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Sigmund Freud: Civilization and Its Discontents

from Program Two


Distraught by war and personal loss, Freud publishes his views on society's dangers and delusions.

Narrator: Freud saw human life drawn between two powerful and opposing forces: the life force on the one hand and on the other, the death instinct, the destroying drive.

Freud: Let us look away from the individual to the great war that is ravaging Europe. Think of the excess of brutality, cruelty, and mendacity which is now allowed to spread itself over the civilized world.

Sander Gilman: Freud starts out in 1914 as, by the way, most people start out in Vienna in 1914 — being a great supporter of the war. And by 1919, he is, as most people are in Vienna, aware of the horrors of what that communal response to the war really has brought. The death of an entire generation — a generation, by the way, in which his sons are part.

Freud: Two of my boys are still in artillery training. Martin, is already in the trenches. Oliver left yesterday. I discharged a Russian patient as cured. Two weeks later he became my enemy who might, for all I know, shoot at one of my sons. ...

Gilman: After the first World War, there's a very interesting kind of shift — which is that Freud, who in a sense, had been always interested in the growth potential of human beings, suddenly becomes aware that there's a dark side to human beings. He writes a series of papers on what he calls the death drive, about the fact that we, in a sense, not only want to preserve our lives, but that we are always moving toward death. And suddenly, he starts to understand evil not only is part of individual development, but also part of society.

Freud: These are indeed terrible times. It seems to us as though never before has an event destroyed so many precious possessions of our common humanity, confused so many of the clearest intellects, debased the highest so thoroughly. This war has let the primeval man within us into the light.

Narrator: The savagery of war propelled him to a deeper study of man's nature. In the years following the first World War he brought together all his intellectual interests, psychiatry, history, mythology, religion, into one long essay, Civilization and Its Discontents.

Harold Blum: Civilization was based upon the fact that people were capable of regulating their instincts, regulating their most primitive, anti-social, anti-familiar instincts. One could be jealous of a brother, one could want to have incest with a sister, but it was important that a regulated human being never act out such impulses. In fact, Freud at one point said the person who first hurled a word, an insult, so to speak, instead of a spear was the founder of civilization.

Freud: Civilization is perpetually threatened with disintegration. Instinctual passions are stronger than reason. Civilization has to use its utmost efforts in order to set limits to man's aggressive instincts.

Gilman: Freud does not assume any sort of external moral world, which is transcendental. He sees this as part of internal processes functioning in terms of the way that we set up laws.

Freud: In our view the truth of religion may be altogether disregarded. Its doctrines carry with them the stamp of the times in which they originated, the ignorant childhood days of this human race.

Blum: Originally religious attitudes, faith in a supreme being comes from the early parent relationship. The parents who help the child towards self regulation, towards self control, the parent who teaches the child that certain impulses, like the scratch, bite, kick and so forth are not to be expressed and have to be controlled. The child's sense of what is right and wrong, what's acceptable and unacceptable, in Freud's terms comes from what the parent approves of or disapproves of. But those relationships for Freud become internalized, so eventually the voice of conscience is from within. What's evil within us, then, is not the devil. The devil are the primitive passions and impulses within ourselves which threaten us from within, not from without. When we say "get thee behind me, Satan," what is really meant, in following Freud's thought, is I will not allow these passions to rule me, I will be master of my own passions.

Freud: It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressions. When once the apostle Paul had posited universal love between men as the foundation of his Christian community, extreme intolerance on the part of Christendom towards those who remained outside it became the inevitable consequence.

Ana-Maria Rizzuto: Freud saw his destiny to rescue human beings from their self deceptions ... their convictions that they were so great, so full of love, so full of self-knowledge ... and to demonstrate to them that they were deceiving themselves, that they were dominated by sexuality, by passions, by anger, by hatred.

Narrator: But there was another category of human misery not created by people and against which there was no defense.

In the great flu epidemic that followed in the wake of the first World War, Freud lost his daughter, Sophie. She was 23 years old and pregnant with her third child.

Freud: It was a senseless, brutal act of fate, which has robbed us of our Sophie. Tomorrow she will be cremated, our Sunday child. ... I do not know whether cheerfulness will ever call on us again. My poor wife has been hit too hard. ... Indeed, a mother is not to be consoled; and, as I am now discovering nor is a father.

Narrator: Three years later, Sophie's 4-year-old son Heinele also died.

Freud: He was an enchanting fellow. And I know that I have hardly ever loved a human being, certainly never a child, as much as him. I find this loss very hard to bear. I don't think I ever experienced such grief. He meant the future to me and thus has taken the future away with him. As the deepest of unbelievers I have no one to accuse and I know there is no place where one can lodge an accusation.

Rizzuto: He said that there are other people that can be consoled by religion, but he doesn't have that available to him. And once more he resorts to the same stance in relation to himself. He's going to hold himself up, he's going to tolerate the pain, he's going to tolerate the suffering without consolation. And that is what he has accepted. Life is hard and he will take it.