Published in: Psychoanalytic Inquirey, volume 32(6): 524-542, 2012

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Published in: Psychoanalytic Inquirey, volume 32(6):524-542, 2012

Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents and related works: a reappraisal

Zvi Lothane, M.D.

Freud’s 1930 Civilization and its Discontents (Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, here abbreviated as Civilization) is a central essay in a series of contributions to historical and philosophical sociology vs. his earlier focus on individual psychoanalytic psychology, a trajectory begun with Totem and Taboo (1912-1913), and continued in Thoughts for the Times on War and Death (1915), Group Psychology and Analysis of the Ego (1921), Future of an Illusion (1927; hence abbreviated as Illusion), New Introductory Lectures (1933a), Why War? (1933b), to culminate with Moses and Monotheism (1939), the last work published during his lifetime.

The decisive methodological shift from person to society took shape in 1921: “in the individual mental life someone else is invariably involved, as a model, as an object, as a helper, as an opponent; and so from the very first individual psychology, in this extended and justifiable sense of the words, is at the same time social psychology as well” (p. 69); therefore, “sociology too, dealing as it does with the behavior of people in society, cannot be anything but applied psychology. Strictly speaking, there are only two sciences: psychology, pure and applied, and natural science” (1933a, p. 179). The social perspective created a rivalry over primacy: Freud’s contemporary, the sociologist Ėmile Durkheim (1858-1917), held in his 1895 work, Rules of the Sociological Method, that sociology and its social institutions determine psychology while Freud never abandoned the position that personal psychology determines sociology. Clearly, it is not an either/or but that both are necessarily complementary realities and sciences.

Upon completing the manuscript of Civilization during July of 1929, a summer diversion and without access to a library, Freud wrote to Lou Andreas-Salomé: “it has to do with culture (Kultur), guilt feelings, happiness and suchlike elevated ideas” (Freud, 1960, p. 407; my translation), adding, self-deprecatingly: “it strikes me, without doubt rightly so, as very superfluous, in contradistinction from earlier works in which there was always a creative impulse” (p. 407). “The title he first proposed for it,” writes Jones, was “Das Unglück [unhappiness] in der Kultur” which was later altered” (Jones, 1957, p. 148). The original title reflected Freud’s health and mood in 1929: “I can no longer walk far, and the most of what there is to read does not interest me anymore” (p. 407): after the death of his beloved daughter Sophie, the diagnosis of cancer, and repeated painful surgeries, let alone other interpersonal stresses within his circle, Freud turned unhappy and pessimistic, declining physically but not intellectually.

The underlying method in Civilization was that “the development of civilization (Kultur) is a special process, comparable to the normal maturation of the individual….We must ask ourselves to what influences the development of civilization (Kultur) owes its origin, how it arose, and by what its course has been determined … here are such conjectures as I have been able to make” (pp. 98-99). Note well: the genealogical/genetic approach is based on conjectures and speculations, i.e., fictions alongside facts. Such fictions Freud derived with reasoning by analogy, i.e., amplifying observations with linguistic and literary devices: similes, metaphors, and myths. In this way the door was opened to genealogy, a fruitful yet fanciful projecting of past into present and vice versa, to presentism, i.e., reducing current cultural phenomena to primitive cultures and individual neurotic disorders, resulting in some cases in hair-raising extrapolations. Both methods served Freud to convert brilliant theoretical conjectures into grand universal laws and schemas, the perennial temptation for a genius who would identify himself with a Copernicus or a Darwin.

Civilization vs. culture

Whereas in The Standard Edition Kultur is predominantly translated as ‘civilization,’ Freud uses Kultur throughout, both here and in Future of an Illusion, both essays thematically related and should thus be read together. Freud defines:

Human civilization [Kultur], by which I mean all those respects in which human life has raised itself above the animal status and differs from the life of beasts—and I scorn to distinguish between culture (Kultur) and civilization (Zivilisation)—presents…two aspects[:] all the knowledge…in order to control the forces of nature and extract its wealth for the satisfaction of human needs, and… all the regulations necessary in order to adjust the relations of men to each other and especially the distribution of the available wealth (Freud 1927:5-6).

Even as these terms may at times overlap, rather than scorning this distinction I propose to uphold it. Across the globe and down the ages civilization, created by citizens living in cities (from civitas =city), has been about what makes mankind different from the beasts thanks to progress in science and technology, mitigating the miseries of natural life with creaturely comforts: wearing clothes, living in dwellings, making and using tools, minting money for commerce, and enjoying “cleanliness and order” thanks to plumbing and lighting and other industrial marvels. While Freud enumerated the above he did not mention weapons. And he did not foresee, any more than Aldous Huxley in his 1931 Brave New World, the discovery of nuclear energy, space travel, the internet, or the ecological disasters of deforestation and global warming, let alone a nuclear holocaust; but like Tolstoy, Freud was prescient that “human creations are easily destroyed, and science and technology, which built them up, can also be used for their annihilation” (1927, p. 6). It cannot be emphasized enough: Freud juxtaposed, as C. P. Snow would say, two cultures: Naturwissenchaft, the sciences of nature and humanities, or Geisteswissenschaft, a 19th century German translation of John Stuart Mill’s (well known Freud) locution “moral science.” As against natural reality, human reality is both social and moral: life in society is ruled by an ethical conception of roles, rules, and relations.

The specific social function of civilization, Freud reiterated, was the “manner in which… social relationships are regulated…which affect a person as neighbor, as a source of help, as another person’s sexual object, as a member of a family and of a State” (p. 95), an issue already discussed in Illusion: “every civilization must be built up on coercion. … It is just as impossible to do without control of the mass [Masse] by a minority as it is to dispense with coercion in the work of civilization … for masses are lazy and unintelligent; they have no love for instinctual renunciation… and they support one another in giving free rein to their undiscipline” (1927, p. 7). Thus people might “shrink from murder and incest but who do not deny themselves the satisfaction of their avarice, their aggressive urges or their sexual lusts and who do not hesitate to injure other people by lies, fraud and calumny” (1927, p. 12). Note the emphasis on lies and fraud and calumny, not met with in his previous works. Regulation means coercion of the individual, anarchic and rebellious by nature, by the power of the community: “Human life in common is only made possible when a majority comes together which is stronger than any separate individual and which remains united against all separate individuals. The power of the community is then set up as ‘right’ in opposition to the power of the individual, which is condemned as ‘brute force’ … The first requisite of civilization, therefore, is that of justice—that is the assurance that a law once made will not be broken in favor of the individual. This implies nothing as to the ethical value of such law. The liberty of the individual is no gift of civilization”(p. 95). Compare Freud’s Hobbesian (Thomas Hobbes, 1588 –1679) authoritarianism with Rousseau’s ideas in his Social Contract.

Culture, etymologically derived from cultivating the earth and turning wild weeds into cultured plants and wild animals into domestic ones, refers to intellectual and spiritual achievements in various historical societies, places, times, and developmental stages, of various races, nations, classes and their contributions to culture. Applied to the individual, ‘culture’ suggested a quality of ennoblement or, as Freud said, sublimation, or spiritualization (Lothane, 2008b), of raw instincts or raw customs. In Freud’s time Kulturmensch, a person of culture and refinement, meant being above the ‘savages’, taking baths, dressing formally, reading books and newspapers, going to the opera and, last but not least, becoming an adherent of psychoanalysis. Culture is embodied in the cumulative growth of letters, philosophies, and religions in societies. More conceitedly, Freud upheld the superiority of the western European Kulturmenschen (plural) over the Russians, the German Jews over the Ostjuden, Freud’s former Polish or Russian brethren. The aforementioned clash between personal, or private, and societal, or public, demands is for Freud an insoluble problem and a tragic cause of personal unhappiness. Could civilization further happiness?

The quest of happiness

Like humor (Freud, 1905, Lothane, 2008a), happiness is a compound, complex, and over-determined emotion that includes pleasure. Like humor, happiness elevates mankind over animals, it is a cultural attainment. A rarely discussed topic in Freud’s works, happiness occupies center stage in Civilization. In the latter Freud finds it is easy to know what misery, suffering, unpleasure and unhappiness are, whether they come from the “decay and dissolution” of the body, from the “merciless forces of destruction” in the “external world,” or “from our relations with other men” (p. 77). He seems equally confident that what people “demand from life and wish to achieve in it” is just as easy: people “strive after happiness; they want to be happy and to remain so. The endeavor aims at…absence of pain and unpleasure and at the experiencing of strong feelings of pleasure… the purpose of life is simply the programme of the pleasure principle” (p. 76). But such a simplification, reminiscent of Jeremy Bentham’s calculus of pleasures, will not stand: there is more to happiness than to pleasure, a sensual sensation or a transient “(preferably sudden) satisfaction of needs” (p. 76). Nor can happiness be created by “intoxication … by foreign substances which, when present in the blood or tissues, directly cause us pleasurable sensations or [inhibit] unpleasurable impulses”(p. 78), due to “their danger and their injuriousness” (p. 78). The above, as Freud admits, is “already common knowledge” (p. 86). What is specifically Freudian is linking happiness to sexuality and aggression, an old-new idea.

Happiness and sex

If the popular notion of Darwinism is that man descended from monkeys rather than was created by God, the popular image of Freud has been of a man obsessed with sex. Such cavil Freud viewed as unfair given “man’s discovery that sexual (genital) love afforded him the strongest experiences of satisfaction, and in fact provided him with the prototype of all happiness” (p. 101). In the 1890’s he was urged by his mentor Josef Breuer “to ask myself every day whether I am suffering from moral insanity or paranoia scientifica” (Freud, 1985, p. 175) because of his seeing sex everywhere. In that period he was still a sexologist treating anxiety and neurasthenia, the two Aktual, i.e., present-day, neuroses caused by disturbances of sexual function. When as a psychoanalyst he went on to study psycho-neuroses, Freud traced the sexual dysfunction in the adult to traumas of childhood and set forth an overall sexual etiology of neuroses (Freud, 1898), the libido theory, which meant that “neurotic symptoms are, in their essence, substitutive satisfactions for unfulfilled sexual wishes” (p. 139). Whereas Freud would later defend himself against the accusation of pansexualism, he summed up the sexual etiology of neuroses and psychoses in the canonical 1905 Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, never to be given up. But ‘symptoms’ are the vocabulary of medicine and refer to all manner of monadic internal states of feelings and sensations, tensions, and discomforts. In the psychosocial realm ‘symptoms’ refer to behaviors and conducts, to actions and interactions. While such experiences are lived internally, they occur in interpersonal and social, or dyadic, contexts (Lothane, 1997a) and are enacted as interpersonal dramas (Lothane, 2009a). I argued the same in the case of Schreber, whom Freud misinterpreted as a monadic disorder (Lothane, 1992a). Freud also missed the interpersonal nature of sex, the ‘inter’ in sexual intercourse (Lothane, 1992b).

The sexual misery of individuals, Freud held, was compounded by widespread sexual malaise, Unbehagen, in society. From the start Freud (1898) sought to liberate mankind from ubiquitous sexual misery: “in what concerns civilization (Zivilisation), among whose sins people so often include neurasthenia” (p. 271), it is “as a matter of public interest that men should enter upon sexual relations with full potency. In matters of prophylaxis, however, the individual is relatively helpless. The whole community must become interested in the matter and give their assent to the creation of generally acceptable regulations” (p. 278; italics Freud’s). With this diagnosis and prescription Freud the healer became moralist and liberator. Ten years later Freud (1908) reaffirmed that lack of sexual gratification is a disease (Kranksein) of society caused by suppression of instincts—Triebunterdrückung—as demanded by a cultured (kulturelle) sexual morality” (p. 188). He endorsed the conclusions of a like-minded contemporary, Christian von Ehrenfels and “his description of the injurious effects of our ‘civilized’ sexual morality” (p. 204), in Ehrenfels’ 1907 book Sexualethik. Freud’s repudiation of sexual hypocrisy and affirmation of sexual freedom for men and women reads like a blueprint for the 1927 Wilhelm Reich’s much more radical reform, cold-shouldered by an aging Freud, less interested in the ars amandi, the art of sex, than in the ars moriendi, preparing for death.

In 1930, around his 74th birthday, Freud is pessimistic about curing society of sexual malaise. Among the enemies of sexual satisfaction Freud listed the following: Eastern Yoga that results in “killing off the instincts” and self-sacrificing quietism; the “external world [that] lets us starve if it refuses to sate our needs”; when, due to internalizing the latter, we “control our instinctual life”; or when we resort to “sublimation of the instincts” (p. 79). Sublimation, a form of renunciation, is achieved by pursuing sciences and arts, less strident in comparison to direct gratification and, regrettably, “accessible to only a few people,” at best “a satisfaction obtained from illusions” (p. 80). The only real illusion accessible to the masses is religion, for, as Goethe said, “he who possesses neither [science nor art] let him have religion” (p. 74). The end result is the same: unhappiness—for a “feeling of happiness derived from the satisfaction of a wild instinctual impulse untamed by the ego,” or “attraction to forbidden things” (p. 79), both are contrary to civilization. Sexual happiness is a mirage, sexual suffering is ineluctable: due to socially-imposed sexual renunciation, “a person becomes neurotic because he cannot tolerate the amount of frustration which society imposes on him in the service of cultural ideals”; in the end, due to resentment and revenge, people “have come to take up this strange attitude of hostility to civilization (Kulturfeindlichkeit)” (p. 87), coupled with culturally induced sexual guilt, which remains an insoluble misery.

Freud’s aforementioned Triebunterdrückung points to the two meanings of ‘repression’ in English: external social suppression of individual freedom and internal defense against disturbing consciousness, when such consciousness becomes conscience. It is a reciprocal process: sexual repression is created by society, so that legal becomes equated with moral and is internalized by the individual. Thus, powerful individuals, like the Church fathers, e.g., Augustine, shaped Christian sex-denying culture, the Inquisition burning witches and warlock for orgiastic sexual sabbats under the sign of the Devil, nourished in turn by societal sexual guilt. The Catholic doctrine that sex is sinful and shameful, started by St. Paul, was a reaction to Roman pagan culture of sexual licentiousness or excesses under Caesars like Caligula or Nero, resulting in sexual repression and “the victory of Christendom over the heathen religions” (p. 87). Anatole France expressed it the epigram: the Church did sex a favor by making it a sin. This is what Freud encountered in the Viennese culture and zeitgeist, with its mix of profligacy and prudery. However, Freud mistakenly extrapolated Catholic sexual repression to Eastern asceticism while remaining unaware the veneration of sexuality and the rich erotic literature of the Far East.

The post-WW II sexual revolution has changed Western sexual habits and morality in many respects: new openness and opportunities for sexual expression in society and its portrayal in the arts, the press, television, and the internet; new ways of celebrating sex for recreation over sex for procreation. An unprecedented impetus was given by the gay liberation movement, feminism, and film. It does not mean, however, that sexual guilt is no longer with us, both in the public arena and the private lives of persons. Repression of sexuality is preached, if not always practiced, by American religious fundamentalists. And there is a new religious oppressor: Islamist fundamentalism, waging war on western sexual freedom, fed not only by economic and political pursuits of autocracies but also by the feudal bondage of women by theocracies. There is comparable religious fundamentalist in the West. In the privacy of confessions to priests and psychotherapist people still talk about guilt over sexual conduct and fantasies. Freud’s analysis of sexual dynamics is still relevant for illuminating the psychosocial dynamics in both the private and the public domain. In the public domain, e.g., sex in the White House, is still dynamite that can threaten a president with impeachment but it does not possess such destructive power in Europe, e.g., the inconsequential furor over Berlusconi affairs in Rome. Sex is still explosive stuff in private interpersonal situations. A special case is sex in the psychoanalytic situation. Curiously, analysts have projected present-day sexual boundary violations, a legitimate concern for psychiatric and psychoanalytic ethics, onto historical figures, e.g., the preoccupation with the alleged sex between Sabina Spielrein and C. G. Jung (Lothane, 1999a).

Freud’s professed evolutionary-Darwinian biologism and the libido theory inspired him to view all artistic and intellectual creation as derivative of the sexual instincts rather than as an autonomous human ability, with its own evolution in the history of civilization and culture, the ability to transform perception into imagination that works with metaphor, myth, and symbol, to represent the wonders of nature and spirit in language, literature, music, painting, sculpture, philosophy, mysticism, and religion. Last but not least, Freud held that “genital love leads to the formation of new families, and aim-inhibited love to ‘friendships’ which become valuable from a cultural standpoint” (p. 103), rather then deriving love writ large from the love of parents for their offspring, apparently essential for the survival of individuals, families, societies and nations.

Of love and lust

Freud’s prolific output about sex is matched by the paucity of his works about love, or the difference between lust for sex partners vs. love of mankind, love as tenderness, care, and concern for the loved person, a grade higher than friendship. His skepticism about love writ large, rooted both in his personality and his theories, stands in stark contrast to the life and work of his follower and intimate Sándor Ferenczi (Lothane, 1998a). Not that Freud was unaware of such love. Called Sympathie in German, love as personal care makes a telling appearance in the Studies on Hysteria (1895), followed by Freud’s own tribulations with frustrated ambition, love, and hate in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). In the Three Essays Freud mentions that the two currents, sexuality and affection, coalesce in the course of development. In his 1914 “On narcissism: an introduction,” actually an introduction to ego psychology, Freud invokes the anaclitic dependent relationship to a nurturing parent, the bond between mother and the “infant at the breast” (p. 66), which is also at the root of oceanic feelings (p. 68) and thus the sources of mystical and religious feelings. In a series of essays published between 1912 and 1918 the sensual, sexual, and social aspects of falling and being in love are discussed.

A connection now emerges between love and happiness: one “of the methods by which men strive to gain happiness and keep suffering away… is [that] it clings to the objects in [the external] world] and obtains happiness from an emotional relationship to them. … [it] makes love the centre of everything, which looks for all satisfaction in loving and being loved. … It is that we are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love, never so helplessly unhappy as when we have lost our loved object [read: person] or its love (pp. 81-82; emphasis added). A new complication surfaces “in the developmental process of the individual” by “the interaction between two urges, the urge towards happiness, which we usually call ‘egoistic’, and the urge towards union with others in the community, which we call ‘altruistic’… The main accent falls mostly on the egoistic urge (or the urge towards happiness); while the other urge, which may be described as a “cultural’ one, is usually content with imposing restrictions” (p. 140). The superficial veneer culture puts on selfishness, echoing similar ideas about the primacy of selfishness of the 17th century French moralist La Rochefoucauld, makes Freud take a dim view even of the altruism of saints:

a small minority … enabled by their constitution to find happiness along the path of love … by displacing what they mainly value from being loved on to loving … by directing their love not to single objects but to all men alike. … Perhaps St. Francis of Assisi went furthest in thus exploiting love for the inner feeling of happiness. According to one ethical view … this readiness for a universal love of mankind and the world represents the highest standpoint which man can reach. I should like to bring two main objections to this view. A love that does not discriminate seems to forfeit a part of its own value, by doing an injustice to its object; and secondly, not all men are worthy of love” (p.102).

After all, even saints can be selfish. Is Freud being unduly cynical or is he realistic about mankind? Should one extend universal love to a Hitler, a Stalin, a Bin Laden? This is a tough ethical demand. Should one abandon what “the ideal demands… of civilized society, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’ … undoubtedly older than Christianity” (p. 109)? Undoubtedly, the original source was Moses (Leviticus, 19:18). Christ added the commandment to “ ‘Love thine enemies’, … love them ‘as yourself’ ” (pp. 110, 111), which strikes Freud as an absurdity.

But there is another important reason: a clash between “the two urges, the one towards personal happiness and the other towards union with other human beings, [that] must struggle with each other in every individual; and so also, the two processes of individual and of cultural development must stand in hostile opposition to each other and mutually dispute the ground” (p. 141; emphasis added), to which we now turn.

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