Freud begins this chapter by attempting to isolate the causes of human suffering: “the superior power of nature,” “the feebleness of our own bodies,” and the relationships of human beings “in the family, the state, and society.” Freud believes that the first two are inevitable consequences of being alive. Nature will always be powerful, and the body always weak by comparison. But Freud wonders whether the third, human relationships, is a necessary cause of suffering. Freud wonders if maybe humans would be better off—would suffer less—by “abandoning” civilization and returning to a “primitive” state.
Freud attempts to sort through just how it is that humans can feel so miserable. It’s not a pleasant topic, but in doing this analysis Freud reveals that the terrible powers of nature pale in comparison to the cruelty humans can inflict on one another. In terms of the historical context of this work – the lead-up to the Second World War – Freud was something of a prophet, understanding intuitively the sort of violence humans were capable of..
Freud notes that, in the age of colonial discovery (beginning in the 17th century), modern Europeans looked at “primitive” peoples in Africa, Asia, and other parts of the world as being intrinsically happier, “closer” to nature, and therefore untainted by the suffering of civilization. Freud counters, however, that these ideas about non-European life were often predicated on faulty assumptions of happiness (for example, most Europeans could not speak the languages of the “natives”). Freud also notes that, for every technological advance in human society (like the railway), there might be said to be a complementary problem. For example, there is the fact that railways enabled diseases to spread more rapidly among populations.
Freud introduces the rather easy claim that people existing “without” civilization (or, more exactly, people living in non-Western forms of social organization) appear “happier,” or “closer to nature,” than those living in Paris or Rome. But Freud is quick to rebut this: he argues that, if we are not able to see exactly how happiness functions in other cultures, perhaps we cannot know how sadness and cruelty operate in those cultures, either. Freud admits to understanding only the Western perspective thoroughly, in his analysis.
Freud concludes his discussion of happiness by arguing that, because “happiness” itself is a subjective category, one depending on the whims and nature of the person using the word, a researcher cannot know for certain which ages were “happier” than others—whether, for example man was happiest in medieval times, or in the 16th century, or at the present day. Freud leaves off the subject of happiness and turns to an attempt to define civilization, which, he believes, can be more objectively understood than “happiness” itself.
Freud admits here, too, that he will not be able to develop an objective metric that will measure happiness in one society or another, and across time periods. Perhaps people really were happier in the Stone Age, when they did not have railways and did not have the smoke and noise pollution those railways produced – but there is no way of knowing this exactly. There can be no data, in other words, to support these claims in either direction.
Freud defines civilization as “the whole sum of the achievements and the regulations which distinguish our lives from those of our animal ancestors and which serve two purposes . . . to protect men against nature and to adjust their mutual relations.” Protection against nature is, for Freud, easy to understand. “Motors” and other industrial machines have allowed humans to built habitations and cities, and to tame natural forces (with dams, roads, and walls) when necessary. Freud notes that humans have become so effective at controlling their environment that they have begun to marshal the forces of nature the way that God might have. Humans have, in essence, made themselves gods, at least regarding things like managing floods, preventing fires, and navigating the globe.
Freud’s use of the term “god” here is a telling one. In pre-modern societies, a “god” usually stemmed from any force that could not be sufficiently explained by human endeavor. Thus, when thunder and lightning were not well understood, it made sense to attribute these forces to divine powers. But because humans now understand the world more exactly, in a scientific sense – and because they can manipulate their environment in profound ways – this notion of the divine seems somewhat outdated. Humans are now as powerful as they imagined their old gods to have been.
But the second prong of civilization—relationships between humans—is governed by more subtle forces. Freud notes that another aspect of culture becomes important where human relations are concerned, and that aspect is beauty—something totally “unnecessary” in the utilitarian sense (for beauty builds nothing and protects no one)—but nevertheless a value highly prized by all developed civilizations. Freud believes that cleanliness and order are related to beauty, and are also organizational principles of human civilizations. Beauty is, in other words, something that distinguishes advanced civilizations from “undeveloped” peoples.
This does not mean, however, that modern or developed civilizations do not include, within themselves, spaces where rational thought breaks down. One of these spaces is the “aesthetic,” or the beautiful. Modern societies seem to make space for exactly this kind of phenomenon – of things appreciated in themselves, with regard to the pleasure they give, and not for rational reasons. Thus painting, which serves no survival purpose for humans, flourishes in more developed societies.
Freud goes on, saying that civilizations, in their desire for beauty and order and cleanliness, naturally move on to “higher” spheres of intellectual concern once these more basic aspects of human organization are achieved. For Freud, the “higher spheres” are religious thought, philosophy, mathematical speculation, and other forms of abstract reasoning.
Freud continues his argument. He claims that there is a direct relationship between how developed a society is, and how “refined” its intellectual abilities are. A society that does not worry about food has far more time, then, to worry about mathematical principles.
There are political implications for civilized societies, too—namely, the idea that, as civilization develops, so too develops an idea of collective, or communal, interest over the interest of individuals. Civilizations are therefore tasked with a central problem: maintaining the balance of individual liberty and freedom (and Freud notes that freedom was greatest before civilization, when humans simply did as they pleased, but without communal protections) while also allowing for and protecting the interests of the group as a whole.
This balance between the individual and the social in a civilization is absolutely central for Freud. It also makes sense to compare this “balance” to the three-way balance of the id, ego, and superego within the human psyche. For, as Freud will explain later, these forces within the mind have a way of replicating themselves outside the mind. Thus human societies organize in the same way that humans minds do – as systems of opposed forces.
Freud makes a final, and very important, point in the chapter: namely, that the development of civilizations mirrors the development of individuals. In childhood, instincts are “sublimated,” or rerouted, from the baser ones (involving sex and excretion, primarily) to more elevated ones—for example, abstract reasoning, love, and a relationship toward one’s desires and toward death. In civilizations, too, one finds this process. Earlier civilizations manage instinctual desires, and more advanced civilizations sublimate these desires (revenge, violence, greed, sexual libertinism) into more socially-acceptable and community-minded outcomes, like justice, peace, generosity, and sexual restraint.
Freud spends the remainder of the chapter teasing out the implications for this claim, that human society replicates (or, in his term, “recapitulates”) the developments of the human mind. Sexuality is one place to start. Human minds might, in a less developed state (perhaps adolescence) attempt to test out the limits of their own bodily desires. Likewise human societies, in their “undeveloped” phases, might permit sexual relationships that more “developed” societies would not.
Freud admits that, although individuals develop like civilizations, the correspondence between the two categories may not necessarily be exact. Thus Freud will attempt, in the ensuing chapter, to determine how exactly civilizations originate and progress, and through what stages they advance.
As with the “Roman architecture” image above, Freud admits that the correspondence between his metaphor and his argument is not perfect. Thus the mind and society are not identical in their development – hence the remainder of the essay, which seeks to explain their subtle differences.