Civilization and Its Discontents
This short book is one of the last Sigmund Freud wrote. His prose are filled with profound complexity matched to incisive clarity.
“The question of the purpose of human life has been raised countless times; it has never yet received a satisfactory answer and perhaps does not admit of one.”
Nevertheless, the short answer is “happiness,” rather in conformity with Thomas Jefferson’s assessment in the Declaration of Independence. However, following the central psychoanalytic structure Freud invented, happiness is a two-track outcome. Happiness results from the satisfaction of the ego and the superego in some never clear combination. For the ego, happiness derives from “the absence of pain” combined with “the experiencing of strong feelings of pleasure.” That seems simple enough, but Freud elucidates efficiently the limitations of a purely egotistic pursuit of happiness (addiction, perversion, isolation, neurosis and worse). Humans are social animals and require each other, at the very least, to allay suffering efficiently. The superego functions in recognition of this fact and thereby compels adults to “transform and rearrange” their “libidinal components,” so as to follow the rules. Following the rules is neither easy nor has history shown it to be very successful. “Civilization” is the amalgam of people following some set of rules at base in order to organize production and distribution of life’s necessities. It is the construct by which humans achieve a measure of the “absence of pain” socially. Civilizations purport as well to enable “the experiencing of strong feelings of pleasure” so as to provide a full quantum of happiness for at least some of their populations. But everywhere we look unhappiness persists, discontents abound.
Freud sees civilization as a struggle for everyone as an individual. In keeping with his main insights into the primacy of sexual motivation, civilization develops by diverting the sex drive into social utility. For Freud, the sex drive is at base an instinct, an energy of the ‘id’, as he calls it. His word for the sex instinct is libido. Civilization requires sublimation of the libido for use in the development of friendships and working relationships. It takes years of socialization beginning in grade school and lasting to early adulthood for socialization to develop a super-ego in mature adults. When successful, the super-ego compels individuals to ‘repress’ their sexual urge for redirection into non-sexual productivity. But we the people don’t really like it. Our utilitarian repressions generate hostility, aggression, and destructive tendencies. The life instinct of the ego (or “pleasure principle”) struggles against the deflationary requirements of the super-ego. An urge to destroy arises out of frustration and competes with the urge to create. A “death instinct” evolves and is, for Freud, equivalent to the life instinct. Or at least that’s what Civilization and Its Discontents contends.
This book is not only a window into the past, it is a summary tour of Freud’s work. The pleasure principle, reality principle and Oedipus complex are integrated into the dialectics of id, ego and superego. A life instinct is pitted against a death instinct. Perennial questions are addressed at every turn. And time-specific markers are prevalent. Written in the early 1930s. Freud routinely refers to Jews (he was Jewish) as a foil to Europeans. At the time of writing, he had no idea how badly that idea would turn out. And revealing his own Victorian sexism, Freud calls the partners with whom we practice “genital satisfaction” not lovers but “sex-objects.” Nevertheless, innumerable observations are wry delights:
“Religion imposes equally on everyone its own path to the acquisition of happiness and protection from suffering. Its technique consists in depressing the value of life and distorting the picture of the real world in a delusional manner -- which presupposes an intimidation of the intelligence.”
Ultimately Freud concludes that civilization is a mixed bag at risk of auto-destruction.Happiness “is never certain, for that depends on the convergence of many factors, perhaps on none more than on the capacity of the psychical constitution to adapt its function to the environment and then to exploit that environment for a yield of pleasure.” How much is a “yield of pleasure?” Is it enough to warrant the struggle we undergo? Is civilization worthwhile? Probably not, except that civilization is also inescapable.