Freud begins the second chapter in an attempt to tease out the persistence of religious feeling in the modern world, where artistic and scientific achievement occur, especially in the West (in his view) at a very high level. Freud admits to being, occasionally, perplexed by the persistence of religious feeling despite these great artistic and scientific achievements, because art and science require cultivation of the mind, but religion is based, as he stated at the end of Chapter I, on an “infantile” relation to the figure of the father.
Despite Freud’s initial willingness to entertain the idea of religious feeling, here he takes a more hostile attitude towards exactly that religious belief. Freud admits to not understanding how it is that intelligent, rational, indeed “scientific” people are religious. Thus Freud admits to seeing religion and scientific objectivity as, effectively, opposites.
Freud then turns, rather abruptly, to a different question, one he also believes to be a driver of religious feeling in humans: the question of the meaning and purpose of life. Freud notes that this question probably has no answer. But one method might be to say, provisionally, that life’s purpose is happiness. Freud wonders whether this is related to the “pleasure principle,” or a human being’s desire to ensure his or her own physical satisfaction (often sexually, but also related to physical comfort and safety). Freud notes that pleasure can be complicated by the fact that humans often find out their own pleasure relatively—that is, by comparing it to instances of pain in their lives. Pleasure can only be known fully in contrast to pain.
The “pleasure principle,” although it seems fundamental on its face, is actually a rather complex idea. Freud notes that pleasure is known in part as a lack of pain, and that only by experiencing pain can we understand pleasure. Thus the pleasure principle admits, and depends upon, the existence of a substantial amount of pain in one’s life. Freud therefore argues not that humans wish to avoid pain altogether, but that, instead, they wish to see their pain as a contrast to feelings of contentment and happiness elsewhere in their lives.
Pleasure, for humans, therefore derives from the removal of pain or suffering, from banding together in groups to ensure comfort, and from various human methods, some more effective than others, for removing pain from daily life. Freud notes several: “intoxication,” or the use of drugs to hide pain from the perceiving mind; the “killing” of the instincts, through yogic practice or other methods of meditation; and the “turning away” from the problems of the world, as a hermit does on a mountaintop.
Removal of pain does not always produce or sustain pleasure. Hermits living far away from human civilization do not necessarily guarantee that they will be happy—they simply guarantee that their pains will not be the same as those living enmeshed in human communities. Freud seems to imply that hermits and drug users, in trying to avoid pain, only find more or different kinds of pain for themselves.
For Freud, the most common method of transforming a desire for pleasure and the removal of pain is the “sublimation of instinctual drives,” or the turning of pleasure impulses (sex, food, sleep) to socially-productive and communal ends. Freud makes distinctions within this category, too, identifying one example as “the way of life which makes love the center of everything, which looks for all satisfaction in loving and being loved.”
This process of “sublimation” is absolutely essential to Freud’s ideas of human interaction. Freud believes that human impulses toward basic pleasure, like food and sex, can never be removed, but these impulses can be “directed” or channeled toward different ends—or repressed. Later, Freud will illustrate how civilization tends to direct these impulses, and whether or not it is effective in doing so.
Love between two persons, for Freud, is a complex interaction. It contains a desire—on the part of the lover—for beauty and comfort, a desire that can be aesthetic, as directed toward an art-object, or more passionate, as directed toward an attractive human being. Love also contains a sexual component, which is tied to libido, or an individual’s erotic energy. “Happiness,” Freud goes on, “is a problem of the economics of the individual’s libido.” A person becomes happy by figuring out, for himself or herself, how best to manage his or her emotional and sexual energies, within the self or directed toward another person. Freud says there is no formula for how to go about managing this “economy.”
Freud also admits, in this section, that human happiness is rarely achieved in a vacuum – the hermit might avoid pain, but he rarely finds true happiness. Instead, this contentment occurs in human relationships, especially in loving, romantic relationships (and Freud will later argue that all love-relationships contain within them a kernel of sexuality, whether expressed or not). The “economy” Freud references here is the balance between the needs and desires of each member of a romantic relationship.
Freud sees this economy of libido as essential to the human phenomenon of happiness, or perceived happiness—and to the idea, then, that humans have of a purpose in life. Some humans wish to share a life with another; others find ego satisfaction in living primarily with themselves. In Freud’s view, religion, then, is a mechanism outside the self that aids in the regulation of the instincts of libido—directing love either toward other people (as in Christian commandments to love another as oneself, discussed below) or toward the abstraction of God.
In this instance, then, religion is something akin to the superego – a regulatory set of principles, designed to shape and direct basic human desires toward productive ends. Religion, however, is a set of principles that work only for certain people, and only in certain historical moments. Because Freud himself, for example, finds religious belief to be unrealistic and unhelpful, he cannot regulate his own desires using religious principles – though others might be able to do so.