Civilization and Its Discontent : Theme

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The Purpose of Life Is Frustrated by Civilization

People are moved to find happiness and pleasure in life. The Pleasure Principle rules the human psyche that is always seeking satisfaction from its surroundings. The infant cries when it cannot have immediate gratification. And yet, as one grows older, it seems that happiness is not the aim of creation or the world for us. The Reality Principle has to be accepted by the mature personality and its ego as the mediator between what the individual desires and what it can achieve in society. The child's id (instinct) or pleasure-seeking libido does not disappear but is controlled by the rational ego (personality). The child becomes socialized. The child is further socialized by internalizing social morality through the superego (conscience).

Freud shows that conscience is not based on absolute right and wrong as religion would have us believe, but on the restraining principles devised by society as necessary for group living. People are thus living under various degrees of control. Science has liberated people to some degree from the tyranny of nature but has not brought happiness or freedom. Neuroses arise when the individual cannot satisfy the urges of the id. Civilization, therefore, set up to protect us or to allow advanced creativity to flower, makes us unhappy. Individuals adjust by sublimating their instincts to fulfill them in an acceptable way. The sex instinct, for instance, might be satisfied through imagination or art. Aggression might be satisfied through sports. People take drugs or seek religion or art to cope.

To be in a community, the individual gives up a certain amount of freedom. The individual does this because he or she wants love and acceptance, but there is the cost of the original psychic energy, which has to be redirected toward social goals instead of one's own. Freud mentions that civilization lives off the diverted sexual drive. This energy fuels business, education, and government. Civilization is thus the renunciation of instinct. Yet Freud claims that the original energy or purpose of humans is never tamed by civilization. The drives toward sex and aggression are kept at bay or diverted, at least for a time. The development of civilization has followed the psychological development of the human race, which found living by the pleasure principle of the id too dangerous, but has now accepted something equally as dangerous, the harsh superego (the “should” principle) of civilization.

Freud begins the book by answering his friend who claims that people can escape frustration through a feeling of oneness and unity with the world and others. This is a subjective mystical or religious feeling of eternity that is unbounded, or oceanic. Freud denies he has ever experienced this oceanic feeling and claims that if there are those who have it, it is a momentary regression to an infantile state of undifferentiated oneness with the mother, as in the womb. Freud, as an atheist, denies religion has any validity. It is a consoling construct invented by society to take off the pressure of civilization. He does admit that falling in love with someone temporarily gives the oceanic feeling of complete union, but it does not last.


Unbridled Sex and Aggression Threaten Civilization

The two parents of civilization are Eros (love) and Ananke (necessity). There is an attraction to others; love is a force that makes people want to be together. They want to love, to have company, consolation, protection, friendship. The family is an urge even from primitive times, in order to have and raise the young. Family love and family attachment, however, can be hostile to civilization. The family does not want to give up the individual or small group to serve a larger abstract entity called society. Rites of initiation are required to help an individual leave the family and join a larger group. Women are hostile to the aims of civilization in their drive for personal love and having children. Society takes their children and redirects the sex drive of the men. The sex drive has to be controlled by civilization so that it does not destroy its organization and goals. Women, for instance, want to hold on to their men and not give them up to war. Small-scale aggression of the members of society, as in criminal acts, has to be controlled, but the state also has the right to order war supposedly to protect the interests of the whole nation.

Religion is an institution that has tried to reinforce the goals of civilization through strict rules about love, sex, and aggression. Freud, however, objects to the ethic enforced by Christianity, “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Universal love does not work, he insists. Love cannot be indiscriminate. Many are not worthy of love. It makes people lazy and gives them permission to be bad to accept them no matter what. This ideal of love is an “aim-inhibited affection” or a way to bind people together with a sort of restricted and controlled idea of love without sex (Chpt. IV, p. 49). The main drive of the psychic sexual energy must be withdrawn from individuals and families in service of civilization.

Freud refutes the high ethics of religion and civilization by pointing out that humans are not basically nice and gentle creatures. “Love thy neighbor” is exactly contrary to human nature. Their instincts for sex and violence are not controlled, and giving lip service to unrealistic ethics makes it worse. Freud writes between two world wars and observes “the primary mutual hostility of human beings” (Chpt. 5, p. 59). Civilization is constantly threatened with disintegration. It is necessary to give up the illusions taught by religion and civilization that humans can be controlled or contained. He does not believe in the communist solution of abolishing property. It is not property that corrupts. The human instincts go beyond property. He gives historical incidents to prove that violence is satisfying to various groups. He indirectly indicts the Germans for “psychological poverty;” that is, for their over-identification with the group and lack of good leaders. This of course is what happened to bring Hitler to power and why the populace excused him during the 1930s and into World War II for the persecution of the Jews.Freud also hints that this same psychological weakness could be studied in America but refuses to go into it.


Civilization Is a War Between Eros and Thanatos

Freud has shown that civilization is a war between two urges; the urge to love and be with others, and the death urge to destroy other people or one's own instincts. This ambivalence is also the secret of organic life, he says. There is the instinct to preserve life and join it into larger units, and there is a death instinct to undo life back to its inorganic state. Civilization produces anxiety through the interplay of these instincts that are opposed. Civilization uses guilt to restrain instincts. Guilt is produced when the superego (the “should” principle) punishes the individual whether or not he or she has done anything wrong. Even the subconscious urge to sex or violence is punished through the internalizing of certain prohibitions by the superego. The fear of authority has moved from an external position to the internal position where the individual may not even be aware of it. One's dreams or fantasies may be punished by one's own psyche in a cycle that brings guilt and anxiety, without any conscious awareness or overt action.

Freud thus says that guilt is civilization's most pressing problem. There is a legitimate remorse for wrong deeds committed, but the unconscious need for punishment suffered by individuals does not come from wrong-doing. Guilt becomes a form of self-aggression or self-destruction fostered by civilization itself. Civilization thus no longer protects or nourishes people but punishes them, producing neuroses. Civilization itself is now neurotic, he claims. No one can live up to the collective superego of society. Ethics have become impossible and no longer serve society as a mechanism of restraint. Science has now given humans the ability to exterminate one another. Freud ends with a pessimistic note about the future of civilization. His charges have been taken seriously by various thinkers since World War II, and possible solutions given where Freud saw none.

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