Michael's Reviews > Civilization and Its Discontents

Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud
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Aug 05, 2010

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bookshelves: read-grad-student, psychology, philosophy
Recommended to Michael by: Richard Beyler
Recommended for: Intellectual Historians, Psychology students, Freudians
Read on February 01, 2004

This is one of those "seminal" books that shows you why so much of Western thought is totally screwed up. The premises and logic of Freud's argument are utter nonsense from beginning to end, yet he somehow taps into a vein of unconscious imagery within the contemporary Zeitgeist that still resonates 80 years later. Certainly, for anyone studying the early 20th century, the ideas in here will seem eerily familiar; Freud isn't so much creating a new argument here as speaking aloud what was in everyone's heads at the time.

So, the basis of this little thought-experiment was Freud's concept of the struggle between eros and thanatos: the drive for pleasure and the drive for death. That much still may apply, one way or another. As Freud saw it, the frustration of the id's natural desire for pleasure and love led to neurotic obsessions with death and destruction through aggressive behaviors. That part of the argument is sensible enough that the publishers see fit to include it on the back cover. What they don't tell you is that all of this began at some objective point in prehistory when a gang of brother cavemen killed and ate their father in order to possess and gang-rape their mother. For real. Freud says that this actually happened, and he "proves" it by pointing to various ancient myths in various cultures that can be seen as allegories for this objectively real event. I'm sure most Freudians would say that this is a metaphorical event, which took place in the imaginations of ancient peoples and that we still carry the legacy of this concept, but Freud's rejection of Jung's "collective unconscious" forces him into a position like unto fundamentalist Christians, insisting that his myths must be based upon actual fact.

Indeed, this text is largely intended as a refutation of Jung and other psycho-analysts of the time who were suggesting that something valuable might be found in spirituality. Freud used this horrific imagery to posit that all religious thought is based upon perversity and hatred. Certainly this resonated well enough with many of his contemporaries, and no doubt it still does. Underneath this is also an underlying argument that it is civilization itself which necessitates the death-drive and the existence of neuroses, again a common enough idea. Freud is not "anti-civilization," of course, and wants to believe that the eros-principle can be integrated into a healthy psyche without a complete return to nature, but this seems to contradict his own logic. Psychology has long-since abandoned Freud, but he remains an influential force in philosophy and social science, which needs to move on as well. I recommend this book primarily for its historical perspective, not for any actual insights.
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