23 August 2007

Civilization and Its Discontents

Ugh. If you've ever read any of the really New-Agey books that gleefully toss around abstract terminology, assuming both that the reader will be familiar with the terminology and agree with all the implied relations between it, then you have some idea of how half of Civilization and Its Discontents reads. It's the book by Freud that is required for my philosophy class. Chapter I is probably the most readable and interesting part, where he's actually discussing his own attitudes towards religion. The closer you get to the end, the more Freudian psycho-analytic babble he uses. The only reason I'd recommend this is if you have a weird sense of humor; I was chuckling to myself through a lot of the book, even though I also found it irritating.

Overall? Freud's ideas say more about the attitudes of his times and his own personal psychological problems than they do about society as a whole. He does pose some interesting questions, but that's the best I can say. He displays rampant sexism and a sense of the superiority of European culture over "primitive" cultures. He dismisses out of hand potential alternatives to his ideas, without ever describing more than a straw-man version of said alternatives, if that. He contradicts himself within the same paragraph without seeming to realize it regarding said "primitive" cultures, too.

The part that made me laugh, though, was that he rejects any notion of God in the first section, but the way he later describes the superego, and the hypothetical cultural superego, makes it clear that he's simply replaced God with the superego. He assigns it the exact same role played by the traditional Judeo-Christian God, right down to the idiotic dualism between "spirit" and "flesh." He doesn't call them that, but he might as well have. Essentially, he's taken the Christian mythos and turned it into a basis for psychology. Or tried to.

Essentially, Freud thinks that Man must repress his aggressive instincts in order to exist in any sort of society, and he does that with a "distorted" form of love; i.e. not between a man and a woman, and also weaker than a pair-bond. But because he represses his instincts, he can never be happy. The way Freud describes things, it's clear that he was stuck in the "nature red in tooth and claw" mode of seeing evolution. To be fair, that was how most saw it at that time, but it misses a lot. I'll oversimplify, but any activity that increases the species' numbers as a whole benefits the species and will be preserved, whether that activity is aggressive or cooperative. Freud sees any sort of cooperation or altruism as going against Man's nature. Translation: he internalized the Christian guilt/sin mythos despite overtly rejecting Christianity. Seriously, this book reads like bad theology (or New Age frippery).

It's likely I'll have to reread the book more slowly later on, depending on how we use it in the class. Maybe I'll find more to like then. As is, I'm unimpressed.

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