Sigmund Freud begins his long essay, Civilization and Its Discontents, by describing his inability to understand what he calls “religious feeling.” Freud is not religious himself, though he has good friends who are. Freud believes that religion is central to how societies function – even societies that no longer consist of orthodox believers. Freud attempts, in his essay, to understand how people relate to their societies, how societies are formed, and how individual psychic forces interact with larger, group-level forces. Freud isolates the individual’s ego, superego, and id – the self, the regulating self, and deep, base desires – as the three forces inherent on the personal level. He wonders how these forces are manifest on the social level.
Freud’s essay moves organically – that is, not in a strict order, but by association of related ideas. Freud wonders how religions function in society, and sees in religion a kind of generous, selfless love – at least, this love as an ideal. Freud wonders whether societies are held together by this selfless love, and by its related religious feeling, but states that these instances of generosity alone cannot constitute a society.
Freud then addresses how human beings come to join themselves to others. They do so, Freud argues, by means of sexual love within family groups. Men and women couple and produce children, and these children have “interrupted” sexual relationships with their parents, which cannot be consummated. These relationships depend both on the love-drive (eros) and the death-drive (thanatos) – a combination of deep, powerful sexual attraction, and a desire, too, to destroy that which is closest and most important to us.
Freud believes that, because societies are groups consisting of smaller groups, the family unit, that societies themselves must behave according to the love- and death-drives. This means that societies are held together both by selfish desires for liberty, on the individual level, and selfless desires for protection and group stability, on the broader social level. Freud believes that other methods of explaining social organization, like the Christian Golden Rule, only explain part of the problem – the group part. Freud’s model accounts also for the individual liberties of society’s members – who wish to both be free to live as they choose, and also desire the help, protection, and love of others.
At the end of the essay, Freud relates his work, indirectly, to the political conditions of the time of its writing. In Europe in the 1930s, the oncoming threat of Communism and Fascism – of different forms of “collective” society – cause Freud to wonder whether civilization is in fact in decline. Freud concludes the essay with an open question: whether societies, like people, can be “neurotic,” or overcome by an excess of anxiety regarding their base impulses to love and destruction.
Schlegel, Chris. "Civilization and Its Discontents Plot Summary." LitCharts. LitCharts LLC, 2 Dec 2015. Web. 13 Mar 2018.
Schlegel, Chris. "Civilization and Its Discontents Plot Summary." LitCharts LLC, December 2, 2015. Retrieved March 13, 2018. http://www.litcharts.com/lit/civilization-and-its-discontents/summary.
Freud Civilization And Its Discontents Essay
In Civilization and its Discontents Freud asks, "What does man wish for and aim to achieve in life?" The answer that he gives is; "Most immediately men strive to be happy, and their behaviour in the outside world is determined by the pleasure principle." Shortly after this statement he says man realises this is not a possible state of affairs and thereafter accepts and is regulated by the "reality principle" . This book essentially explains why man cannot ever be fully happy in civilized society and will continue to live with underlying anxiety.
In order to fully understand his reasoning why civilization causes discontent for man his argument must be followed from the beginning. Freud postulates two opposing instinctual drives: the libido and the death drive. Within each of these areas are the instinctual drives, contained within the libido the drives that we consider positive, for example love. The death drive contains the drives that society would consider negative, for example aggression. Civilization, Freud contends, is built on harnessing the libido and sublimating the death drives. Harnessing the libido and sublimation of the death drives results in unfulfilled expression and desires within man, therefore the outcome is anxiety and discontentment for man within civilized society. Focusing on Freud's reasoning and how society exerts power over the individual to conform, causing this scarcity of happiness, is what this essay will examine.
Freud outlines three areas in which man will derive suffering and pain, "...the three sources of suffering: the superior power of nature, the frailty of our bodies, and the inadequacy of the institutions that regulate people's relations with one another in the family, the state and society." The first two are unavoidable, he says, but "Our attitude to the third source of suffering, the social source, is different. We refuse to recognise it at all; we cannot see why institutions that we ourselves have created should not protect and benefit us all." This assumption leads him towards the speculation that "...here too an element of unconquered nature may be at work in the background - this time our own psyche."
The concept of psyche and the forces that work within it to promote civilization are also the causes of discontentment within man, this is the crux of his argument. The psyche, Freud proposes, has a particular structure that comprises of three parts: the id, the ego, and the super-ego. The id contains initially our most primitive instinctual desires; here resides the libido and the death drive, while still a child. The ego results after the realisation of the...
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