Civilization and Its Discontents – Sigmund Freud


Synopsis:

In Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud advances his own assumptions for the essential social frictions which exist in contemporary Western civilization. Freud faults the evolved mores of Christian civilization for the frictions, but recognizes the utility of some prohibitions for the conservation of social order. Regrettably, Freud carried with him – even late in life – a very shallow understanding of Christian morality, which undermines many of his assumptions.

Excerpts:

“Satisfaction is derived from illusions, which one recognizes as such without letting their deviation from reality interfere with one’s enjoyment. The sphere in which these illusions originate is the life of the imagination, which at one time, when the sense of reality developed, was expressly exempted from the requirements of the reality test and remained destined to fulfill desires that were hard to realize.

“In some way each of us behaves rather like a paranoiac, employing wishful thinking to correct some unendurable aspect of the world and introducing this delusion into reality. Of special importance is the case in which substantial numbers of people, acting in concert, try to assure themselves of happiness and protection against suffering through a delusional reshaping of reality.

“Happiness in life is sought mainly in the enjoyment of beauty, wherever it presents itself to our senses and our judgement – the beauty of human forms and gestures, of natural objects and landscapes, of artistic and even scientific creations. This aesthetic approach to the purpose of life affords little protection against the sufferings that threaten us, but it can make up for much. The enjoyment of beauty has a special quality of feeling that is mildly intoxicating. Beauty has no obvious use, nor is it easy to see why it is necessary to civilization; yet civilization would be unthinkable without it.

“No feature, however, seems to us to characterize civilization better than the appreciation and cultivation of the higher mental activities, of intellectual, scientific and artistic achievements, and the leading role accorded to ideas in human life. Foremost among these ideas are the systems of religion, on whose complex structure I have tried to throw some light elsewhere; next come philosophical speculations, and finally what may be called human ideals, the notions, formed by human beings, of the possible perfection of the individual person, the nation and humanity as a whole, together with the demands they set up on the basis of such notions.

“Much of mankind’s struggle is taken up with the task of finding a suitable, that is to say a happy accommodation, between the claims of the individual and the mass claims of civilization. One of the problems affecting the fate of mankind is whether such an accommodation can be achieved through a particular molding of civilization or whether the conflict is irreconcilable.

*All excerpts have been taken from Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud, Penguin Modern Classics.