Having Studied Psychology Or Not
Having studied psychology or not, most individuals have likely heard the name Sigmund Freud at some point throughout their academic career. Considered by many (and disputed by others) to be the father of modern psychology, Freud’s work during his career introduced a vast number of theories that helped to provide foundational tools for studying human behavior. Ranging from the analysis of dreams to the introduction of the controversial psychosexual stages to what is often regarded as his most widely-known achievement, the exploration of the id, the ego, and the superego, Sigmund Freud’s contributions to the psychology community are undeniably far-reaching and deeply profound.
During his later years, Freud published a particular piece titled Civilization and Its Disconnects which attempted to examine society and civilization at large and its relation to the natural inclination of the individual. The modern individual, he theorized, is largely unhappy due to this false notion that is the norm for other individuals to experience a fairly constant state of happiness and pleasure. Our unhappiness is brought about due to our inability to live up to this expectation of a pleasure-filled and painless life. Additionally, he argues this unhappiness also stems from the ways in which society restricts the individual from our natural tendencies. Civilization aims to create a comprehensive explanation of how man has been molded and altered by society and what are the consequences of this alteration.
Freud begins the book with a personal anecdote about a discussion that he had with a friend regarding religious sentiments and an associated type of limitlessness. The limitlessness in questions is as his friend describes “ a feeling which he would like to call a sensation of ‘eternity’, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded — as it were, ‘oceanic’” (Freud, 2). Although Freud claims to never have experienced such a feeling, he does not deny its existence. Rather than chalking up such a feeling to religion, he uses his past work (specifically the Id, Ego, and Superego) to give a scientific explanation to such an occurrence. During development, the individual learns to create a separation between the inside (Ego) and the outside worlds in order to “step towards the introduction of the reality principle which is to dominate future development” (Freud, 4) Once the division has been made, this “oceanic” feeling only occurs when the ego is in a certain heightened state (Love) in which it lowers is defenses and allows for a more intimate connection with the outside world. According to Freud, religious sentiments cannot and should not be attributed to this feeling of oneness. Religious desires are “needs from the infant’s helplessness and the longing for the father….permanently sustained by fear of
the superior power of Fate”.
However, despite the apparent childishness of religion and putting one’s faith into a higher power, it is evident, based its prominence within every society, there is an almost inherent draw towards religion. This, Freud says, is due to the way in which we seek out pleasure and avoid displeasure. As individuals, we experience displeasure that stems from our physical body, the outside world, and our relationships with others. We attempt to mitigate these types of displeasure through communal membership, isolation from the outside world, or substance abuse. Religion’s attractiveness is rooted in its communal aspect that allows its members to access to tools (e.g. prayer, confession, meditation) that supposedly diminish suffering. This community binds the individual to a larger group and contributes to a perception of oneness and happiness.
Looking beyond religion, Freud expands his thinking to the society and the individual. Society, he concludes, is responsible for the pain and frustration that man experiences on a daily basis. This idea, he admits, is somewhat contradictory to the strategies we implore to escape suffering. One of the ways in which individuals reduce pain is by joining a community, yet, the community and the rules and ideals it imposes are the cause of the pain. As he Freud puts it, “this contention astonishing because….it is a certain fact that all the things with which we seek to protect ourselves against the threats that emanate from the sources of suffering are part
of that very civilization”. There are three significant events that occurred through the course of mankind that created this resentment toward society. The first was the centuries of Christian rule over a large population. The central teachings of the Christian religion are focused mainly on the afterlife and downplay the importance of secular life. The second event was the colonial expansion of European powers and the subsequent meetings of other “primitive” civilizations. Although inaccurate, the Europeans develop the idea that these societies were happier as they were closer to man’s natural state. Finally, “the people came to know about the mechanism of the neuroses, which threaten to undermine the modicum of happiness enjoyed by civilized men”. From this, the notion was created that man’s suffering arises when the ideals and expectations of a society become too much and the only solution to true happiness is the removal of one’s self from such an environment.
Following his theory on the cause of societal resentment, Freud delves deeper into the reasoning as to why, if they truly resented it, man entered into society in the first place. Although he does not expressly reference it, Freud seems to subscribe to the Hobbesian take on social contract theory. In a state of nature, man has a near limitless amount of freedom. However, if man wishes to enter into a society and take advantage of a society’s perceived benefits, he must give up certain freedoms and adhere to the laws and social order of the community rather than his own. Concisely put, simply entering into a civilization instantaneously restricts man and thus is the beings to instill this feeling of frustration so frequently expressed.
As Freud sees it, these freedoms that are being suppressed and causing such anguish are largely centered around man’s instinctual impulses, specifically regarding sex and violence. Through laws, customs and taboos, society puts restrictions on how we have sex, who we choose to have sex with and in what confines we are allowed to have sex in. Freud claims that one of the most prevalent cultural norms, monogamy, is the causation of a deep frustration within the individual as it is the exactly the opposite of what our ego desires. If society took up a libido-centered approach to relationships, the friendship dynamic of a relationship would cease to exist as the libido is only driven by sexual satisfaction.
As he moves on from the suppression of man’s sexual appetite and into man’s natural inclination towards aggression, Freud explores how peculiarity of the Christian commandment of “Love thy neighbor as thyself”. Much like monogamy, this widely accepted idea that we should be kind, forgiving and gentle to our fellow human is contradictory to how man is desired act. Referencing his death drive theory from Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud states that mankind is drawn toward death, aggression, and violence. Civilizations attempt to diminish our violent by employing the super-ego as the individual develops. The super-ego creates a conscience which is the most powerful regulator of human action (aside from fear of authority which Freud also mentions) The mechanism through which the super-ego curbs instinctual behavior is attributing a feeling of guilty whenever the laws, customs, or taboos of a civilization (regarding aggressive/sexual impulses) are broken. Guilt is not something that stays stagnant. Guilt only increases with the progression of a society. As hauntingly Freud phrases it, “the price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt”.
Freud, in the final chapter, Freud returns to the overarching theme of individual happiness and the reason as to why many individuals feel unhappy. When we join any group or society, our the importance of one’s individual happiness becomes of diminished importance. We are torn as we long for our own happiness, yet, are aware of the perceived importance of unity and the needs of the community. We are restricted not only internally by our own super-ego, but by the ethics imposed on us by our society. The individual is in a perpetual state of conflict as we tirelessly attempt to keep our “aggressive and self-destructive” impulses at bay. In closing, Freud leaves the reader to ponder who will prevail in the momentous, eternal struggle and at what cost.