Civilization and Its Discontents

I’ve been reading Civilization and Its Discontents, which is one of the last pieces of literature written by Freud and considered to be one his best. Difficulty of reading any historical psychological research is in its scientific relevancy, which Freud avoids in this work by focusing on the knowns rather than speculate on the uknowns.
The punchline if you haven’t guessed from the title is that civilization as a construct is destructive to the happiness of the individual. Reason for this is in order to live in a society one has to suppress libidinal instincts and live within rules that are counterintuitive to the human psyche and condition. In order for man to work and focus on non narcissistic pleasures we establish order and redirect pleasure towards other engagements such as love for family, neighbor, etc. This then becomes the strongest source of discontent. There is even greater discontent in the destruction made possible by cultural formations. Because of the cohesive unity between families, nationalities, nations, continents, there has been massive brutalities committed across the world.
This leads to some questions; would we be better off in an uncivilized society? how will civilization evolve in our modern and highly interconnected world? what do you think?

5 Responses to Civilization and Its Discontents

  1. Gunjan says:

    Have you thought of why this constructs were placed in the first place?
    While watching Cameroon’s magnum opus Avataar,I was wondering about the society where we came from.. we call ourselves civilized and them wild hunters and gatherers but what is the basis of this… we are curbing our natural desires, our natural ways of living.. putting ourselves into self made constructs and rules which are sort of life disruptive

    If information processing and exchange and other great inventions of our age gives us an edge, I think they had their own innovations at their point of time.. I mean just to say that we are civilised and they are not in itself is a construct in our mind..

  2. arturnt says:

    Thanks for commenting Gunjan! I prefer conversational format over a presentational one. This blog post is a little unfinished, but serves as a bookmark for a future post, however you bring up a good point about the ‘why’.

    The why of the existence of civilization, as we know it today, we can only wonder about, but I do have some guesses. The good of civilization is evident. We have three components that are a source of our unhappiness: our bodies, nature, and personal relationships. Civilization offers medicine and technology to make up for our weaknesses of our bodies, shelter to protect us from nature, and economics for our relationships.

    We hedge the risks of love in the past by having multiple lovers and in the present by having one with aim-inhibited friends. We hedge happiness by never relying on one source, but many. Our modern system of economics is just an expression of our internal interpersonal development. I can only guess that it has evolved this way because our ancestors that practiced unruly hedonism did not survive. This in all maximizes our happiness over time, without many highs or lows.

    Civilization has many downsides as you point out with the Avatar example. We would never have to worry about car accidents if there were no cars, or no destruction of a country if there were no nuclear weapons. Taleb (of Black Swan fame) describes this transition as a move from Mediocristan to Extremistan: more connectivity and progress = exponential and possibly devastating effects.

    Not sure if the net effect is negative or positive, but we are here having this conversation, so perhaps more positive than we think :).

  3. gunjan says:

    Yup.. i agree to most of what you say..
    But our so called evolution because of excessive hedonism and non survival of ancestors might be contended.. Anyways i think it would be nice to have a one to one on this..

    I think that all civilizations have a life.. so do relationships and so do life.. in itself..
    They are born, they learn grow and they rise to a peak, and then they start declining in age… and in strength.. So probabaly we have reached a peak.. or we may be reaching.. whether we are in the crest or the trough is not very sure..
    but sure enough there will be a day which will be doomsday.. when everything will be wiped out to start afresh…

  4. andyfan01 says:

    I am discontent with your incorrect use of apostrophe in the title.


  5. artur says:

    Hahaha, good point. That is a bit discontenting.

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