Freud Civilization

& Its Discontents Essay, Research Paper

Freud defines the id as being a “general mass of sensations”. What he means by this is that there are, at this stage, no boundaries between external environment and oneself. The id according to Freud is the only part that is present at birth. At this stage a person doesn’t understand how their actions have anything to do with, or affect their surrounding environment and vice versa. Thus, their actions might or might not conflict with the standards and norms that society has placed on the individual.

The ego is that agency which acts as an intermediary between the id and the external world. It is charged with gaining control over the demands of the instincts and choosing not only which ones to satisfy, but when to satisfy them as well. The ego is formed from the id through the pleasure and reality principles. The pleasure principle is explained as pain out, pleasure in. This results in the human desire of trying to obtain as much pleasure in life as possible with the least amount of discomfort. Once the ego is formed, a person gains a sense of understanding that there is an outside world and that they must conform their actions to fit those boundaries, which are set by society. In addition, they begin to understand that when they can’t always get the object that gives them pleasure, they must adjust their desires to fit that environment. They begin by altering their physical environment and then their social environment.

The ego not only has to balance the id with reality, but also with the superego. This superego which Freud refers to is that agency which is formed over time by the parents, and later on, the society of the individual. Its function is to observe, judge, and threaten the ego with punishment just like the parents whose place it has taken (as the individual grows older). We generally would refer to it as our “conscience”. As it is stated in the book, “The tension between the harsh super – ego and the ego that is subjected to it … expresses itself as a need for punishment”. The super – ego therefore enhances the reality principle so that it becomes internally ingrained within us.

Freud traces all actions and instincts back to “sexual instinct” or what Freud refers to as libido and “aggressive instinct” (within the individual). They work both together and against each other and therefore play an important role in everything that we do. Being that libido is obviously present, “sex” in and of itself is a perfect example of this. During sex, varying levels of aggression (or lack thereof) can lead someone to either be bashful and impotent, a sex murderer and rapist, and anything in between.

In order to harness all of this libido that Freud describes, society sets up boundaries (super-ego) and imposes those boundaries unto the individuals naturally aggressive ego. This in turn is used by the individual to display that excess libido in a more socially acceptable and productive manner.

Freud believed that there is a fundamental conflict between the desires of an individual and the demands of the society in which they live. He believed that man is born with innate tendencies against work, but rather to have as much leisure time as possible. For this reason, he felt that civilization takes away peoples liberties, by forcing them to work. As it is stated in the book, “… majority of people only work under the stress of necessity…”. Individuality according to society is considered non-productive according to Freud as it inhibits the forwarding of society in terms of work.

Freud found that the difference between animals and humans with regards to work is quite simple. Animals according to Freud have reached a peak of development because a balance has been reached between the influences of their environmental and individual desires. He uses termites as an example due to the structure of their being. That is, they live to work. It is all that they’ve ever done and they don’t question what they do. They are content and satisfied with their lives. Humans on the other hand are never satisfied. We are in constant conflict because we always desire to attain more, and society due to the reality principle makes us realize that much of our desires are unattainable, however, that does not dissuade us from these longings that we so desperately want.

I believe that there is a tremendous underlying concept that Freud had in mind when stating the passage on page 83 of “Civilization and Its Discontents”. I want to expound on the part of the passage, which refers to ” … It may be that in primitive man a fresh access of libido kindled a renewed burst of activity on the part of the destructive instinct”. I believe that Freud viewed this “burst of activity” as humans trying to attain our innate desire by advancing technology through labor saving devices, thus bringing out our individuality. To recap, this inhibits the forwarding of society in terms of work, which according to Freud is non-productive.

Freud in my humble opinion was scared of where all of this technological advancement was leading, and was for that reason, completely against labor saving technologies. He felt that all of this advancement that people were using their libido for was bad for society and was going to backfire in the long run. As it is stated in the book, “But here the voice of pessimistic criticism … If there had been no railway to conquer distances, my child would never have left his native town and I should need no telephone to hear his voice …” Although technology is a wonderful thing as it allows us to hear someone’s voice who is far away, it is also the thing that took my son away from me. He feels that the disadvantages of technology greatly outweigh the advantages. I believe Freud felt that people desired such a level of technology, which would allow them potential access to a tremendous amount of leisure time. He felt that the disadvantages that technology brings about are not realized by people until its too late. All that is seen is the immediate satisfaction of the id but not the long-term effects.

In conclusion, Freud was fortunately or unfortunately not alive to bear witness to the birth and continuum of the industrial revolution, which is why he might have felt the way that he did about technology. I believe that not only would his views have remained the same today, but in fact they would have been even more justified. How many a time does one hear, “My computer crashed, what am I going to do now?” This exemplifies the fact that we have reached a point where we literally rely on technology and can’t function without it!!


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