Issues in Political Thought Fourth Year Undergraduate Class Term Paper

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Civilization and its Discontents

Written in 1929 and published in 1930, Civilization, and its Discontents offers a somewhat pessimistic view of human nature and human society. Freud extends his theory of the individual's intra-psychic conflicts, such as between ego and id, and between the conscious and the unconscious mind, to the public arena of civil society. In this way, Freud comes to define human civilization as the cause of intense conflict, both between the individuals within the social community and between the individual and society. According to Freud, the claims of the individual and the claims of the community are always in conflict and, in order for civilization to exist, "civilized man has exchanged a portion of his possibilities of happiness for a portion of security" (63). The result, for the individual is the surrendering of most of their instinctual drives and urges for sexual and personal freedom in return for societal protection and security. However, perhaps surprisingly, Freud does not consider sexual privations to be the most acute, but concludes that the renunciation of aggression is the hardest privation of all. In Civilization, and its Discontents, Freud argues that the price for the continued existence of civil society is by a communal renunciation of instinctual gratification, and the associated suffering experienced by the individual through the repression of instinctual urges and personal satisfaction.

Civilization originates within the individual. Freud's view of civilization is, therefore, that it is rooted in egoism, and that each individual is constantly striving to gain the optimum amount of personal happiness, while attempting to avoid pain. To achieve this, and to secure protection against potential enemies and dangers, humans band together to form civil societies. In Freud's opinion; civilization is a relationship among individuals in which individuals give up certain aspects of their own ego interests to join with other people in creating social institutions. Despite the criticisms to emerge within his investigation, Freud was not opposed to civilization, and indeed condemned the view that, "what we call our civilization is largely responsible for our misery, and that we should be much happier if we gave it up and returned to primitive condition" (33) with, "How has it happened that so many people have come to take up this strange attitude of hostility to civilization?" (33). However, despite his fundamental support of civil society, he also argues that, within the perceived safety of these unions, the individual is subject to alternative dangers, mainly surrounding the limitations of society, which demand the repression and renunciation of the individual's fundamental and instinctual desires. Civilization, and its Discontents is Freud's investigation into these negative aspects of society, and an analysis into whether society demands too much sacrifice from it's individuals, and whether the resultant loss of happiness is too great.

Humans instinctively seek happiness, guided by a set of deep-rooted, innate set of desires and urges. The two primary urges are the desire for sexual satisfaction, and the urge to use aggression in pursuit of that satisfaction. However, in order to ensure that society is not reduced to chaos, and rendered vulnerable to every form of personal vendetta or tribal war, every individual is forced to deny or repress many of their basic and fundamental instincts. This is no simple task, for Freud contends that, such is the strength of the individual's instinctual urges that any social relation, "is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him" (58). In Civilization, and its Discontents, Freud is asking the fundamental question; is civilization demanding too much of the individual by repressing these desires?

Freud opens his debate by returning to the issues that were dealt with in his previous publication, The Future of an Illusion (1927), a treatise that had criticized organized religion as being a mass delusion and an escape from the realities of existence. As such, The Future of an Illusion had been the first attempt at using psychoanalytical analysis within the context of shared culture and civilization. Due to the contentious and, as some considered, inflammatory nature of this argument, it was not surprising that it attracted a degree of negative comments and criticism. Therefore Freud uses the introductory part of Civilization, and its Discontents to defend his argument about the illusory nature of religion against these objections. Many critics had suggested that religion was, in many respects, analogous to civil society in that it created an "oceanic" feeling, which served to bond the individual with the entire human race, in an innate religious community. While acknowledging the existence of this "oceanic" feeling, Freud chose to explain it in psychoanalytic terms, rather than in terms of an innate experience. He relates the bonding and sense of union, associated with religion, to the psychoanalytical concept of infantile narcissism, which is the stage that all infants undergo from birth until the second or third year of life. In this stage, according to Freud, the child is driven entirely by his/her ego, and cannot yet distinguish between the subjective self and the outside world. This is the first stage of civilization, as the world is suddenly recognized as a negative 'other' for the child; an 'other' that obstructs the child's demands for pleasure and requires that instinctual urges are denied, or at least postponed. Freud further criticizes the supposed benevolent 'oneness' of religion for its inherent desire to suppress the individual's instincts through the use of guilt and commandments. In order to persuade individuals to subordinate self-interest and satisfaction to the interests of society, commandments such as, 'Thou shalt not kill', 'Love thy neighbor', and 'Love thine enemies' are used, not only as sanctions, but also to encourage individuals to recognize the aggressive instincts within themselves and to repress them in the interests of society and of morality. Freud, however, argues that these requests ask too much of the individual because, "the restriction upon sexual life, and hence too the ideal's commandment to love one's neighbor as oneself... runs so strongly counter to the original nature of man" (59).

Although Freud identifies three sources of human suffering - the human body, the natural world, and social relations, it is the third with which he concerns himself and his analysis within Civilization, and its Discontents. Although the weakness and frailty of the human body, and the inability to control or influence the natural world around us can cause the individual much pain and suffering, they are viewed as unavoidable and inevitable. Social relations, and therefore civil society, however, are perceived as society, social legislation, and other human beings deliberately limiting the satisfaction of individual pleasure, and enforcing the sacrifice of instinctual urges. This causes confusion for the individual and leads to one of Freud's central hypotheses: that social conflict is a reflection and extension of the tensions that exist within the individual human psyche. Therefore, despite it's negative effects upon our instinctual desires and urges, we cannot escape social conflict as it is simply a communal form of the individual's personal psychic conflicts. This realization assisted Freud in the development of another theory: that of the existence of an aggressive instinct that parallels and complements our other primary instinct, the libidinal drive. It is the conflict and tensions occurring as a result of these aggressive instincts (the Death Instinct or Thanatos) within the communal and social arena, rather than solely within the psyche of the individual, that provide the backbone of Freud's theories of civilization's discontenments.

According to Freud's analysis, the instinct for aggression poses the most potent threat to the continued existence of civilized institutions, and is therefore the primary focus of social control and repression This invariably benefits civilization at the expense of individual human desire and happiness. Therefore, Freud claims that human happiness, which he equates with total instinctual gratification, is impossible within civil society and states that, "civilization imposes such great sacrifices not only on man's sexuality but on his aggressivity, we can understand better why it is hard for him to be happy in that civilization" (62). In addition to the previously discussed religious sanctions, the individual is also subject to a sophisticated and universal regime of socially constructed and communal guilt, designed to repress instinctual urges and dissuade instinctual gratification. Moreover, within civil society, according to Freud, a sizeable percentage of the individual's instinctual energy, which would normally be utilized in the pursuit of the individual's personal and instinctual satisfaction, is required to be channeled into the service of civilization, such as work and postponing sexual gratification far beyond the time of biological readiness.

However, the Pleasure Principle cannot be completely repressed within the individual, regardless of their apparent commitment to social and communal constructs, requiring civilization to provide alternative outlets for these urges. As compensation for the…

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