Sigmud Freud, in his book Civilization and its discontents written at the last decade of his life, explores the dimensions of a timeless antagonism between instinctual desires and the restrictions of civilization. Freud in his book dwells at the effects of civilization on man especially the metal development and man's reaction towards civilization. He asserts that man is unhappy with civilization and an appallingly large number of people are not contented with civilization. Freud looks at religion as a way in which men seeks to assuage his discontentment. Other ways in which humanity assuages its unhappiness include art, drugs, science and yoga. These he describes as mere palliatives that is not able to give man a true relief. Some people in desperation advocate the abandonment of civilization and a return to primitive conditions.
Though Freud does not name the person he is referring to, Rousseau comes to mind. Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents exposes how humanity tries to repress its "base" instincts and sublimate them in a cultured and civilized existence. The book has two main themes; 1) the sense of guilt is the most important in the development of civilization, 2) The repercussions of the superego's attempt to control destructive instinct inevitably causes conflict and unhappiness for the individual and civilization as a whole. This paper is going to look at the implications of civilization on individual psychodynamics as expressed by Sigmund Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents.
Freud's work came to the conclusion that the progress of our technical mastery over nature and the perfection of our ethical self-control thereof are achieved at the cost of instinctual repression in the civilized man- a cost so high as not only to make neurotics of individuals, but of whole civilizations. An excess of civilization can produce its own undoing at the hands of instinct avenging itself against avenging itself against the culture that has curbed it too well.
Freud approached the issue analogically as opposed to historically in his attempt to explain the problem of civilization and individualization. He proceeded from an analysis of the individual psyche, its structure and experience to the functioning and future of society. Yet in differentiating the psyche and history, Freud turned to an ingenious historical metaphor. For example he uses the story, "the story of the Eternal City" to represent the nature of mental life.
Freud invites the reader to consider Rome as a physical entity, taking the reader back to its earliest beginning as a walled urban settlement on the Palatine through the ages to its present day as a great metropolis. He asks the reader to consider the many transformations the city has undergone. Imagine all the buildings of the past that are known to historians and the archeologist stand simultaneously in the same space with their modern survivors or successors. For example "on the Piazza of the Pantheon," Freud explains that "we should find not only the Pantheon of today as bequeathed to us by Hadrian, but on the same site also Agrippa's original edifice; indeed, the same ground would support Santa Maria sopra Minerva and the old temple over which it was built."
Freud invites the reader to struggle with this multifaceted vision of the simultaneous of the non contemporaneous, the Eternal City that is the totality of its undiminished pasts. But this, he acknowledges, is not possible either in space or time. He declares that there always come destructive forces that visit the city and destroy it. Cities like Rome were invaded by destructive enemies that destroyed it. Even cities like London that have had a past free of visitations by destructive enemies have had their own destructive influences that wipe out the past and its history. It is therefore only the human mind that that can keep the memory of what is past. Only in the mind can the past survive.
In this Freud uses the metaphor of the city as total history drop, turning the attention of the reader to the individual mind, the psyche. In the mind of every human being, he asserts that it is civilization that destroys the traces of the past experience as opposed to the pillaging enemy. This happens by suppressing personal instincts through denials and unrealistic demands. The psychoanalyst can however recover what is buried in history and with these, restore a personal history to consciousness that enable the people in the modern days to come to terms with its traumas and rebuilt it afresh.
Freud is not, however, suggesting that it is possible to redeem the Eternal City by merely reconstituting it in the minds with all its pasts. He only wants to point out that those immortal adversaries that inhabit every human being, the Eros and Thanatos, are active and or repressed in the collective life. The earthly city must therefore deal with them. Rome was the City Freud related to most with psychoanalysis and the one that fitted most fully with all his contradictory values and desires.
Freud in his writing was influenced by the psychoanalytical theory that defines every action of man as originating out of a need to satisfy sexual craving. The change in culture is defined by mans expression of sexual pleasure and its inhibition by society. According to him the men's behavior reveals that the purpose and object of their lives and what they aim to achieve is to be happy and sustain that happiness. Freud identified two sides to this striving; a positive and a negative; "it aims on the one hand at eliminating pain and discomfort, on the other at the experience of intense pleasures". Taken in its narrower sense, the word happiness relates only to the experience of intense pleasures. Accordingly human activities branch off in two directions- corresponding to this double goal- according to which of the two they aim at realizing, either predominantly or even exclusively.
It is this pleasure-principle that shapes up the program of life's purpose. It is this principle that dominates the operation of the mind from the outset. Happiness in this sense is derived from the satisfaction of pent-up needs which have accumulated to great levels. The constitution of the human body dictates the levels of pleasure he can enjoy. By nature human beings enjoy the pleasure the highest when pleasure-principle is not protracted. The constitution of the human body, however, limits his possibilities of happiness from the start. It is easier to be unhappy. Suffering comes from three areas: from the human body itself, which is subject to decay and dissolution; from the world without, and lastly from our interactions with other men. The pain emanating from relations with other men is the most intense.
The complicated structure of the human mind admits of a series of other forms of influence. While the gratification of instincts brings happiness, the outer world can sometimes stand on the way of meeting those needs which causes suffering to the human being. So the human being reacts by influencing these impulses to escape suffering. This reaction against pain does not relate to the sensory apparatus but rather it seeks to control the internal sources of the needs of the human being.
To subdue unhappiness that results from the pressures of civilization, intoxicants and Yoga are used. These help human beings to forget about their frustrations if only for a time and to keep the feelings of unhappiness at bay. The human beings uses these two methods to subdue the unhappiness that is caused by the superegos attempt to control aggressive instinct. On the other hand sexual love is the most pleasurable means of gratifying the urge for happiness.
An individual turns neurotic because he fails to cope with the stress that is imposed upon him by society in the service of its cultural ideals. Freud discovered that the elimination or reduction of those societal demands would result in a return to possibilities of happiness pg 39. Freud therefore argues that human beings are not happier with civilization but rather there is always a longing to go back to the past. Civilization causes frustration to man as he tries to change and to cope with the new demands that are placed over him by a changing society. Being that human being are resistant to change there is always a lingering stress in the human mind as it tries to cope with a world that is changing every day.
The raw aggressive desires of man become the driving force that guides a person's ambition and actions. Men, Freud asserts, are not gentle creatures who are out seeking to be loved and who are at most defensive if attacked but rather said not to be to be aggressive creatures with powerful instincts. It is this aggressiveness that is at times turned against their neighbor who becomes a temptation to them as a potential vessel to satisfy not only their sexual desires but also their aggressiveness. This aggressiveness is manifested through enslaving him, sexually harassing them, seizing his possessions, humiliating him, torturing him and eventually killing him.
Civilization attempts to control an individual's desire for aggressions by weakening and disarming it and by establishing an agency to keep watch over him, for example setting up a garrison in an overrun city. This helps in subduing the desire for the man to manifest his aggressive nature by creating fear that by so doing he will suffer for it. Furthermore the civilized man is always ready to exchange his opportunities for happiness for security. Freud concludes that "the attempt to restrict instincts is a reform which civilization cannot accomplish pg 74.
Freud asserts civilization is characterized by its esteem and encouragement of higher mental activity of man, which are his intellectual, scientific, and artistic achievements. Civilization plays a leading role in assigning ideas to human life. These benefits are the ones which differentiate between the advanced societies and the less advanced societies. It is what made the difference between the cities of London, Paris and Vienna. London by all means was the most advanced of the cities with Paris coming second and Vienna trailing. The city of London consequently had the best life of all the three cities and was well admired by liberals including Freud.
Freud asserts that luck greatly enhances the power of the conscience in the super-ego. Whenever things are going well with a man, his conscience is lenient on the ego letting it to do all sorts of things. This changes when misfortunes strike; the man searches his soul, acknowledges his transgressions, "heightens the demand of his conscience, imposes abstinences on himself and punishes himself with penances." Pg 27.
The community evolves its super-ego much the same as the individual. It is under this superego that cultural development proceeds. The superego of these community civilizations is built around the impression left behind by great leaders whom the community considered as heroes. These are men of overwhelming force of mind.
In conclusion "the price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt." Pg 97.