Uneasy Civilization

In 1929 Sigmund Freud wrote his famous and truly remarkable book Civilization and Its Discontents. The latter term, in German, is “Unbehagen,” which means, literally, “uneasiness.” In any event, Freud pointed out that civilization is bought at a price. He never suggested that the price was not worth paying, but those who followed him and had a much less penetrating insight into the trials and tribulations of civilized people decided that the price was not worth paying. Freud worried about repression and sublimation (which actually resulted in creative activity) whereas his acolytes preached that mental health consists in the absence of restraint in order to foster increased pleasure and “realizing one’s potential.”

What followed in this country within a decade or two was a plethora of pop-psychologists telling Americans that repression was a bad thing and the values that had created what we call “civilized society” were a sham. Following Nietzsche, they reduced virtues to values and then reduced values to subjective feelings. Gone were notions of hard work, diligence, courage, self-control, discipline, duty, and responsibility in the name of what was loosely regarded as emotional honesty, encouraging people to feel whatever they wanted to feel and eliminating inhibitions in an attempt to throw off the shackles of a restrictive culture. In the 1960s this movement bore the fruit of the hippy rebellion against “the Establishment” and the rejection in our universities of such things as history which was regarded as “irrelevant.”

The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset told us some time ago that civilization is above all else the will to live in common. To the extent that we want to throw off the “shackles” of restraint and self-control and become fixated on our own self-improvement, we become more self-absorbed and less willing to preserve and protect what must be regarded as the remnants of civilization, the will to live in common and direct attention toward the common good. We worry less and less about others and regard them, for the most part, as avenues to or away from our own happiness. In the process our “lesser natures” are brought to the surface and the urges that were restrained are turned loose to wreak havoc on others around us. Recall that Freud never said that repression was a bad thing. It merely brought about an “uneasiness.” He would later call this “neurosis,” its clinical name. For Freud neuroses are treatable. Lack of character is not treatable: it is permanent.

Thus, we have inherited a view of human nature that is, in large measure, the result of a misreading of Freud and at the center of this view sits the figure of Donald Trump, the reductio ad absurdum of the “let it all hang out” mantra. He rails at the media for insisting that his alternative facts are complete lies and, lately, he rails against the court system that would restrain his hatred of culturally diverse peoples around the world — all in the name of saving this country from terrorism (which he is convinced only he can do). This man is the embodiment of the lack of restraint that has come to characterize this society in which civilization, as we know it, is in danger of withering away. He embodies the lack of restraint and “honesty” that increasing numbers of people have come to regard as the only prizes worth having. Welcome to the New Age of Barbarism with the King Barbarian at its head! Small wonder that he has so many devoted followers. Never say “no.”

I have sworn not to write about this man any more and in this post I am obviously breaking my promise to myself and a few others who care about such things. But I do believe it is necessary to point out that we have arrived at a new age in which the values that created civilization have all but disappeared and the green light has been given to our baser instincts to go forth and eradicate. With his narcissism, vulgarity, fractured language, bigotry, contempt for those who disagree with him, and his determination to strike out against any and all who might thwart his will, the man is a symbol, a token, the personification of the decaying core of a civilization he would help bring down about our very ears. He has nothing but contempt for those few among us who might urge restraint and self-control in the name of a willingness to live with others, a determination to protect and save civilization (not to mention the planet) — for all its “uneasiness.”

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10 thoughts on “Uneasy Civilization

  1. This is a great post, Hugh! It certainly provides some insight into why so many seem willing to overlook the lies, bigotry and radicalism of the current administration and practically bow down to da trumpeter no matter what he says or does, no matter that there isn’t a single redeeming quality about the man or his minions. I am taking the liberty of reblogging … thank you in advance! 🙂 And yes, you did break your vow, but you did it so eloquently!

  2. Reblogged this on Filosofa's Word and commented:
    My blogger-friend Hugh is a philosopher, a deep thinker. Whereas I look at the political turmoil and upheaval of current times, both in the U.S. and on the other side of the globe, and wonder why some people are so determined to destroy our society, Hugh finds the answers to those questions in the works of the old philosophers. His post today is an excellent analysis of why people are so willing to follow and support leaders like Trump, LePen and Wilders in spite of, or perhaps because, of the chaos they create. Please take a few minutes to read Hugh’s post and think about what he says. Thank you Hugh for the implied permission to share this post!

  3. “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor” – Desmond Tutu

    An intelligent person pays attention when the body waves flags and blows whistles, so I agree – it’s important that you distance yourself as much as possible from Trump’s daily stunts. There are times, however, when it also helps to pass along your feedback…

    You might enjoy reading this…. http://organizingchange.org/here-is-how-moral-leaders-approach-neutrality/

  4. I find myself torn between hoping he will make enough of a mess for even his most ardent supporters to realise what the 60% knew all along and worrying that might be too late. As a British citizen, there is really nothing I can do (given our Prime Minister has invited the man to pop over for a right royal visit and she’s not for turning) except mutter supportive words. Keep away from the siren screens as much as you can – there will be plenty more reasons to emerge from behind the sofa at this rate and you will need all your mental energies!

    • Thanks for the encouragement and the perspective. I do think he will make a mess — he is well on his way — and I also worry that after he is gone we will still have the remnants of that mess for many years.

  5. There is one thing about the man that can give us hope: He inspires a lot of creativity in the people who still like to use their brain! I am referring to all those satirical answers to “America First”. The Dutch started, many followed. Here is a list, I don’t know if it is complete: http://time.com/4666142/america-first-trump-video/
    So maybe, just maybe, this bad joke of a president will be a wake-up call. And maybe people will realise that “boring civilisation” is not so bad after all.

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