Quote Book -[9]- People & Society

Page 22 Unless a special aptitude dictates the direction that a person’s interest in life is to take, the ordinary professional work available to everyone can occupy the place assigned to it by Voltaire’s wise advice.   Within the scope of a short survey it not possible to pay sufficient attention to the vital role of work in the economy of the libido. No other technique for the conduct of life binds the individual so firmly to reality as an emphasis on work, which at least gives him a secure place in one area of reality, the human community, The possibility of shifting a large number of libidinal components – narcissistic, aggressive, even erotic – towards professional work and the human relations connected with it lends it a value that is in no way inferior to the indispensable party it plays in asserting and justifying a person’s existence in society. Special satisfaction comes from professional activity when this is freely chosen and therefore make possible the use, through sublimation, of existing inclinations, of continued or constitutionally reinforced instinctual impulses. And yet people show scant regard for work as a path to happiness. Thy do not strive after it as they do after other possibilities of satisfaction. The great majority work only because they have to and this aversion to work is the source of the most difficult social problems.
Page 29 – 31 “We shall never wholly control nature; our constitution, itself part of this nature, will always remain a transient structure, with a limited capacity for adaption and achievement. Recognition of this fact does not have a paralysing effect on us; on the contrary, it gives direction to our activity. Even if we cannot put an end to all suffering, we can remove or alleviate some of it; the experience of thousands of years has convinced us of this. Our attitude to the third source of suffering, the social source, is different.

We refuse to recognise it at all; we cannot see why institutions that we ourselves have created should not protect and benefit us all.   However, when we consider how unsuccessful we have been at preventing suffering in this very sphere, the suspicion arises that here too an element of unconquerable nature may be at work in the background – this time our own psyche.

When considering this possibility, we come up against a contention which is so astonishing that we will dwell on it for a while. It is contended that much of the blame for our misery lies with what we call our civilisation, and that we should be far happier if we were to abandon it and revert to primitive conditions. I say this is astonishing because, however one defines the concept of civilisation, it is certain that all the means we use in our attempts to protect ourselves against the threat of suffering belong to this very civilisation.

By what route have so many people arrived at this strange attitude of hostility to civilization? I think a deep, long-standing dissatisfaction with the state of civilization at any given time prepared the ground on which a condemnation of it grew up owing to particular historical causes.   I thin I can identify the last two of these; I am not sufficiently erudite to trace the casual chain back for enough into the history of the human race. Some such hostility to civilisation must have been involved already in the victory of Christianity over paganism. After all this hostility was very close to the devaluation of earthly life that came through Christian teaching. The penultimate cause arose when voyages of discovery brought us into contact with primitive peoples and tribes. Owing to inadequate observation and misinterpretation of their manner and customs, they appeared to the Europeans to lead a simple, happy life, involving few needs, which was beyond the reach of their culturally superior visitors. Subsequent experience has corrected several such judgments; the fact that these peoples found life so much easier was mistakenly ascribed to the absence of complicated cultural requirements, when in fact it was due to nature’s bounty and the with which their major needs could be satisfied. The final cause is particularly familiar to us; it arose when we became acquainted with the mechanism of the neuroses that threaten to undermine the modicum of happiness enjoyed by civilised man. It was discovered that people became neurotic because they could not endure the degree of privation that society imposed on them in the service of its cultural ideals, and it was inferred that a suspension or a substantial reduction of its demands would mean a return to possibilities of happiness.

There is an added factor of disappointment. In recant generations the human race has made extraordinary advances in the natural sciences and their technical application, and it had increased its control over nature in ways that would previously have been unimaginable. The details of these advances are generally known and need no be enumerated. Human beings are proud of these achievements, and rightly so. Yet they believe they have observed that this newly won master over space and time, this subjugation of the force of nature – the fulfilment of an age-old longing – has not increased the amount of pleasure they can expect from life of made them feel any happier.”

Page 32 – 33 What is the good of the reduction of infant mortality if it forces us to practise extreme restraint in the procreation of children, with the result that on the whole we rear no more children than we did before hygiene became all important, but have imposed restraints on sexual life within marriage and probably worked against the benefits of natural selection? And finally, what good is a long life to us if it is hard, joyless and so full of suffering that we can only welcome death as a deliverer?

It seems certain that we do not feel comfortable in our present civilisation, but it is very hard to form a judgement as to whether and to what extent people of an earlier age felt happier, and what part their cultural conditions played in the matter. We shall always tend to view misery objectively, that is to project ourselves, with all our demands and susceptibilities, into their conditions, and then try to determine what occasions for happiness or unhappiness we should find in them . This way of looking at things, which appears objective because it ignores the variations in subjective sensitivity, is of course the most subjective there can be, in that it substitutes our own mental state for all others, of which we nothing. Happiness, however, is something altogether subjective.   However much we recoil in horror when considering certain situations – that of the gallery slave in ancient times, of the peasant in the Thirty Years War, of the victim of the Holy Inquisition, of the Jew waiting for the pogrom – it is none the less impossible for us to empathise with these people, to divine what changes the original insensitivity, the gradual diminution of sensitivity, the cessation of expectations, and cruder of more refined methods of narcotisation have wrought in man’s receptivity to pleasurable and unpleasurable feelings. In cases where there is a possibility of extreme suffering, certain protective psychical mechanisms are activated. It seems to me fruitless to pursue this aspect of the problem any further.

Page 33 It is time to consider the essence of the civilisation whose value for our happiness has been called into question. We will reframe from demanding a formula that captures this essence in a few words before we have learnt anything from our investigation.   We will content ourselves with repeating that the word ‘civilisation’ designates the sum total of those achievements and institutions that distinguish our life from that of our animal ancestors and serve the dual purpose of protecting human beings against nature and regulating their mutual relations.

Source: Civilization and its discontents. By: Sigmund Freud