Sigmund Freud’s Civilization And Its Discontents

Civilization And Its DiscontentsCivilization And Its Discontents, although among the last of Freud’s output, remains amongst his most influential and widely read works, probably because it does not stand or fall on Freudian psychoanalytic theory but can profitably be read as a philosophical treatise. His subject matter is the human relationship to civilization: for Freud, crucially unlike so many modern “theorists,” man’s relationship to civilization is complicated, fraught with constant tension between society’s impositions and our innate desires.

It is refreshing to read someone for whom natural instincts, proclivities, drives and desires need not be explained away by social phenomena, even if assumptions do not make for compelling science, and man’s relationship to society – the limits he consents to place on his freedoms for the good of communal harmony – is a topic of perennial interest. And if science, particularly neuroscience, has in fact dismissed or rendered obsolete most of Freud’s analytic methods, his insistence on man having an innate nature has at least been vindicated.

For Freud, the tension between societal expectations and human desires creates neuroses, particularly through the mechanism of guilt, by creating impossible standards for comportment that are internalized in childhood and repeatedly dashed in adulthood.

A considerable amount of aggressiveness must be developed in the child against the authority which prevents him from having his first, but none the less his most important, satisfactions, whatever the kind of instinctual deprivation that is demanded of him may be; but he is obliged to renounce the satisfaction of this revengeful aggressiveness. He finds his way out of this economically difficult situation with the help of familiar mechanisms. By means of identification he takes the unattackable authority into himself. The authority now turns into his super-ego and enters into possession of all the aggressiveness which a child would have liked to exercise against it. The child’s ego has to content itself with the unhappy role of the authority – the father – who has thus been degraded.

Caricatures of the above are commonplace in pop culture (consider Hitchock’s Norman Bates, who is so incapable of dealing with the death of his mother that part of his mind adopts her personality) but this conceptualization is wholly Freudian, appearing commonplace because we have difficulty, in our belatedness, discovering the full extent to which Freud altered the way we view the human mind. In judging his own accomplishments, however, he was decidedly more humble, claiming that he had merely found clinical terms for discussing what the great poets and writers had been discussing for millenia.

Freud seems most prescient in his discussions about the need to recognize the limitations that can be imposed on human instinct. Even today there persists a strain of virulent optimism that, believing a human being to be infinitely malleable, seeks ever greater control over the education and direction of the mind. If you believe you can create a world without hatred, prejudice, jealousy and violence, no price will seem too high, no constraint unreasonable. This kind of unchecked idealism was rampant  – remains rampant – among communists and socialists, and lingers on in today’s postmodern feminists, all of whom gleefully excise our most human aspects (primarily lust in the case of feminism, desire for personal advancement in the case of communism, and irony and humor in both) in a mad quest for unattainable ideals. Freud anticipates this lot with devastating criticism: they have nothing to offer “except the narcissistic satisfaction of being able to think oneself better than others.”