Freud begins his study autobiographically. He describes a conversation with a friend—a poet—who claims that, though men (meaning all humans) might not be naturally predisposed to one religion or another, most men have a kind of “oceanic . . . religious feeling,” a sense of the “limitless.” Freud notes that he does not have this feeling in himself—he finds religion and belief strange and often tiresome—but he recognizes that others do seem to have an intrinsic desire for religion, and for a god or gods.
From the beginning, Freud situates his investigation as a personal, rather than a totally objective, one. In this instance, he is clear that religion is not an important motivating force in his own life, but he acknowledges that religion is important to many others. It is his ability to be both self-referencing and open to other opinions that makes Freud’s arguments so powerful.
Freud seeks to investigate the means by which an individual relates to an abstraction like “God.” Freud asserts, as he has in other articles, that the self can be divided into ego, id, and superego. The ego is the active, conscious, decision-making self. The id is the set of unconscious desires “deep” within the mind (which he later identifies as drives toward love and death). The superego manages or controls the ego and id. Freud notes that “the feeling of our own ego is subject to disturbances and the boundaries of the ego are not constant.”
The division between ego, superego, and id is a central one in Freud’s work, and it extends beyond Civilization and Its Discontents into other examinations of dreams and the psyche, or the lower layers of the mind. For Freud, this triangle of deep desire, outward self, and internal regulation provides all the tensions and forces necessary to explain the complexities of the mind.
As a human develops from child to adult, Freud goes on, the ego must learn to “differentiate” the inside from the outside—the “internal” from the “external” worlds. This divides the world into “self” and “object.” An “object” can be either a person, a group of people, or a thing towards which one directs either love or aggression. Originally, in youth, the ego “includes everything,” and the division of self and object happens for some people more strongly than for others. For those who are religious, the ego maintains a more powerful connection to things outside the self. The ego is more inclusive, more open to the “oceanic” feeling of otherness that Freud associates with religious belief.
Freud’s argument here seems counterintuitive. One might imagine that a baby knows only its “self,” and not the outside world, and that, as it grows and is educated, and thus broadens its conception of the world and the “other.” But Freud claims just the opposite. He notes that children are open to all feelings, and all thoughts, both internal and external—that they are, in a sense, full already of the impulses and desires available in the world. Growing up, then, is a winnowing away of these desires—to create a stable, individual “self.”
Freud uses a long metaphor about Roman architectural history to explain the “architecture” of the mind. He notes, in brief, that anything “arising” in the mind “cannot perish.” Thus, for people of strong religious feeling, the notion of a connection between internal self and external world—that oceanic religious feeling—will necessarily coexist with a feeling of difference between self and object—the “mature,” adult view of the ego in the world. It is, in Freud’s Rome metaphor, as though all the historical Romes of every age existed atop the other, all vibrant, all alive—not one Rome buried under another, but all Romes present at once, in the same space and time.
This is a very important metaphor in Freud’s work, and one of his most famous. Freud uses the idea of architectural ruin to describe the phases of the mind, and how the mind contains, in its present state, all the states it has passed through to reach the present. The notion that thoughts or feelings might be “buried” in the mind, to be recovered by the psychoanalyst, is originally Freud’s. It has now seeped broadly into the culture, but was once a claim only of psychoanalysis.
Freud notes that the architecture metaphor breaks down for the mind, however, because the mind is not limited psychologically to the demands of time and space, as Rome would be. Thus, it is possible and indeed necessary that all stages of the mind exist at the same time within the mind. Thus the “child-mind” is active and working within the “adult-mind.” Freud uses this to assert that the religious, “oceanic” feeling, among those so inclined, is related to “an infant’s helplessness and the longing for the father aroused by it.”
As with many of Freud’s metaphors, however, the architectural idea of the mind as Rome is not a perfect one. The mind, Freud notes, is not quite like anything we see in the world. We can think of its fundamental forces as physical forces, and we can compare its attributes to features of the physical world we inhabit, but the liquidity and flexibility of the mind, as evidenced by dreams and obsessions, is more difficult to visualize than something like a city.
Freud argues that different religious practices, like yogic meditation and Christian prayer, all relate to a desire for the ego, the self, to join to a world external to it. This desire, Freud repeats, is predicated on the child’s fear that his father will not always be present to guide him or her. Thus the father of childhood becomes, in adulthood, God the Father, or His equivalent.
Freud’s argument, here and elsewhere, cuts across the boundaries separating different religious and philosophical traditions. He argues, in particular, that prayer and meditation are different manifestations of the same impulse: to recreate a childlike “oneness” between the self and the outside world.