Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Half of History Paper

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. 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, however, so are the products of the methods to combat this unhappiness. Art, a notable part of history, is a major product of substitutive satisfactions. Religion, also a significant part of history, can be viewed as an easy escape from pain due to the paths to happiness they typically offer. Freud, needless to say, believes religion is effective at preventing certain people’s neurosis, but hardly anything more.
[1] From Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents (pg 14)
[2] From Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents (pg 24-5)


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