In Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud recognized the many benefits of civilization, including beauty, cleanliness, order and the regulation of social relationships. For Freud, however, nothing better characterized civilization than “its esteem and encouragement of man’s higher mental activities-his intellectual, scientific and artistic achievements-and the leading role that assigns to ideas and human life.” (Page 47)
[All citations are to Civilization and Its Discontents, by Sigmund Freud, translated and edited by James Strachey (Norton) 1961].
Freud believed that human society was possible only when the power of individuals was somewhat replaced by the power of the community. This process of being civilized is a process that blocks the satisfaction of many human instincts and “leads them into other paths.” It re-channels our basic instincts into artistic and intellectual work. In other words, the process of civilization is a process of sublimation.
A satisfaction of this kind, such as an artist’s joy in creating and giving his phantasies body, or a scientist’s in solving problems or discovering truths, has a special quality which we shall certainly one day be able to characterize in meta-psychological terms. At present, we can only say figuratively that such satisfactions seem “finer and higher.” But their intensity is mild as compared with that derived from the sating of crude and primary instinctual impulses; it does not convulse our physical being.
Freud thus concluded that the sublimating power of civilization:
is what makes it possible for higher psychical activities, scientific, artistic or ideological, to play such an important part in civilized life . . . it is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built up upon a renunciation of instant, how much it presupposes precisely the non-satisfaction (by suppression, repression or some other means?) of powerful instincts. This “cultural frustration” is the cause of the hostility against which all civilizations have to struggle.
(Page 51) Where is the evidence in support? Freud would suggest that in societies where basic urges are restricted or blocked by stringent moral systems, those urges emerge in more sophisticated and convoluted ways: they sprout up as libraries, universities or hospitals. In those societies where moral systems are consistently enforced, mate selection is not accomplished through displays of brutish strength and aggression; rather, those urges are refunnelled into “finer” displays such as music performances, organized athletic displays and a wide variety of intellectual accomplishments.
Why do I find this interesting? Many social conservatives greatly fear the consequences of cutting each other too much slack. They fear that doing so would lead to the collapse of civilization—we’d all start running around breaking windows and indiscriminately having sex. This is why Conservatives think we must heavily legislate morality, including prohibiting victimless crimes. That is why they argue that we need to censor freethinking and why we sometimes need to smack around non-violent people.
It’s ironic that, in concluding that we must meddle in each others lives to maintain the benefits of civilization, conservatives share common ground with one of the world’s most notorious freethinkers, Sigmund Freud. Social conservatives go way off track, however, when they conclude that their system of morality is the only system that is strong and coherent. Conservatives offer only one type of such a moral system and it comes with a lot of dysfunctional and unnecessary baggage.
Social control is a delicate thermostat and that there are many ways to do it badly. There is no need to throw out the baby with the bath water. We can have the type of order that allows civilization to survive without all the stifling oppression. The conservative version of morality is not the only effective kind. We don’t need people professing belief in virgin birth in order to maintain great orchestras. The occasional public exposure of a nipple is not incompatible with fourth grade math proficiency. In fact, a government that only allows “a single kind of sexual life for everyone disregards the dissimilarities . . . in the sexual constitution of human beings; it cuts off a fair number of them from sexual enjoyment and so becomes the source of serious injustice.” (p. 60) In Freud’s view, maintaining order can clearly go too far.
Thriving communities of nonbelievers have often operated, free of onerous restrictions, in accordance with alternative versions of strong and coherent moral codes. Did someone say “Europe”?
Freud was wrong about many things, but his writings, even his mistakes, are full of wonderful insights. Civilization and Its Discontents is one of Freud’s gems.