Civilization and Its Discontents

Civilization and Its Discontents Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Consider Freud's critique of communist thought. Where does Freud agree with communist insights? Where does he disagree?

    Freud's primary criticism of communism does not concern its interest in abolishing private property; on the contrary, he expresses sympathy for the poverty-stricken and offers no opinion on the value of communal ownership of property. Rather, Freud takes issue with the theory of humanity implicit in communist thought. Communism argues that human aggression and oppression are the result of private property; Freud, on the contrary, argues that human aggressive impulses are more deeply-seated than that. Violent behavior predates property, he says, and will likely be a part of the human portion for all time.

  2. 2

    How does Freud explain, in psycho-analytic terms, the "oceanic" feeling that figures so prominently in organized religion? Does he consider this feeling to be a result of religion, or some prior experience?

    Freud considers the oceanic feeling of eternity to be the vestige of a young child's experience of total oneness with the world. Originally, Freud proposes, a child does not understand the difference between his own body - his ego - and the outer world. With time, he develops a sense of ego. However, the primal memory of this oneness with the world remains. Religion takes advantage of this feeling of eternal significance, giving it a specific vocabulary, but from Freud's perspective the oceanic feeling does not actually come from religion.

  3. 3

    Discuss Freud's notion of happiness. What does Freud consider to be the primary route of human happiness? What are some alternate routes that happiness can take?

    Freud writes, "What is called happiness in its narrowest sense comes from the satisfaction - most often instantaneous - of pent-up needs which have reached great intensity, and by its very nature can only be a transitory experience." He thus conceives of happiness as a momentary release or indulgence of restrained instinctual desires and needs. The form of release is primarily sexual. For Freud, all happiness takes its form from the intense ecstasy experienced in orgasm. In derivative manifestations, happiness can also be found through the pursuit of arts and sciences and through the contemplation of beauty.

  4. 4

    Freud opens his work with a long comparison of psychological development with other forms of development - particularly, the growth of cities. What does he accomplish with this comparison? What does he specifically say about it?

    Freud's comparison is really a search for a metaphorical representation of the development of the mind as he sees it. Freud thinks that though human beings develop and change, they always retain their prior states of being. Thus the infant mental life exists somewhere deep inside the adult form, and all intermediate forms also continue to live on. Freud uses the city of Rome in particular to illustrate this phenomenon; Rome exists in layers, with millennia-old structures remaining next to brand-new high-rises. The use of a city, particularly a civilization as prominent as Rome, also introduces the theme of comparing the individual psyche with the collective psyche of a civilization.

  5. 5

    Freud proposes that, in a "civilized" culture, the more saintly one is, the more sinful one thinks oneself to be. How does he explain this paradox?

    Freud notes that saintly behavior is the result of a strong super-ego. As evidence, he cites Franz Alexander's clinical observations of a correlation between the strictness of parenting and the strength of this super-ego development. Where parenting is neglectful, the child is able to turn his reproaches outward at his parents; where parenting is attentive and blameless, the child turns this critical energy back on himself. Thus, he builds a relentless super-ego that fills him with guilt no matter how well-behaved he may be.

  6. 6

    Freud mixes scientific evidence with poetic citation throughout his essay. What is the effect of this rhetorical method?

    Freud's mixture of science with literature has always been double-pronged - on the one hand, it has helped to make his writing widely accessible beyond the bounds of psychoanalysis, on the other, it has provided fodder for critics who seek to discredit Freud's scientific pretenses. The overall effect, one might say, is an attempt to put his observations on the universal level of aesthetic achievement. Freud has a great respect for literary work, as is immediately evident in his anecdote about the "oceanic" feeling; simultaneously, he wishes to understand this accomplishment in terms of psychoanalysis. His ability to explain aesthetic phenomenon in psychoanalytic terms ties the deepest structures of the psyche to the most lasting productions of human art. Thus, Freud shows the significance of his ideas - the Oedipus complex, for instance - by yoking them to indisputably significant works of art - Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles.

  7. 7

    What does Freud say about the Christian injunction to "love thy neighbor as thyself"?

    Freud considers this maxim to be older than Christianity, but not particularly old in terms of the history of humanity. He also considers it to be absurd and disadvantageous. It is man's natural impulse to love himself and those dear to him - to love, in other words, the people he loves. The Christian notion to love one's enemies, in this context, is ridiculous to Freud and difficult to follow in practice. Indeed, aside from the occasional saint, Christians have had no trouble hating their enemies throughout their history, as their long history of persecuting Jews and heretics clearly shows.

  8. 8

    What does Freud mean by the following terms and how does he link them?: super-ego, conscience, sense of guilt, need for punishment, remorse.

    The super-ego is a psychological agency, the "higher self." "Conscience" is one of the super-ego's functions, in which it works as a censor and overseer of the ego's intentions. The "sense of guilt" is the degree to which the super-ego feels guilt; thus it also corresponds to the strength of one's conscience. The "need for punishment" is a masochistic feeling within the ego, which is being tormented by a sadistic super-ego. "Remorse" is an experience of guilt that occurs after the guilt-inducing action has taken place.

  9. 9

    Freud concerns himself with the masochistic and sadistic impulses in human life. How does he explain the origin of these impulses? What are some of the social and cultural consequences of these phenomena?

    Freud proposes that the two instincts he first identified in Beyond the Pleasure Principle - the life and death instincts - always coexist. When destructiveness (the death instinct) and Eros (the life instinct) commingle and are directed inward, the result is masochism - a sexual excitement via self-destructive actions. When they commingle and are directed outward, the result is sadism - a sexual excitement via the pain of others. Freud sees the prevalence of sadism and masochism in civilized society as evidence of the strengthening of the super-ego upon which society depends. The super-ego takes on massive importance and, in some cases, acts as sadist to the masochistic ego.

  10. 10

    In a long footnote at the beginning of Chapter 4, Freud speculates on the transition from the primarily olfactory sexuality of animals to the primarily visual sexuality of humanity. Describe this speculative evolutionary model.

    Freud argues that the shift from olfactory to visual sexuality occurred when, in his evolutionary course, man shifted from a crawling to an upright gait. At this point, the genitals were exposed and required protection, which inspired feelings of shame. With the shift to visual arousal, the prior olfactory arousal (which corresponded with the menstrual cycle) became taboo - hence the presence of periodic menstrual taboos in most native cultures. Ultimately, Freud suggests that the shift to visual sexuality altered the periodicity of arousal; whereas humans were once bound to the menstrual cycle for fertility, they become permanently capable of arousal with the change to an upright gait.