CIVILIZATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS
THE VALUE OF HUMAN LIFE
Here I comment on Sigmund Freud's essay CIVILIZATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS, which was originally published in 1930 during the father of psychoanalysis' stint in Vienna. I love this Freudian insight for its profundity and eternal currency.
According to Freud, the conflict between sexual needs and societal mores is the source of mankind's propensity for dissatisfaction, aggression, hostility and ultimately, violence. For Freud, the greatest struggle in life is the connection between our inner world and the society into which we are born. Thus harmony and inner peace can only be attained when we have learned to control our aggressive impulses by resolving this incongruity. However, because Freud believed that destructive forces are present in all individuals, and thus man is by nature, an essentially anti-social and anti-cultural being, it is difficult for many people to accept his premises. After all, describing man as aggressive and out of control is hardly in line with humanity's superior self-image. Furthermore, while Freud's reference to aggression as "an original self-subsisting instinctual disposition in man . . . the greatest impediment to civilization" effectively defines the problem, he fails to offer legitimate solutions as to how to control our aggression and anti-social instinct.
Still, the animosity between the demands of instinct and the restrictions of civilization makes Freud's views on man's aggressive or destructive instincts particularly complex. In part this is because impulses of hatred, anger and aggression are, from Freud's perspective, rooted in self-preservation. In Freud's vision of man and society, violence is deemed as the basis of our existence on two levels; the violence in the uninhibited instinct and the violence which our culture practices against one another. Without at least some amount of compulsion and at least an equal amount of restraint in the gratification of impulses, harmony can neither be achieved nor maintained.
In Chapter VII, Freud discusses how the need for self-preservation is often disrupted by "social anxiety" or a state in which individuals are controlled by the opinions of others towards them. Freud contends that the majority of society is ruled in this manner. Yet at the same time, he asserts that in order for society to reach a "higher stage" they must rise above the need to care about how others perceive their conduct. In other words, Freud's theory is directly implying that behaviour controlled by social conventions is somehow more primitive than behaviour in which each individual controls himself. Hence, Freud essentially views morality not so much as an issue of socially determined shame, but more as a matter of internalized primal guilt. Thus it only makes sense that he would view people as being controlled by their instincts, which in turn drives them to be aggressive and hostile by nature. While this may not be the most flattering perspective, it does contain a substantial degree of merit.
It is important when examining this viewpoint to keep in mind that Sigmund Freud was an atheist, believing that the fantastic stories and theories of religion should be replaced by the provable facts put forth by science. He considered his beliefs to be more realistic than antagonistic, examining religion by viewing it as an offshoot of psychoanalysis. Freud was however, open to all religious philosophies, including the theories of other atheists like Ludwig Feuerbach. For example, his theory that "God is a projection of the human need for a father" is based on Feuerbach's theory that God is nothing more than a projection of the human mind. Freud alleged that religion was created by the human mind as a form of comfort and that this need for comfort was comparable to the needs of an infant child. He claimed that people looked to God as a higher power much as a child looks to his parents for strength and guidance.
Freud did see religion as an important part of human existence, but more from a psychological perspective than a philosophical one. He felt that religion not only taught man to appreciate morality as a doctrine, but to investigate the morality within himself. However he also made the point that he did not find that religion was a necessary force for order or morality. On the contrary, he did not find any evidence that religion made people any happier or more moral than nonreligious or less religious peers.
Freud considered science and religion to be polar opposites and mortal enemies. He felt that since hundreds of years of believing in God had not yet served to solve man's many problems, perhaps a transition to a belief in science would. Freud's desire for a society that had matured past the need for religion and had embraced science instead is manifested in his contentions about the nature of violence in man. He attempts to understand man's propensity for violence from the perspective that the roots are within our physical and psychological makeup, not in our lack of spiritual piety. Of course, the fact that environment plays a key role in violence and aggression is significant as well. This is especially true in our modern times. For example, violence on television has a great influence on an individual's perceptions of life and death. We tend to become anesthetised to the value of human life after watching it be disparaged over and over in the name of entertainment. If television had been around in Freud's day, he would have been forced to integrate the effects of violence in the media into his suppositions about hostility and aggression.