Introduction to Freud: Civilization and Its Discontents
THESIS:—There are two trinities which we can discuss in Civilization and Its Discontents. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost of the theme of religion; and Laius, Oedipus, and Jocasta of the theme of the mythological/primeval, eternally recurring History that can be documented as the Oedipal conflict in Freud's case studies. One trinity forms the punishing superego arising from the sense of guilt and thus trying to redeem the ego of mankind for its killing of God; the other congeals the pleasure principle of the parricidal id whose memories of the tabooed murder of the generic, biological father are repressed into the unconscious. Freud, in fact, claims that it is part of our phylogenetic memory in our species' consciousness.
There is both a learned and inherited "organic repression" of the instinct to commit incest. The unconscious creates an abstraction in God who will reward you on earth by dying for your sins and promises heaven to the believers, which the ego accepts because of its weak defense mechanisms against the combined demands of sexuality, the superego, and the world outside the body. Freud says these religious beliefs are delusional and act as a narcotic for our wounded narcissism in having to renounce our sexual instincts in the name of civilization and the work ethic (Ananke).
Consequently, the ego is relieved of this sexual pressure and frustration. As a result, the ego can function in reality to balance the work world, the id, and the superego. If that can be accomplished by the individual, he will be spared neurosis but not discontent. That is the best we can expect; the worst outcome would be when the collective aggressions of social collectivities overwhelm the defenses of the ego and lead to its annihilation, which is the complete loss of selfhood and pain through death. That can happen when sadomasochism as a perverted id drive joins forces with the superego to wreak vengeance on the ego and its adaptation to its internal and external realities. This event happens at the individual and collective levels simultaneously. It is the instinct of aggression.
This aggression originated in the instinct for biological self-preservation. So, it would be a generalized trait of the species. Eros and Thanatos are in eternal struggle for not only the individual but higher levels of social complexity in the state and civilization. Freud was uncertain of the ultimate outcome because Hitler had just won major electoral gains in 1931 as the book was going to press. We still await the Final Judgment.
1. Theory of Sexual Economy: The sexual economy deals with the distribution of libido between the ego and its objects toward work to make civilization possible. There are instincts of love and death antithetically struggling to control the destiny of man. Love is Eros and comes from the libido, while destruction is Thanatos and stems from an innate, aggressive impulse in man's species' unconscious.
2. Theory of Social Psychology: Freud's social psychology deals with the interaction between the individual, family, society, and civilization, and how the various demands of each level of social complexity makes demands that stress the individual in his drive to seek pleasure.
Freud's Theory of Human Nature
Man is a wolf to his fellow man; hence he must revert his authority to a powerful state in order to assure that the conditions in the struggle for existence do not overwhelm him. This thesis is best illustrated by a quote he takes from Heinrich Heine:
"Mine is a most peaceable disposition. My wishes are a humble cottage with a thatched roof, but a good bed, good food, the freshest milk and butter, flowers before my window, and a few fine trees before my door; and if God wants to make my happiness complete, he will grant me the joy of seeing some six or seven of my enemies hanging from those trees. Before their death I shall, moved in my heart, forgive them all the wrong they did me in their lifetime. One must, it is true, forgive one's enemies--but not before they have been hanged." (p. 67)
A joke is a manifestation of sublimation, which is a sophisticated defense mechanism that allows for a repressed minority member to express hostility to the general public without inviting retaliation, venting anger creatively without the anxiety of endangering the self to one's enemies. Freud, of course, was talking of the maxim of loving thine enemies. He believed religion to be a mass delusion to provide a substitute gratification for renounced sexuality.
Too, religion provides a narcotic for the instinct of aggression because man is a wolf to his fellow man. Civilization produces these discontents necessarily because there is this identification with introjected authority from a sense of Oedipal guilt, and coincidentally the unemployed libido from the unconscious joins the instinct toward aggression in order to create a sadistic censor in the superego, or what we call conscience. Hence there is a fusion of sex and aggression, what he called Eros and Thanatos.
So this joke is not simply a joke; it is an expression of the sadistic feelings of marginalized minority group members, who must find acceptable outlets for their pent-up aggression because of the frustrations of social restrictions originating in anti-Semitism, in conjunction with everyday libidinal fixations where there is arrested psychosexual development, or even in normal psychosexual development. What we call normal sexuality has a component of perversity, Freud believed, because monogamous heterosexuality in a context of legitimacy was psychopathological in that human nature, with its desires, was inclined to multiple sexual partners. The individual loses, and civilization loses. The individual loses pleasure for the sake of the reality principle, and civilization loses in terms of natural selection since the gene pool is circumscribed in the name of the work ethic, forsaking the pleasure principle.
Summary Comment: The demands of civilization are anti-erotic in that the ego and its sexual energy must be sublimated; hence the individual is "sacrificed" in the necessity of having to renounce instinctual life to allow for the stress of a life sentence to hard labor to build and sustain and reproduce civilization. Religion provides the norms and sanctions for this process by manufacturing mass delusions. To love thy enemy goes against the instinct of biological self-preservation and particularly against the ego's and the species' interests, but for different rationales.
Levels of Analysis Problems
1. Individual neurosis versus collective neurosis (anomie). Medical model of disease with a physical cause in the individual. Then, we have organic disease versus the symptom complex of neurosis with no physical determinants, but rather we must look for the underlying conflicts ascertained by "talking through" psychotherapy. How do you apply this to a collectivity like a nation? Is there a national character in which a nation follows a preselected pattern of inherited behavior? For instance, are the Germans warlike, the Russians passive, and the Americans beneficent?
2. Or must we look to an interdisciplinary approach to assess group dynamics? Does Freud help? While there is a definition of normality for the individual, there is no such standard in judging nation-states or even various cultures. Ethnology is the study of different cultures and how their moralities develop.
Freud talks about the structural foundation of the mind--the theory of the id, ego, and superego. Then, too, there is the topography of the mind in the conscious, pre-conscious and perception, and unconscious. Can we find its physical coordinates? No! We must infer its existence from uniformity of human behavior. If a symptom can be cured" by "talking through," then its cause might be attributable to unacceptable thoughts--like killing the father by the son to win over his mother. The famous Oedipus complex. He claims it is a phylogenetic inheritance of the human race. It is the incest taboo. You simply do not sleep with blood relatives because inbreeding produces undesirable recessive traits and the lack of security. The actual crime produces remorse; the thought of it guilt and consequent anxiety.
The book's major themes are the sense of guilt (an internalized conscience of the society and the family's taboos placed on erotic instincts) and the death instinct (aggression). Guilt arises from aggression and the shame of it. We feel a sense of guilt from forbidden deeds committed and also the intent to do these deeds. We internalize the family's and civilization's violence in repressing our instinctual nature and either direct it outwardly or inwardly. Cases of sadism and masochism exhibit this phenomenon. It often has an erotic component. Sadism and sexuality are derived from the libido, where in conjunction with unconscious forces the phenomenon of the death instinct emerges.
Religion emanates from a pervasive, anxious feeling of infantile helplessness. When sublimated, beauty can arise to satisfy the instinctual appetites for gratification, but is still derivative from sexual primacy and energy. Religion stems from the narcissism of the infantile part of the ego in its necessity to gratify itself, yet acknowledging reality and maintaining an ability to test it. Religion can only be a mass delusion to provide substitute gratifications in the stead of pleasure and acting out of aggressive impulses. Two examples are love thy neighbor as thyself; and turn the other cheek to your enemies. Freud believed it showed a basic misunderstanding of human nature.
Unhappiness comes from three sources: nature; our feeble bodies; and human relations in state and society. In these groups, we have character formation and deformation with repression and sublimation where there is an identification with civilization's and the family's value systems. In the end, the family must submit to the demands of civilization, namely, the work ethic.
Eros and Ananke, or love and necessity, have become the driving forces of civilization, that is, the tension between love and work which can never be resolved. Again, much unhappiness ensues. If it is intolerable, you can become neurotic.
The sense of guilt emerges from fear of the superego. The superego takes energy from the id to punish us for our transgressions in our thought-crimes. Ethics of Christianity and Judaism are too demanding. They ask man to renounce instincts in the name of abstract values. A renunciation must conform to the sexual economy of the individual-- pain and pleasure in the group and society must be in equilibrium, but nonetheless the balance is constantly breaking down. Neurosis, psychosis, and even a collective going berserk in war emerges.
The id can only be controlled so far. It has "hidden" ways to purchase gratification; when frustrated, it will torment the individual. The individual suffers a double alienation in the family and civilization; hence, he must go through a long training and educational process to learn his limited place in the universe. Freud believes that this double alienation serves for the survival of humankind, although it has within it the mechanism for total self-destruction, namely, the death instinct when it periodically breaks the equilibrium with its counterpart, the life instinct in Eros, to threaten Homo sapiens with extinction. The aggression comes from the frustration necessarily entailed in the renunciation of one's instinctual life. The superego punishes the ego for its thought-crimes; the ego can crumble, yet will revenge itself on its displaced objects, such as powerless minority groups, and can be very destructive.
Real threats from institutionalized authority, emanating from its introjection, feed into the sadistic superego. That superego already has at work the guilt from the internal Oedipal conflict. Thus, anxiety levels can reach untenable thresholds.
Freud strongly insinuates that traditional religious ethics reflects the values of the weak and the powerless—thus the superego enhances the will to power necessary to take what you want without retaliation. Thus the strong dominate the weak, and the meek do not inherit the earth. Religion serves the function of keeping the people in a delusional state of happiness in which they anticipate heavenly rewards for all their sacrifices on earth. It is very self-serving of the status quo.
A naturalist ethics is instinctually narcissistic and says you must maximize your pleasure to be happy and healthy; unfortunately, reality imposes sanctions if certain limits are passed. Conscience is civilization's "garrison state" internalized. Freud shows the influence of Nietzsche, in this instance, because he says there are always people pushing the limits to test a system. He gives the example of Jesus in secular and historical terms of a problematic nature; he was sacrificed in order to keep the social order stable, whose authority he had radically challenged. He fits the prototype of Moses and Oedipus. However, if you are to survive, you must conform. The risk-takers are the ones who are ostracized and punished by civilization; too little repression and there is a state of nature, too much repression and there is an authoritarian regime which stifles individuality. Lose/lose strategy for individual and society.
What About Natural Selection and Socialism?
1. Freud says that the renunciation of instincts goes against natural selection;
the fittest biologically are persecuted. He was thinking of those who do not
practice monogamous, genital heterosexuality. The "promiscuous" are condemned as
outlaws and amoralists, when in fact they might be the fittest sexually to carry
on the species' struggle for existence. Of course, this value judgment is
civilization's and necessarily rendered in support of reproducing its
generations of an obedient people who take to the work ethic.
2. He has mixed feelings about socialism. He says that the removal of private, not personal property, would alleviate a stressor in causing human aggression; nonetheless, sexual desire is primary and there would be no end to conflict even in a communist society where the ideals are met because the instinctual economy of the individual is fixed within limits by human nature. Thus, we can remove the external stressor of environmental factors, but the sexual economy and quantum of energy in the instinctual life would still be repressed as much as ever--ergo, human unhappiness even in utopia. He still will have to be frustrated to keep the ties of civilization together, whether we call it a free marketplace economy or a commune.