First published in 1930, Civilization and Its Discontents is one of the most influential works of pioneering psychologist Sigmund Freud. Focusing on the tension between the primitive drives of the individual and the demands of civilization for order and conformity, Freud draws upon his psychoanalytic theories to explain the fundamental structures, conflicts, and consequences of society. Written in the aftermath of World War I, Civilization and Its Discontents advances the idea that humans' instinctive desires-violent urges and sexual drives-create the need for law and structure, which, when implemented, create constant feelings of discontent. A seminal work in psychology, Civilization and Its Discontents has sparked debate since its publication and continues to be widely read today. This edition is the translation by James Strachey.
But this brief text remains a classic. Understanding the interactions between the individual and society is a task no less important now versus then. (Just observe a soccer mom in an SUV to see the redirected frustration when one is asked to conform in impossible ways. Also witness the reactions of marginalized sub-populations.) Just as you don't have to agree with the sexual nature of the Oedipus complex to accept the reality, as most psychologists do, of defense mechanisms, you don't have to agree with everything in this book to accept the validity of other parts. Freud is...well, Freud...and you can expect to find a bit of his off-balanced-ness in the text, but also insight. At the least, anyone who aims to read very far in social psychology will need to understand the ideas put forth here.
The basic intellectual procedure seems to be thus:
Take commonplace and stereotyped social observations and jam them into dubious theoretical constructs. Then build these constructs into an edifice that purports to explain all of human behavior. Never look back for alternate explanations, or even to see if the resulting theory stands up to reality.
Furthermore, Freud's main argument sells humanity extremely short. He seems to believe that human behavior can be explained as the attempt to seek pleasure in the fulfillment of instinctual drives like sex and aggression, or as the "sublimation" (whatever that means) of these drives into other activities. What a dim and constricted worldview.
I have a difficult time understanding how Freud could ever have been taken so seriously.
In the third of its eight sections, Freud's essay pivots to concentrate on the business indicated by its title. He begins to explore the tensions between individual gratification on one hand and social growth and welfare on the other. In particular, he focuses at first on the occasional hostility toward cultural development as such, and the idealization of a pre-lapsarian state. As the discussion continues on to the etiology of culture generally, it becomes distinctly androcentric ("Women represent the interests of the family and sexual life; the work of civilization has become more and more men's business," 33) and culminates with a presentation of 1930s family life and sexual discipline that seems positively Victorian in the most pejorative sense of the term.
Returning to religion, Freud identifies the social instrumentality of the religious "love of neighbor," as well as the insupportable demands that it makes of individuals. This context is the one in which he develops an outline of the conflict between Eros and Thanatos, the life-instinct and the death-instinct. The instinctual bind is what he then hypothesizes as the motive force in the development of the super-ego (i.e. conscience) in the individual.
In the closing passages, the idea of the super-ego of a community or of "an epoch of civilization" is introduced, and Freud proposes that such super-egos take their particular forms in reaction to perceived human figures, such as Jesus bestowing the "love of neighbor" fixation on the collective super-ego of Christian culture. The possibility to personify such a collective psychic function makes it provocatively similar to the "Aeon" as used in Thelemic parlance, especially when Freud posits the derangement and replacement of such a super-ego. And in this final section, while disclaiming "any opinion regarding the value of human civilization" (70), he does seem to come full circle to the critique of culture, suggesting that the survival of humanity itself may be dependent on the arrival at a new covenant between Eros and Thanatos at the collective level.
At the outset of the book, Freud states that religion is infantile, that there is no inherent meaning to life, and that what drives us is the fulfillment of the pleasure principle. Pretty strong stuff for 1930. Our pleasure is threatened by our own mortality and the breakdown of our body as we age, but more importantly it is threatened by civilization, which naturally must erect laws to prevent individuals from wreaking havoc by following their baser instincts of pleasure, e.g. violence and sex. This societal force also applies to man’s more noble instinct to love, which it restricts by creating various laws and taboos.
This rub between the individual and society is the basis for the book; Freud essentially says that the civilization we built to protect us and to preserve our happiness from what would otherwise be a wilderness turns out to be the prime source of our misery.
I don’t believe all of what follows, e.g. the ego-instinct of thatanos and that type of thing, but found a good portion of it to be thought provoking. It also brought a smile to read his descriptions of the ways in which unhappiness can be avoided in chapter two. I would briefly summarize these as isolation from people, intoxication, mastering or controlling one’s instincts, seeking pleasure internally, utilizing imagination, looking for all one’s satisfaction in love, and looking for happiness in the enjoyment of beauty.
As an aside, where does translator James Strachey get off being listed as the author of this book? This is like seeing “War and Peace” listed as written by Constance Garnett because she wrote the introduction and translated it. Sheesh. I manually changed it to Freud.
“…by his science and technology, man has brought about on this earth, on which he first appeared as a feeble animal organism and on which each individual of his species must once more make its entry (‘oh inch of nature!) as a helpless suckling – these things do not only sound like a fairy tale, they are an actual fulfillment of every – or of almost every – fairy-tale wish. … Long ago he formed an ideal conception of omnipotence and omniscience which he embodies in his gods. To these gods he attributed everything that seemed unattainable to his wishes, or that was forbidden to him. One may say, therefore, that these gods were cultural ideals. To-day he has come very close to the attainment of this ideal, he has almost become a god himself.”
“The question of the purpose of human life has been raised countless times; it has never yet received a satisfactory answer and perhaps does not admit of one. Some of those who have asked it have added that if it should turn out that life has no purpose, it would lose all value for them. But this threat alters nothing. … Nobody talks about the purpose of the life of animals, unless, perhaps, it may be supposed to lie in being of service to man.”
“The common man cannot imagine this Providence otherwise than in the figure of an enormously exalted father. Only such a being can understand the needs of the children of men and be softened by their prayers and placated by the signs of their remorse. The whole thing is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life.”
Let us first dispose of several misconceptions that have clouded the popular image of this brilliant thinker. To begin with, Freud is no touchy-feely, tree-hugging, crystal-gazing therapist from Vermont. He is a hardened observer of human nature, quite Hobbesian, convinced that aggression and unbounded self-interest are primary factors in the motivation of human behavior. He mocks those who preach unlimited love, as well as those who would coddle criminals. His views on women would shock many an unsuspecting feminist.
Likewise, Freud is clear in his opposition to utopian political schemes, such as communism. He writes that the Marxist view of private property is based on a fallacy:
"The psychological premises on which the [communist] system is based are an untenable illusion. In abolishing private property we deprive the human love of aggression of one of its instruments, certainly a strong one, though certainly not the strongest; but we have in no way altered the differences in power and influence which are misused by aggressiveness, nor have we altered anything in its nature. Aggressiveness was not created by property."
It is quite possible that Freud's psychoanalytic treatment of mentally ill individuals, or even of merely miserable ones, has proven to be highly effective. This is arguable, but it belongs to another discussion. Let us give him the benefit of the doubt, and say that his contribution in this field was worthy of his reputation.
The problem begins where psychoanalysis ends and the development of a comprehensive theory of human society begins. Percolating throughout his writing is a misapplication of concepts from the psychology of the individual to the level of civilization--which, incidentally, is one of Freud's favorite words. For example, take the notion of guilt, which he claims is the "most important problem in the development of civilization." Guilt certainly has a role to play in our lives, and the shedding of unnecessary guilt goes a long way to ameliorating one's peace of mind, but the most important problem?
Freud's highly influential work, "Civilization and Its Discontents," abounds with such sweeping, grandiose statements, the applicability of which seldom extends further than the Viennese café in which he was seated when the epiphany struck him. Here's another one:
"Civilization is a process in the service of Eros, whose purpose is to combine single human individuals, and after that families, then races, peoples and nations, into one great unity, the unity of mankind. Why this has to happen, we do not know; the work of Eros is precisely this. These collections of men are to be libidinally bound to one another."
One might think that the study of aesthetics could somehow rise above the fray of the battling instinct gods, but this also is traced back to the shadowy domain of individual impulses:
"All that seems certain is [beauty's] derivation from the field of sexual feeling. The love of beauty seems a perfect example of an impulse inhibited in its aim. `Beauty' and `attraction' are originally attributes of the sexual object. It is worth remarking that the genitals themselves, the sight of which is always exciting, are nevertheless hardly ever judged to be beautiful..."
One could easily imagine this being said by a character in a film by Fellini, in a scene satirizing the mumbo-jumbo of ivory tower academics.
Freud's remarks on religion, which he holds in the highest contempt, are indicative of an abysmal ignorance. He claims that religion derives from the "infant's helplessness and the longing for the father aroused by it." Other factors are later admitted, but (as in the case of aesthetics) everything is traced back to the individual and his instincts. There is no consideration of the actual content of religion, its insight and its wisdom. Even Nietzsche, certainly no friend of Judeo-Christian teachings, once remarked that the Old Testament was the greatest work of literature ever produced by man.
Freud's macro-level analysis fails because he has seized upon a certain realm, individual psychology, and inflated it to supernatural dimensions. Certainly, it has an impact, but it is only one slice of the societal pie, or more accurately, one ingredient therein. It can never explain all of human existence. Human society is a complex organism, with multiple and criss-crossing influences.
Freud's error is only too typical of the modern mind, estranged as it is from the profound ocean of history. What escapes Freud completely is the fact that culture has an existence that is independent of any given individual or group of individuals. Culture is produced layer upon layer. It is much greater than the sum of its human parts, and does not result from the intent or design of any single person, group, or generation.
Thus an analysis (were it possible) that could aggregate the thoughts and impulses of every human mind that has ever existed would still be insufficient for understanding the essence of culture.
In Freud's world view, man is wrested from his culture; he is fragmented, alienated, and made a slave of his animal self. Freud inherited and expanded the legacy of Darwin, who attempted to prove that man is nothing more than an animal. Freud went one step further, in attempting to demonstrate that all of man's creations--so utterly at variance with the animal world--can nevertheless be traced back to instincts and bodily functions that we have in common with apes and aardvarks. To say that this has provided fuel for deconstructionists of every variety would be to state the obvious.
Freud's most impressive feat may have been to complete the work of Hegel and Darwin in constructing the new secular religion for Western man. Hegel, through his "world-historical spirit" and immutable "laws" of society's development, strips man of his free will, and paves the way for the unbounded totalitarianism that has so marked modern society. Darwin teaches that man is an animal, a shock treatment that has led people to despair of the perennial search for a higher nature--a quest that had run like a thread through the annals of Western civilization. Freud adds the third idol of the trinity, that of the instincts, particularly the sexual.
Put the three together, and there is nothing left of God, reason, art, the intellect, purpose, wisdom, or contemplation.
This is such a great read, and such an eye opener on society.