Book Review: Civilization and its Discontents

Civilization and its Discontents is weighty and a bit out-of-date, but not terribly long. It is well worth reading.

This book by Sigmund Freud went on my reading list after some one mentioned it on the PBS special, The Question of God, saying it had shaken his faith in Sunday school Christianity. Later, an acquaintance sent me the following excerpt from the book:

Civilization is a process... whose purpose is to combine single human individuals, and after that families, then races, peoples, and nations, into one great unity, the unity of mankind.

Based on these references, I hoped that this book would simultaneously argue against religious fundamentalism and support my hypothesis that individuals and groups are self-similar, subject to forces that are nearly identical but operating at different scales. My hopes were somewhat disappointed until I reached the last chapter.

With regard to religion, the book does start by exploring the source of religious feelings of oneness with mankind or with the universe. Freud dismisses the idea that such feelings express any true connection to a God, preferring the psychoanalytic explanation: such feelings arise in varying degrees during the course of human development from the interplay between the id, the ego, and the super-ego. The final chapter suggests that the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus is merely a metaphor based on the feeling of guilt and the desire for redemption that human beings experience during the course of their psychological development.

...the primal father did not attain divinity until long after he had met his death by violence. The most arresting example of this fateful conjunction [death and divinity] is to be seen in the figure of Jesus Christ---if, indeed, that figure is not a part of mythology, which called it into being from an obscure memory of that primal event.

For the most part, instead of arguing against religious fundamentalism, Freud simply assumes it is wrong. Freud’s earlier work, The Future of an Illusion, is referenced and promises to address this argument more directly.

Much of the book explores the idea that opposing human needs are manifested in what we call civilization. Civilization must be built up to fulfill deep human needs, including needs for protection, love and sexual gratification. Yet, the need to vent aggression is manifested in many social ills. Though I am not an expert, the reasoning does seem out of date with modern understanding of psychology. Indeed, as Louis Menand says in the first sentence of his introduction, “the grounds have entirely eroded for whatever authority [Civilization and its Discontents] once enjoyed as an ultimate account of the way things are”.

However, in the final chapter, Freud makes repeated references to the same processes operating within individuals and, at a larger scale, within populations.

When...we look at the relation between the process of human civilization and the developmental or educative process of individual human beings, we shall conclude without much hesitation that the two are very similar in nature, if not the very same process applied to different kinds of object. The process of the civilization of the human species is, of course, an abstraction of a higher order than is the development of the individual...but in view of the similarity between the aims of the two processes...we cannot be surprised at the similarity between the means employed and the resultant phenomena...Just as a planet revolves around a central body as well as rotating on its own axis, so the human individual takes part in the course of development of mankind at the same time as he pursues his own path in life.

He suggests that, on a larger scale, civilizations follow a course of development similar to the individual psyche:

The analogy between the process of civilization and the path of individual development may be extended in an important respect. It can be asserted that the community, too, evolves a super-ego under whose influence cultural development proceeds...The super-ego of an epoch of civilization has an origin similar to that of an individual. It is based on the impression left behind by the personalities of great leaders--men of overwhelming force of mind or men in whom one of the human impulsions has found its strongest and purest, and therefore often its most one-sided expression. In many instances the analogy goes still further, in that during their lifetime these figures were...mocked and maltreated by others and even despatched in a cruel fashion.

He even hints that psychoanalytical techniques useful for individual therapy might prove therapeutic to populations:

If the development of civilization has such a far-reaching similarity to the development of the individual and if it employes the same methods, may we not be justified in reaching the diagnosis that some civilizations...have become 'neurotic'? An analytic dissection of such neuroses might lead to therapeutic recommendations which could lay claim to great practical interest. I would not say that an attempt of this kind to carry psycho-analysis over to the cultural community was absurd or doomed to be fruitless

He cautions, however, that individual psychotherapy assumes a “normal” environment which would be difficult to define for groups. Furthermore, no one “possesses authority to impose such therapy upon the group”.

Tags: Philosophy, Reading, Religion

Updated at: 3 December 2005 12:12 AM