Civilisation and its Discontents (1930) by Sigmund Freud, translated by David McLintock

Old favourites: Freud lets us in on society’s dirtiest secret with unflinching theoretical honesty

Sigmund Freud examines the neurosis he perceives as afflicting not only individuals but entire cultures, possibly the entire species. Photograph: Bourgeron Collection/RDA/Hulton Archive/Getty

Sigmund Freud examines the neurosis he perceives as afflicting not only individuals but entire cultures, possibly the entire species. Photograph: Bourgeron Collection/RDA/Hulton Archive/Getty

 

If only we acted in accordance with our natures, our lives would pass in unrelenting massacre. We would howl in ecstasy as we eviscerated our foes, trampling their skulls and plunging our jaws into their innards to feast on gore, finally ripping out their hearts and raising them to the sky – until, all too quickly, a stronger party obliterated us. This much I’d figured out for myself early on, but only when I read Sigmund Freud did I find an honest theoretical acknowledgement of the unbridled aggression, depravity and lust for annihilation that constitute the dirtiest secret of the individual in society.

Freud has taken a kicking in the century since he revolutionised human self-understanding by methodically examining the “seething cauldron” of unconscious motivation. To be sure, his conclusions tend towards the doctrinaire, his thought rooted in the 19th century’s reductively mechanistic materialism. Nonetheless, in 2019, Freud’s dark vision of incorrigible human evil is a tonic to the obligatory optimism peddled by our overlords in Silicon Valley, and the reality-denialism of liberal ideology.

In his late work Civilisation and Its Discontents, Freud examines the neurosis he perceives as afflicting not only individuals but entire cultures, possibly the entire species. We are born to an inheritance of aggression: in our pre-civilised state, we would gladly enslave the other, torturing and humiliating him for pleasure. Our relation to the world beyond our ego is one of enmity and hatred: we fear the other, knowing he is like us. “Given this fundamental hostility of human beings to one another, civilised society is constantly threatened with disintegration.”

To preserve itself, civilisation imposes restraints on our natural instincts – and the psychic cost is immense. Painfully alienated from our repressed natures, we are tormented by guilt so that “the price we pay for cultural progress is a loss of happiness”. As if that wasn’t bad enough, beneath it all runs the “death drive” – an ageless will to extinction inherent in organic life, and perhaps Freud’s most divisive, suggestive, near-mythical notion.

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