Civilization and its Discontents; Sigmund Freud
“Civilization and its Discontents” by Sigmund Freud
In this essay we will try to figure out the importance of this major text, “Civilization and its Discontents” and if it had any impact on society. Freud tries to compare and differentiate the psychoanalysis to other accepted scientific disciplines. But first of all we should establish the key point of the text. The main idea of “Civilization and its Discontents” is that human beings are divided in to three parts: super-ego, ego, and the Id. Those three parts are in a constant fight to rule us, but we should get the three in a harmony in order to live in equilibrium.
The super-ego, represents our conscience, all pattern or society and moral impositions above all, that we have been imposed since we were kids. The super-ego is the voice of the aspect of our psyche that is the voice of authority, of control, judgement and regulation. The super-ego internalises 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. The super-ego is the harshest and most aggressive player in this whole story, and it is the self. The "super-ego", according to Freud, is both individual and collective.
The ego represent yourself as a person, your decisions, your capacity as a rational persona with your own logic and decisions. The ego describes the face we present to the world, our civilized persona. It is not a pejorative term, it is an observational term.
The Id represent our lowest instincts, our primary desires, dissatisfaction of hungry, rest, love, all primary need, the most primary and animal aspect of human being. In the Id there is Thanatos and Eros.
The ego, wants to get ride of the super-ego that always wants to establish its authority, wants to get ride of the instincts that the ego considers primary and low and make the ego do things that as a rational being will not do, and this is what causes dissatisfaction, we do not do the Id's desires because the ego will not let us do them, and we do not do ego's desires because the super ego will not let us do them.
In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud tries to replace a metaphysical, idealistic framework with a psychological one, in order to do so, he uses a special style of argumentation, in which he encourages the reader to analyse philosophical problems in the context of his daily life, he wants the reader to get involved in the lecture of the text and afterwards, he is looking for an action. As we said, Freud's style of argumentation stands in relation to metaphysical argumentation, and so, he does not examine behaviour, institutions, culture or civilization in an abstract or ideal light, but as they exist in reality. Freud explanations and argumentations fit with his own experience, everyday facts, common things in everybody's life, that always are there but we do not realise that every single thing we do has a reason and all our actions are under control of the super-ego, that is always telling us what is wrong and what is right. All he expressed in the text is real and it is part of our common lives, and as a part of everybody's life, the writer wants the reader to appeal to his own commonsense, past experience, and emotional and behavioural patterns in addressing philosophical questions, and it is therapeutic because he asks them to analyse themselves in the process. Freud wants all the people to realise all the different issues he explains along the text and that usually we do not even notice. He wishes to show people that his psychoanalytic observations came from real life, common situations.
Soon we find the questions that will link all chapters, how would men deal with the problems of civilization? Is civilization a benefit or harm to human beings? These questions will help us to find the possible repercussion in society that this book had.
The origins of civilization are in the individual. We are born in a world in which we have to avoid (and we want to avoid) pain and seek pleasure, the basis of civilization are built in egoism, we all are fighting against each other to be the happiest person and at the same time avoid all the pain we can. To create this civilization all humans got together creating what we could call “culture”, each culture has its own way of living, people that are more alike, are connected and so different civilizations are created, each one with its own rules and traditions. Those individuals that get together are in a constant relationship between them, but even though those people will be closer to each other they are still different and so they have to change some of their interests, they have to give up certain aspects of their own ego interests to join with other people in creating these social institutions. The creation of this institutions has dangers on it, because if you establish a society, you have to establish rules and limits, you have to had a way to control the people that belongs to that community, and this is what the super-ego does in ourselves, in a way, the civilization is a big super-ego that rules all people as a community, and also each person will have his own super-ego as well.
When we are born in the civilization we have, happiness is everybody's goal, if you ask someone “what do you want from life?” almost everyone will tell you: “Happiness”, of course they will have different views of what is happiness, and also different ways to achieve it, but all people share the same goal, happiness. So this is a clear example of Freudian ideas in our society, what Freud pointed out in his text, is still found nowadays, the seek of happiness is and will be our final goal. Men's purpose and intention of their lives is the pursuit of happiness. What we usually say we need to achieve happiness is love, but Freud says that this so-called love is the search of pleasure, we seek someone that represents our ideals, our ego-ideal and the super-ego is represented in the text as the internalised prohibitions of the parents, all kind of authority figures and so, we repress our instincts, our animal instincts that the super-ego tells us to hide, Freud often makes references to repression as being the main vehicle of society, humans are not animals, and so, we do not have to behave as animals, we have to look beyond.
As the community grows, people become more dependent on each other, wanting to be loved, trying to avoid pain and seeking pleasure. In order to achieve all this we unconsciously change our desires, and we place our true desires at a very low level. This is done by a process of sublimation, or convincing ourselves that our desires are other than they really are.
In society, it is necessary to have metaphysical constructions for two reasons: first, to bind people together and keep them harmonious within the society, and secondly, to achieve a greater degree of happiness in a situation where instincts are repressed. We can take a look at the super-ego as this is the creator of the strongest (and unconscious) moral codes, we are our worst banners, the super-ego is our greatest banner, the super-ego, by repressing of our instincts, creates a need of sublimation, the super-ego is a sense of guilt, as Freud himself says. This sense of guilt is the one that stops us from going ahead with our instincts that will be wrong seen by society, in a way, the super-ego regulates what is right and what is wrong, what we should do and what we should not do.
Some people use creative activities such as art, music, painting, etc, in order to substitute their frustrated desires that the super-ego prohibits. This kind of activities are supposed to take away that sense of guilt, and it is in part, a way to avoid pain and suffer, if we do not feel guilty, we do not have to be punished. More over, this intellectual activities are better valued by society than the instinctual ones, that are banned.
Freud establishes an opposition between ego-instincts and object-instincts, he puts into question the validity of this opposition by pointing put that both instincts flow from the ego, our necessities related to external objects are a function of our own desires.
It seems like Freud is in favour of society because he says that civilization is the perfect example of the conflict between Eros and Thanatos, society tries to use the Eros to save all human species, always avoiding our aggressive, animal and primary instincts. But Freud knows that all those instincts are natural and should be allowed, and never repressed in order to achieve the total happiness.
Freud also talks about religion in his text, he describes it as “delusional” and “infantile”. He attacks religion by saying that the purpose of human life is not redemption in an afterlife, but the achievement of happiness, Freud totally rejects the practice and institution of organized religion.
Freud ends up his work with a question, he does not arrive to a conclusion, he leaves the book open, he wants the reader to think about what he/she have just read, and he does not want to create or impose his opinion, he wants the readers to realise by themselves what the truth is within society, and all the rules that govern us without knowing it, and maybe Freud is waiting as well for a reaction after reading the text, get the people involved in what is going on in civilization, to stop repressing our desires.
Civilization and its Discontents is the most philosophical of Freud's works. He combines many of his previous ideas to produce a commentary on civilization and life in general. Freud offers an overview of life based on his extensive psychoanalytic findings, in his text, Freud makes an analysis of society, of the different ways of behaving and the internal rules that all people has. Freud has in a way an internal debate, he has to know how far psychoanalysis is to go. On one hand, Freud's interests resides on removing the oppressive influence of the superego and so absolve people from that sense of guilt. It starts with assuming that everything in our mental life is determined, and does not pass moral judgement. This conflict between the individual's deepest instincts and the structures of any social system of civilization that we have to face, will never be totally 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. As we have seen, Freud wants to address philosophical and existential problems, the book sounds like a work of philosophy. He discusses such issues as religion, aesthetics, ethics, the purpose of life, civilization versus a state of nature, and problems with civilization. Sigmund Freud produced a phenomenal book in his look at the relationship between the individual and the society.