This was required reading for a graduate course in the Humanities. Sigmund Freud's "Civilization and Its Discontents," written in 1930, was his attempt at using his theories of psychoanalysis to observe and critique the psychological affect Western civilization had on the human subject. In his book, Freud sets the stage for his analysis by comparing the development of Western civilization with the development of the individual. In a sense, Freud is using Darwin's evolutionary theory to link social constructs and psychic constructs (Freud 3-9).
In essence, Freud postulated that the history of Western civilization is part of our unconscious mental history as well. Since Freud had an extensive classical education, it is no wonder that his works were replete with classical analogies. In this book, Freud relied on the city of Rome to represent the historical birthplace of society, and to explain the ill effects civilization had on the human psyche. Rome has been destroyed and rebuilt, in situ, numerous times since its founding. Rome contains ruins from all its previous eras, which allows one to observe every stage of its developmental history and character. Thus, Freud uses Rome as a metaphor for the observation of the developmental process in the human psyche. Similar to Rome, our unconscious psyche possesses ruins and traces of the past, which make up the structure of the mind as well. The mind is the repository for all of its earlier stages of development and it allows them to coexist with the latest stages of development. By using Rome as his metaphor for psychic development in both the subject and humankind, Freud is answering the criticism that was often leveled against psychoanalysis. Freud's psychoanalytical theories often came under criticism for depending too heavily on the psychological traits of the individual without taking into account the interaction of individuals within society.
Freud believed that the individual would always find it hard to feel content with life in civilization, because unbeknownst to the individual, the individual was under tremendous pressure from their unconscious guilt. Thus, civilization acted as a kind of superego; its conscience, repressing the individual's unconscious desires manifested by their id (Freud 86). What Freud theorized, was that in a sense, civilization, had a life of its own and that it had to control and punish the individual's two great primal instincts in order for civilization to survive and flourish (Freud 69). The two primal instincts are: 1) the death instinct, which in Greek is Thanatos, where one's aggressive impulses reside; and 2) Eros, which is his name for the life instinct or sex drive, also known as the libido. Both Thanatos and Eros reside within an individual's unconscious id and are in a constant state of struggle with each other. In fact, Freud believed that the history of civilization was a struggle between Thanatos and Eros (Freud 80-82). Thus, civilization acting as a superego and protecting itself from destruction, represses humankind's death instinct towards each other through the implementation of authoritative agencies, religion, and by enacting laws (Freud 36, 69, 73-74). Thus, aggression is turned inward towards the individual's ego and forms a person's "conscience," giving the individual their sense of guilt and frustration with life in civilized society (Freud 82-84). Therefore, civilization, acting as the superego, subdues the individuals death instinct; "...setting up an agency within him to watch over it, like a garrison in a conquered city" (Freud 84).
Recommended reading for anyone interested in psychology, philosophy, and history.
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