Is Repression a Bad Thing?

This is one of my first posts — eight years old, would you believe?! I repost it here because it stresses one of my favorite themes and it still seems to me to be relevant, and the fact that it brought about needed change shows how powerful and influential my posts have been.

We pride ourselves on being open and honest about our most private lives. We think ourselves superior to the Victorians, with all their hangups, their unwillingness to discuss sex or to see one another naked. We have been taught by every pop psychologist who can set pen to paper that we must let it all hang out to be healthy: it’s not good to repress our feelings. Though they may never have read him, these people are playing fast and loose with some of the ideas of Sigmund Freud who knew whereof he spoke. But it is no more clear that these ideas are truly Freudian than it is that we are any healthier than the Victorians, for all our “honesty” about sex and the widespread display of naked bodies on the TV and movie screens. Wallace Stegner, who has a way of asking troublesome questions, wrote about this and — like all good novelists — presents us with an interesting set of questions.

In his Pulitzer-winning novel, Angle of Repose, his hero is writing a history of the marriage between his grandmother and her husband, whom he greatly admires. His grandmother was an unadulterated Victorian woman, a lady, and one who bore all the burdens of womanhood in an age when women were supposed to be handmaids to their husbands — a quality that has come under severe scrutiny from the feminists among us. In his novel, Stegner also presents us with a young, liberated woman named Shelly Rasmussen, who helps the wheelchair-ridden narrator in his attempts to gather material for his history and get it ready for him to work with. Shelly is in her early 20’s and has already had a failed relationship with an “acid-head” who has forced her to flee back to her parents where she finds work with Lyman Ward, historian. While musing about one of the chapters Ward has written about his grandmother, Shelly admonishes him for being prudish about his grandmother’s sex life. If this “history” is largely a novel, why not juice it up and make it more interesting, instead of turning out the lights just when things get interesting? Ward muses:

“I felt like asking her, if contemporary sexual attitudes are so much healthier than Grandmother’s, how Grandmother managed to get through a marriage that lasted more than sixty years, while Shelly Rasmussen hides out in her parents’ house at the age of twenty or so to escape the attentions of her liberated and natural lover.”

Stegner’s novel was written in the early 1970s, soon after the radical movement had blown the top off pretense and restraint, as one might say, and started “telling it like it is.”  Stegner may be reeling somewhat from the aftershock of that experience, but his questions still seem bothersome many years later: are we really better off for all our “honesty”? We have been told we are, but it is not all that obvious.

Freud, of course, never said we should let it all hang out, and if we were leaning on Freud for our psychological insights, instead of a bevy of pop-followers who may never have read the man’s works, we would learn that civilization presupposes repression, or at the very least, sublimation, in order to provide us with the many benefits we so much take for granted. It does result in neuroses, but there never was a time when humans were completely free of those — caused early-on by numerous tribal taboos. He knew all about repression, and he borrowed Nietzsche’s notion of sublimation to instruct us about the mechanism that makes creativity and real progress possible. It’s not all about “letting it all hang out,” it’s all about being honest with ourselves and acknowledging those things that inhibit us, facing up to them, and redirecting our energies in productive ways.

Lyman Ward sits imprisoned in his wheelchair in almost constant pain, looking at a picture of his grandmother on the wall, a face that reflects “discipline, self-control, modesty. . ” Then he notes Shelly Rasmussen sprawled on the floor, disheveled, unkempt, bra-less and full of rage, letting it all hang out — literally and metaphorically. Readers are aware not only of the stinging things this young woman says to an elderly, retired professor of history who is racked with pain, grilling him and critiquing his book and his prudery as well as his grandmother’s. But we are also aware of the fact that she would have the audacity to do so in the first place. Without a doubt, we are less civilized than the Victorians; we live such shallow, self-absorbed lives. We are asked by Stegner to question whether we are happier.

The Trump Phenomenon

Apparently we live in a “Momism” culture. I was not aware of this, but John Carroll notes that respected sociologists and anthropologists such as Margaret Mead, Geoffrey Gorer, Erik Erikson, K. Keniston, Herbert Hendin in the late 1960s and early 1970s

“all wrote on the theme, stressing the dominant power of the mother. . . . The psychiatric literature of the period tended to point in the same direction . . . The overall impact of the psychoanalytic, psychiatric, and sociological literature of this period is to suggest that mother dominance has become pervasive.”

What it means is that we have moved from the age of the patriarch, the father with absolute authority in the home during, say, the Victorian period. The image is that of the father with rod in hand whipping his son into shape, taming him like a wild animal, breaking his will. Ours is an age in which we have become softer, gentler, more compassionate — an age in which the rod has been replaced with a fishing rod and the father urged to take his son out in the canoe for some “quality time.”

This certainly makes sense in that we know ours is a permissive age, an age in which we reason with children rather than “whip them into shape.’ In fact, any whipping would quickly bring the sheriff and the child would be taken away from his abusive parents. This is a good thing in so many ways, but it also brings with it certain rather sobering consequences — such as our age of entitlement where spoiled children run wild and parents are warned at every turn not to damage their potential and to be their friends rather than the authority figures they require.

In fact, ever since Freud we have known that despite the image sketched above, that authoritarian father with his firm hand did, in fact, help the child become a mature, responsible adult. It turned the aggressive impulses that every child has inward building a Super Ego, or conscience, in the process. The result is what we call “character” and the sublimation of those impulses brought about creative and constructive results — what we call “civilization.” Greater permissiveness, as I have noted in the past, results in the turning outward of these impulses, a lack of character, and even violence. This is all well documented and we must live with the consequences. It’s a “trade-off” I suppose.

But let’s also suppose that what we might call the “Trump Phenomenon,” which we struggle to understand, could also be the result of this excessive permissiveness. Let’s suppose that for a great many people in this country Donald Trump represents the father figure, the firm, decisive, rod-in-hand figure of authority that they crave on an unconscious level. For all his faults, and there are many, the man is quick to make a decision — for many of us those decisions are invariably the wrong ones, but nevertheless he does make decisions. He “cuts to the chase.” Quickly. In a democratic system where decisions seem to come at a snail’s pace, if at all, when the powers that be seem involved in endless bickering and nothing seems to get done, the notion of a decisive leader, one who takes charge, might be very appealing to a great many people — especially if those people have been handed the dirty end of the stick for most of their lives, convinced that the power elite, those with more money and a better education, have always made the decisions that affect their lives.

In any event, folks like Christopher Lasch and John Carroll, who have read their Freud and take seriously the notion that we all need a firm hand, seem convinced that our age suffers from a lack of authority, that “Momism” is not necessarily a good thing because it creates more problems than it solves. To be sure, it takes the rod from the hand of the snarling father, but it leaves the child with no guidance and a lack of character. Thus do we stumble about and wonder where we are going, noting the increase of violence, the loss of manners and restraint, the glorification of the quick fix, and the election of fools to positions of power.

Violence Revisited

By and large my blog posts are not to everyone’s taste. The only blog post I ever wrote that could be regarded as “popular” by stretching the term a bit, was the one I wrote in 2013 about Freud’s take on violence. I suspect the popularity of that post is due to the fact that it has been “borrowed” for many a term paper in some of America’s least prestigious colleges and universities! In any event, I  have always been fascinated by the question why Americans in particular have been so prone to violence and I found that Hannah Arendt and Freud together tell us a great deal about the sources of the phenomenon. For those interested in that very popular earlier post I refer them here.

In this regard I am reading a book by the Australian sociologist John Carroll titled Guilt:The Grey Eminence Behind Character,History, and Culture which sheds some light on the subject. The book appears to be an attempt to flesh out the position Freud takes in his book Civilization and Its Discontents. In that book Freud argued that civilization is the result of the sublimation of aggressive impulses that lie in each of us “beyond the pleasure principle.” Carroll, insists that anxiety is one of the major reasons why humans experience the aggressive impulse; he expands on this argument in his own book:

“The critical question in all cases of sharp injections of anxiety is whether aggression is directed inwards or outwards. When it goes outwards, in violence, in hard work, in religious ritual — the more strenuous and self-punitive the better — even in screaming and wailing, then the provoking anxiety will be largely relieved. On the other hand, when it turns inwards it creates guilt. . . “

Freud would have spoken about the Super Ego and conscience, and nowhere, so far as I know, does he speak about anxiety as a trigger for aggression. None the less, it is plausible. But, however they may originate, when a person is able to sublimate the aggressive impulses inwards he is often able to channel those impulses into creative work. The result of channeling this aggression is not only guilt and remorse and even neurosis, it is what we call “civilization.” Those things we take so much for granted are the result of sublimated aggression, for the most part; sublimation begins in childhood with parental admonitions and proscriptions. And the neurosis is small price to pay for the results we all take for granted. Moreover, neurotic people are frequently the most talented and interesting people we know!

In a permissive society, where parental admonitions and proscriptions are seldom found, the aggressive impulses triggered by anxiety are not directed inwards forming a conscience; rather, they are directed outwards and if we note what Carroll says, almost in passing, the result is often violence. We see this in the spoiled child who has tantrums and strikes out in all directions in an effort to release those impulses that are barely beneath the surface in his case. Those of us who are presumably adults with a lively conscience have been taught not to express those aggressive impulses; we have learned not to release them outwards. But a permissive society allows them to be expressed — one might argue that many a modern psychologist has told parents not only to allow it to be expressed but to encourage it.

Be that as it may, if we are looking for a possible cause why Americans have become so violent — in their preference for violent games and movies as well as in their preference for violent sports — we might consider the very real possibilities that anxiety is increasingly prevalent, and also we have become far too permissive. The combination is volatile, to be sure. By allowing, and even encouraging, the spoiled child to express himself (he’s only a child and he’s just being honest!) we weaken the conscience and fail to develop what has always been called “character.” The child becomes an anxious and frustrated adult and he seeks violent outlets for the aggression he has been taught is simply an honest expression of his emotions. The result may be a relatively harmless preference for violent forms of entertainment. But it can obviously take a more direct and effective route on the way to violence against others in the form of abuse, physical harm, and even pulling the trigger of an automatic weapon in a crowded school room.

This analysis doesn’t address the question why Americans, especially, have been shown to be so prone to violence. But perhaps, motivated as we are by material success, there is greater anxiety in America than in other cultures — especially among those of us who feel the deck is stacked against them and they cannot possibly achieve material success. It is also possible America is more permissive than most other cultures. I suspect this is true, but that’s for the sociologist to determine.


The Old Barbarism

I have remarked on numerous occasions that we have entered the age of a New Barbarism. Civilization as we know it, with its constraints and its demands that we be aware of and even that we care about others than ourselves is being replaced by a culture that is violent, unrestrained and positively fixated on itself. But I was wrong. In reading John Carroll’s interesting book on Guilt, I came to realize that what I regard as the new barbarism is nothing more than a return of the old barbarism that was prevalent in the medieval period.  After all, it wasn’t until the early eighteenth century, while civilization was still in its early stages and people were beginning to be fully aware of others and beginning to develop a lively conscience, moving  past a time when folks ate with their hands, blew their noses on their sleeves, or relieved themselves in the streets; a growing number of books on manners reminded them that

“If you pass a person who is relieving himself you should act as if you had not seen him, as it is impolite to greet him.”

Amusing indeed, but at the same time it gives us a sense of what things were like before we slowly but surely became “civilized.”  In England, for example, between the years 1200 and 1530 we find the following features:

“Conscience was in a primitive state. . . The common man’s imagination was fed with a kaleidoscope of ghosts, signs, specters, apparitions — of angels, devils, shades of the dead, and other countless forms that the Church managed to weave into its philosophy.”

Sound familiar? Has the entertainment industry become our church? What about this: ”

“Medieval culture was visual and tactile. Pictoral expression far surpassed the intellectual or literary. The popular stories were picturesque. . . The prominant role that magic played in the Middle Ages [created problems for the Protestant Church] that removed magic from Christian ritual without countering the belief in magic. . . . medieval man’s experience had the directness and absoluteness of the pleasure and pain of child life. . . As the visual was preferred over the literary, so the visible and public were preferred to the private.”

As in the entertainment industry once again, or, perhaps, social media? Perhaps this:

“The disposition of medieval man was that of a delinquent. It was violent and impulsive, without capacity for restraint or moderation. Tempestuous uninhibited passion was never far from the surface. . . Affection seems to have been scarce; the dominant emotions of the time were rather those of impotent fear and reflex violence.”

I could go on, but you get the idea. It is too much to see a precise parallel — as some have tried to do with contemporary civilization and the fall of the Roman Empire. But the similarities to the medieval period are striking as we cover ourselves with tattoos and piercings, gobble up entertainment, fixate on our hand-held electronic devices, seek violent solutions to complex social problems, purchase personal weapons at an alarming rate, take innumerable pictures of ourselves (and what we are about to eat), crave violent games and movies. The Harry Potter craze seems to echo the comments Carroll makes about the “kaleidoscope of ghosts . . ” that was common in the medieval period. In a word, there are signs that we are in danger of becoming increasingly barbaric as we turn our backs on civil discourse and the virtue of restraint, on the richness and treasure that is (was?) Western Civilization.

Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies showed us a group of English school boys stranded on an island after their plane crashed. Within a few days the thin veneer of civilization wore off and we began to see the savage nature of the animals beneath — with a few exceptions. Law and morality were forgotten and chaos, in the guise of complete freedom, placed the lives of each of those boys at risk. This was fiction, but it was based on sound observation and compelling arguments by psychologists such as Sigmund Freud who told us that beyond the pleasure principle there lies a core of festering aggression within each of us. And our history provides us with multiple examples of this undeniable fact, as Carroll points out. During the medieval period the thin veneer of civilization was almost transparent and it took centuries of struggle for humans to begin to act like humans, to care for one another, acquire manners, and to put law above violence, to become “civilized.”

The veneer gradually thickened but today we seem determined to scratch it off as too inhibiting. However, we should be aware of what lives beneath that veneer; we are seeing growing numbers of examples of that inner core of aggression that Freud spoke about. From an uncivilized president and his legions of agitated supporters to the hordes of people buying guns, to the shouting that has replaced civil discourse, to the gradual disappearance of good manners, to the attacks on reason and science, we see all around us signs of that core of “tempestuous, uninhibited” aggression. We must be very careful not to wear off entirely that veneer of civilization since that way lies the old barbarism, a part of ourselves that we always carry with us and which we really don’t want to expose for all to see.

Emotional Honesty

I recently posted a brief discourse on restraint in which I denigrated the notion of emotional honesty as that concept is used today. I should be clear that I am not opposed to emotional honesty, I am opposed to the notion that the only way to behave in an emotionally honest way is to behave like an animal. True, animals are emotionally honest, we must suppose, but that is not by choice. The human tendency to display honesty in the form of animal behavior is a choice we seem to have made.

I suspect the notion that it is somehow a good thing to express our emotional honesty in this manner arises from a misreading of Sigmund Freud who wrote a great deal about “repression.” Later psychologists, in their attempts to develop Freud’s theory, argued that repression is an unhealthy thing and it would be healthier to be as open and honest  about our emotions as possible. The key here is that in order to be mentally healthy we need to be aware of our emotion states, not necessarily to express them openly. If we are mad, we need to acknowledge that fact and not repress it. In fact, Freud distinguishes between “proper” and “primal” repressions.  We need to know just what it is that is being repressed and why.

In Freud’s system it is the id that is repressed, that element of the human psyche that operates under what Freud called “the pleasure principle.” Many who read Freud reduce this to our sexual urges and those are certainly included, but they do not exhaust the urges of the id which includes such mundane things as the urge to eat when we are hungry and strike out when we are mad. We are talking about primal urges.

The healthy individual, according to Freud, seeks to balance the urges of the id with the restrictions of the ego and the super ego — the notion of balance going back to the Greeks, if you can imagine. The most productive way to do this is through “sublimation,” a term Freud borrowed from Nietzsche. When we sublimate the primitive urges which we all experience, we direct them away from their intended object (we don’t hit the Trump supporter) and redirect those urges into creative outlets such as art, philosophy, science, for example, or simply redecorating the living room, going for a run — or, perhaps, writing a blog.

The notion that it is healthy to behave like an animal is therefore a misreading of Freud and completely ignores the fact that repression of those basic urges is necessary if civilization is to survive. In fact, it is through the sublimation of the id that civilization arose in the first place. People need to live together in relative harmony and this is not possible if they are releasing their basic urges every time they are felt. The important distinction here is the acknowledgment of basic urges, which is necessary for mental health and the expression of those urges which reduces the human to the animal — which we all are, but which we presumably seek to rise above: no one seriously wants to live in Hobbes’ state of nature in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Thus, when a person (any person, even the president) gives immediate vent to his basic urges, or when the athlete pounds his chest like a Great Ape, he is expressing his emotions, he is being “emotionally honest” in only a restricted sense of that term. More to the point, he is not being all he can be as a human being. When he screws up and apologizes or taps his chest and says “my bad,” he is. The difference is important is we are to grasp just where we stand as human beings. After all, we are living in a precarious civilization that is trending toward dissolution if we do not make every effort to sustain it. And that requires repression, or at the very least, restraint.


I have touched on this topic from time to time but have not, until now, addressed it in detail. I am speaking about the astonishing lack of restraint that is not only allowed in our culture, but actually applauded. One sees it especially in sports where one team member will call out his teammate and trash him in public while the talking heads on television applaud him for his “emotional honesty.” There was a time, not long ago, when Johnny Unitas would throw a touchdown pass to Raymond Berry who would smile, toss the ball to the referee and trot back to the bench. Rod Laver would win one of his “Grand Slam” tournaments, smile, jog to the net and shake hands with his opponent. But no more. This sort of behavior is not regarded as exhibiting “emotional honesty” and would never make Sports Center.

We now see the football players make a touchdown and then beat their chests like great apes drawing attention to themselves and getting huge applause from the crowds. The tendency has even infiltrated the more tranquil sports (if you will) like tennis and golf where the victors throw themselves down on the court after the final point or pound their chests after the last putt drops in like….well, like a great ape. The act itself is one thing, but the fact that the cameras follow those types and avoid the more sedate players who simply behave themselves is worth a moment’s reflection. Why do we think it worthy of praise if a man or a woman wallows in self-applause, insults another person, or “lets it all hang out”? The less restraint the better, we are led to believe. And it’s not just in sports. Many admire our sitting president for these very qualities, which can by no stretch of the imagination be regarded as estimable.

I think back to the Greeks who prized self-control. Homer, for example, describes Achilles’ actions after the death of his close friend Patroclus — which was every bit the sort of thing we see on television every day: dragging Hector’s corpse around the walls of Troy. He then learns restraint in granting Hector’s father permission to take Hector back to Troy and provide him with the hero’s burial he justly deserves. And that seems to be the lesson. Indeed, the Greek plays, especially, are full of examples of heroes who cross the line and behave in an unrestrained manner and then have to pay the price. This is the heart and soul of tragedy. And Plutarch’s Lives were written about true heroes who exemplified self-control in order to provide examples to the young people who read them years later.

The Victorian age followed the Greeks in their praise of self-restraint, and that age has generally been dismissed as repleat with human suffering and emotional hang-ups that required Freud to untangle. Focus tends to be on the manifold sins of the age in which the people were all “uptight” by today’s standards and tended to look the other way as the poor were left to fend for themselves. But a peek behind the curtain of the Victorian ethos reveals a people who prized self-restraint every bit as much as did the Greeks. George Eliot is a case in point. Her novels are filled with heroes and heroines who know the value of self-restraint, who seek always to control their emotions, do their duty, and respect others. There is no better example than the remarkable woman Maggie Tulliver in Eliot’s The Mill On The Floss who falls deeply in love with Stephen Guest who is promised to another. The man, as it happens, also loves Maggie and seeks to “compromise her” as the Victorians would have it.

In a lengthy passage that goes on for pages, the would-be seducer manages to divert Maggie’s attention while they are drifting down the river, passing the landing spot they had initially targeted. This means they will have to spend the night together after they land down-stream. This was no accident as Stephen repeatedly attempts to win Maggie over and she fights against his will and her own deepest desires. She sums up the struggle in the following passage:

“I am quite sure that [this] is wrong. I have tried to think of it again and again; but I see, if we judged in [your] way that it would be a warrant for all treachery and cruelty – we should justify breaking the most sacred ties that can ever be framed on earth. If the past does not bind us, where can duty lie? We should have no law but the inclination of the moment. . . Faithfulness and constancy mean something else besides doing what is easiest and pleasantest to ourselves. They mean renouncing whatever is opposed to the reliance others have in us – whatever would cause misery to those whom the course of our lives has made dependent on us.”

Bear in mind that in the eyes of her society Maggie has already compromised herself. She is a sinful woman who has spent the day — and the night ahead as it happens — with a man betrothed to her best friend. But regardless of the consequences Maggie sees her duty to others clearly and provides us with an excellent example of the self-restraint of which I write. It is truly admirable — through it would almost certainly be dismissed these days as an example of a woman who needs to “give it a rest” and be more honest with her feelings.

The fact is, of course, she is totally honest with her feelings. She knows exactly how she feels and her feelings are every bit as strong as Stephen’s. But she resists “the inclination of the moment.” She shows the sort of self-restraint that the Greeks admired. Eliot knew about the struggles between desire and duty and always sought to do the right thing. As a result she was greatly admired while today, I wager, she would be dismissed out of hand as a wooly headed fool.

Thus things do change. And not always for the better.


Infantile Narcissism

Near the end of a most interesting essay on “Art, Will, and Necessity,” Lionel Trilling has a brief summary of one of the many insights Freud had into human psychic development. It deserves serious reflection because regression is a phenomenon of increasing familiarity.  As Trilling notes:

“According to Freud, in the very earliest stages of infancy, the self is not experienced, let alone conceived, as separate from its environment. In the first months of life the universe is, as it were, contained within the infant’s sensory system. Only by gradual stages in the process of maturation does the infant come to perceive that the world is external to it and independent of it, and learns to surrender the omnipotence of its subjectivity. Recognizing the imperative nature of the objectified universe, the infant acquires the ability to deal with the external world in individual acts of will. Thus it survives, and to the agency of its survival, to that element of the psychic economy which has guided the infant in making this necessary differentiation between itself as subject and the world as object, Freud gave the name of ego.

“The development of the ego is a process of infinite complexity, of which one aspect is its periodic reluctance to go forward in its growth. Sometimes it is tempted to regress to a less active and effectual stage, even to turn back to the comfortable condition of subjective omnipotence, to the megalomania of infantile narcissism.”

Freud called this the development of the “reality principle,” the slow and at times painful awareness that the self is not all, that there are cruel necessities “out there” that are separate from us and demand our attention. To the extent that the world becomes more threatening, to the extent that our attention turns back upon itself and dwells on its own immediate pleasures and desires, to that extent is growth and maturity stunted. And it is this phenomenon that demands our attention, because today we demand that the world be of our own liking and to the extent that it is not, to that extent is its objectivity denied and the truths that are painful twisted into “alternative facts” and “false news.” The phenomenon of “regression” is of particular interest.

Recently ours is a world of immediate gratification, a world in which our desires are satisfied as soon as they are felt — like those of the infant who cries and is fed or changed. Indeed, increasingly we seem to lack the ability to mature, to grow as adults and face the demands of a world not of our own making. Instead we retreat into our world of things which we have “bought” on time — because we want them now, not later, a world of pleasure where everything is as we would have it be. If our world is not as we would have it be, we reject it and refuse to allow that it is real. We seem to have developed a very weak reality principle, as Freud would have it, and prolonged our infancy well into old age. As Trilling notes, in the normal maturation process the infant as he ages “comes to perceive that the world is external to it and independent of it.” We seem to struggle with that realization, to fight against it. Triggered, perhaps, by our growing fear and uncertainty we submerge ourselves in a world of entertainment — including, but not restricted to, the electronic toys that allow us to prolong the illusion that we are in total control of the world around us. This supports Trilling’s contention that many of us may be regressing to a stage of “infantile narcissism.”

What to do? It would seem that until or unless we address the matter head-on it will simply grow worse. We need to come out of ourselves, admit that the world is not of our own making, that things are not always as we would have them be, in order to begin to grow as human beings. Above all else, though Freud pays little attention to this feature of human development, we need to become aware that others are often, though not always, deserving of our sympathy and even our love. Awareness of others is hand-in-glove with awareness of the objective world. This involves attachment to that world, including other people. And this entails the awareness of its independence of us, including its determination at times to thwart our deepest wishes — while at the same time acknowledging that so much of it deserves our attention, affection, and attachment. These are key ingredients to developing a healthy reality principle, an adult relationship with the world around us.

The alternative, as Freud would have it, is to continue to wish, unconsciously no doubt, to return to the womb where it was safe and warm and all our needs were immediately gratified. That’s not the “real” world; that is the world of “subjective omnipotence,” the “megalomania of infantile narcissism.”


This post is a continuation of a discussion about the demise of Western Civilization started in the last post.

Civilization, according to Ortega y Gasset, is above all else the “will to live in common.” It centers around the city, including the society of others, civil laws, and morés. It also involves, in most cases, what we loosely call “culture,” which ranges from low to high. “High culture,” which many identify with civilization itself, involves the highest expression of the human spirit in the form of the fine arts, literature, philosophy, and science. Low culture, we might say, centers around the entertainment industry and social media. (Sorry.)

As I have noted in a number of previous blog posts, civilization has come under fire by poets, novelists, and philosophers since the latter part of the nineteenth century and, especially, the early twentieth century. The latest form of the attack comes with what is referred to as “postmodernism,” a movement largely within the academy involving ongoing intellectual protests following the student protests in the 1960s that openly and avowedly seek to eradicate all vestiges of Western Civilization (at the very least). All in the name of “freedom.” The idea is that the restraint that is necessary for human beings to create civilization has resulted in a bourgeois society wallowing in materialism, the suppression of the disadvantaged, and false pleasures. Worse yet civilization has become stifling, suffocating. It is time to throw off the shackles and become free, free of all stuffy customs, false values, and civil constraints which have brought misery to so many, in spite of its so-called benefits.

I summarize, of course, but I do so in order to raise anew the question of whether, in fact, civilization is worth saving, whether or not it has, on balance, brought more misery and suffering than it has beauty and benefits. I confess that I cannot answer that question to my own complete satisfaction, but I suspect the balance is in favor of saving the best of civilization while recognizing that much of what we call the “civilized world” is indeed worthy of rejection. I would suggest, however, that the freedom so many cry out for, the throwing off of the shackles of social norms and restraints, is a snare and a delusion. This is because those who seek to eradicate civilization in the name of greater human freedom seldom, if ever, pause to ask what it is they seek to establish in the place of what they have grown to detest and are keen to destroy. Nor do they think deeply about what freedom is.

Freedom, properly understood, requires restraint. The total absence of restraint is nothing more and nothing less than pure chaos; it is not freedom. Thus, the ideal of the modern and post-modern theorists who would jettison civilization in the name of greater freedom are, in fact, espousing what must be called a “new barbarism,” a world without rules and without concern for others. The ideal figures in this new paradigm would be the thoroughly miserable Underground Man of Dostoevsky. Or it would be, as I suggested in a previous post, Conrad’s thoroughly debased Kurtz. Or it would come in the form of the latest maniac who walks into a school with a loaded automatic weapon and starts shooting at random. These folks embody pure freedom, the absence of restraints, the absence, indeed, of morality which has been thrust aside as nothing more than personal opinion. True freedom, comes at the cost of acknowledging something outside the self that requires the sublimation (to use Freud’s word) of those instincts that we wish to turn loose and instead channel them into creative outcomes. It comes in the form of knowledge of what is and what is not truly valuable. The truly free man or woman acts from the knowledge that what he or she does will make the world around them a better place. Knowledge is the key here. Freedom is not 68 varieties of bread to choose from. It arises from the knowledge of which bread is healthiest.

Personally, I do not wish to live in a world that has as heroes, men (or women) who act without restraint in the name of human freedom, living life to the full — as they see it. I prefer to “live in common,” to help build communities held together by mutual respect and a willingness to sacrifice immediate gratification and unfettered impulse for the sake of something greater than the self. I suppose this is why I have spent so much of my time — and so many words — hoping to preserve some semblance of what is best in Western Civilization, that high culture that sets us apart from those that would simply throw off the chains (as they see it) and turn the demons loose.

There is simply no way to distinguish this alternative world from the world of Kurtz. And we must recall his final words: “The horror! The horror!”

The Ad Hominem

I recently got involved in an exchange with a fellow blogger on the topic of violence and its possible causes. In the course of the discussion we got off-topic a bit as he took me to task for appealing to Freud’s notion of the “reality principle,” which I regard as one of Freud’s most important contributions to human psychology. The discussion became a bit testy, if not downright acrimonious (clearly my fault) because I accused him of committing the ad hominem fallacy. He was prepared to reject all of Freud’s contributions because he has read that Freud’s “discoveries” [his quotation marks] were stolen from other thinkers.

I do apologize for being testy and realize that I must tone down my comments when I get my shackles up — as they are when I hear Freud wrongly accused. There is no question but that many of Freud’s insights (and for heaven’s sake let’s stop calling them “discoveries” in scare quotes!) came from the poets. In fact, on his death-bed he acknowledged his debt to the poets. It inspired me to write a post on “Freud and the Poets” which included the following paragraph:

Late in his life, as he was dying from the agonies of cancer and insisting that he only be treated with an occasional aspirin, Sigmund Freud noted that his “discovery” of the human unconscious mind was down to the poets.  As he wrote, “Not I,  but the poets, discovered the unconscious.” By the word “poet” he meant artists who work with words, such as Shakespeare and Dostoevsky — the latter having written what Freud regarded as the greatest novel ever. Indeed, Shakespeare, as we all acknowledge, provides innumerable insights into the human condition and Dostoevsky not only explores the human unconscious mind but can be said to have discovered the duality in the human mind. His first novel, The Double, depicts a man who gradually loses his mind and goes to work to find he is already there.

Please note my use of the quotation marks around the notion of Freud’s “discoveries,” but there is no scare involved! There is simply the fact that he borrowed, as do we all, some of the essential insights that went into the making of his system. And that word “system” is key, because it was Freud, and Freud alone, who systematized those insights into a coherent model for explaining human neurosis and psychosis. The insights of the poets are the necessary conditions for Freud’s contributions to psychology, but they are not sufficient. It took the mind of a genius to put the pieces together to form a whole.

But as far as the charge that my fellow blogger committed the ad hominem fallacy goes the charge strands, despite his denial, because even if we insist that Freud stole all of his ideas that is no reason whatever for rejecting his system outright. This is clearly an attack on the man — not his ideas. The fact that his insights were borrowed, or stolen, has nothing whatever to do with the fact that they help, as part of the systematic whole, to explain human behavior. Freud clearly borrowed from Schiller, Goethe, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer as well as the two named in my above quote, but his system stands on its own feet: it requires that it be tested in the arena of human intercourse to see if it helps relieve pain and suffering, to help human beings recover form various sicknesses. And it does work as there are still a large number of psychologists who employ Freud’s methods despite the fact that it is popular these days to reject most, if not all of whet he says, Feminists, for example, don’t like his notion of “penis envy,” and his Victorian attitude toward women; behaviorists think his system too cumbersome. The fact remains that it explains a great deal and can help us better understand what is going in the minds and hearts of ourselves and our fellow humans.

The key to the ad hominem fallacy is the irrelevance of the critique. It is a non sequitur. The attack on the man (or the woman) who puts forward an argument is beside the point when it comes to the argument itself. A complete nut job could come up with a brilliant argument to establish the most implausible conclusion. If the argument holds up to critical scrutiny then it stands despite its source. If Freud’s system is inaccurate or somehow wrong, then it needs to be shown not that he borrowed ideas from others, but that those ideas as he worked them into his system simply do not work.

The best attack on Freud’s system I have ever come across is by thinkers like Carl Popper who reject it because it is not scientific: it cannot be proved wrong. And scientific systems must be provable and/or capable of being shown to be wrong, i.e., disproved. Freud’s cannot. Scientific or not, the Freudian scheme is seminal and extremely helpful in better understanding the human predicament.


Violence -One More Time

In a recent blog I leaped with both feet into a confusing and confused (heated?) discussion of the possible relationship between such video games as “Active Shooter” and violence in this country. As I say, the issue is complex because it involves establishing a causal relationship between two rather different entities — in this case violence in electronic games, television, and the movies and, on the other hand, the undeniable fact of excessive violence in this country. I suggested in a previous blog that there is a concurrence that comes very close to a causal relationship. But there are different points of view, several of which were expressed in comments on that post.

Being a daring sort of person, I want to visit the topic again with the help of John Stuart Mill who, in his  A System of Logic, sought to show how causal relationships can be established. He set forth five “canons,” the final one of which was what he called the “method of concomitant variations,” which is the surest way to determine whether we are dealing with a causal relationship. In his precise way he stated the principle as follows:

Whatever phenomenon varies in any manner whenever another phenomenon varies in some particular manner, is either a cause or an effect of that phenomenon, or is connected with it through some fact of causation.

— John Stuart Mill, A System of Logic, Vol. 1. 1843. p. 470.
In the case of violence, we might list the growing incidence of violence in this country in recent years, including such things as road rage, bullying, child abuse, domestic violence, rape, suicide, gun deaths, and, of course, mass killings by presumably deranged individuals which garner the major headlines and were the focus of much of the discussion in my recent post. Couple this with the rise in the sales and use of electronic toys and the staggering number of hours the young spend playing electronic games and watching television and we might indeed be able to show a concomitant variation between the increase in this society in the above instances of violence and the increasing number of people-hours spent watching violence on television and game-playing.
To make certain of the relationship, of course, we would have to reduce the instances of viewing violent programs and playing violent games to see if there is a drop in violence in our society. This would be nearly impossible to carry off, however, since there is no reason to believe that those who play the games and watch the violent movies and television programs want to cut back — though parents could intervene if they were motivated to do so. One might go so far as to say they should, in fact, be doing precisely that.
As I suggested to one of the commentators to my recent post, much depends on the degree of immersion of the young in those violent activities. If increased immersion in those violent activities does, in fact, correspond to increased instances of violence in its many forms, then we are warranted in concluding that there is a causal relationship between the two. My sense is that there is such a correspondence, or at the very least a “connection through some fact of causation.”
Please note that the argument does not focus on  violent games, such as “Active Shooter” which was the subject of the recent post on this topic. Nor do I insist that we look exclusively at mass shootings, since violence takes so many forms. I am asking that we consider the whole scope of violence in this country, coupled with our history of using violence to eradicate indigenous people and generally to solve our problems. “Make My Day!”  I ask also if there is a direct correlation between those incidences and the involvement of increasing numbers of people in the viewing of violent programs and  playing of violent games.
As I say, I suspect strongly that there is a concomitant variation between the two and tentatively conclude that there is a causal relationship. But I would add, as I did in my previous discussion of this topic, that the acquisition of a strong “reality principle,” to use Freud’s term, would lessen the correlation somewhat. A great many people play the games and watch violent programs and movies and are yet not prone to violent actions, because they realize that games are not reality. But I do contend that, in a more permissive society where electronic toys have become commonplace and the reality principle is weaker, the ability of many to distinguish carefully between the games they play and the real world is correspondingly weakened, thus increasing the likelihood of violence.