Civilization and Its Discontents

Civilization and Its Discontents Summary and Analysis of Chapters 1-2

Chapter 1

In the introductory paragraphs, Freud takes issue with a colleague's account of a so-called "oceanic" feeling‹ - the sense of boundlessness and oneness felt between the ego and the outside world. He states that this feeling is "a purely subjective fact, not an article of faith." It does not betoken an allegiance to a specific religion, but instead points to the source of religious sentiment in human beings. Churches and religious institutions are adept at channeling this sentiment into particular belief systems, but they do not themselves create it.

Freud cannot attest to having experienced this "oceanic" feeling, and yet his lack of identification does not lead him to deny its existence for other human beings. On the contrary, he attempts to understand the phenomenon scientifically: if the feeling has no outward physiological signs, there must be a psychoanalytic explanation for it. Freud proceeds to summarize his previous findings. In general, the ego perceives itself as maintaining "sharp and clear lines of demarcation" with the outside world. Only when it is at the height of love does the ego consciously allow that boundary to become more fluid and permeable without feeling threatened. Otherwise, the tendency of the ego is to detach from the pain and displeasure associated with the outside world, to throw feelings of suffering arising from external sources outside of itself. This distinction between inside and outside is a crucial part of the process of psychological development, allowing the ego to recognize a "reality" separate from itself. At an earlier stage of development, the ego had an all-encompassing, almost boundless sense of the world around it; with maturity comes a "shrunken" sense of reality because the ego has delimited itself from the outside world.

Freud then asks: is such an inference about the earliest stages of psychological development sound? In other words, can we describe states of mind that we no longer inhabit? Yes, explains Freud, because science makes precisely such claims all the time, for instance, about the evolution of higher species from the lowest forms of life, even though the intermediate links are materially missing. The mind is exceptional because infantile and mature feelings continue to co-exist throughout a person's life: once a memory has been recorded, it is never erased, and can be called to the surface under the right circumstances. Freud draws another analogy to the field of archeology by describing the excavation of past ruins under present-day edifices. He takes Rome, the "Eternal City," as an example, only to conclude that the analogy is insufficient because the mind cannot ultimately be represented in visual or pictorial terms.

Freud revises his earlier statement about memory: "What is past in mental life may be preserved and is not necessarily erased." He returns to the question of "oceanic" feeling with which the chapter commences, dismissing it as an explanation of the source of religious sentiment in human beings. Instead, according to Freud, it is a longing for paternal protection in childhood that continues into adult life as a sustained "fear of the superior power of Fate." Freud reiterates his frustration over the fact that this "sense of oneness with the universe" is an intangible quantity impervious to traditional scientific analysis, because it has no physiological basis.

Chapter 2

In Future of an Illusion, Freud laments the common man's preoccupation with the "enormously exalted father" embodied by God. The whole idea of placating a supposedly higher being for future recompense strikes Freud as infantile. The reality is, however, that masses of men persist in this illusion for the duration of their lives. According to Freud, men exhibit three main coping mechanisms to counter their experience of suffering in the world: 1) deflection of pain and disappointment (through planned distractions); 2) substitutive satisfactions (mainly through the replacement of reality by art); 3) intoxicating substances. Freud concludes that religion cannot be clearly categorized within this schema.

Reconsidering the subject, Freud avers that religious belief alone can answer the question of the ultimate purpose of life. Most immediately, men strive to be happy, and their behavior in the outside world is determined by the pleasure principle. But the possibilities for happiness and pleasure are limited, and more often we experience unhappiness from the following three sources: 1) our body; 2) the external world; and 3) our relations to other men. We employ various strategies to avoid displeasure: by isolating ourselves voluntarily, becoming members of the human community (i.e. contributing to a common endeavor), or influencing our own bodies. Intoxication is a particularly prevalent method of influence. Sometimes we aim to control our instincts through practices of spiritual meditation. Sublimation of instincts is another method of influence, involving the "displacement of libido" or re-channeling of energies into other activities.

The discipline required to influence our internal psyche makes this strategy available to very few; more commonly, we derive satisfaction from illusions, such as the enjoyment provided by works of art, which provides temporary relief from the misery of the outside world. Another strategy, as mentioned previously, is isolation, but reality intrudes far too forcefully for a solitary illusion to persist. Finally, Freud points to love as a potentially intense source of happiness, the downside being the vulnerability and defenselessness of the ego that accompany love for another person.

Freud reflects on the role of beauty in achieving happiness: while undoubtedly a source of pleasure, beauty has no discernible nature or origin, even if philosophical studies in aesthetics have succeeded in describing the conditions under which it is experienced. For its part, psychoanalysis would appear to locate beauty in sexual feeling, since beauty is often an attribute of the desired sexual object.

It is impossible to reach a state of full happiness. None of the above strategies will work completely. "HappinessŠ is a problem of the economics of the individual's libido," Freud states. Each individual must identify the type of happiness most important to him as well as the capacity of his own mental constitution to experience happiness. Adaptation to the external environment is also key to a maximum yield of pleasure. Religion reduces these variables by dictating a simple path to happiness. It thereby spares the masses of their individual neuroses, but Freud sees little of value in religion beyond this. If the believer realizes that religion has put such a constraint on the possibilities of his happiness, his only option becomes to find pleasure in "unconditional submission" to his faith. But Freud remarks that such a self-aware individual could most likely find other, less arduous paths to happiness.

Analysis of Chapters 1-2

The most intriguing aspect of the introductory chapter consists in Freud's attempt to compare the enterprise of psychoanalysis to‹ - and simultaneously differentiate it from‹ - other accepted scientific disciplines.

The analogies to evolutionary science and archeology, far from being self-indulgent digressions, actually illuminate Freud's conception of the individual and civilization. First of all, Freud implicitly subscribes to the precepts of Darwinian theory, and therefore believes fundamentally in the progressive nature of the human species, even if it is prone to periodic regression and spasms of violence. For Freud, the evolution of human civilization has reached an impasse because it has conquered nature with ever greater technological and mechanical force, which has paradoxically made conditions less, rather than more, livable for the individual. Freud also believes in the necessity of "adapting" to one's environment‹a concept derived from the broader framework of Darwinian theory and applied to his own theory of psychological development. Put simply, Freud feels that human beings are biologically unprepared for the altered conditions of civilized life; we evolved to deal with a primal rather than a civil environment.

Freud's analogy to archeology illustrates his background in classical literature and history, but also shows the primacy of Western civilization to his thinking, since Freud considers ancient Rome as the historical origin of culture and society. The "super-ego," as Freud will conjecture toward the end of his essay, is both individual and collective. We inherit our notion of authority and standards of greatness from past leaders or figures of imposing personality, such as the Roman emperors Nero, Hadrian, and Agrippa to whom Freud makes reference in his description of Roman architecture. At the same time, Freud makes a nod to the influence of Eastern culture and civilization in discussing the "practices of Yoga" and "the worldly wisdom of the East" as a "peculiar" and "unusual" method of attaining self-knowledge and control over the impulses of the ego.

In Chapter Two, Freud expresses his antagonism to organized religion in forthright and barely diplomatic terms, calling it delusional and infantile. Aggressively secular in his orientation, Freud takes Goethe's view that science and art can provide - and even improve upon - the benefits of religion. Freud enacts his own belief in the importance of the arts by inserting generous citations of poetry and other insights from literary sources throughout.

According to Freud, the purpose of human life is not redemption in an afterlife, but the achievement of happiness. His theory of the pleasure principle clashes directly with the biblical "intention that man should be Œhappy," which Freud notes with irony "is not included in the plan of ŒCreation."

Most surprising is Freud's emphasis on the compensatory value of beauty‹ - the idea that aesthetically pleasing "human forms and gestures, natural objects and landscapes, artistic and even scientific creations" can stave off suffering and provide temporary pleasure. The logical connection between psychoanalysis and beauty is, in the end, quite tenuous and insufficiently explored. Freud never adequately integrates his interest in beauty into the broader scheme of the pleasure principle. In discussing the topic of beauty and aesthetics, he borrows heavily from the theory of Immanuel Kant, a prominent eighteenth-century German philosopher whose seminal work, The Critique of Judgment (1790), continues to set the terms of contemporary debate on the definition, value, and function of beauty. Kant believed, as Freud does, that beauty does not inhere in the material qualities of the object but is a function of the viewer's receptivity to it.