The Future of an Illusion

In one of his more famous books titled “Civilization and its Discontents,” Sigmund Freud argued that the ego – as a way of consolidating itself – creates a line of demarcation between itself and the external world in order to protect itself from the dangers and threats emanating from the external world. What the ego seeks, then, is an ‘oceanic feeling of eternity’ which relieves the ego of the pressures and stresses of the external world. Freud saw organized religion as one of the main tools or instruments by which this ‘oceanic feeling of eternity’ can be achieved. However, Freud considered this notion of achieving an ‘oceanic feeling of eternity’ through organized religion as ‘infantile.’

Freud also argued that the human mind is such that its early stages of development and the contents gathered by the mind during its early stages will somehow reemerge or manifest in its ‘final form.’ But given that the basis or foundation of the ego is the “pleasure principle” or the pursuit of prolonged pleasure whereas the nature of the external world is one of danger and misery, it follows that unhappiness is likelier than happiness given that the basic aim of the ego is incompatible with the basic nature of the external world, and if happiness is ever to be found in this world, it would be elusive and transient at best, according to Freud.

Freud suggested that intoxication is the “crudest” but most “effective” of the means available by which one could achieve transient happiness. But there are other ways by which the pressures and stresses of the external world and thus unhappiness can be reduced. For one, Freud mentioned the Eastern philosophy of “sublimating” the instinctual aims of the libido through psychical and intellectual work. But the overarching theme of ‘happiness’ is such that: 

“Happiness, in the reduced sense in which we recognize it as possible, is a problem of the economics of the individual’s libido. There is no golden rule which applies to everyone: every man must find out for himself in what particular fashion he can be saved.”

But the most profound and striking argument which Freud incorporated into his “Civilization and its Discontents” is the one which suggests that Western civilization itself is the greatest source of misery and unhappiness, given that Western civilization was built around the false idea that nature could be controlled, and that misery and unhappiness could be eliminated through science and technology. Thus, it follows that many people are of the opinion that “what we call our civilization is largely responsible for our misery, and that we should be much happier if we gave it up and returned to primitive conditions.” 

Thus, the paradox is that the very thing which was built and created in order to mitigate misery and unhappiness – namely, Western civilization – is actually the source of misery and unhappiness for many people. At the heart of Western misery and unhappiness is the notion that “there shall be a single kind of sexual life for everyone” which in turn “disregards the dissimilarities, whether innate or acquired, in the sexual constitution of human beings; it cuts off a fair number of them from sexual enjoyment, and so becomes the source of serious injustice.” 

The accumulation of Western conventionalities, prohibitions, and stereotypes translates into the sacrifice of the ‘libido’ for the sake of ‘self-preservation.’ But with this sacrifice or tradeoff comes a type of aggression and hostility in civilized society which leads to a situation by which civilization itself is “perpetually threatened with disintegration.” Aggression and hostility towards both authorities and the overall value system of civilization are then filled by guilt and remorse, and a result, the prevailing psychological condition of civilization is one that is based on guilt and repression. And with the centrality of the ‘libido’ in the social fabric of civilization, Freud then divides the ‘libido’ into two halves, with one half consisting of ‘Eros’ and the other half consisting of a ‘death instinct.’ 

In turn, and as Freud noted, individual and personal development is then cut off from cultural and societal development, given the prevailing conditions and circumstances of culture and society. Freud then concludes that the “cultural endeavor” of the individual is “not worth the trouble” and that “the outcome of it can only be a state of affairs which the individual will be unable to tolerate.” The question, then, is whether the civilizational impulse towards aggression and self-destruction can be overcome. 

Due to a wide range of factors, the most important of which being recent and modern history, one’s judgment about the future of Western civilization can at best be “insecure” to borrow from Freud. Another important factor in coming up with a judgment about the future of Western civilization is the issue of the Western weltanschauung. As Freud stated, a weltanschauung is “an intellectual construction which solves all the problems of our existence uniformly on the basis of one overriding hypothesis, which, accordingly, leaves no question unanswered and in which everything that interests us finds its fixed place.” Thus, a weltanschauung is “among the ideal wishes of human beings.” But given that the Western weltanschauung is largely fixed and rigid yet juxtaposed with a changing and evolving reality, the problems may continue to mount. 

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