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.

War – William Graham Sumner

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Synopsis:

Written during the era of the Spanish-American War the essay “War” was William Graham Sumner’s endeavor to examine the normative human dispositions which fuse into conflict. As a pioneering intellectual in the field of sociology, Sumner used group social dynamics and frictions as the keystone of his assumptions.

Excerpts:

“If we assume a standpoint in one group we may call that one the ‘we-group’ or the ‘in-group’; then every other group is to us an ‘others-group’ or an ‘out-group.’ The sentiment which prevails inside the ‘we-group,’ between its members, is that of peace and cooperation; the sentiment which prevails inside of a group towards all outsiders is that of hostility and war.

“War arises from the competition of life, not from the struggle for existence. In the struggle for existence a man is wrestling with nature to extort from her the means of subsistence. It is when two men are striving side by side in the struggle for existence, to extort from nature the supplies they need, that they come into rivalry and a collision of interest with each other takes place. This collision may be light and unimportant, if the supplies are large and the number of men small, or it may be harsh and violent, if there are many men striving for a small supply. This collision we call the competition of life.

“We can now see why the sentiments of peace and cooperation inside are complementary to sentiments of hostility outside. It is because any group, in order to be strong against an outside enemy, must be well disciplined, harmonious, and peaceful inside; in other words, because discord inside would cause defeat in battle with another group. Therefore the same conditions which made men warlike against outsiders made them yield to the control of chiefs, submit to discipline, obey law, cultivate peace, and create institutions inside.

“The sentiment of cohesion, internal comradeship, and devotion to the in-group, which carries with it a sense of superiority to any out-group and readiness to defend the interests of the in-group against the out-group, is technically known as ethnocentrism.

“The United States presents us a case quite by itself. We have here a confederated state which is a grand peace-group. It occupies the heart of a continent; therefore there can be no question of balance of power here and no need of war preparations such as now impoverish Europe. The United States is a new country with a sparse population and no strong neighbors. Such a state will be a democracy and a republic, and it will be ‘free’ in almost any sense that its people choose.

*All excerpts have been taken from War and Other Essays, Yale University Press.