Civilization and its Discontents
- Henderson, Schuyler
- Date of entry: Mar-21-2008
A brooding book that sounds the death knell for optimistic views on humanity's progress through civilization, Civilization and its Discontents begins with a recapitulation of Freud's disdainful views on religion as a psychological salve and then goes on to challenge enduring platitudes about human society: that civilization has emerged as a simple marker of progress of mankind over nature, protects us against suffering, and guards our liberties and happinesses. Comparing the development of civilization to the development of individual psychologies, he sees in both an essential conflict between eros and thanatos, between the desire to be with other people and the violence committed (or wished upon) other people.
Given that civilization is a process of negotiating and structuring communities, it must also be a way of controlling and repressing both violent and libidinous instincts; it does so not only through its laws but by infiltrating our own psychologies, which Freud discusses through the filter of his structural theory (where the instinctual, unconscious drives of the id are reined in by the ego under the fierce supervision of the inwardly aggressive superego). Freud's psychological perspective is to try to make sense of individual guilt, conscience, and remorse in the broadest social context as the products of this compromise between eros and thanatos, between the individual and the group, and between satisfying one's own instinctual drives and a broader community's needs. While some of his views are redolent of turn-of-the-century anthropology, his focus on guilt, aggression, and the murderous instincts towards extermination are very much prescient, charting the next decade and a half's fall into civilization's darkest hour.
First published as Das Unbehagen in Der Kultur in 1930 (Vienna: Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag)
The Standard Edition
W.W. Norton and Company