CIVILIZATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS – SURMISE

Freud defines civilization as the whole sum of human achievements and regulations intended to protect men against nature and “adjust their mutual relations.” A “decisive step” toward civilization lies in the replacement of the individual’s power by that of the community. This substitution henceforth restricts the possibilities of individual satisfaction in the collective interests of law and order. Here Freud draws an analogy between the evolution of civilization and the libidinal development of the individual, identifying three parallel stages in which each occurs: 1) character-formation (acquisition of an identity); 2) sublimation (channeling of primal energy into other physical or psychological activities); 3) non-satisfaction/renunciation of instincts (burying of aggressive impulses in the individual; imposition of the rule of law in society).

Even if one of the main purposes of civilization is to bind each man’s libidinal impulses to those of others, love and civilization eventually come into conflict with one another. Freud identifies several different reasons for this later antagonism. For one, family units tend to isolate themselves and prevent individuals from detaching and maturing on their own. Civilization also saps sexual energy by diverting it into cultural endeavors. It also restricts love object choices and mutilates our erotic lives. Taboos (namely, against incest), laws, and customs impose further restrictions. Freud reasons that civilization’s antagonism toward sexuality arises from the necessity to build a communal bond based on relations of 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 has come to see human beings as primarily aggressive rather than loving. He first identified this instinctual aggressiveness in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, and though his proposed “death drive” was initially met with skepticism, he maintains and develops the thesis here. Civilization is continually threatened with disintegration because of this inclination to aggression. It invests great energy in restraining these death instincts, and achieves this goal by installing within the individual a sort of watchdog agency, which Freud calls the super-ego, to master our desire for aggression. For Freud, the entire evolution of civilization can be summed up as a struggle between Eros and the death drive, overseen by the super-ego.

GradeSaver: Civilization and Its Discontents Study Guide : Short Summary

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