Thursday, April 27, 2006

Commentary and Analysis of "Civilization and Its Discontents"

Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents explores the psychological and social aspects of humanity that are ubiquitous throughout the creation and development of civilization. Freud begins by breaking down our understanding of life into specific forces driving our perception of the world and our actions in it. He then identifies the purpose of life as the achievement of happiness and thus, the avoidance of suffering. In doing so, Freud sets up a lengthy discussion on human instincts and the oppression of these instincts under the restraints of civilization and the internalized guilt of man. These complex interactions between aspects of humanity ultimately lead to the frustration of obtaining happiness. All these factors help shape the interactions among and within civilizations throughout history.
In the initial chapters of the book, Freud introduces what he believes to be the basis of psychological development: the human understanding of the “ego” and its distinction from the outside world. The ego is anything other than the outside world, essentially one’s inner autonomy and feeling. The boundaries between an individual’s ego and the outside world define their interactions between nature and their relationships with those around them. This idea can easily be broadened to reflect the identity of civilizations and their interactions with surrounding peoples throughout history, which Freud later discusses. For now, however, Freud stresses that the ultimate goal of these boundaries is “to create a pure pleasure-ego” [1] that forces “unpleasure” to the outside world. Therefore, human beings seek happiness; however, this goal is inevitably frustrated by the structure of life.
There are three general sources of unhappiness according to Freud. The first is from our own bodies, which are destined to decay. The second is from the external world, in terms of its potential for destruction. Finally, and many times the source of greatest suffering, are our relationships with other humans. The last two sources derive from the outside world, and therefore are the very events that shape history, such as war, famine, disease, and natural disasters. This unavoidable suffering associated with human life is dealt with according to three measures: “powerful deflections, which cause us to make light of our misery; substitutive satisfactions, which diminish it; and intoxicating substances, which make us insensitive to it.” [2] The causes of unhappiness are omnipresent throughout history, but so are the products of the methods to combat this unhappiness. Art, a notable part of history, is a major product of substitutive satisfactions. In an attempt to forget or lessen suffering, humans create beauty by escaping into a fantastical world of art through drawings, paintings, sculptures, etc. Religion, also an important part of history, can often be an easy answer to the problem of pain, due to the convenient paths to happiness they typically propose. Freud, needless to say, believes religion is effective at preventing certain people’s neurosis, but hardly anything more.
Freud refers to religion again when describing civilization’s apparent responsibility for human suffering. Freud maintains throughout the book that primitive cultures must have had at least an easier time attaining happiness, because their existence was before man decided to place the community ahead of the individual by suppressing primal instincts. As examples of this oppression formed by modern civilizations, Freud highlights the victory of Christendom over heathen religions, as well as the destruction of primitive peoples by European settlers. Although he admits happiness is subjective, Freud points out that humans feel inherently uncomfortable within present day civilization, despite recent advanced technologies that achieve almost god-like feats. Our industrial and technological advances do little to reinstate our suppressed instincts. Freud clarifies his findings later on in stating: “Primitive man was better off in knowing no restrictions of instinct. To counterbalance this, his prospects of enjoying this happiness for any length of time were very slender. Civilized man has exchanged a portion of his possibilities of happiness for a portion of security.”[3] In modern civilization, taboos, laws, and customs continuously suppress man. In primitive civilization, however, the obligations to survival made enjoyment of indulging in human instincts fleeting. Considering this information, one must wonder whether humanity has improved despite its many achievements.
In the final chapters of the book, Freud discusses how man came to suppress primal instincts, mostly sexual and aggressive in nature, in order to shift importance from the happiness of the individual to the good of the community. Mostly this originates from a sense of guilt, which develops from fear of an authority and, more importantly, fear of the super-ego. The super-ego acts as a conscience, among other things, to the ego by instilling a sense of anxiety or sinfulness when a “bad” act is merely thought about. Restraints on society in the form of governments, religions, and customs all have imposed this sense of guilt among their communities throughout history. The guilt of not supporting ones country amidst the wave of nationalism during WWI led many men to sign up as soldiers for an experience that would in no way produce happiness. The guilt of sinfulness and obligation to an abstract being fostered by religion led to countless crusades and massacres of innocent peoples throughout history. These manipulations of civilization are directly related to the actions of our super-ego and our fear of an authority.
Civilization and Its Discontents analyzes the structure of history through Freud’s understanding of human psychology and the developments of civilization. Man’s struggle to obtain happiness has pitted him against the values and institutions of the present civilization surrounding him. History has provided an overwhelming amount of evidence in support of the aggressive nature of man, which runs contrary to the passive nature required by present day societies. Guilt is a major factor in man’s ability to suppress primal urges for the good of the community. Freud’s work and the history of mankind remind us that civilization is largely at odds with man’s true nature and that humanity is still very far from obtaining true happiness.

[1] From Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents (pg 14)
[2] From Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents (pg 24-5)

[3] From Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents (pg 73)


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