The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud

20 March 2008

Doubling up on two of Freud’s works here. It’s quite interesting to read the full text of these works after having read bits and selections of them in various school texts over the years. (Even if some people think Freud is an utter miseryguts no matter what work of his you happen to be reading.)

The Future of an Illusion by Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud wrote The Future of an Illusion (Die Zukunft einer Illusion) in 1927, after he had spent several years considering the idea of religion from a psychoanalytic perspective. He had examined religion from a more anthropological perspective in his work Totem and Taboo (1913), looking at possible connections between the beliefs of aboriginal socities and the influence that these beliefs may have had on the construction of religious ideas in the history of human civilisation. In The Future of an Illusion, Freud turns his earlier thoughts into a more systemic study of the role of religion in human behaviour and shaping the human experience, particularly with regard to how religious belief influences and regulates human behaviour.

Freud describes religion as an ‘illusion’ — in other words, a belief that is grounded in personal wish and desire. (Illusions are not necessarily false, he points out, but they are nonetheless grounded in wish and intended to fulfil a personal need.) As Freud sees it, ‘It would be very nice if there were a God who created the world and was a benevolent providence, and if there were a moral order in the universe and an after-life; but it is a very striking fact that all this is exactly as we are bound to wish it to be.‘ He regards the illusion of religion as a creation of man’s unconscious desire for a protecting, guiding father-figure and as a social construct designed to curb the destructive instincts that would make civilised society untenable (such as cannibalism and incest). And though Freud does not advocate an absolute, wholesale jettisoning of the entire structure of the civilisation that currently rests upon a religious base, he claims that human beings are nonetheless capable of moving beyond this infantile kind of wish-fulfilment and towards a more mature and scientific understand of the universe and our place within it.

The Future of an Illusion is a very Freudian book; that is, it is very much a piece of self-analysis, a little like listening to someone who is a bit too fond of the sound of his or her own voice. He contradicts several of his own initial assertions, particularly towards the end of the book, and even someone who isn’t especially ‘religious’ (as Freud would define it) would be quick to point out Freud’s analysis is based more in his anthropological studies and his experience with psychoanalysing patients whose internal struggles with religious beliefs might have contributed to their troubled mental and emotional states. As a book, it is a very good indication of Freud’s personal opinions on religion and its role as the illusion that helps to underpin civilisation. As a treatise in favour of atheism and scientific rationalism…well, I can think of a few other authors I’d rather read on this subject. (Bertrand Russell, for one.)

Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud

The title of Sigmund Freud’s Das Unbehagen in der Kultur is a little tricky to translate idiomatically from German. A more literal translation of the title might be “The Uneasiness in Culture” or “The Discomfort in Culture”, but flipping the order of the words places more of the emphasis on the source of the uneasiness — culture, or as it might also be translated, civilisation.

Civilization and Its Discontents is Freud’s attempt to address the tensions that he sees between the instincts and impulses of the individual and the greater conformity required by civilisation. One of the most basic instincts present in human beings is aggression, an instinct that by its very nature is destabilising and impulsive and (in a word) antisocial. Coping with, controlling, or redirecting this aggressive instinct is vital to forming relationships with other human beings — indeed, doing so mitigates one of the three aspects of the human condition that Freud believes prevent individuals from being happy (the other two being exposure to the external world [i.e., weather and nature] and the fraility of the human body against aging, injury, and disease). The individual connection to this civilising force is not always very strong — as evidenced, for instance, by the number of people who will violate society’s norms if they think they can get away with it. Yet the human mind has come up with a means of internally enforcing civilisation: the power of guilt, which is controlled by an aspect of personality that Freud calls the super-ego.

According to Freud, the constant conflict between instinct and the super-ego is responsible for much of the discontent in man’s relationship to civilisation. One of the greatest societal tensions, he says, comes from civilisation’s deeply misguided commandment to ‘love your brother as you love yourself’ — a demand that not only contradicts our fundamental instincts of aggression, but also tends to be extremely difficult to put into actual practice. And when the super-ego chides us for failing to live up to these internalised expectations…well, Freud based quite a lot of his psychology on what can happen when individuals are unwilling or unable to reconcile instinct with the demands of society.

There are other side arguments in Civilization and Its Discontents, further thoughts on the often strained relationship between the individual and society. It is worth remembering that Freud wrote this book in the late 1920s and early 1930s, a time of great social instability in the wake of the Great War that would eventually lead to the series of historical events that ended with Freud fleeing his native Austria for England in mid-1938, where he died in September 1939. Even if Freud’s primarily psychological and rather pessimistic interpretation is no longer as influential as it was in his day, Civilization and Its Discontents provides a fairly concise summary of Freud’s thinking on the relationship between individual and society and the relative thinness of the veneer that provides the gloss we call modern civilisation.


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