Civilization and Its Discontents

Civilization and Its Discontents Summary and Analysis of Chapters 7-8

Chapter 7

One of the primary functions of society is to restrain our aggressive impulses. It achieves this goal by installing within the individual a sort of watchdog, which Freud calls the "super-ego," to master our desire for aggression. Freud speculates that the individual, once forbidden from expressing this desire externally, subdues excess aggression by redirecting it towards his own ego. The super-ego regulates the actions of the ego in the form of a "conscience" and consequently imposes a sense of guilt and need for self-punishment on the individual.

Freud attempts to account for the root cause of guilt, concluding that it arises from doing something or intending to do something "bad." Whether or not the action or intention is bad in absolute moral terms is irrelevant; it is sufficient for the ego to deem it as such. Freud goes further, however, in rejecting the existence of a "natural" capacity to distinguish between good and bad. What is considered bad often feels good or is otherwise desirable to the ego. For Freud, the only thing "bad" in this sense is the threat of the loss of love. In children, this fear is acute and involves losing parents; in adults, the community takes the place of the parental figure.

With the establishment of the super-ego comes a sense of bad conscience. Because it is internalized, the super-ego omnisciently regulates both our thoughts and deeds, whereas prior to its installation, individuals only had to submit themselves to a higher authority for punishment (such as parents) in the case of fully accomplished acts. Those who have carried saintliness to an extreme are paradoxically the most likely to feel sinful. External frustration also enhances the power of conscience to reproach and impose punishment on the ego. Whole peoples have behaved this way: the Jews interpreted their misfortune as the consequence of their own sinfulness and created a set of overly strict commandments in reaction to their fate.

There are two sources of guilt: 1) fear of authority and 2) fear of the super-ego. In the latter case, instinct renunciation no longer liberates the individual from the sense of internal guilt that the super-ego continues to perpetuate. By extension, in order to maintain its own order and stability, civilization reinforces the sense of guilt to regulate and accommodate the ever-increasing numbers of relationships between men. As time goes on, it becomes a more repressive force that individuals find increasingly difficult to tolerate.

Chapter 8

Freud apologizes for the "detours" to which his essay has been prone. He elevates his discussion of the increasing sense of guilt taken up in the last chapter to the "most important problem in the development of civilization." In his view, civilization takes an enormous toll on the happiness of individuals. In the case of obsessive neurotics, guilt makes itself heard noisily within the conscience, but often it operates in more surreptitious ways. Freud classifies guilt as a particular form of anxiety. In his clinical view, anxiety is behind every symptom, whether consciously or unconsciously expressed. While the collective level of anxiety within civilization has increased, it remains largely undiagnosed, and manifests itself as a widespread and vague malaise to which people attach other causes. Religions claim to redeem mankind from guilt, through rituals of sacrificial death or martyrdom (i.e. the assumption of collective guilt by an individual).

Freud devotes a few pages to introducing definitional clarity into his seemingly interchangeable use of the following terms: the "super-ego" is an internal agency whose existence has been inferred; "conscience" is one of the functions ascribed to the super-ego, to keep watch over the intentions and actions of the ego; "sense of guilt" designates the perception that the ego has of being surveyed and arises from the tension between its own strivings and the (often overly severe) demands of the super-ego. It can be felt prior to the execution of the guilty act, whereas "remorse" refers exclusively to the reaction after the act of aggression has been carried out.

Earlier, Freud had claimed that thwarted instincts in general lead to a heightened sense of guilt. Here he specifies that only aggressive instincts are transformed into a sense of guilt via the regulating action of the super-ego. Freud applies the same revision to his understanding of symptoms, which are "in their essence substitutive satisfactions for unfulfilled sexual wishes." Not all repressed instincts, however, manifest themselves as symptoms. Some translate more specifically into a sense of guilt.

Freud's earlier analogy between the development of civilization and the libidinal maturation of the individual also undergoes a final revision. The program of the pleasure principle, which consists in finding and achieving happiness, is retained as the central aim of individual psychological development; however, in the context of civilization, personal happiness is dispensed with in favor of unity and social cohesion. In joining a larger community, the individual oscillates between the poles of egoism and altruism, between the urge toward personal happiness and the urge toward union. This struggle is completely internal, a function of the ebb and flow of the libido, not to be confused with the struggle between Eros and the death drive outlined elsewhere in Freud's essay.

Freud extends this analogy to the concept of the super-ego, positing the existence of a cultural super-ego formed by the personalities of great leaders or by martyred figures representing humanity at its most downtrodden, notably that of Jesus Christ. In society, the cultural super-ego operates under the heading of "ethics," whose main purpose in Freud's view is to reign in the "constitutional impulse" of men to act aggressively toward one another. Like the individual super-ego, it makes overbearing demands that cannot be realistically met. Freud remarks that the cultural imperative to restrain aggressive behavior might in the end cause greater psychological unhappiness than aggression that has been fully acted out.

Pushing the analogy between the individual and civilization still further, Freud wonders whether it would be possible to characterize certain epochs of civilization as "neurotic." The problem is that diagnoses of neurosis are based on a relative definition of individual psychological normality, and would be difficult to apply to entire groups, let alone segments of civilization.

Finally, Freud emphasizes the instinct of aggression and self-destruction as the single greatest problem facing civilization, as manifested in "the present time": he asks, which force - "eternal Eros" or his potent adversary‹, the death drive - will prove stronger?

Analysis of Chapters 7 and 8

Freud's religious background permeates his discourse at almost every turn. Scholars are in disagreement about the extent to which Judaism influences Freud's conception of psychoanalysis. Certainly, his interpretations of the religion and its core beliefs have often been at odds with mainstream Jewish tradition. The frequent references to Jewish history and culture throughout the essay paradoxically points up the importance of religion to Freud's thought at the same time that Freud categorically rejects the practice and institution of organized religion as infantile and delusional.

The phenomenon of guilt, for example, is integral to Freud's understanding of the formation of the super-ego, and traced back to the historical experience of the Jews, who "produced the prophets, who held up their sinfulness before them; and out of their sense of guilt they created the overstrict commandments of their priestly religion." Similarly, Freud cites the persecution of the Jews as a manifestation of the "inclination to aggression" that sometimes serves as a cohesive force behind identity-formation.

That Freud should use the term "detours" at the beginning of Chapter 8 to describe metaphorically the meanderings of his paper is no coincidence, given his protracted reflection at the beginning of the essay on the inadequacy of pictorial or visual metaphors in describing the complexity of the mind, and more specifically, the simultaneous existence of infantile and mature feelings. It is interesting that Freud should conceive of his own thought patterns through the metaphor of a road map, which is an essentially spatial metaphor similar to the one Freud rejected in the first chapter.

The structure of Freud's discussion calls to mind the etymological meaning of "essay," which at its origin designated an experiment, a tentative and often speculative proceeding that emphasized process over result, and consequently involved many "detours" from the stated topic of discussion. In terms of genre, the essay was derived from the scientific principle of an experiment, but its structure was elastic enough to accommodate both empirical and theoretical evidence, both relevant and digressive considerations. Freud, by integrating references to literature and other disciplines (politics and economics, for example), stays true to the interdisciplinary origins of the essay, as well as to its experimental nature.

If we examine the rhetorical strategy in Chapter 8, Freud's point of departure is the analysis of the individual and his symptoms. He proceeds to build a more extended analogy between the development of the individual and the evolution of civilization, until that analogy no longer seems sustainable for two main reasons. First, unlike the clinical manifestations of the individual super-ego that allows Freud to infer its existence (namely, symptoms of anxiety, fear, and guilt), there can be no empirical evidence of a "cultural super-ego," even if such a concept can be logically deduced from the value that a culture places on certain leaders or individuals. Second, to characterize an entire epoch of civilization as "neurotic," as it is possible to diagnose an individual, the existence of a collective pathology would have to be referenced against a normative psychological state of being. Freud warns us that "we are only dealing with analogies and that it is dangerous," since they ultimately have only logical, but not necessarily clinical or empirical, validity.

It is significant that the last line of the essay, added later in the 1931 edition of Civilization and Its Discontents, takes the form of a question. Instead of concluding with a definitive statement about the prevailing force within human civilization, Freud leaves his deliberately inquiry open-ended and amenable to speculation. His interest lies not in casting a judgment or making a prediction (which the course of history would prove or disprove), but in identifying the underlying impulses and trends within the broader culture and civilization.