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On Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents

[The following is the text of a short lecture delivered in Liberal Studies 402 by Ian Johnston in January 1993 to students at Malaspina University College (now Vancouver Island University). This document is in the public domain, released June 1999]

For comments or questions, please contact Ian Johnston


In this lecture I want to offer a few remarks on Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents, paying particular attention to the connections between this book and other titles we have studied, particularly the Greeks. I don't have an overall argumentative point to make about Freud, except to offer a crude analogy: that Freud here is playing Plato to Nietzsche's Homer. This is a very crude analogy in some respects because, as I hope to point out, although Freud is very like Plato in some respects, Nietzsche is only responding to a part of the Iliad and for his own purposes overlooks some essential features. The main focus of my remarks is Chapter VII, that section of the text where Freud raises the question of what means civilization employs to inhibit what he sees as the innate instinctual aggressiveness of human beings.

You will recall that fundamental to Freud's view of civilization is the idea that human beings are essentially biological creatures with strong instincts, among which is aggression, which Freud calls "an original self­subsisting instinctual disposition in man . . . the greatest impediment to civilization." The question then obviously arises: How does civilization channel, cope with, control, or suppress this anti-social instinct? In Chapter VII Freud develops the theory of the super­ego, the internalization of aggressiveness and redirecting of it back onto the ego and the consequent creation in human beings of guilt, which expresses itself as a "need for punishment." And this primal guilt is, according to Freud, the origin of civilization.

Now, I have always had some trouble understanding and accepting Freud's notion of guilt, largely because, in spite of what other members of the team tell me, I don't suffer from it. So Freud's theory, fascinating as it is, leaves me with a sense that it is, in some sense false or incomplete. To explain what I mean, I'd like to return to Homer's Iliad for a moment. There, you will recall, we witnessed a society which organized itself in complex ways without any apparent sense of guilt. People in the Iliad function without this internalized authority, without a sense of sin, without everything that Freud tells us is necessary for civilization. The warriors do not weigh the perils of sin in their mental activity (which appears very different from our own), nor do they suffer internalized punishment when they make a mistake (e.g., Agamemnon's folly).

They do not manifest these characteristics because, as we talked about, the group there is controlled above all, not by some individual psychological process but rather by social conventions, above all by the rules of status and shame. These provide the warriors with a shared sense of what they, as individuals in a cohesive group must do from one moment to the next. The traditional conventions enable each person to evaluate himself or herself in accordance, not with internalized authorities but with social recognition or social disapproval. And these conventions are so strong, that they can channel aggressiveness and, as in the case of Hector standing before the walls of Troy, counter the strongest instincts.

In other words, Homer's world, it appears stands somewhat in contrast to Freud's views. And, in my opinion, it offers in some ways a more persuasive and healthier morality than that developed by Freud. It does so, in my view, because it stresses the social component of human identify, motivation, deliberation, choice, and responsibility.

Homer, as we discussed at some length, thus sees the proper way to live as a matter of self-assertion within the limits set by the group. There is no complex internal agonizing to be undergone: we attain full humanity by seeking group recognition and by avoiding shame. Happiness is a matter of acting in society in particular ways.

When we read Plato, we studied the great attack on this traditional system of social behaviour as the basis of the best life. Plato takes issue with the social, conventional, traditional nature of the Homeric sense of the self and of appropriate behaviour. He does this, above all, by seeking to internalize our sense of ourselves, by offering an image of the psyche as a dynamic conflict between the different levels and by stressing that a virtuous life depends, more than anything else, on achieving a psychic harmony between the competing elements, in which there is a clear authority over the destructive elements. In that sense, although his terminology is different from Freud's, Plato is clearly initiating a project in some interesting ways very like Freud's.

One might well ask, "Why is it that Plato is so determined to break down the traditional social ethic of shame and status?" And I think the simple answer is that the traditions had become incapable of holding society peacefully together. Plato witnessed the civil war in which the Greek states destroyed each other, in which the controlling forces of the group had failed miserably to make men act in civilized ways. He therefore launched a project seeking to ground moral behaviour in a different sense of the self.

This is the aspect Nietzsche calls attention to when, in the Genealogy of Morals, he says the entire issue boils down to Homer versus Plato. He sees Plato as the great problem precisely because of this internalization of authority, of raising reason over spontaneous feelings, or seeking to harness what Nietzsche most admired about the Homeric warriors, their heroic irrational assertiveness in the face of terrible circumstances, what Nietzsche called the pessimism of the strong. For Nietzsche, this was their essential quality, the aspect of their response that he wants modern Übermenschen to see as the proper basis for their own full emancipation. Nietzsche is prepared to overlook the social constraints upon the Homeric warrior (and thus one can hardly argue that he has a full appreciation of the complexity of their conduct). Still, Nietzsche's emphasis on the difference between Homer and Plato is a useful reminder of the central significance of Plato's attempt to reground Greek behaviour: the internalization of authority and the metaphor of a self divided against itself.

Like, Freud, Plato is fairly pessimistic about his scheme having any long-term progressive effect. The Republic may be a utopian vision, but it doesn't seem particularly optimistic about its chances of being realized. But there's a sense that if we are to established civilized life properly, then the first thing we must attend to is the individual's sense of his or her own psychological and therefore moral makeup. In that sense, Plato and Freud are very similar.

However, one mustn't overstate the similarities. For Plato starts with a very different conception of human beings than does Freud, and Plato is still concerned with a fairly rigid control of human beings through social institutions. The understanding which Plato wants us to accept is, it seems, available only to relatively few. The others will have to conduct themselves in accordance with the dictates of those who do understand, and the law, education, and everything else must be so organized as to make sure these social arrangements are put into place. In other words, Plato, unlike Freud, is very alert to the particular ways in which human beings' social needs must be structured and institutionalized so as to encourage the development of the proper harmony. Another way of saying is to stress that Plato is not a liberal with a faith in individual freedom; whereas, Freud clearly is. (More about that later).

In passing we might notice that Aristotle, as we saw, also follows Plato in basing the good life upon a notion of the proper psychological disposition. The major difference between the two, of course, is that Aristotle is a lot less nervous than Plato about human feelings and about human traditions. Thus in Aristotle's Ethics, we get a sense that the good life is both a matter of psychological adjustment and training with a generous helping of self-assertion in a particular group. For Aristotle, following Homer, still sees human beings as most typically shaped by their political affiliations, social identities, and relationships (in the widest sense of the term).

Now, what interests me about Chapter VII in Civilization and Its Discontents is the way in which Freud briefly confronts what Homer is talking about, acknowledges its existence, and then essentially forgets about it. For me this is a significant and potentially damaging fudging of an important issue: namely the issue of the extent to which human beings are not just driven by biological instincts but also by complex social needs.

In Chapter VII, Freud does pay attention to the effects of shame and shame culture, although in this book he doesn't call it that. He refers (on p. 85) to the stage that a culture must go through in order to achieve the fully developed super ego. According to Freud, the first stage is "social anxiety" according to which people are controlled by what others think of their conduct. In Freud's view much of his own society is generally ruled in this way. But he also claims that civilization must develop beyond that point to the internalization of authority, which is a "higher stage." In other words, Freud's theory is directing us to see that behaviour controlled by social conventions is somehow "cruder" or "more primitive" than behaviour in which each individual is controlled largely by an authority working within his or her own psyche. He wants, to put the matter very simply, to see morality less as a matter of shame (that is, socially determined) than of guilt (that is, individually determined). In this project, Freud is following closely in Plato's footsteps, at least in intention, if not in method.

There's a sense, too, of certain difficulties in Freud's notion of remorse, a feeling which arises before the origin of guilt by the actions of sons in killing the father they love. This would seem to suggest a type of moral feeling based, not on internal authority and self­punishment, but on a common awareness of an injury to a member of the group and a sense of having done something injurious to the group.

And so Freud doesn't really dwell on the importance of the shame and status. In fact having established the stage of "social anxiety" as a path on the route to the development of guilt, conscience, and the superego, he forgets about the distinction, later calling them both guilt. The reason for this, I would suggest, is that Freud generally wishes to avoid having to explore any possible social origins for unhappiness in order to avoid compromising his notion of the human being as essentially a biological creature governed by instincts, in which in some fundamental way, human beings are basically very aggressively hostile to each other by nature.

Given what Freud says about "social anxiety" and about my own sense of being much more strongly motivated by shame than by guilt, I am naturally led to wonder why Freud is so determined to play down the social component of human life--to stress animal instincts rather than social needs, to make the dynamics of the individual psyche more fundamental than the dynamics of group interaction, to see the crucial aspect in the best available life the development of a harsh internal authority which punishes us, not only for incorrect actions, but also for sinful wishes and intentions. Why, in other words, is Freud so un-Homeric.

I think there are a number of answers. Depending upon how persuasive one finds this book, any one of these might be turned into a major criticism of this entire theory.

In the first place, Freud was a biological scientist, more interested in the working of individual psychology than in group dynamics. Obviously what he has to say can be used and is used to make many grand theories about social phenomena. But Freud wants to remain true to where all his investigations started, inside the psyche of the individual.

This quality is what makes Freud a liberal in the best traditions of John Stuart Mill. Like Mill, Freud's goal is to increase (even if only slightly) individual freedom. To do that, Freud believes, we have to give human beings a better sense of how they function psychologically, of the dynamic problems which exist within their own personalities. A better knowledge of these, Freud believes, will not only make people more psychologically healthy, but it will, in the best traditions of Plato, make them more psychically harmonious and therefore, within certain limits, happier, better people. For Freud, as for Mill, emancipating the individual from the group conventions (for example, by internalizing the authoritative judge of his actions) is much more important than stressing human social needs (e.g. his remarks about work). But, unlike Nietzsche, Freud does not endorse unlimited self assertion in contempt for the group, for those who are confident and spontaneous enough to carry out such a project. For Freud that is clearly beyond the capacity of ordinary people and the unleashed aggressions would destroy more than they would create.

Freud, like Plato, witnessed the sudden catastrophic break up of traditional social groupings and the collapse of apparently stable social units which had functioned to organize people's sense of themselves for several generations. In a world where so many millions become refugees, immigrants, displaced people, transients, and where many social groups are so large that we lose our sense of belonging to anything manageable, what reliable and properly sized group is there in which we can put our faith? In many respects, Civilization and Its Discontents is very much a post-World War I book, facing up to the gloomy recognition that some of the most fundamental requirements of civilized life seem to be beyond human beings much of the time and that the social environment offers no hope for radical improvement.

The question however remains: To what extent is Freud's project here, his vision of civilized human beings as permanently unhappy biological instinctual creatures capable of alleviating but never removing the alienating pressures of communal life--to what extent is that a useful basis for understanding human life as we live it, as individuals in a civilized group? I don't propose to answer that here, but it is a question to which answers range all the way from no use at all (a manifestation of the cover up of advanced capitalism), to important but in need of some major qualifications to address the imposed alienating effects of the superego, and to an important advance in humanity's understanding of itself.



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