Why Is Society Unhappy? Sigmund Freud's Perspectives on Society
Civilization and its Discontents & Future of an Illusion by Sigmund Freud - Book Overview and Thoughts
After reading "On Ideology" by Louis Althusser, I became more interested in understanding Freud’s perspectives on society, mainly because Althusser devotes an entire chapter to him and Lacan at the end of the book.
After doing some research, I found that Freud’s most influential works on society were "Civilization and its Discontents" and "The Future of an Illusion." I began with the latter because it was the first to be written, and then moved on to the former. In this newsletter, we will look at Freud's thoughts on society and religion as described in these two books, and try to fully understand them.
That being said, after reading these two works, it appears Freud expects you are familiar with the theory of the structure of the mind he developed earlier. I was heavily into personal development at some point in my life, which made me have a good and basic understanding of the id, ego, and superego by the time I read these books, but for the purposes of making this newsletter easier to understand, I will assume the reader or listener does not understand or has an idea of this theory. Therefore, to gain a deeper understanding of these works, I will first explain what these concepts are.
First of all, it is important to recognize that Freud's theory was heavily influenced by the sex life, and I am inclined to believe that this was mostly due to the context in which his books were written. Things like "sex before marriage" and women being more sexually open were non-existent, so reading him with that in mind and interpreting his "libido" concept as instinctual energy works best.
Second, according to my research, most of what Freud claimed is no longer taken seriously in psychology, and he may be viewed more as a philosopher than a scientist. However, his theory of the unconscious and childhood origins of adult personality are some of his most important contributions and are still regarded as very important, and, in general, because these theories cannot be completely disqualified scientifically, his theory of the id, ego, and superego can be used or interpreted as symbolic truths, which from a philosophical standpoint, truly make sense and shed light to the problems we face today on our societies.
Let’s begin by briefly describing what the id, the ego, and the superego are. The id is the instinctual part of our psyche and it's responsible for needs and desires. In Freud's work, you will often see him referring to it as our sexual desires or libido, but again, let’s take this more as an instinctual energy or desire. The id doesn’t really have a connection with the outside world, it just cares about his urges and needs, and is the part of the mind who remains infantile throughout our life, operating within the unconscious.
Furthermore, as we explore Freud's thoughts on society, we will gain a better understanding of these concepts, but the id is composed of Eros and Thanatos, which can be regarded as good and evil, respectively. This is quite archetypical, but interesting, in my opinion, because it is related to dialectics, particularly the idea that everything is made up of contradictions, positives and negatives.
According to Freud, Eros is our libido, or the impulse that supports life, such as hunger, sex, and so on, whereas Thanatos is the death instinct or drive that creates destructive forces or aggressiveness in humans.
Moving on, the superego is the part of the psyche that ensures that moral standards are followed, and it is in general the part of the mind that has everything we learn from society and our parents. It isn’t there when we are born; rather, it develops in our early stages in life. This part of the mind can be thought as the ideological part of the psyche, and it is responsible for feelings of reward, self-esteem, and even guilt.
Finally, consciousness is the ego. It is the component of the mind that mediates and makes decisions depending on the demands of the id and the superego. This component of the psyche sticks to the reality principle, or in other words, it is the part of the mind that comprehends what is going on outside, in contrast to the id, which is only concerned with his wants and conforms to the pleasure principle. According to Freud, children do not have this component of the mind formed, which is why they act only on their desires and needs.
As we can see, all of this mind theory can sound quite archetypical, which is why many psychologists do not take much of what he said seriously.
However, our reality has been built around concepts like this, as evidenced by consumer behavior theory and behavioral economics, both of which rely heavily on theories of unconscious desires and motivations. What’s more, the superego can explain a lot about our ideological constructs from a societal standpoint.
With that in mind, let's dive right into the books, as I believe we've given a decent overview of some earlier concepts that will help us better understand his views on society.
Religion as a Civilizing Force: According to Freud, religion is an integral part of civilization. It provides protection from nature's uncertainties and regulates societal behaviors. However, while it provides moral guidelines, it also causes conflicts due to imposed restrictions, as discussed further in "Civilization and its Discontents."
Religion as an Illusion: In "The Future of an Illusion," Freud argues that religious beliefs are illusions driven by wishful thinking. He views religion as a psychological mechanism to cope with existential uncertainties, and he compares it to other constructs like art or intoxicants that provide relief or numbness from life's hardships.
The "Oceanic Feeling" and Ego Development: Freud investigates the "oceanic feeling," which he describes as religious. He ends up attributing this feeling to an early, infant, undifferentiated ego state - a sense of limitlessness and unity with the universe.
Pursuit of Happiness and Defense Mechanisms: Freud delves into the pursuit of happiness, claiming that it is deeply rooted in the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure. He claims, however, that this pursuit is hindered by both internal and external factors. He identifies defense mechanisms like isolation, intoxication, and impulse control as strategies people use to protect themselves from pain. This introduces the concept of sublimation, which is the redirection of instinctual energies into activities that are socially acceptable or beneficial.
Civilization and Its Discontents: Freud explores the role of civilization in shaping human discontent. He investigates three sources of human misery: constitutional factors, external forces, and communal living. While the first two are inescapable, communal living, as represented by societal demands and relationships, emerges as a potential source of dissatisfaction. He explores the evolution of civilization from tools and physical advancements to societal norms and ideals, emphasizing the inherent conflict between individual instincts and the societal constraints required for communal harmony.
Sexual Taboos and Societal Restrictions: Freud delves into societal sexual regulations and emphasizes their restrictive nature. He claims that these norms ignore the diversity of human sexual constitutions, imposing a single model of sexual life on everyone. He goes on to compare this to religion and its imposition of a certain way of life that must be followed by everyone, regardless of their differences.
Aggressiveness and the Death Instinct: Freud delves into human aggression, claiming that it is built into individuals. He introduces the concepts of Eros and Thanatos, which represent the instincts for life and death, respectively. The death instinct seeks dissolution and self-destruction, acting in opposition to the life-giving Eros. He investigates how societies manage and control these aggressive instincts for communal harmony through various methods such as love, sexual restrictions, and sublimation.
Inherent Conflict in Civilization: According to Freud, civilization inherently causes conflict within individuals. Society's demands, particularly the suppression of individual desires for the sake of communal harmony, result in a never-ending internal struggle and dissatisfaction.
The “Oceanic Feeling,” and “The Future of an Illusion.”
We are starting with his views on religion, mainly because the first chapter of “Civilization and its Discontents” starts this way, and his previous work “The Future of an Illusion” is mainly about that.
We won’t go into too much detail with “The Future of an Illusion:” but will lay out the most important things he said in this book about civilization and its relation to religion.
One of the most important things Freud says about religion is that it is an essential component within civilization. Societies were created as a way to raise humanity above animal existence and offer protection against nature, as well as to protect individuals from each other's desires through the establishment of social structures and laws.
He also claimed that, paradoxically, while society safeguards against nature, it can create conflict among individuals due to imposed restrictions, which are further developed on “Civilization and its Discontents.”
Furthermore, the primary goal of religion for Freud was to humanize natural forces and offer a psychological way to cope with and control nature's unpredictability. In his view, religion is a way to cope with the realities and difficulties of life through the figure of a father who is there to protect us.
In other words, religion is a state of helplessness, and if we can recall the psyche structure we discussed at the beginning, it is mainly the id who cannot understand the outside world, asking for protection so that his needs for survival can be accomplished.
Following this, he mentions that even though initially gods were anthropomorphized forces of nature, like for instance the god of the rain or the sea, the rise of scientific explanations changed the belief in gods as controllers of nature. People started realizing that natural laws governed the world rather than divine entities.
As a result, the function of gods changed. They shifted from being masters of nature to being protectors of morality and justice, especially after death. They became more associated with ensuring justice in an afterlife as faith in their ability to control nature diminished. This provided relief and justice in a world where life struggles often seemed unfair and uncontrollable.
Finally, Freud mentions the Jews and credits them for the significant shift in religious thought. He claims that they consolidated multiple gods from various pantheons into the concept of a single omnipotent God, which marks the significant shift from polytheism to monotheism.
Now, Freud argues in "The Future of an Illusion" that religious beliefs are illusions rather than delusions or errors. According to him, illusions are beliefs based on wishful thinking, regardless of whether they are true or false. An illusion, unlike a hallucination or an error, may or may not be true, but its fundamental motivation is to fulfill a psychological wish. They are beliefs that are formed by a person's desires rather than empirical evidence, whereas delusions are beliefs that contradict reality and cannot be true.
With this in mind, he claims that religion is an illusion rather than a delusion since it lacks empirical evidence and is based on faith and wish fulfillment. This explains why he believes religion is psychologically based on the desire for comfort and security in the face of life's uncertainties.
Moreover, Freud describes the dangers of a civilization that was formed by religion. He proposes to educate people to think scientifically, in order to avoid the collapse of civilization due to the loss of faith. His solution involves replacing religious justifications for morality with rational, practical reasoning to prevent chaos in societies.
This is very intriguing to me because we can already see the consequences of younger generations not basing their morality on religion. Many people still, unconsciously, rely on religion to determine what is morally wrong, basing their decisions on "truths" or rules that have existed since the beginnings of the church's ideological movement without realizing it.
With the rise of science, however, there have been modern proposals, such as the one Sam Harris claims in his book "The Moral Landscape," which is based on the concept of well-being and is similar to what Spinoza proposed but on a scientific rather than on a metaphysical level.
Furthermore, Freud does acknowledge science limitations in providing only perceptions of the world. He challenges his own argument by claiming that just as individuals seek comfort through religion, the same could happen with other belief systems like politics or science. He points out that if science were to scrutinize itself, it might find that it, too, is a kind of illusion.
However, Freud addresses this potential criticism by aligning with the idea that science presents the world as it appears to human senses. He acknowledges that science may not reveal the nature of the world, but despite this realization, he eventually concludes, in accordance with Kantian ideas, that science limitations are irrelevant, which basically confirms, according to him, that science is not an illusion.
In other words, Freud claims that we cannot know the world as it truly is, but can only understand it through our senses, which is our objective truth. In that sense, science, according to Freud, cannot be an illusion because it is our closest way to objective reality.
This brings us to "Civilization and its Discontents," in which Freud describes an "oceanic feeling" that a friend has but that he is unable to experience. His friend describes it as a sense of "eternity" and limitlessness that Freud ends up describing as the religious feeling.
Furthermore, my first criticism is that he admits from the start that he has never felt this way, and yet tries to understand it, which, in my opinion, makes his case difficult.
In addition to this, I believe that one aspect of this feeling that he could have explored further is the concept of the sublime, which is the idea of feeling small and overwhelmed in the face of something vast and powerful like nature. It is an idea that philosophers such as Kant, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer have explored, and while it is mostly classified as an aesthetic experience in which we feel powerless in the face of nature, there has been a lot of exploration that confirms that this feeling is very similar, and can have a connection to religion. We won’t explore this idea here, but it is something that could have been explored further by Freud.
Moreover, despite the evidence for other explanations, Freud goes straight to a psychological explanation, which is understandable given his area of expertise. He goes on to say that the only certainty we can have is our ego's feelings. He argues that, as previously discussed, the ego initially encompasses everything and gradually separates an external world from itself as it evolves.
He defines this "oceanic feeling" as a sense of limitlessness and unity of the ego with the universe, and delves into the idea that this feeling may have originated from an earlier, more inclusive ego-state, which some people may retain in some degrees alongside their mature ego, which sounds similar to the sublime feeling, a sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves and our connection to nature. Despite this, Freud maintains that it is an infantile feeling that arises from the early stages of the ego, where it cannot distinguish between external reality and himself.
In order to understand this, Freud argues that through experiences, such as the availability or unavailability of sensory stimuli, infants begin to perceive an external world separate from the self. Pain and pleasure play a role in this differentiation, leading to the formation of the pleasure principle that seeks to separate pleasurable sensations from unpleasant ones.
After the ego has developed, the reality principle arises and it can now differentiate between internal and external stimuli, a crucial step in coping with the demands of reality and managing sensations of pleasure and pain. He then adds that the “oceanic feeling” is a remaining feeling that once existed, specifically in our early days, a connection with the outside world that the ego did not distinguish and that still somehow persists when the ego has evolved. He makes an analogy with the city of Rome, and how despite modern advancements, the past still persist alongside what's new. He acknowledges the limitations of this analogy but it somehow proves that the mind seems to preserve earlier stages alongside its final forms.
Again, this is why I am perplexed as to why he didn't go deeper into the sublime and its relationship to nature, but I'm inclined to believe it's because this is something that neither psychoanalysis nor science can explain.
On top of that, he adds to his claim that religious needs likely stem from the infant's helplessness and the longing for paternal protection in the face of life's uncertainties, since the ego during childhood does not really understand the outside world and needs protection from it, as he claims in his book, “A Future of an Illusion.”
His claim says that because life is difficult and full of disappointments, people require auxiliary constructions. He categorizes these constructions as deflections which can shed light on misery, such as art or the creation of something. Other categories are the substitute satisfactions which alleviate misery and the intoxicating substances which make us insensitive to misery and pain. He places religion as an intoxicating substance that makes us insensitive to reality. If you read through what he means, it will become apparent that he compares it to alcohol or drugs in the sense that they disconnect us from the outside world and make us insensitive to it.
Finally, he acknowledges the difficulty of working with these abstract concepts, and explores the fact that activities such as Yoga produce similar sensations or regressions to primordial ego states.
To put it another way, he argues that activities that require us to focus our attention on our bodies and surroundings generate similar feelings to this religious or oceanic feeling, which can be traced back to the feeling of unity that the ego perceives in its initial states. When we experience these sensations, it is as if the ego gains back its connection to nature and the external world after it has separated itself from it, finding its way back to unity, but Freud does not explore these concepts further, despite the fact that I believe they are quite mystical, interesting and worth exploring.
Defense Mechanisms and the Pursuit of Happiness
Another idea that arises is the pursuit of happiness. According to Freud, religion is an attempt to answer life's purpose, leading humanity to believe that what people truly want is happiness, and that the way to achieve it is to avoid pain and seek pleasure.
However, Freud claims that this pursuit has limitations. He argues that it is constrained by our constitution, external forces, and interpersonal relationships, and even goes so far as to say that the world was designed to work against it.
With this in mind, Freud describes various defense mechanisms that people employ in order to protect themselves from pain and suffering. These include voluntary isolation, which can be described as the pursuit of quietness; intoxication, which affects our sensitivity to the outside world; and the controlling of instinctual impulses, which seeks to master the internal sources of our needs, like in the case of meditation or Yoga, and that achieve a sense of quietness and withdrawal from the world.
Moreover, he explains that the concept of controlling our impulses is merely our ego subjecting itself to the reality principle. It is the fact that the ego needs to understand that the external world it's different from him. This brings us to his concept of sublimation as another source of coping with pain. However, this one is special.
The concept of sublimation is the idea that one can channel instinctual impulses to activities that complement the external world, or in other words, that do not generate frustration from it. He believes that instinctual impulses can be channeled into physical or intellectual activities. He is basically saying that sexual desire, or instinctual energy in general, is repressed and transformed into work that benefits the community, which is an interesting concept, but in my opinion, it is heavily influenced by the context in which it was written.
He does, however, acknowledge that this is not something that everyone can aspire to, and I believe it was more common in the past. Intellectuals or people who dedicated their lives to thinking were less likely to marry or have an active sexual life in general. Immanuel Kant and Isaac Newton are two examples of this, which leads me to believe that energy channeling is real. Buddhism and their practices aimed at cultivating and redirecting sexual energy, often for spiritual or meditative purposes, can also help to explain this.
Following that, he investigates the use of illusions as another defense mechanism. He claims that people can find happiness through illusions and imagination. The goal of these illusions is to grant wishes that are difficult to fulfill in reality. One example is satisfaction through art, but he claims that this isn't strong enough to cope with reality, which brings him back to religion, and how the fact that it is a shared illusion makes it difficult to recognize as such.
This leads him to the ways in which humans seek happiness directly, and one of them is centered around love, in general, seeking satisfaction in loving and being loved. He argues that this is the total opposite, because rather than seeking withdrawal from the outside world, we cling to it to obtain happiness, which makes man vulnerable, since the outside world is uncertain.
Moreover, another way man seeks happiness is through beauty or aesthetic enjoyment. He argues that beauty's appeal seems deeply rooted in our sexual instincts, although its nature and origin remain largely unexplained. This might explain why we always aim for better things and how when we attain them we feel more satisfied with our lives.
Finally, he acknowledges that the pursuit of happiness, as dictated by the pleasure principle, appears to be impossible in its entirety. People either seek to avoid pain through isolation, sublimation, and so on, or they seek direct pleasure, but no single path ever provides complete fulfillment, despite the fact that it is instinctual to strive for it. He claims that happiness is a personal issue that cannot be solved by a universal rule. Nothing applies the same way to everyone, which is why sublimation isn't applicable to everyone. The man who is more erotic will seek pleasure, the narcissistic who is inclined to be self-sufficient will seek satisfaction from his work and so on.
As a result, he claims that religion limits individual choice by imposing a path to happiness that is not suitable for everyone. It represses individuals and causes them to be dissatisfied and neurotic in a psychological sense, and I will argue that the same applies to any imposed paths that any type of civilization may provide.
What Is Civilization?
After identifying the sources of suffering, Freud admits that there isn't much we can do about external forces and our constitution. These are things that we simply accept and move on with our lives.
However, the third source, that of communal living, can be a source of frustration and dissatisfaction because we believe there is a way to ensure protection and benefit for each one of us.
He begins his investigation by talking about the discovery trips and how they came into contact with primitive people. He claims that Europeans used to believe that primitives were simply living a simpler life, one with fewer desires and that seemed impossible in their eyes.
Later research revealed, however, that people become neurotic because they cannot stand or tolerate the demands that society places on them, and it was deduced from this that reducing these demands would increase or restore happiness. In other words, it is a claim that civilization itself may be to blame for human misery, which, in my opinion, is a very intriguing and thought-provoking idea.
This brings him to focus on the nature of civilization, which is, once again, the protection of man from nature and from each other. He claims that tools were the first act of civilization and that they improved man's physical abilities. These tools transcended human perception, transforming man into what Freud refers to as a "prosthetics god" capable of creation, leading him to assert that, despite achieving previously unattainable goals, man is dissatisfied with his "god-like" state, and will probably continue to be despite more advancements.
Another aspect of civilization he points out is that it strives for beauty, despite the fact that it is useless, in order to effectively use resources for human benefit. This can be demonstrated by the use of decorations, flower pots, and other aesthetic elements.
This aspect of beauty is linked to the desire for cleanliness and order. Anything dirty is considered incompatible with civilization, and this includes maintaining cleanliness in the human body.
This cleanliness aspect is linked to order, and Freud sees this as an attempt of man to imitate the order that the universe has. He sees this order as a type of compulsion to repeat. Just as celestial regularities are repetitive and predictable, human beings seek to replicate such patterns in their lives.
Furthermore, he mentions man's high activities, such as scientific, artistic, and intellectual achievements, and how these give rise to human ideals, some of which are illusions, such as religion, but nonetheless represent a high level of civilization.
Finally, and most importantly, he emphasizes the rules of social relationships once more. He emphasizes that without these rules, relationships would be dictated by individuals' impulses, particularly those who are stronger or have more power.
This is where the concept of sublimation comes back. He mentions that in order for civilization to function, members of the community restrain their satisfactions in order to avoid the dominance of stronger individuals. As a result, we contribute to the community by sacrificing some of our instincts, which could then be channeled through other activities that benefit society, such as work.
This is interesting because Freud emphasizes the inherent need for freedom represented by this. It creates an insatiable desire to be free, which can cause some revolt, yet it is also necessary for society to exist. He is pointing out why many people believe there is injustice, despite the fact that these injustices are necessary for society to exist in the first place.
In other words, hostility toward civilization, according to Freud, stems from the suppression of instincts, which all civilizations have to deal with. This is similar to Thomas Hobbes’s' claim that what is right or wrong is completely determined by "the state of nature." Not because humans are naturally aggressive toward one another, but because people do not have natural restrictions or limitations. These restrictions are designed when people come into a community to provide stability and protection from one another.
Love, Monogamy and Sex Life
In this section of the book, Freud discusses the creation of monogamy and families. He argues that, as people evolved, the discovery of working together for a better life was essential, and that families likely emerged due to a need for support and protection.
Moreover, monogamy became necessary. Freud believes that because of the constraints of civilization, genital satisfaction did not come naturally, and that this gave rise to males wanting to keep their females who did not want to be separated from their children, creating a kind of mutual necessity, which is kind of an interesting analysis. Monogamy's emergence eventually led to the spread of love and necessity in civilization. Men required sex, and women required proximity to their children and their men in order to receive protection. In other words, it all became a necessity.
This brings him to his previous claim that says that when man makes himself dependent on the external world, he exposes himself to suffering, which is one of the reasons for dissatisfaction and unhappiness that arises with the emergence of love and necessity in civilization, particularly through monogamy.
Following this, Freud claims that in order to avoid this dissatisfaction, man created the concept of directing love to everyone rather than just those who deserve it. This concept can be further understood through religion and how it imposes that we love everyone, representing the highest position that man can achieve.
According to Freud, this claim is impossible to achieve because love that does not discriminate loses its own value. If we impose this on people, they must be willing to make sacrifices. If we love someone, they must have earned it in some way. If a stranger cannot attract someone's love on his own, it will be difficult for this person to love him. Someone's love for another person is valuable and a reflection of their preferences. It would be unfair to place a stranger on par with the people who deserve our love.
Furthermore, as we can see, love and necessity, as well as other types of love, such as friendships, became an integral part of civilization. However, this resulted in conflicts. According to Freud, the goal of civilization to bring people together frequently clashes with the nature of families, which have a tendency to isolate themselves from larger communities, resulting in a conflict between the two ways of life.
Another issue that emerged was women's opposition to society. Women, who initially contributed to civilization through their love of family and sexual life, began to oppose it as it became increasingly dominated by men. It instilled frustration and a hostile attitude toward civilization in women, which is consistent with Freud's premise that civilization suppresses desires for the sake of society
This leads him to talk about sexual taboos, and how they impose restrictions on sexual life through laws and cultural 'unspoken' rules. These restrictions are intended to regulate sexual behavior, sometimes going so far as to limit sexual relationships to heterosexual and monogamous bonds.
These restrictions and laws ignore the differences in human sexual constitutions and limit everyone to a single type of sexual life, which is similar to Freud's earlier claim that religion imposes a single path on everyone despite inherent differences. This leads Freud to claim that society does not discriminate heterosexual monogamy because it only tolerates it in order to propagate the human race.
As we can see, Freud claims that sexual repression exists in society and that monogamous relationships helped communities while also contradicting societal needs. In love relationships, the intense love that embodies the essence of Eros draws people away from their surroundings because they find contentment in each other. This is good for civilization, but it is insufficient. Societies, according to Freud, require strong connections within a community through a variety of means besides just romantic relationships.
Aggressiveness and the Death Instinct
As previously stated, Freud believes that humans are inherently aggressive. Individuals will exploit, use people, seize others' possessions, humiliate, and cause pain if they are not restrained, all for the sake of survival and self-interest, going beyond self-defense.
To demonstrate his point, Freud points out all of history's atrocities, including wars and revolts. In response to these atrocities, he claims that civilizations work hard to control these aggressive instincts through a variety of methods, some of which we have discussed, such as love in all its forms, sexual restriction, and sublimation.
Furthermore, his claim about aggressiveness is explored further by contrasting it with the communist claim that private property makes people aggressive. According to this claim, man is a good neighbor who has been corrupted by the institution of private property.
However, Freud claims that he cannot say whether the abolition of private property would be beneficial, but he can claim that aggressiveness is not limited to property ownership and extends to other aspects of life, such as relationships and power differences.
This brings us to the point where Freud introduces us to Eros and Thanatos, which we discussed earlier. In order to introduce these concepts, he quotes the philosopher Schiller, who said, "Hunger and love are what moves the world." He goes on to say that hunger represents the instincts to preserve the individual, whereas love represents the power that strives after objects with the goal of preserving the species.
With this in mind, he initially claimed that there are ego-instincts, which are instincts for self-preservation, and object-instincts, or "libido," which are outward instincts that are confronted by the ego and vice versa.
However, Freud later notices something different about the nature of a sadistic instinct. He realizes that it stands out due to its aim being far from loving and its attachment to ego instincts, despite its lack of a loving purpose.
This leads him to introduce the concept of narcissism, which emphasizes that the ego has no separation with the libido, serving as its original home. This means that the libido goes towards objects and comes back to its original position in the ego. This comprehension enabled him to better understand traumatic neuroses and other problems, but it endangered the concept of the libido itself, which prompted him to align the libido with instinctual energy, as proposed previously by Jung.
The groundbreaking idea, however, is the concept of the death instinct, which opposes the life-preserving aspect of Eros. He developed this hypothesis after realizing that there is an innate need to repeat when it comes to any instinctual desire. The death instinct seeks to dissolve living units and return them to an inorganic state. He says that the two instincts function in opposing ways, which explains why we find opposite acts in life's phenomena.
In addition to this, he argues that it is difficult for us to see this death instinct because it is linked to our life instincts. He believes that a portion of the death instinct could be channeled into the outside world, manifesting as aggression and destructiveness. This diversion allows the instinct of destruction to serve Eros by directing destructive tendencies toward external objects rather than self-destruction, and if this innate tendency of death is not redirected outwards, it becomes repressed and increases self-destruction.
Moreover, he acknowledges how difficult it is to accept this theory and that it can primarily serve as a theoretical viewpoint. He observes that while this death instinct can be clearly seen in sadism and masochism, it is rarely seen in other aspects of life, owing to the difficulty in accepting that there can be inherent evil tendencies in our world. The truth is that the death instinct always escapes; it exists in the background and is only revealed when Eros betrays its presence. This happens in sadism, where the death instinct twists and simultaneously satisfies the erotic aim.
Following this, Freud's perspective helps in understanding humans' inherent aggression and original instinctual disposition. It reinforces his belief that aggression is the greatest impediment to civilization, because societies use the power of Eros, the life instinct, to unite individuals, families, races, and nations into a unified mankind.
However, the death instinct, or Thanatos, which exists alongside Eros, hinders this by causing hostility among individuals and opposing the unity of any civilization. Dialectical thinking is exactly that: opposing forces that are always present and irreconcilable because they are part of the same unity that conforms life.
Indeed, some philosophers, such as Slavoj Žižek, have argued that the Hegelian dialectic lacked Freud's death instinct.
According to Hegel, life is made up of opposites that contribute to unity, but he ignored the fact that one of them is driven by a desire for self-destruction. He claimed that the only way to reach a resolution or conclusion is to acknowledge the opposing forces that comprise life, and that this can be accomplished through reconciliation. Žižek's point of view criticizes Hegel's optimism about the possibility of synthesis and reconciliation by introducing Freud's psychoanalytic theories into the realm of philosophy and arguing that the reconciliation does not fully address the darker aspects of human psychology. He argues that these darker aspects are essential in understanding the contradictions within everything and addressing them, rather than simply seeking reconciliation. He challenges the idea that synthesis and reconciliation alone can resolve the inherent complexities and darker facets of human psychology and societal structures.
Civilization and the SuperEgo
We have arrived at the final section of this book, in which Freud attempts to answer the following question: What methods does society use to control aggression?
With this in mind, we can begin by recalling what we discussed at the very beginning. The id's impulses, or aggression in this case, are projected back into the individual, that is, they are sent back to the ego, which processes the impulse through the superego. Because the superego is suppressed by the external world, it is forced to make a decision and redirects the action back and against the ego. According to Freud, this is the death instinct, which acts either outwardly or inwardly, exemplifying the eternal struggle between Eros and Thanatos.
Moreover, the superego's tension produces a sense of guilt in the individual, and this manifests itself as self-punishment. In other words, civilization has created an internalized mechanism known as ethics that weakens aggression and disarms individuals. A person feels bad or guilty when he or she is aware that something wrong has been done; however, the sense of guilt manifests itself even before we have done anything. It limits our actions, which would otherwise follow their instinctual and natural course.
To put it another way, guilt manifests itself in two ways: fear of an external authority and fear of the internalized super-ego. Renunciation of instinct is initially motivated by a fear of losing love or being punished. However, regardless of renunciation, the establishment of the superego produces a permanent internal unhappiness, resulting in a perpetual conflict between instinctual desires and the demands of the superego.
To better understand this process, we can see it in chronological order: first, renunciation appears due to fear of external aggression by an authority, followed by the development of an internal authority and renunciation due to fear of the internalized conscience created by the superego. Bad intentions are associated with bad actions, leading to feelings of guilt and a need for punishment.
According to Freud, what is bad for the ego isn't necessarily bad; after all, the ego only seeks its own pleasure and benefit, so there is always some external influence at work whenever we do something that is considered "wrong."
This leads us to his main point. Freud claims that civilization oppresses people to the point of dissatisfaction, and that it can go so far as to create mental illness or psychological disorders. He argues that as civilization progresses from family to broader societal forms, the conflict caused by ambivalence intensifies the sense of guilt, reinforcing the claim of the eternal struggle between love and death instincts that are inherent in human nature and deeply integrated into the fabric of civilization.
In other words, Freud emphasizes that the superego places demands on the ego that it is not naturally capable of tolerating; not that we should all be killing each other, but that there are certain impulses that we repress for the sake of community fulfillment that eventually lead to unhappy and repressed individuals.
Furthermore, now that we understand Freud's claims, we may believe that he used to think that we are all desperate for sex, which is due, in part, to the context in which he wrote his claims. However, if we interpret what he says here as the idea that individuals repress themselves in order to function in community, everything makes more sense.
In the end, “Civilization and Its Discontents” comes to a sad but insightful conclusion. Freud's observations make us wonder whether achieving harmony is a realistic goal, while also indirectly reinforcing and echoing certain aspects of liberalism, suggesting that individualism may hold potential solutions to some societal challenges. The truth is that understanding human nature is difficult; Freud even recognizes the theoretical aspect of his claims. Nonetheless, we can get close to understanding it, and experiment until we find something that works for us.
At the end of the book, Freud contemplates the future of civilization and expresses concern about humanity's ability to regulate its inherent aggression and self-destructive impulses. He wonders on the balance between destructive instinctive forces and constructive forces inside human society, implying the potential implications of failing to reconcile these clashing tendencies. An invitation to reflect on whether humanity will ever achieve the long-desired harmony they’ve been dreaming about.
Freud, S. (2010). The Future of an Illusion. Martino Fine Books.
Freud, S. (2018). Civilization and its Discontents. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
Zizek, S. (2013). Less Than Nothing: Hegel And The Shadow Of Dialectical Materialism. Verso; Reprint edition.
Make sure to subscribe to be added to the mailing list and receive fresh content like this directly in your inbox!