By Sigmund Freud.
Translated from the German by James Stranchey. 92 pages.
New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1961.
ISBN # 0-393-30158.

Comments of Bob Corbett
April 2001

After about 30 years of time lapsed, I have returned to re-read Sigmund Freud's 1930 classic Civilization and Its Discontents. I found it much more intriguing and persuasive than I did before. Perhaps I was simply too young in my own intellectual development to appreciate some of the negativity concerning human existence which Freud forces us to face. Whatever the cause of my less than memorable first read, I am delighted that I spent last week with this work and hope to return to a few other Freud classics to see if they challenge me as strongly as this one did. I have been delving into his much earlier work, The Interpretation of Dreams, but haven't yet sat down to read it systematically cover to cover with copious note taking as I did with the Civilization work.

The two works actually make a great pair to examine together. The Interpretation focuses on the inner life and development of the individual while Civilization turns away from the individual to the development of the various cultures of the world and eventually points toward the universal world which we seem today to be moving more and more toward.

After a segue in which Freud examines (and rejects) the possibility of some "oceanic" sensibility, and in which he declares strongly that human existence has no objective and independent meaning other than what humans choose to give it, Freud turns to the main question of the book:

Is civilization a benefit or harm to human beings?

Following a long and intensive inquiry into fascinating aspects of this question Freud will not come to a conclusion. He simply leaves us with greater clarity about the question and a clear insight into his over-arching theory of psycho-analysis.

The origins of civilization are in the individual. Each of us is born into a threatening world and we seek to avoid pain and gain pleasure. Thus, on Freud's view, the birth of civilization is rooted in egoism -- each of us striving in an often hostile world, to create the greatest amount of personal happiness and avoid pain as best we can.

In order to do this we ban together with other humans to form civilization, which is much more what most of us today would regard as cultures -- ways of living in close connection to other people. Thomas Hobbes certainly makes such an argument in his LEVIATHAN, and social contract theorists to this day take up the same theme. However, their argument is to say that this union with others is in our rational interest, thus is some sort of moral duty. Freud's perspective is psychological, not philosophical and moral. He is less interested in what we should do than what we do in fact do, though he framed the questions as to whether or not we should regard civilization as a benefit or harm. This "should" however, is less a moral should than an investigation to see if this course of action is likely to lead to more or less happiness. Freud seems not to believe that his choice of happiness -- the avoidance of pain and the achievement of pleasure -- is a value. Rather, this need is implanted in us by nature in the deepest instincts with which we have evolved.

As Freud sees the evolutionary development of human beings, early people strove to survive in a difficult and harsh world where there were three distinct sources of danger:

This book is devoted to this third category alone. Freud picks up human being at a much later time in evolutionary development when in fact the first two problems have been faced and incredible progress has been made precisely because human being has entered into civilization. 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 which address the first two dangers, and to some extent the third as well.

However, this dependence-creating union carries new dangers of its own, since the social structures of civilization demand many limits on the individual which clash with fundamental and very deep evolutionary instincts.

Thus the question of the book arises: After all, and despite all the gains civilization has made in protecting us from the dangers of the world and the weakness of our own bodies, do the demands of civilization result in a net loss of happiness for the individual? Does what the individual gives up to civilization in order to get its benefits outweigh the benefits themselves? Freud investigates this question since it is being asserted by contemporary thinkers that civilization has this negative feature and Freud believes his psycho-analytic method can offer different and newer insights into assessing the positive and negative aspects of civilization.

Freud introduces what he calls a "digression" in section IV (4th of 8 sections). Actually this digression is the ground of his entire analysis of civilization and its failures and possibilities. The digression is on the nature of love and happiness and what makes it fail. Humans are fundamentally seeking happiness, following a profound, deep, ancient and irresistible instinct. Happiness is first and foremost survival and the avoidance of pain and then the pursuit of pleasure. However, two central instincts are active in humans above all others -- the desire to be loved (quite different from the desire to love) and a strong tendency toward aggression in pursuit of these ends.

Back from this digression he argues that our first strong instinct is to join with one single other of the opposite sex in a relationship that is many faceted, providing some security, the possibility of being loved, and the possibility of having children (both to contribute to the economy of the family and the possibility of extending the human race). This two-person unit quite naturally becomes a family, and finally, in an act of aggression, bands of brothers join together to resist the tyranny of the father and the larger community is on its way.

Thus the community grows and each of us becomes deeply dependant upon it at many levels. However, in order to live together in community each of us is forced to deny some of the basic and fundamental instincts of being loved, having security and being able to act upon our aggressive desires.

What happens is that in order to make this change we unconsciously shift the nature of these desires, essentially lying to ourselves at some very deep level.

This is done by a process of sublimation, or convincing ourselves that our desires are other than they are:

Instead of wanting to be loved, we come to believe we want to love. First the beloved, and then the family and eventually all of human kind. In this love of the other we may also sublimate our aggression as a threat to the community and as acts which are inconsistent with our civilized love. And thus, in the safety for all that comes with civilization the social form of organization allows various gains to be made against the major enemies of happiness:

But it is in this latter move that the danger comes. How much can human being bear to give up of these fundamental instincts? What happens if the sublimation process becomes too oppressive to these inner forces of instinct? Then we run into serious person problems and problems with civilization. The very question of the book is: is civilization demanding too much of us? Are we getting relief from some of the dangers faced by human beings only to expose ourselves to even greater dangers?

Where do these dangers come from? Ironically, the very worst (most aggressive) form for most of us is not the punishing power of civilization -- which certainly is extremely strong, but rather, from our own super-ego, a powerful censor who is ourselves at some level.

Freud argues that a strong piece of evidence that our alliance to the power of the culture (civilization) is only minimally deep is the wide spread tendency of people to be able to violate cultural rules if they are quite sure they will not in any way be caught or punished. This shows that at least in regard to those particular rules, the belief in the need of them is not very deep and not one's own.

However, the super-ego is in a privileged position. It is us, thus we cannot hide our actions from it in the same way. Since the super-ego internalizes most of society's rules it can punish us with one of the strongest punishments possible: GUILT. Guilt is the super-ego's calling our attention to our own failure to live up to what we have come to know (under the pressure and bombarding propaganda of the culture) as objective good. We then are evil or sinful. This super-ego is the harshest (and for Freud) most aggressive player in this whole story, and it is the self.

Freud is quite vague and puzzled, even contradictory about what this all means. He is convinced that civilization asks much too much, demands rules it does not need for any reasonable sense of security. He doesn't give many concrete examples but he does cite the typical cultural demands of:

He generally asserts that clearly civilization demands too much and this excess is likely to constitute a great deal of unhappiness in many people living in it. But, when all is said and done -- would it be better for humans to leave civilization and return to some pre-social state of nature. Probably not suspects Freud. However, neither is it at all likely that we will find a perfect balance and create a society where all will live in perfect harmony. No. This conflict between the individual's deepest instincts and the structures of any social system of civilization that we are likely to encounter will never be fully resolved. Civilization will attempt to oppress the individual into its needs and the individual will never have full happiness because of this. Some will have much more unhappiness than others, but civilization is by its fundamental nature incompatible at some levels with the individuals needs.

This is the basic argument. The book has much much more in it. Many of the side arguments are simply fascinating. To deal with each of them would make this set of comments many times the size of the exposition of the main line of argument. I won't do this here. I do, however, want to call attention to one constant theme since it is of special interest to me and in radical conflict with much of contemporary ethics.

Freud believes that one of the worst pieces of advice that society gives is to love all: Love your brother as you love yourself. Freud argues that this is not only contrary to our deepest instinct of aggression, but that it is bad practical advice. This instinct is so strong, he argues, that humans are quite limited in just how much they can control it without doing significant personal damage to their own psyches and having this fact express itself in neuroses. In an argument which would shock and repel many today in the face of all the many ethnic conflicts in the world, Freud argues that the hostility that smaller cultures have against those closest to them geographically are basically good things. They allow an outlet for some of our aggression making us more able to practice more of the benefits of civilization within our own culture. And, he argues, the harm done by these wars and hostilities are actually quite small in the larger scale of this evolutionary battle for the nature of the human being. I would imagine he would include that the economic warfare of the capitalist classes against each other and the workers (as well as the planet's ecosphere itself) would well fit into this sort of relatively useful aggression.

While I cannot champion the full burden of this view, I am extremely attracted to his notion that the attempt to act with any serious sense of love or concern for all humans is not a tenable view. Freud bitterly attacks "higher principle" ethics (I can't imagine why he allows it this seeming honorific of "higher," since he argues it is misguided in the extreme) for being utopian and paying little attention to the psychological reality of human being. It is one thing to argue for the "ought" that stretches the human into civilization and creates some of these tensions which he discusses and which I analyzed above. It is quite another to push the utopian ought far beyond this in areas where there is virtually no hope at all of achieving the end, but puts the individual into the quite unhealthy and undesirable position of having the super-ego attempting to enforce a psychologically unenforceable rule.

I tried to address this problem in the paper I wrote in 1995 on MORAL OBLIGATIONS TO DISTANT OTHERS.   I had this distinction in mind when I argued that the moral principle that the is does not imply the ought was intended only in a logical sense by the philosophers, but that it needed some notion of a psychological or existential sense as well. I've been trying to figure out how to make that case better than I did at that time and I think Freud's views will be useful in working on that in the future.

Sigmund Freud produced a phenomenal book in his look at the relationship between the individual and the society. I wouldn't presume to attack him here. Since his time even the strongest proponents of his work have modified a few of the principles of psycho-analysis which he here embraces and those may have some impact on what a modern version of this thesis would look like. On the other hand, the pressures toward conformity and especially the pressures toward globalization and universality have intensified a great deal the pressures on the individual from the demon of civilization, exacerbating the difficulties of the individual to carve out enough space for him or herself. I think Freud's reflection in the 1930s would serve us quite well at this beginning of the 21st century.

For links to more about the period of turn of the century Vienna see: the course I taught on this subject in Vienna in 2001   or to go directly to more info about the people and places visit my links to files and external sources on the this period.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett