Civilization and Its Discontent : Chapter 2

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Summary of Chapter II

Freud continues his evaluation of religion as an infantile desire for a powerful father who cares. This is “foreign to reality” (p. 21) and causes him pain to think the majority of people will never rise above this religious illusion. Freud does not believe that more advanced thinkers like scientists and artists have the right to deprive the common man of his religion. Religion tells us what the purpose of life is, but one can discover it by observing human behavior. The purpose of life is to satisfy the pleasure principle. This principle works in both macrocosm and microcosm (universe and human life). There are three sources of unhappiness, however. The body decays; the external world does not answer to desire; and our relations with other humans is the third and most powerful source of suffering. Drugs and alcohol have been used to obtain pleasure and block out suffering, but they waste great quantities of energy.

Humans have turned to internal ways to deal with suffering by mastering the instincts. Yoga and systems of the east appear to kill off the instincts. It is the same when we merely try to control instinct. Civilized humans tame or sublimate instinct, finding appropriate substitutions, such as fantasy or creative work. They try to make themselves independent of the external world through mental processes. The imagination, for instance, creates illusions. In this way, wishes are fulfilled without recourse to the reality principle of the external world. Nothing will ever be as intense, however, as the wild urge or instinct being directly satisfied. Even the greatest art is only a temporary satisfaction.


Commentary on Chapter II

Happiness is thus a problem of the economics of the libido, or pleasure principle of the individual. How can one get satisfaction for desire without yielding directly to instinct? Directly indulging every instinctive desire for sex or violence is not allowed in society, so substitutes must be found. Freud shows that humans try to escape suffering by turning within to construct their own version of wish fulfillment as best they can. For a responsible adult, however, there is no escaping the reality principle of the world, which does not accommodate itself to our wishes. He shows humans as trying to adapt to all of these conditions, to gain pleasure and avoid suffering.

Freud values the western way over what he sees as the eastern solution to withdraw from senses and therefore life (Yoga). Yoga is better understood in the west today than in Freud's time, for many westerners practice techniques of yoga without withdrawing from life. The other defense Freud mentions are drugs. They work temporarily but use up the psychic energy and have other unwanted consequences. Though Freud's analysis often seems negative and not aware of alternative solutions modern readers are aware of, his discussion of human suffering and the attempt to solve the problem is very moving and illuminating. Many disagree with Freud's conclusions and assumptions, but his analysis is still taken as a point of departure for any discussion of human civilization and human behavior.

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