Civilization and Its Discontents may be Sigmund Freud's best-known work. Originally published in 1930, it seeks to answer ultimate questions: What influences led to the creation of civilization? How did it come to be? What determines its course? In this seminal volume of twentieth-century thought, Freud elucidates the contest between aggression, indeed the death drive, and its adversary eros. He speaks to issues of human creativity and fulfillment, the place of beauty in culture, and the effects of repression.
Louis Menand, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Metaphysical Club, contributor to The New Yorker, and professor of English at Harvard University, reflects on the importance of this work in intellectual thought and why it has become such a landmark book for the history of ideas.
Not available in hardcover for decades, this beautifully rendered anniversary edition will be a welcome addition to readers' shelves....Continua
I had this book for quite some time, 7 or 8 years perhaps. Never got to read it until last week. I bought this book because of my interest in history and I wanted to find out how civilization per se and the history that it wrought is influenced by the “mind”. Well, I should say that I got my answer but I still have question at the back of my head that I can’t discern for the moment and I have a lot to digest. Anyway, here is what I think about the book. First of all, Freud is a German Jew and doesn’t write or speak English and so this book is a translation only and something might be lost in translation. By how much, I don’t really know. Second, the words chosen in the writing though not strictly technical nor flowery but is of such formality, depth, and smoothness that one would “get lost” from reading and end up not understanding a single word. Reading a second time would definitely help. Furthermore, the sentences, the paragraphs are so intertwined, so connected to each other that one cannot leave the reading in the middle and pick it up later on because one would get lost in the chain of thought as expounded in the writings. You can only take a pause literally on every chapter which is like 10 – 20 pages per chapter. Thirdly, most authors would embark writing a book especially a work of fiction with a skeletal outline in mind along with an ending. They “stuffed the meat” while writing along the way. Reading Freud’s work, one get sense that he is making things up as he goes as in literally, you are “riding along” in his thought process which is why putting down the book in mid – sentence poses such peril in understanding the genius’ work. One could discern this by the several hanging analysis, thought dead ends littered throughout in his book. It’s like reading a psychoanalytical monologue of Freud by Freud. Fourthly, I find Freud overtly concern about sexuality and eroticism to be questionable. Freud’s obsession is expected given his advocacy that sexual tension is the undercurrent of the individual’s psychosis. However, I do have doubts about it. I mean Oedipus Complex, Anal Eroticism, Obsession of the Breast all those stuff though could explain the functioning of civilization itself but is there more to it? I can’t tell after all I’m not a psychiatrist. Lastly, Freud is a Jew and yet he is overtly critical about Christianity (Abrahamic religion) in particular, and religion in general. However, I find in his writings, a whiff of influence of Christianity. His theoretical development of the Super – ego or in layman’s term, the guilty conscience as one of the fundamental structure in human psychosis smacked of a Christian influence. In other belief systems, the idea of “judgement” doesn’t exist. If Freud were not born into a “western” value oriented society, would he develop the idea of the Super – ego?
Freud’s work is remarkable in the sense that he is trying to connect individual psychosis with that of civilization’s behavior. His work is akin to the Grand Unified Theory in Physics, which is still elusive as of now. In physics, there is a set of laws that could best describe that of the Quantum universe or the universe of the Atom and another set to understand the Cosmos or the visible universe of the planets, stars, wormholes, black holes, and dark matter and the these two sets of laws are not interchangeable, i.e., one cannot apply the Quantum theory to the Cosmos and vice versa. Hence, Physicists are trying to come up with a theoretical framework, the Grand Unified Theory that could reconcile the two and for the moment, it is still elusive. Freud’s book on the other hand, manages to connect psychology (for the individual) and sociology (for society or civilization). In Freud’s theory, Man is happiest when his freedom is at its maximum when he encounters no opposition, no challenge, no limitation, i.e., when he is alone however, no man can live alone because Man is susceptible to the vicissitudes of Nature, to the frailties and gradual decay of his flesh, and for his need to love and be love. Henceforth, Man has to cohabitate with other Man in order to increase his safety and answer is longing to be with someone and in the process, this cohabitation creates Civilization. However, rules and compromises have to be made in order for cohabitation to work and in the end, Man has to voluntarily give up some of his freedom and restrict his liberty. However, subsuming Man’s freedom undermines his happiness and as a result, individuals with psychosis are born and thence, civilization’s discontents. But the story doesn’t stop there, civilization reinforces this “order” and imposes ideas like rules, tradition, culture, and religion and the individual integrates this ideas in his development creating the “conscience” that would be its unseen master for the rest of his existence which in turn makes individuals unhappy and produces more “psychotics” and discontents. This reminded me a passage of Jacques Rosseau (or was it Voltaire, can’t recall) in one of his writings, “Man is born free but is everywhere in chains.” How true, how true.