Monday, December 6, 2010

Freud - Civilization and Its Discontents

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. New York: W.W. Norton, 1962.

Freud attempts to apply his psychoanalytic theories to civilization. What are the psychological motivations behind the organization and direction of human civilization? Freud defines civilization as "the whole sum of the achievements and the regulations which distinguish our lives from those of our animal ancestors and which serve two purposes - namely to protect men against nature and to adjust their mutual relations." (36)

Answers and Arguments
Civilization has grown up around the tension between the human desire for happiness and the human tendency for aggression and destruction. Religion, which Freud touches on often, is a cultural construct and self-deception that provides a promise of happiness in the afterlife via a deity if a person represses their aggressive behavior. Love (Eros) is also a key factor, as it represents the greatest form of happiness (sometimes but not necessarily sexual). "Love your neighbor as yourself," is a phrase Freud sees as co-opted but probably not created by religion. He muses that the phrase is meaningless on examination, as loving one's neighbor arbitrarily would undermine the meaning of love, affecting relationships with closer friends more deserving of love and diminishing the happiness one receives from love. Again, the phrase remains upheld as one of the greatest values in human civilization only because it encourages resistance among humans to their aggressive tendencies. The conscience (super ego) "arises through the suppression of an agressive impules, subsequently reinforced by fresh suppressions of the same kind." (77) Thus the conscience is also a force leading towards civilization.

As the individual experiences an inner struggle between self-preservation and the demands of the libido, neuroses emerge. Freud wonders but does not conclude whether civilization may suffer from a sort of mass neurosis, since it has evolved out of a struggle (desire for life and desire to destroy).

Other Thoughts
I had never really thought of the Oedipal complex as something that Freud actually thought once happened in human history (though here he only discusses it is possible that it happened). But Freud actually suggests, somewhat in passing, that ancient man (or an ancestor of man) may have well killed his father regularly. So, Freud's theories about the Oedipal complex have an evolutionary and instinctive origin. Realizing this helped me to understand how indebted Freud is to Darwin. I had never thought about where Freud claimed all of these elements of the human subconscious came from, but I now understand that he supposes they emerged through the evolution of the species.

The Morgan Memorial "Deja Vu - You've Seen this Before"
Lears - No Place of Grace Freud briefly mentions neurasthenia in the first chapter, a psychological anxiety about the changes of modern society that Lears's antimodernists struggled with. Freud's use of the term suggested to me the relation between his own work and the wider struggles with modernity going on within the world he was working.

For as much as I've read other people who use Freud or other people who write about Freud, I really haven't read that much of Freud himself. I was a little intimidated opening the book, but I found his writing pretty accessible. Partly, I think I'm smarter than I give myself credit for. Partly, I know more about Freud than I think. And partly, his writing just wasn't quite as dense as I expected.

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