On “Civilization and its Discontents”

Published April 17, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros

It’s been quite a while since I’ve done this, but I felt like sharing my paper from this past week.  Primarily because of a term I came up with for referring to one of Freud’s weirder points in the book.

Before I get to the paper, though, I want to say that it was really pretty remarkable actually reading something by Freud.  I’ve always rather hated him for his sexism (though that was in large part something that was caused by the cultural environment in which he was raised, so it might have been a bit unfair of me) but reading a work of his that wasn’t largely focused on his offensive gender issues was actually not a bad experience.  Most of his points were very good, and his style — while a bit dry — was readable.

One last thing before I post the paper.  I know it’s utterly unfair (and indeed inappropriate) of me — an untalented, mediocre-at-best student of middling-to-poor intellect and no hopes of ever discovering any “universal truths” or writing anything that would win even one person’s heart and mind, let alone the hearts and minds of many — to be tearing into someone who literally revolutionized the way we understand the human mind.  But I just had to.  (And I think most people will agree with me that the particular point of Freud’s that I’m ripping into really has it coming.  Though, of course, pretty much everyone else who’s ever read this book (or at least who’s read it in the last 60-70 years) probably has the same reaction I did…)

Right, so here’s the paper…

In Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud is for the most part focused on the death instinct and the causes of war.  But in a few places he addresses his perceptions of the origins of society, and his conception of a socio-cultural origin for certain psychological constructs like the sense of guilt.  Freud’s assessment of the origins of guilt can be handily (if somewhat tongue-in-cheekily) assigned the moniker “Lamarckian psychology,” because—as in the evolution of Lamarck—Freud assumed that acquired psychological characteristics would be internalized and then passed on naturally to future generations.

Though the point originated in his earlier Totem and Taboo, Freud still repeats the assertion that “We cannot get away from the assumption that man’s sense of guilt springs from the Oedipus complex and was acquired at the killing of the father by the brothers banded together.”[1]  Aside from the fact that this situation would be more appropriately named after Kronos or Zeus, both of whom led their brothers against their fathers, rather than the only son Oedipus, the fact is that Freud’s assumption is both baseless and illogical.  His belief in this concept seems to spring from the related belief that “the father of prehistoric times was undoubtedly terrible, and an extreme amount of aggressiveness may be attributed to him.”[2]  This assumption (left over from the Victorian era) is even more baseless:  not only does simple logic dictate against such a prehistory, but also primatology and anthropology provide proof against it.  The more primitive the levels of technology, the more desperate the struggle for survival, the more both parents will have no choice but to work as hard as they can to protect their children, because the chances of the children surviving to adulthood is so remote.  Studies of chimps and bonobos indicate a complicated social structure, far from the simplistic picture of a ‘father-dominated group’ assumed by Freud, his contemporaries and his predecessors.  Likewise, modern hunter-gatherers generally have a very egalitarian social structure, in which aggression within the group is rarely tolerated, let alone the standard father/family relationship.  Despite Freud’s certainty that in the “primitive family” it was the case that the “arbitrary will of its head, the father, was unrestricted,” all evidence points to the contrary, removing any need for Freud’s band of brothers to rise up against their tyrannical father.[3]

Even if we suspend logical disbelief and accept Freud’s theory of an early Zeus leading his brothers to defeat their own Kronos, the notion of that act being the origin of the human sense of guilt is still illogical.  Freud insists that following the deed, these brothers were filled with remorse, because of their ambivalent feelings towards the father they had killed:  “His sons hated him, but they loved him, too.”[4]  This illustrates one of the weaknesses of Freud’s method of analyzing the distant past:  he here assumes that these men living in the depths of the ancient past have the exact same socio-cultural and psychological framework as modern men.  If this theoretical primal father was so terrible that his sons needed to band together and kill him despite the harsh world in which they were all living, then the chances of their having any fond feelings for him seem slim at best.  Freud explains their remorse becoming the human sense of guilt in the following manner:

After their hatred had been satisfied by their act of aggression, their love came to the fore in their remorse for the deed.  It set up the super-ego by identification with the father; it gave that agency the father’s power, as though as a punishment for the deed of aggression they had carried out against him, and it created the restrictions which were intended to prevent a repetition of the deed.  And since the inclination to aggressiveness against the father was repeated in the following generations, the sense of guilt, too, persisted, and it was reinforced once more by every piece of aggressiveness that was suppressed and carried over to the super-ego.[5]

Again, this is filled with assumptions that cannot be proven.  Why would there be a repetition of the aggression against future fathers?  More crucially, why would these primal people feel the need for self-punishment for a deed of aggression?

It is in this last point that Freud’s subconscious absorption of the culture around him is most painfully obvious.  In describing the desire to be punished for a misdeed as being psychologically ingrained, Freud is simply channeling the Christian beliefs that have pervaded Western culture for 2000 years.  Had he been raised in a non-Western culture, it seems likely he would never have come to such a conclusion, since it is actually very counter-intuitive to human nature to want to be punished for something, particularly something that was done as an act of unpleasant necessity, as he describes that primal father-murder being.

                [1] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, trans. James Strachey (New York:  W. W. Norton & Company, 1961), 125.

                [2] Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, 125.

                [3] Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, 79.

                [4] Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, 127.

                [5] Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, 127.

Okay, so a little follow-up here.  First, before anyone “corrects” me regarding the mention of Christianity at the end there:  yes, I am aware that Freud was an atheist born into a Jewish family.  That doesn’t change the fact that he lived in a society dominated and shaped by the Christian faith.  (In fact, one of the things he talked about in the book was the order to “love your neighbor as yourself” and how that was completely contrary to natural human interests/instincts, so it’s not like anyone could ever claim that the basic tenets of the Christian faith were unfamiliar to him.)

Also, the stuff about the primitive father dominating his family?  I didn’t use the term in the paper because Freud never used it (as it was someone else’s term), but the usual term for that is “Cyclopean father” or “Cyclopean family”.  It’s a theoretical construct based on a misunderstanding of a brief description in The Odyssey.  It mentions, regarding the Cyclopes, that each one had rule over his wife and children, and how that was the extent of their society.  (I’d look up the exact quote if I had the time, but I don’t right now.  I have to leave the house in 45 minutes, and I was hoping to get at least part of tomorrow’s posts written this morning.)  The point of the line is actually about their lack of a polis or any other structure tying them together and making them civilized; it was not supposed to be about their total control over their nuclear families.  (That, after all, would hardly seem tyrannical or even unusual to an ancient Greek, who had that power over his wife and children within his polis.  Within certain limits, anyway.)  I mention all this because this misuse of a Greek mythological term bothers me, as have the others I’ve encountered in the course of my reading this semester.  (At least some of the others I’ll talk about after the semester is over…)

(Though that’s nothing compared to the way the movie I was watching yesterday tried to kill me.  Then again, it was an Italian Hercules movie…and it was via Mystery Science Theatre 3000 that I was watching it, so I shouldn’t have been expecting anything, you know, accurate.  And I wasn’t.  I just wasn’t expecting that.  But I’m being vague because I want to do an actual post about it at some point.  Like after I watch the other half of the movie…)


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