Civilization and its Discontents
by Sigmund Freud
Penguin Great Ideas, £3.99
Here is a very classy new imprint from Penguin: 20 short non-fiction works, chosen for the inordinate influence they have had on the cultures that produced them. They start with Seneca's On the Shortness of Life and end with Orwell's Why I Write. Not only are the texts themselves important, but the books are beautifully produced, and slim enough to slip into a pocket. One never knows when one is going to have to dip into Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman or William Hazlitt's On the Pleasure of Hating, but it is nice to know that a copy can, for the absurdly low price of £3.99, be permanently ready to hand.
I choose Freud's Civilization and its Discontents to be the book that accompanies me in this way. Not only because it has hitherto not been easy to get hold of a copy, but because it quite simply tells you all you really need to know about life and its vicissitudes. There comes a point in one's existence, after all, at which one begins to suspect that any book that could not be renamed or sub-titled Civilization and its Discontents is going to be more or less a complete waste of time.
This, written in 1930, on the eve of destruction as it were, is a summary of Freud's beliefs, the potted essence of his system as applied to the broad picture. Those who decry the Freudian technique as far as our interior mental landscapes go would do well to remember that, whatever his flaws as a scientist, he was a first-rate essayist. When away from the couch or the consulting room, he was as penetrating and beguiling a thinker as Montaigne.
Freud's considered starting-point for civilisation comes at that moment when primitive man decided, after unusually careful deliberation, not to put the fire out by peeing on it, but to allow it to keep burning. "By damping down the fire of his own sexual excitement he had subdued the natural force of fire. This great cultural conquest would thus be the reward for forgoing the satisfaction of a drive."
All else follows from this; and this is why, even at a time of unprecedented technological mastery, people are still no happier than they ever were. Or, indeed, why civilisation is just as likely to lapse into psychosis as not, a development which in Freud's part of the world was to happen in fairly short order. "We have taken care not to concur with the prejudice that civilisation is synonymous with a trend towards perfection," he notes laconically. For the notionally civilising influence of Christianity, he reserves his most exquisite scorn: "Unfortunately all the massacres of Jews that took place in the Middle Ages failed to make the age safer and more peaceful for the Christians. After St Paul had made universal brotherly love the foundation of his Christian community, the extreme intolerance of Christianity towards those left outside it was an inevitable consequence."
That is an insight it is worth paying to know, and is typical of the hard clarity of Freud's essay. There may be moments - such as his theory about not peeing on fires - when your scepticism or sense of offence is aroused; but there is much more that is unarguably to the point.
"With none of my writings," declares Freud, "have I had such a strong feeling as I have now that what I am describing is common knowledge, that I am using pen and paper, and shall soon be using the services of the compositor and printer, to say things that are in fact self-evident." When an essayist starts thinking like that, then it is usually a sign that he or she is on the right track. And in Freud's case, the track was pointing in an important direction: an answer to the questions of why we are still unhappy, and why we do bad things against our own and others' best interests. He had started to work this out in his 1920 essay, "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" - but that work, while perhaps even more ground-breaking than this one, was less accessible, being more defended by thickets of psychoanalytic jargon. Here the jargon is not only minimised, it has entered the language. So at least here when you encounter the phrase "anal eroticism" you can be sure that it has been used properly.
How significant was Jewish culture and religion for Freud’s life and work?
Jewish culture and religion inevitably left a mark on Sigmund Freud’s life and work. Although Freud himself openly and consistently labels himself as an atheist, it can be seen from his writings how Jewish culture influenced his life and career as a psychoanalytic theorist. This can be probably rooted from his parents who are both Jewish and the presence of Jewish scriptures which were also a part of his early education.
Early in his life, he became aware of important issues such as the effects of anti-Semitism to Jewish people. Freud himself stated the pressure that he went through as a student: “I found that I was expected to feel myself inferior and an alien because I was a Jew” (1989, p. 13). Aside from his experiences inside the university, anti-Semitism caused him to struggle in order to gain more opportunities as a scholar. In his work titled Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), Freud emphasized that despite the contributions made by the Jews throughout history, they have constantly been subjected to various forms of aggression. He also connected this violence to his assertions regarding identity formation. Because of this personal attachment to Jewish experience, many scholars have claimed that many aspects of Jewish culture have been subtly integrated into his works as a psychoanalyst.
Freud managed to publish a work titled Moses and Monotheism which expounded his psychoanalytic theory and explored Moses, one of the most important Jewish figures. However, in because of atheistic tendencies, Freud claimed in this work that the Jewish religion cannot be merely perceived as redemptive but rather, an enslaving force (Drob, 1989). Although Jewish culture and religion became influential for Freud, his rejection of dominant religious tenets still remained.
Drob (1989). Freud and Chasidim: Redeeming the Jewish Soul of Psychoanalysis. The Jewish Review 3 (1).
Freud, S. (1989). An autobiographical study. NY: W.W. Norton & Co.
Freud, S. (1930). Civilization and Its Discontents. NY: Norton.
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