Sigismund (later changed to Sigmund) Freud was born on 6 May 1856 in Freiberg, Moravia (now Pribor in the Czech Republic). Freud’s family was Jewish but he was himself non-practising.
In the book Civilization And Its Discontents Sigmund Freud discusses the relationship between the individual and the community, how civilization distorts natural aggression which leads to guilt in us and that way to unhappiness and anxiety. The book is really short, just over a hundred pages and feels more like a long essay than an actual book. Although the book is short, it’s packed with knowledge and thoughts that will make you wonder about the present state of our civilization, and how the future of it will look like.
Freud’s first major thought in this book is the pleasure principle. Freud says:
Man strives for happiness, they want to become happy and stay so. This striving has two goals, one negative and one positive: on the one hand it aims at an absence of pain and unpleasurable experiences, on the other at strong feelings of pleasure. As we see, it is simply the programme of the pleasure principle that determines the purpose of life.
This can be seen in everything we do. Why do we eat unhealthy fast food, because it gives us strong feelings of pleasure. Why do many suffer from social anxiety, because they are afraid of saying something embarrassing or acting weird, so they move away from other people to protect themselves of these unpleasurable feelings. No one can stay happy forever. You will eventually get used to the present state and become numb. In order to feel pleasure you have to feel negative emotions too. It’s the circle of life.
Later Freud says:
The mild narcosis that art induces in us can free us only temporarily from the hardships of life; it is not strong enough to make us forget real misery.
If we translate art to other words it could mean; television, fast food, cigarets, alcohol and narcotics, even sex, and especially porn. Nearly everybody are hooked on some of these things, and are willing to pay for them. The big corporations know this and that’s why they are making so much money. These things are just distractions for us to forget the unpleasurable things in life. The problem is that they will never go away forever. Usually the problems in your life will just get bigger if you ignore them. And so to hide from this we increase the use of distractions.
So should you live like a monk in order to live a fulfilling life. Not necessarily, but I think we could all take a look at our life and try to get rid of some of our bad habits. Take music for an example. Most of it is just commercial garbage and propaganda to keep us happy and to forget about the problems in this world. I have tried leaving music and suddenly you start hearing other sounds, natures sounds. The wind, the birds singing and the rain dropping on the roof. I will later dedicate a whole article for this topic.
What are the main sources of suffering?
Suffering threatens us from three sides: from our own body, from the external world and finally from our relations with others. The suffering that arises from this last source perhaps causes us more pain than any other.
Suffering from the own body could be a broken wrist or cancer. Suffering from the external world; war or radical politic movements. The suffering from relations with others causes the most pain, says Freud. I think he is right, the quality of our life is often largely determined by the people we surround ourselves with, just as I talked about in the earlier article The Importance of Good Social Connections. If our relations with others cause us the most pain, wouldn’t you think that our modern global civilization would be unhappy then? Well in fact it is. Although we live in a historically peaceful time with economic growth and scientific advances, many think we would be better of by reverting back to primitive conditions.
It is contended that much of the blame for our misery lies with what we call our civilization, and that we should be far happier if we were to abandon it and revert to primitive conditions.
Of course, this won’t happen in large-scale, at least in the near future. Some have understood this and already moved to the countryside, became small-scale farmers and self-sufficient. But thanks to climate change and overpopulation, we could someday see a change in our way of living, but unlikely in our lifetime.
The tendency to aggression is an original, autonomous disposition in man, and it represents the greatest obstacle to civilization.
In the book Freud talks also about how a natural aggression in man represents an obstacle to our civilization, and how we could possibly overcome this obstacle. Freud doesn’t give any practical solutions as usual, but instead asks important questions that will need to be answered in the future.
In the end of the book Freud proposes that much of the present disquiet, unhappiness and anxiety in our civilization comes from the knowledge that as a race, we would have no problem exterminating one another, down to the last man, thanks to the strides we have made in controlling natures forces. Thanks to North Korea this is a pretty current topic.
I enjoyed the book, it had some interesting thoughts in it but the language was a little old in some cases, and some things just flew right over my head. I would recommend this book to you if your interested in Freud and in getting some perspective on our civilization. Till next time, stay curious and keep learning.