Freud’s Take On Civilization

In a number of my blog posts I have made much of the importance of doing whatever we can to preserve Western civilization. And this at a time when the word “civilization” has come under fire. We have become aware in recent years that so-called “civilized” peoples have committed all manner of atrocities against so-called “uncivilized” or “barbaric” peoples — many of whom are superior in a great many ways to the civilized people who look down on them and seek to colonize and exploit them. This is true, of course. But there is much more to be said on the subject that has been ignored in our tizzy to right past wrongs, and, despite its shortcomings and the greed and avarice of so many of its leaders, civilization is highly desirable and preferable to its alternative in which lives, as Thomas Hobbes said, are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

No one has studied the strengths and weaknesses of civilization more carefully than Sigmiund Freud who defines it in the following way:

“. . . the word ‘civilization’ describes the whole sum of the 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.”

Now, as Freud is quick to point out, in “adjusting” our mutual relations with other humans in civilized society we pay a price. We give up many of our freedoms and we develop various neuroses. It would appear that our animal ancestors, and presumably more primitive people, are happier than we are because they have greater freedom. They have no “hang-ups” as we would now say. But this is something of a fiction, as Freud goes on to point out, because in primitive cultures only the men at the top — and certainly no women — have all the power and the rest of the society simply does as it is told. And there are numerous tribal taboos. So the freedom that a few may have is bought at a price paid by the majority of the rest of the culture. Civilized men and women, on the other hand, not only lose their freedom, they have many “discontents” to live with. We pay a price.

In the end, Freud suggests, the price may be well worth paying. There are three major benefits from civilization that are stressed in Freud’s excellent book Civilization and Its Discontents. There is, to begin with, the development of character. Without social restraints and the need to accommodate one another persons would not develop character. We find this in children who, when allowed to behave in any manner they wish, suffer character flaws. Unlike neuroses, character flaws cannot be corrected through therapy: they are permanent. These people are spoiled and unable to undertake and finish difficult projects. They wander aimlessly through life with no apparent purpose or goal.

This brings us to the second benefit of civilization, which is what Freud calls “sublimation,” borrowing a word from Nietzsche. This word means the ability to restrain ourselves and redirect the energy that would otherwise express itself in aggression toward others and channel it into creative outlets. As Freud says in this regard,

“Sublimation of instinct is an  especially conspicuous feature of cultural development; it is what makes it possible for higher psychical activities, scientific, artistic, or ideological, to play such an important part in civilized life.”

In a word, by sublimating what he called the “cathexis” of energy that would otherwise be spent needlessly or even violently, civilization, for all its faults, makes it possible for humans to create and grow intellectually and emotionally, to create and invent.

And this brings us to the third benefit of being civilized persons, and that is the suppression of “powerful instincts” that would otherwise result in violence toward our fellow humans. As history has shown, and which we are finding out for ourselves of late, this benefit has not been fully realized. Humans, even in so-called civilized societies, are still given to rage and the release of aggressive instincts toward their fellows. But, Freud would insist, this release of impulse is of lesser extent in civilized societies than in primitive ones since law enforcement helps to restrain aggressive impulses. What we are finding out is that law and order are less effective than we might hope and as increasing numbers of people become armed with deadly weapons and numbers of those pledged to enforce the laws break them resulting in increasing disrespect for law itself we can look forward to even greater violence in the future. As Freud would have it, civilization is a battle between the impulse toward happiness (pleasure) and the aggressive instinct. In his words,

“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.”

In the end, there are discontents in civilization, to be sure. But there are benefits that help to humanize us. As we lose those benefits we become less human, more like “our animal ancestors.” This is why I point to such things as the loss of good manners which, in itself, seems trivial, but is in fact, together with the growing disrespect for the law and those pledged to enforce the law, a sign that the ties of civilization are loosening and we are slipping back into a more primitive way of life — the life of our “animal ancestors.” Surely, this is something to be aware of and to seek to avoid.

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One thought on “Freud’s Take On Civilization

  1. Hugh, as I was reading this excellent summary, I thought of an analogy that made sense to me. Over history, there is a truism, “unless you are the lead dog, the view never changes.” As society becomes civilized it improves that view for more dogs, but they still must pull together. Those who won’t pull get left behind. Good post, BTG

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