Sigmund Freud, 1927
Freud begins by acknowledging the desire of any cultural critic to make predictions about the future of the civilization, while simultaneously offering the disclaimer that most thinkers will be limited by the scope of their fields, the necessity of gaining distance on the present in order to accurately observe it, and the inevitable corruption of personal prejudice.
He then goes to define human civilization - the sum of all the ways we are raised above animals - in terms of two functions. First, it must protect us from nature, and, second, it must protect us from other men. In these early pages his discussion is largely economic. The distribution of available wealth makes varying levels of instinctual satisfaction possible, by allowing various privileges to certain castes, like the possibility of acquiring someone as a sexual object. Most people are hostile to civilization, viewing it as a burden imposed on the masses by a minority.
The question arises if civilization could be better ordered so that it no longer required coercion and suppression of instincts. Freud thinks not; civilization demands some level of renunciation, given that all people possess certain anti-social impulses. However, it might be possible to lessen the instinctual sacrifices and reconcile men to civilization. Still, given that, as stands, the masses are lazy and aren’t susceptible to reasoned arguments, there is always going to be a need for a powerful elite to keep them in order.
He then turns to the objection that the current state of the masses is a product of an imperfect social system, and could be corrected through education. Here he seems to be simultaneously responding to Marxists, and to Rousseau. Freud asks where we are going to find the wise leaders to teach the masses, given that they belong as much to the imperfect system as the masses. Still, despite his skepticism, he isn’t totally hostile to the idea. While admitting that a certain percentage of mankind will probably always remain pathologically asocial, he expresses the tentative hope that maybe such education might reduce that section of mankind to a minority. That would accomplish a great deal.
Freud turns form the economic to the psychological, and in doing so defines a number of terms.
frustration: an instinct that can’t be satisfied
prohibition: regulation by which this frustration is established
privation: condition produced by this prohibition.
A distinction must be made between privations affecting everyone (prohibitions of incest, cannibalism, murder), and those affecting a minority. These earliest desires, which we see manifested and renounced in children, create the possibility of other instinctual renunciations. In these renunciations, we see proof of mental progress, namely that prohibitions become internalized and man’s superego takes over to include them within its commandments. In doing so, a child becomes a moral and social being. **It’s worth noting that Freud’s understanding of the superego here is much more positive than in Civilization and its Discontents.** Nonetheless, while these early demands have been largely internalized, the same can’t be said of other moral and cultural demands, as evidenced by the untrustworthiness of men.
Next, Freud makes an interesting shift from his earlier disdain of the masses, and insists that it’s entirely natural for the majority to resent being subject to prohibitions that the elite escape. “It goes without saying that a civilization which leaves so large a number of its participants unsatisfied and drives them into revolt neither has nor deserves the prospect of lasting existence” (15). Nonetheless, a culture may be united through common cultural ideals. A people tends to idealize their own achievements. This narcissistic pride is confirmed when confronted with a culture that sought excellence in a different area. Cultural ideals and xenophobia are intimately related, and both provide a means of unification and a certain satisfaction. Finally, art may provide compensation for instinctual renunciation, but, unfortunately, is only accessible to the elite.
“In what does the peculiar value of religious ideas lie?” Answer: when man’s ego is seriously threatened by his helplessness in the face of nature, religion humanizes religion, making its forces into something theoretically susceptible to the same means of propitiation as a human. “The gods retain their threefold task: they must exorcize the terrors of nature, they must reconcile men to the cruelty of fate, particularly as it is shown in death, and they must compensate them for the suffering and privations which a civilized life in common has imposed on them” (22).
Religion follows the infantile prototype. Weak, helpless, the child needs first the protection of his mother, and then the father. Drawing on memories of originary infantile helplessness, we construct a worldview where some providence watches over us, securing us from harm from others and from nature.
Here an interlocutor enters. The most important question he poses regards the link between Totem and Taboo, and Future of an Illusion. Why was the father complex central in the earlier work, while infantile helplessness is the main explanation here?
Answer: T&T was a discussion of totemism, not the origin of religion generally. Nonetheless, totemism shares many of the key characteristics of more developed religions, making the two discussions continuous. The discussion of infantile helplessness here merely deepens our insight into the father complex. Now we realize that the ambivalence of the brothers toward the father stemmed in part from their desire for his protection as infants. Once the adult realize he is destined to remain an infant forever, i.e. perpetually in need of a protecting figure, he moves on from animal worship to creating a God with the powers and characteristics of the father.
“Religious ideas are teachings and assertions about facts and conditions of external (or internal) reality which tell one something one has not discovered for oneself and which lay claim to one’s belief” (31). Religions justify this claim to our belief by 1)reference to tradition (our ancestors believed it) 2) the existence of ancient proofs 3) it is forbidden to raise the question of their authenticity at all.
Freud objects to religious claims because, unlike other assertions which we assent to, they cannot be verified. Moreover, the prohibition against questioning the authority of religious claims seems highly suspicious. If traditions actually could verify their assertions, they would most likely be glad to offer such proofs. That they won’t suggests that they have no proof. Why, Freud wonders, would we accept claims made on such questionable grounds about religions when we wouldn’t do the same for any other topic?
This seems the key chapter. Here Freud defines religious belief as, “illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind.” An illusion is not necessarily an error or something that is logically impossible; rather, it is a belief derived from human wishes. One could continue to believe in religious doctrines because they can’t be proved or disproved, but knowing as we do that they’re illusions, that would be intellectually irresponsible. Rather, we should acknowledge that it would be very nice if there were some benevolent, protector god, but admit that it’s unlikely to be true, and even less likely that our ancestors, who were infinitely more ignorant than us, would have successfully solved the riddle of the universe.
Objection: Isn’t this inquiry undermining basic structures that support our civilization? and aren’t these conclusions bound to make life unbearable?
Answer: 1) If people do have a deep need for religion, then nothing Freud can say will take away their belief. 2) This work is not saying anything new, merely adding a psychoanalytic perspective to arguments made earlier and more forcefully. 3) There’s no real proof that religion does make people happy - on the contrary. 4) If religion really is the only thing keeping the masses from murdering, what happens if they find out the elite don’t believe in God? Won’t they just murder indiscriminately, unless stopped by brute force, or unless a new system is put in place?
There are clearly rational motivations behind many moral laws. If men weren’t prohibited from murdering, we’d live in a state of constant danger and feuds. It’s better to simply admit those motives, rather than ascribing them to God, or to the God-inspired wisdom of the state. After all, when people begin to protest against the inevitable corruption and imperfection of the state or turn against it when they realize that the God it grounds its authority in doesn’t exist, it will be safer for everyone to realize there are rational reasons to continue holding to its laws.
Moreover, its inevitable that people become disillusioned. If you think of the development of humanity as analogous to that of the individual, you’ll realize that religion is a neurotic illness which we will inevitably turn away from as a natural byproduct of growth.
Objection: How do you reconcile your earlier assertion that men cannot be ruled by reason with your new plan of replacing the religious foundation of law and morality with a rational one?
Answer: At present, men cannot be guided by reason, but perhaps that is because their intelligence is so deeply damaged by imposing the absurdities of religious education on them as children. If we stop making our children retarded, maybe we’ll have a chance of breeding a new race of men, capable of rationality and overcoming the obsessional neurosis of religion. The experiment is worth trying, particularly as nothing will be imposed on those who are unwilling. Those who wish to cling to belief may.
Objection: this sounds incredibly optimistic for Freud. (Ich stimme dazu!) People need the imposition of some sort of doctrine to lead them from childhood to adulthood, that will allow them to master their emotional impulses. You can’t reason with small children. So wouldn’t Freud essentially be replacing one doctrine or illusion with another, less satisfying one?
Answer: “The weakness of my position does not imply the strengthening of yours.” It may be true that the voice of reason is weak, but it is persistent. And while its primacy may be at some point in the distant future, it is nonetheless not set in the infinitely distant future, like the promises of religion. Moreover, the scientific man is in a better position to handle disappointment if his plan falls through, having already renounced many infantile wishes. If a few expectations are disappointed, he can bear it much better than the religious man. If, however, the scientific worldview were totally debunked, he would be in a similar position to the religious man who realizes God does not exist. However, science has given enough proofs of its success to make that unlikely. So, really, why not at least try for improvement in this world, rather than shunting all of our hopes off into the next life?