Civilization and Its Discontents

Civilization and Its Discontents Summary and Analysis of Chapters 5-6

Chapter 5

Freud notes that civilization's antagonism toward sexuality arises from the necessity work of building communal bonds based on friendship. If the activity of the libido were allowed to run rampant, it would likely destroy the monogamous love-relationship of the couple that society has endorsed as the most stable.

Freud next objects to the commandment "Love thy neighbor" because, contrary to Biblical teaching, he takes a pessimistic view of fellow man, whose primal instinct Freud considers to be aggressive, not loving. The biblical commandment runs counter to the original nature of man, and history is the proof: man has proven time and again that he will exploit, abuse, humiliate, cause pain, torture and kill other men, from the invasion of the Huns to the First World War. Civilization is continually threatened with disintegration because of this inclination to aggression. It invests great energy in restraining these instincts. The law has tried to refine itself to the point of regulating most forms of aggression, but it still fails to prevent it.

Freud then turns to socialist thought. Communists claim to find the path to deliverance through the abolition of private property, which thereby eliminates an economic system that allows certain individuals to accrue disproportionate wealth and abuse his fellow men. For Freud, communism is based on a faulty assumption, since it in no way alters human nature, only one of the motivations by which it operates (i.e. greed). Aggression predates the ownership of property. It has also served throughout history to bind communities together against those outside them. The Jews in the Middle Ages were, for instance, the victims of intolerance by Christians; and in Russia, vilification of the bourgeois has served as a rallying cry for the communist government.

Freud concludes that civilized man has exchanged the possibility of happiness for security. But primitive society is not to be envied, since in that context, only the head of the family enjoyed instinctual freedom at the expense of all others. Some of these limitations of modern society are surmountable, while others are intrinsic to civilization. Freud does not specify which limitations on our instinctual freedom fall into which category. The most dangerous society, according to him, is one in which the leader is exalted and individuals do not acquire an adequate sense of identity. Freud points to American society as an example of this danger, but refrains from pursuing his criticism further.

Chapter 6

Freud quotes Schiller: "hunger and love are what moves the world." At first glance, the two appear to be driven by opposing instincts. Hunger can be characterized as an ego-instinct or satisfaction of internal needs, whereas love is directed toward objects external to the ego. "Libido" is another term for this instinct. Freud finds himself forced to abandon this antithesis when he considers the phenomenon of sadism, which is technically an object-instinct, but also bound up in the ego and a desire for mastery. The concept of narcissism elaborated in earlier writings by Freud also presents a complication to this simple opposition between the ego-instincts and object-instincts, for in Freud's schema self-love psychologically precedes‹ - and is a necessary condition of‹ - the love directed towards others.

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud first elaborated the concept of the death drive, opposed to Eros (the life instinct). The psychoanalytic community found this thesis highly dubious; however, Freud says, its existence now seems undeniable. Aggression is "an original, self-subsisting instinctual disposition in man" that "constitutes the greatest impediment to civilization." The purpose of civilization is to bind men libidinally to one another into communities; the death drive complicates this process greatly. For Freud, the entire evolution of civilization can be summed up as a struggle between Eros and the death drive.

Analysis of Chapters 5-6

Whereas in Chapter 3 Freud compared man to a "prosthetic God" on account of his technological innovations, in Chapter 5 he focuses on the opposite phenomenon: man's regression into a state of barbarism and animalism. With the Latin expression "Homo homini lupus" ("Man is a wolf to man"), Freud metaphorically underscores the Darwinian undertone of his argument about human civilization, viewing man's evolution in the context of his descent from "lower" species.

Freud's critique of communism from an psychoanalytic perspective is a tour de force. Without engaging the usual debate about the economic merits or disadvantages of a state-run government, it pinpoints the faulty assumption behind the abolition of private property, namely, the inability to reform human nature in such a manner to eliminate all motivation for the exploitation associated with capitalism.

As a side note, the language of economics already enters into Freud's conception of the individual to a great degree. (In his discussion of the pleasure principle, Freud regularly refers to the "economics of the libido.") Indeed, his broader understanding of "economy" enacts, to a great degree, his objection to communism. Whereas a communist thinks of economics in terms of the distribution of resources, Freud considers the fundamental economy to consist of the distribution of libidinal energy. One might abolish inequality in the realm of finances, but one cannot predict or alter the fundamental libidinal economy, which inevitably inclines toward erotic desire and destruction.

Interestingly, Freud suggests that the inclination to aggression otherwise so destructive to civilization has also served to build and reinforce a sense of nationalism among peoples who then define themselves in opposition to other "foreign" peoples. This insight can be logically connected back to Freud's extended critique of the biblical commandment to "Love thy neighbor" at the beginning of this chapter, since it points to the role of aggression (as well as mutual love) in the process of communal identity-formation.

Freud starts with an opposition between ego-instincts and object-instincts. Within the course of his analysis, he puts into question the validity of this opposition by noting that both instincts flow from the ego, or more specifically, that our urges toward external objects are ultimately a function of our own desires (i.e. for mastery, control, pleasure). This type of self-revision common in Freud's writings is a prototypical act of deconstructive thought, which consists in demonstrating how each term of an apparent opposition contains the difference of the other term within it. For example, Freud realizes that the desires directed toward the outside (so-called object-instincts) in fact originate in desires coming from within the subject. Similarly, in the following chapter, he will draw a contrast between the fear of (external) authority and fear of the (internal) super-ego, only to reveal that the latter flows from the former.

Freud is also not averse to admitting the erroneous nature of his own prior clinical assumptions. A typical example occurs in this chapter: "I remember my own defensive attitude when the idea of an instinct of destruction first emerged in psychoanalytic literatureŠ" This is also a type of self-revision, but far from underscoring Freud's apparent open-mindedness to new ideas, it also serves rhetorically to anticipate and overcome in advance the reader's resistance to the concept (in this case, of the death drive) that Freud is putting forward. Freud's style of argumentation is, in other words, very similar to the psychoanalytic framework he is elaborating in that it already has the concept of resistance built into it.

In Chapter 6, Freud's reliance on literature and poetry as empirical evidence of instincts is particularly striking. Freud appears to integrate seamlessly his clinical experience with allusions to Goethe and Schiller, according the two equal weight in his research. In a footnote, he cites a passage from Faust in which the description of evil coincides with the "destructive instinct" that Freud labels the death drive in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. It is interesting to observe how Freud treats literature as an authoritative source of knowledge about human nature, without seeing a conflict in its epistemological status as fiction, as something which might accurately describe a psychological feeling or condition, but which is not at all the same as a patient's account.