Assessment Civilizations and it Discontents by Sigmund Freud

Civilized Discontents a la Freud

Freud argues that our relationship to ourselves is crucial to being ethical. He points out that as part of an individual’s development, one must better understand the ethics of their environment. He compares the similarities of an individual’s development with the development process of civilization and shows how these are intertwined. This paper will discuss Freud’s thoughts and concepts related to both development processes and the role that technology plays in self-knowledge and attaining societal goals.

The Id & the Ego
Freud outlines the three parts of the self as the “id” the “ego” and the “super-ego”. He believes that at birth, the individual is just a mass of sensations without any possibility of separating itself from the outside world or stimulus. On page 12, Freud states, “Normally there is nothing of which we are more certain than the feeling of our self, of our own ego.” He goes on to say, “An infant at the breast does not as yet distinguish his ego from the external world as the source of the sensations flowing in upon him. He gradually learns to do so, in response to various promptings.” (p.13-14). Over time, a baby recognizes outside stimulus and objects, and recognizes an “outside” world. The recognition that there are unavoidable sensations of pain coupled with the desire to limit these and increase pleasure -what Freud calls the “pleasure principle”- helps to create a pure pleasure ego or a primitive ego (p.14). Eventually one comes to realize what is internal and belonging to the ego, and what comes from the outer world. Freud calls this the introduction of the “reality principle” (p. 15). The individual tries to adjust its environment (physical or social) to optimize the feelings of pleasure and minimize pain.

Freud believes that individuals are drawn by strong instincts of love or eros and aggression, which according to Freud, is a derivative of the death instinct (p.82). Freud traces all actions and instincts back to the sexual instinct or libido and aggressive instincts. He believes that individuals constantly are seeking happiness through gratification of their desires and instincts, and that sexual love provides the strongest experiences of satisfaction and the prototype of all happiness (p.56).

How is the aggressive instinct controlled? It is controlled by a portion of the ego which Freud calls the super-ego. It is a conscience, which acts aggressively against the natural instincts of the id (p.84). The super-ego’s function is to observe, judge, and threaten the ego with punishment. A sense of guilt arises first from fear of external authorities and then fear of the super-ego or conscience. The super-ego is developed in the individual first through interaction with the individual’s parents and family, and later through other interactions with society in general. Every family has a set of values that it upholds, and which the individual learns in order to help develop the superego. For example some of my family values include unconditional love, supporting each other and helping others. As the child goes to school, other values are re-enforced such as timeliness, cooperation, and sharing. Many values and standards of behavior are imparted by religion or society in general: love thy neighbor, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not kill, etc. The more we understand the relationship of our ego and super-ego, the more likely we are to be ethical. We understand what is expected of us, and what is ethical from the perspectives of our families, community, and society in general. We try to comply with this ethical standard in order to maintain our own happiness and the satisfaction of those we love and respect.

Characteristics of Civilization
Freud has a very broad definition of “civilization” or “kulture” which he says “describes the whole sum of achievements and the regulations which distinguish our lives from those of our animal ancestors and which serve two purposes namely to protect men against nature and to adjust their mutual relations” (p.42). The first acts of civilization were the use of tools to control fire & build homes. Technology helps to overcome limitations of our muscles, eyes, and ears. Additionally, we expect civilization to value beauty as well as cleanliness (“Cleanliness is next to Godliness!”) and order. However, one of the main features of civilization according to Freud is that it encourages people’s higher mental activities and ideas, including intellectual, scientific, artistic, religious, and philosophic concepts. Finally civilization regulates social relationships of people. The power of the individual is replaced by the power of the community in a social contract (pp.48-49). Individual instincts must be sacrificed to what the community agrees to be a “rule of law” and justice calls for everyone to be treated equally under the law. Freud believes that one must sublimate or suppress their instincts in order to be civilized and that this sets up a conflict between the individual and society. He believes the development of civilization is a process similar to the maturation of the individual.

Technological Advances
Technology can assist both the individual and civilization in general to extend their capabilities to meet their goals. Technological advances make it increasingly possible to have power over nature. Freud notes that the many advances in nature and sciences and their technical application go beyond what was previously imagined possible, (just imagine what he would have thought of going to the moon!) and that man has the right to be proud of this. However, he concludes, “power over nature is not the only pre-condition of human happiness, just as it is not the only (italics Freud’s) goal of cultural endeavor.” (p.39). While he recognizes the positive aspects of technology, he labels them as “cheap enjoyment” (p.40) and argues that technology creates many conditions that cause misery as well. Examples of positive aspects include: medical advancements that lead to better health, improved communications, and expanding horizons through increased travel real or virtual. Negative aspects include: enhanced capabilities to wage war, new moral dilemmas, with new technologies such as stem cell research, as well as increased possibilities of identity theft and pedophilia via the internet. The key for both the individual and society is to enhance the positive aspects that technology can bring, while mitigating the negative impacts. In fact, psychoanalysis is itself a technology that was further developed by Freud and his theories, and which can help the individual and society to better understand him- or herself and their relationship to society.

As Freud concludes, the meaning of the evolution of civilization is the “struggle between Eros & Death, between the instinct of life and the instinct of destruction, as it works itself out in the human species. This struggle is what all life essentially consists of, and the evolution of civilization may therefore be simply described as the struggle for life of the human species.” (p.82). Freud’s essay on Civilization and Its Discontents is his attempt to assist individuals to succeed in this struggle.