Freud, though, believes there is a relationship between the development of the self and the development of civilization.

The "Oceanic" Feeling and the explanation of religion

"I had sent him my small book that treats religion as an illusion, and he answered that he entirely agreed with my judgement upon religion, but that he was sorry I had not properly appreciated the true source of religious sentiments. This, he says, consists in a peculiar feeling, which he himself is never without, which he finds confirmed by many others, and which he may suppose is present in millions of people. It is a feeling which he would like to call a sensation of "eternity", a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded - as it were, "oceanic". This feeling, he adds, is a purely subjective fact, not an article of faith; it brings with it no assurance of personal immortality, but it is the source of the religious energy which is seized upon by the various Churches and religious systems, directed by them into particular channels, and doubtless also exhausted by them. One may, he thinks, rightly call oneself religious on the ground of this oceanic feeling alone, even if one rejects every belief and every illusion.

Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, ch. 1

Problem: This feeling is hard to explain scientifically, and is hard to even recognize (despite his friend saying that he thinks millions of people have it). Freud thinks that there are reasons why we might feel this, which have nothing to do with another metaphysical realm or spiritual reality.

Coping with Suffering

Freud thinks that the basic driving force in society is the search for pleasure. He calls this the "pleasure principle". Unfortunately, in society we have to cope with suffering, and sometimes we convince ourselves that avoiding suffering is as good as happiness. We avoid suffering in several ways:

  1. Intoxication
  2. "influencing our instinctual impulses" - e.g., engaging in spiritual meditation
  3. "displacement of the libido" - instead of satisfying our libidinal desires, we channel them into creative endeavors.
  4. Withdrawing from the world (hermit)
  5. Love - at least, the kind that becomes a goal in itself.
  6. Enjoyment of beauty (art)

The Real Problem: Civilization

Many (like Rousseau, although Freud doesn't mention him) think that civilization itself is the cause of our unhappiness. If we only got back to a natural way of being, things would be a lot better.

Freud thinks that our human activities have given us an almost god-like set of capabilities. We can control many things. Civilization is, in essence, our protection against the unknown, against nature itself. Along with that protection, though, society makes certain expectations of us. It expects order, cleanliness, beauty. These can only be accomplished by restricting individual activity.

Freud shows the relationship between ontogeny and phylogeny here. Civilization's development is like that of the individual. At an early age, the individual has an "anal fixation"; society's demand of cleanliness and order is a collective anal fixation. The individual has to renounce instinct in order to live in society; society itself must renounce instinct. Civilization suppresses or represses desires in the service of order.

Love, Aggression and Civilization

Despite the fact that civilization is supposed to bind us together in love, eventually love and civilization come in conflict with each other. Civilization determines and directs the kinds of love that are permissable, in obvious ways (influence over who young people marry) and not so obvious ways (sapping sexual energy by redirecting it into creative endeavours).

Not only do we have direct control over sexuality in society, we have "pre-emptive" control. We carefully raise children so as to know the taboos and recognize transgressions from an early age. We channel sexual attraction into the "legitimate" social forms of monogamous marriage.

Ultimately, love and civilization are in conflict. Civilization wants to control, suppress, and harness love in the interests of collective order. Love wants to resist control in the interests of happiness/pleasure.

We can take all this a step further. Freud doesn't think that civilization is really based on love at all. It is based on aggression. "Love thy neighbour as thyself" doesn't work for Freud. Civilization does not exist primarily to promote happiness, therefore, but to resist and channel our aggressive impulse. This impulse can't just be wished away (as Freud thinks communism tries to do).

The result: we've exchanged happiness for security. In fact, we can put this at a higher level - human existence amounts to the struggle between Eros (love; libido is the manifestation of Eros) and the death drive (aggression, Thanatos).

Guilt vs. Shame

Freud thinks that society operates on the basis of guilt. This is in distinction with an external force, such as shame (for an interesting version of this, see this lecture). Guilt is internalized, while shame is a social force. So where does guilt come from? The super-ego. The force has an external element, but it has become internalized as bad conscience. Civilization exerts its control not by external force, but by the fears and neuroses of its members. For example, Freud argues that the Jews, after having suffered misfortune, set up a whole series of very strict rules to try to avoid such misfortune again. Civilization becomes repressive as a response to bad situations, and it becomes internalized and adopted as rules of conduct.

The problem here is that there is an enormous amount of guilt around, which is equivalent to anxiety.

The fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction.

It may be that in this respect precisely the present time deserves a special interest. Men have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent that with their help they would have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man. They know this, and hence comes a large part of their current unrest, their unhappiness and their mood of anxiety.

And now it is to be expected that the other of the two "Heavenly Powers", eternal Eros, will make an effort to assert himself in the struggle with his equally immortal adversary.

But who can foresee with what success and with what results?

Civilization and its Discontents, last paragraph

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