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Freud Civilization and Its Discontents
Sigmund Freud's volume, Civilization and its Discontents, he tackles no less than the broad and ambitious concept of man's place in the world. In this volume, he looks at culture from his unique psychoanalytical perspective, and touches upon a number of important concepts, including aggression, civilization and the individual, organized religion, the death drive and Eros, and the super-ego and conscience. Civilization and its Discontents was written a mere decade before the great psychoanalysts death, and is in many ways an important compilation of many of his most renowned theories on the mind, human nature, and the structure of human society.
First published in German in 1929, Civilization and its Discontents delves deeply into Freud's theories of aggression, the death drive, and its adversary, Eros. In the book, Freud seeks to look into the relationship between man's inner desires, and the establishment of modern civilization. Freud's volume has become a classic in 20th century thought, as he poses the ultimate question: will civilization eventually fall to man's baser instincts of aggression and violence, or will civilization manage to avoid these destructive tendencies and survive into the next centuries?
In his first chapter, Freud sets the stage for many of the concepts that are expanded upon later on in the book. He compares psychoanalysis with other, established scientific disciplines, and attempts to establishes the credibility of psychoanalytical investigation within the scientific field. Further, Freud then discusses the establishment of the ego in the human lifespan, and the ego's tendency to avoid pain and suffering imposed from the outside world. He delves into the idea of an "oceanic feeling," or a sense of oneness that is reportedly felt between the outside world and the individual ego, and ultimately rejects that this feeling is the origin of religious feeling in man. He also introduces the concept of religion into psychoanalytic theory, commenting that religion is ultimately a need for paternal protection that has survived to adulthood.
In chapter II, Freud continues his analysis of modern religion, in addition to beginning a thorough investigation into human happiness. Freud is uncompromising and blunt in his discussion of religion, and notes that he views religion as infantile and delusional. Despite this, he grudgingly notes that religion is a way for man to reduce suffering and unhappiness, although there are other ways that are more enjoyable and less demanding that the futile exercise of religion.
He argues that men fundamentally desire to be happy, and that their behavior is ultimately determined by their attempts to seek this overriding pleasure principle. He notes that humans go to great lengths to avoid displeasure, including taking intoxicating substances, undertaking difficult spiritual meditation, and sublimating human instincts by rechanneling our energies into areas such as art and work. In addition, Freud goes on to note that human happiness can be achieved temporarily through the pursuit of love, although it can be more permanently achieved through the pursuit of beauty and art. Ultimately, Freud argues that it is impossible for humans to be completely happy. He argues that religion is a simplistic way to happiness by reducing individual neurosis, but feels that there are easier and more effective ways to happiness.
Chapter III introduces Freud's theory that civilization is at the root of a great deal of human unhappiness. He suggests quite convincingly that mankind has created civilization to escape individual suffering. Further, Freud sees civilization as a group of human regulations and actions that serve to protect men against each other, and thus shapes their relationships with each other and with larger society. Civilization restricts the possibility for human happiness, by placing individual human satisfaction far below the societal ideals of justice, order, and law. On the other hand, Freud argues convincingly that man gains safely, order, cleanliness, and beauty from civilization.
He thinks that civilization has given man a sense of omnipotence, and thus man has become a "prosthetic God." He notes, "When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times (44). In this sense, Freud is implies that man is an imperfect God, and that the shackles of civilization chafe at his desire for individual liberty and happiness, and also chafe at his natural desire toward aggression.
In chapter IV, Freud investigates the origin of family, the role of women in the family and civilization, and the conflict between civilization and the family. He argues that communal and family life originates from the need for love, as well as a compulsion to work. He seems to argue that the desire to work is a deep drive within many people, and thus defines their lives. Further, he notes that love and civilization often come into conflict as the family isolates and restrict the maturity of its members, it diverts sexual energy into culture, and restricts our sex lives and our choices of partners.
Freud argues that civilization must place restrictions upon man in order to maintain civilization. Civilization demands that we treat others with consideration, although this may be against our basis desire for aggression. Further, civilization requires that we channel our desire for love. This conflict leads Freud to state, "hence the restrictions upon sexual life, and hence too the ideal's commandment to love one's neighbor as oneself -- a commandment which is really justified by the fact that nothing else runs so strongly counter to the original nature of man" (112).
Freud is never more disdainful of women than in this chapter. His attitude is clearly a misogynist, as he notes that women greatly restrain children from their individual happiness. Further, he notes that monogamy and marriage restrict the sexual lives of men, although he seems to feel that women likely do not suffer as badly under the same fate. Further, he argues that women resent the work that their partners undertake, because it deprives them of love within their marriages.
Freud's analyses within these chapters are significantly less empirically supported than his other claims within Civilization and its Discontents. Here, he often seems to simply note his personal observations about society, while offering little solid scientific backup for his claims. Further, some of the discussion in the chapter is frankly bizarre and out of context, as Freud comments on anal eroticism and the smell of excrement, and delves into a discussion of the bisexual nature of man.
In Chapter V, Freud investigates the relationship between civilization and sexual relationships. He argues that civilization places restrictions on human sexuality in order to maintain the bonds of friendship and fellowship that are necessary for a stable civilization. He notes that civilization sees marriage and monogamy as a safe expression of love. Further, he notes that in civilization, man has exchanged individual happiness for the security of all its members, and that this restriction in sexual freedom is simply a part of this exchange of freedom for security.
In this chapter, Freud comments that aggression is the basic instinct that drives mankind. He notes poignantly that Homo homini lupus, or 'man is a wolf to man', underscoring the basic brutality of mankind.
Finally, Chapter V is important for Freud's capable discussion of Communism. He argues that Communism is doomed to fail because it will never be able to change man's basic desire for individual happiness. Therefore, capitalism is a much more effective economic theory.
In chapter VI, Freud looks at the source of man's aggression, Eros (the life instinct) and Thanatos, the death instinct, and continues his discussion of civilization and love. Freud effectively argues that Eros and the death drives struggles result in the evolution of civilization. Freud notes, "Civilization is a process in the service of Eros, whose purpose is to combine single human individuals, and after that families, then races, peoples and nations, into one great unity, the unity of mankind. Why this has to happen, we do not know; the work of Eros is precisely this."
In this chapter, Freud looks at Id, the ego and the super-ego, and the role of guilt. He suggests that guilt originates from the super-ego, which is the internalized conscience. He notes that the individual directs aggression internally towards his own ego, which is held in check by the superego. As civilization becomes more complex and demanding, Freud argues that the sense of guilt is becoming increasingly oppressive.
Chapter VIII is a look at solving the problem of aggression, and the relationship between guilt and religion. He argues that the super-ego was formed by an amalgamation of the beliefs of great figures like Jesus Christ. Further, he argues that many religions claim to free men from guilt through martyrdom.
Freud suggests that culture's repression of aggression may ultimately be more damaging than unrestrained aggression, man's natural state. Freud is generally pessimistic about man's ability to maintain civilized life…[continue]
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