notes on freud’s civilization & its discontents

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To read Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents eighty-four years after it was first published reminds us how his ideas permeate our everyday discourse on the human psyche. We have to only mention two themes to recognize Freud’s legendary impact—the unconscious and sexuality. Yet to read him again, demarcates another psychological struggle between our polar instincts of eros and thanatos, love and death respectively. These two drives are held within the mind of the individual. Recall that Freud’s id attends to the sexual, destructive seeking parts of us. On the other extreme, the superego as the lawmaker, seeks to internalize social restrictions of our primal appetites and hatefulness of the id. In the middle of all this is the rational ego, which is represented by the conscious mind, the mediator between the two drives. Central to Freud’s argument is that society, at large, tries to enact the same restraints so as to control the individual’s impulsive drives for pleasure (eros: sex) and aggression (thanatos: death).

Not everything goes as planned, stultified sex and frustrated anger manifest into guilt feelings imposed on us via our individual superegos, and also from our societal regulations, in the form of a collective superego. The all pervasive guilt feelings of both an individual and society represent the prevailing discontent felt by all people, referenced in the book’s title. For Freud, religion is brought about to (as he sees it, unsuccessfully) contend with our guilt feelings. Religion is also filling a deep unconscious need for a more infantile “oceanic feeling” represented by a stage of development from our pre-ego infancy when we couldn’t differentiate from our mother’s body, her body and our own.

It’s worth it to read Freud with an ear to his cultural and historical contributions. At the same time, we are quick to recognize him as a great writer, think about the way he writes of our mind’s as containing all our past experiences, compared to the development of ancient Rome. Another curious point, found in a footnote, speaks to man’s advancement when he (primal man) decided to not urinate on every fire he found.[1] Hence, this odd anthropological development is Freud’s example of the power of controlling one’s selfish sexual/infantile urges, so as to benefit society’s demands for energy and the survival of the group.

[1] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, translated by James Strachy, New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010, n. 3, 63-64.