Thursday, July 19, 2012

On How to be Happy



At 74, after the roaring twenties came to an end, and the depression was just beginning to settle in a while, Freud wrote Civilization and its Discontents. This was eight years before the Nazis would allow him to leave the country but only after forcing him to sign a statement saying he was not mistreated.  He sarcastically asked if he could add, “I can most highly recommend the Gestapo to everyone.”  This is something to remember:  He was a ballsy guy.  To write the books he wrote at the time he wrote them, took courage. He also famously noted, “What progress we are making.  In the Middle Ages they would have burned me.  Now, they are content with burning my books.”  The following year, after a long struggle with cancer, his doctor helped him die with an overdose of morphine.  He missed all the burning the Nazis did.  This book explores how to be happy in the face of misery, and he espouses a surprisingly open view of sexuality near the end.  (This very well may be the longest post in all the land!)

He starts by dealing with a criticism of his last book, Future of an Illusion (a much better, but less popular, book).  His friend suggested that religion isn’t just a longing for a higher power to protect and comfort us, but that it can start because many people get this “oceanic feeling” that leaves us awestruck.  Freud responds that he’s never felt this, but rationally, we can feel awestruck and limitless without it being religious in nature.   He dismisses it and insists the “origin of the religious temperament can be traced in clear outline to the child’s feeling of helplessness” (ch 1).  Now that he’s wiped out religion, the question becomes, how do we cope with life without God there to help us make sense of the world? 


On Escaping Suffering

Having had his sons fight in WWI, lost a daughter to the Spanish flu, and watched the Nazis provoking WWII, he recognized that, “life is too hard to bear without palliative measures” (p14).  Reading this is timely for me as I try to reconcile that conflict between anxiety and obliviousness I feel thinking about the atrocities of the world as related in my previous post.  He identifies three kinds of measures we can take to escape from our suffering when we’re in the midst of it all (ch 2):

1. Distractions - We can immerse ourselves in TV, religion, gossip, work, gardening, parenting, writing book critiques, etc. which all help us forget our misery.
2. Substitutions – We can explore art and fantasies to establish a different type of reality in our heads – this includes sublimation (redirecting inappropriate impulses into creating works of art for example).  However, “The mild narcosis that art induces in us can free us only temporarily from the hardships of life; it is not strong enough to make us forget real misery” (23).
3. Intoxicants – Or we can just get loaded.

Can't it be all three?


On Happiness – People Bad, Work Good

Without religion we don’t have a collective purpose.  I think we can develop a personal purpose, but maybe that’s really just another means to distract ourselves from misery.  He uses an Aristotelian exercise to determine our end goals and therefore our final purpose in life, which, of course, is to be happy.  BUT “all the institutions of the universe are opposed to our happiness” (16), so we are merely surviving, not thriving because of the repressiveness of a civil society. 

Also, happiness “arises from the fairly sudden satisfaction of pent-up needs. By its very nature it can be no more than an episodic phenomenon…[since] a prolonged feeling produces only comfort” (16).  It’s something that has to be continually pursued.  But we can’t just have unrestricted satisfaction of our needs and put enjoyment before caution – that comes with its own punishments.  Typically we just aim at avoiding pain, and that’s enough for us. 

There are three ways we can avoid pain in a world of strife:
1. Deliberate Isolation – This gives us some peace and quiet and protects us against the suffering that comes with interpersonal relations.  It seems to be Freud’s preferred route (and Montaigne’s), but most people equate being alone with being lonely. 
2. Work for the Happiness of All – This includes all the petition-signing and letter-writing done by the classic intellectuals and it seems to be my preferred route, and he also mentions it as a useful tool if you can do it.  “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….[but] the great majority work only because they have to, and this aversion to work is the source of the most difficult social problems” (22). 
3. “Influence Your Constitution” – It’s all attitude:  suffering is just a feeling based on perceptions. How we perceive the world affects how we feel about it. Many (stoics, epicureans, cynics, taoists, buddhists, etc.) have espoused this philosophy for centuries.  We can also influence our constitution chemically with drink and, nowadays, with prescription drugs that make everything good – or sedate anyway.  This is the easiest route, but Freud thinks this is inauthentic at best. He comes down firmly against escaping through drugs/drink (but a little cocaine is fine so long as it doesn’t hamper productivity): 
“The effect of intoxicants in the struggle for happiness and in keeping misery at a distance is seen as so great a boon that not only individuals, but whole nations, have accorded them a firm place in the economy of the libido.  We owe to them not only a direct yield of pleasure, but a fervently desired degree of independence from the external world.  We know, after all, that by drowning our sorrows we can escape at any time from the pressure of reality and find refuge in a world of our own that affords us better conditions for our sensibility.  It is well known that precisely this property of intoxicants makes them dangerous and harmful.  In some circumstances they are responsible for the futile loss of large amounts of energy that might have been used to improve the lot of mankind” (19).
It’s interesting to me that the thought of using drugs to make us happy seems to create a false reality, but the connotation of shifting our attitudes usually seems entirely positive to me.  Yet maybe that too is false – like suggesting that we come to accept the torturing of people because it’s for the greater good.  I can’t go there either.  He suggests that if we reduce suffering by influencing our instinctual impulses by controlling the inner sources of our needs (like through Buddhist meditation/yoga), then, “If it succeeds, one has admittedly given up all other activity too – indeed, sacrificed one’s life only to arrive, by a different route, at the happiness that comes from peace and quiet” through isolation (20).  So we're back to avoiding people and getting some work done if you're of the disposition to do that.  (And really, like all philosophers, he's figuring out what makes him happy and positioning it as the best way to be happy.)


On Civilization – A Paradoxical Conundrum

Sources of Suffering Related to Civilization:
1. Superior Power of Nature – Inevitable, but we’re managing this to an extent with science and technology.
2. Frailty of the Body – Inevitable, but we’re managing this to an extent with medicine.
3. Inadequate Institutions (Civilization) – We largely ignore this problem.  We assume institutions should protect and benefit us, but maybe they have be a problem for so long because “an element of unconquerable nature may be at work in the background – this time our own psyche” (30).  

We’re hostile to civilization, yet it provides all the means we have of protecting ourselves from suffering.  It is the primary cause and solution to suffering.  Our hostility stems from…
1. resentment over the Christian war over paganism, nature, and the body
2. resentment over colonialization and a mistaken belief that a simpler, happier life had been possible but is now lost
3. an inability to endure the degree of social constraints imposed on us
4. advances in science that suggest we should be happier, but our “power over nature is not the sole condition of human happiness”

So, we’re mad because we’ve controlled nature too much and see that repression over nature and ourselves as the cause of our suffering, yet controlling nature is precisely what has dramatically stopped much of our suffering.  Damned if you do….

Civilization requires control over nature, cleanliness and order, and opportunities for higher mental faculties evident in a care and concern for art.  It’s a “sign of civilization if people devote care to things that have no practical value whatever….what we know to be useless, but expect civilization to value, is beauty” (38).  We also need justice to control our rebellious nature.  “We will never be like termites but will always defend a claim to individual freedom against the will of the masses” (42).  Politics is the struggle to find a happy accommodation between the individual and community. 

He goes on and on about development of civilization being similar to the libidinal development of the individual.  Yet again another philosopher insists on finding connections between the state and the psyche.  He says order and cleanliness are valuable but not vital or a source of pleasure – but civil society is like a kid who has pleasure in the anal stage and becomes orderly as a result.  So the drive to be a clean society is a sign of a mature society.  I’m not sure why that’s relevant, or if he just likes finding patterns and connections. 


So we have a problem with civilization:  Sublimation of our drives makes it possible for higher mental activities to play a role in life when unacceptable drives are channeled into more socially acceptable forms – eg. obsession with sex is shifted into obsession with work (43).  But because civilization is built up on the rejection and non-satisfaction of our natural drives, it creates “a cultural frustration that dominates the large sphere of interpersonal relations” (44).  So we need to restrain ourselves from having sex long enough to get some thinking and creating done, but then we become sexually frustrated. 

And we need civilization:  We have a community structure largely for increased “genital satisfaction” – so we can get laid more regularly.  According to Freud here, the deal with humans is, as we took a more erect posture and our noses were no longer crotch level, men were no longer affected by an olfactory sense of a woman in heat - making us the only mammals who can’t tell when females are in heat, and therefore who have the desire and will to have sex at any time (46).  Also, families are stronger and more protected if they live in groups.  So civilization is a good thing generally, but it seems to go too far.  It helps us have more sex, but stops us from getting full pleasure out of it.  


On Love – A Dangerous Route to Happiness

Another technique that helps us find happiness is to place love at the center of everything.   But, “we never have so little protection against suffering as when we are in love” (25).  Yet Freud concedes love has played a big part in civilizing us.  The power of love made “man loath to dispense with his sexual object, the woman, and the woman, loath to surrender her child, which had once been part of her” (47). 

I’m not convinced it’s love that makes us so loath to dispense with one another.  Animals guard their partners – some for shorter periods than others – strictly out of an innate territorial drive.  I wonder if jealousy isn’t borne of love as much as it’s borne out of a sense of property violation.  It feels nicer to think of it as love though.  And I question that romantic love happened at the dawn of civilization.  Other writings suggest we didn’t develop romantic, sentimental attachments until the mid-12th century when women had to consent to marriage (instead of just being kidnapped) according to the new law of the Catholic church contained in the Decretum Gratiani.  

Anyway, Freud thinks love based on a joint interest in sex, work, and safety, should suffice to keep society going, but it falls apart because if love is the center of happiness, it’s dangerously dependent on the chosen love-object for happiness which could expose people to extreme suffering if spurned.  Sages have advised against banking on it for millennia, but it hasn’t lost its attraction. 

We could love generally (with an agapic love, like St. Francis of Assisi did) to avoid disappointments of unrequited love.  It’s a more stable love but “undiscriminating love seems to us to forfeit some of its intrinsic value by doing its object an injustice."  Love’s value, according to Freud, is in its discriminating nature.  We want to be chosen above all others.  So loving all doesn’t grant us the same level of happiness.   Loving thy neighbour may be the “ strongest defense against human aggression… but it is impossible to keep this commandment; such a high inflation of love can only lower its value” (103).  He seems to like the idea of love ruling all, but he doubts its universal effectiveness.


On Sex and “Perversion”

Happiness from satisfying a wild instinctual impulse is way more intense than by sating one that has been tame; therefore, it makes sense that we find perverse impulses irresistible (20).  But unbound sexual love comes into conflict with the interests of civilization.  Civilization restricts our sex life to focus our energy in more productive ways.  We start by curbing sexual appetites of children in order to prepare them for more restrictions later: 
“The sexually mature individual finds that his choice of object is restricted to the opposite sex, and that most extra-genital gratifications are forbidden as perversion.  The demand for a uniform sexual life for all, which is proclaimed in all these prohibitions, disregards all the disparities, innate and acquired, in the sexual constitution of human beings, thereby depriving fairly large numbers of sexual enjoyment and becoming a source of grave injustice.  The result of such restrictions might be that in normal persons…all sexual interest would flow, with no loss, into the channels still left open to it.  But what is not outlawed – heterosexual genital love – is still limited by legitimacy and monogamy. Present-day civilization makes it clear that it will permit sexual relations only on the basis of a unique and indissoluble bond between a man and a woman, that it disapproves of sexuality as a source of pleasure in its own right and will tolerate it only as the device – for which a substitute has still to be found – for the increase of mankind.  This is of course an extreme view, and it is known to have proved impracticable, even for quite short periods” (53).
Freud suggests that only the weak acquiesce to these restrictions, but even if we ignore them, they still affect us and prevent total pleasure.  But,  “Now and then one seems to realize that this is not just the pressure of civilization, but that something inherent in the function itself denies us total satisfaction and forces us on to other paths.  This may be wrong - it is hard to decide” (54).  Would we naturally repress our own sexual desires without a civilizing force?  He doesn’t discuss it further.  If we look at the Bonobos (NSFW) in the wild, they don’t repress anything sexual, and they manage their own form of civilization quite nicely.  Yet we seem to have some internal issues with anything unconventional.
“Man too is an animal with an unequivocally bisexual disposition….We are in the habit of saying that every human being exhibits both male and female impulses, needs and properties, but while anatomy can distinguish between male and female, psychology cannot….A further difficulty arises because erotic relations are so often associated with a degree of direct aggression…the love-object will not always be as understanding and tolerant as the farmer’s wife who complained that her husband no longer loved her because he had not beaten her for a week” (54).  Since being upright – “the sexual function has since been accompanied by an unaccountable repugnance, which prevents total gratification and deflects it from the sexual aim towards sublimations and displacements of the libido.…The genitals give off strong smells that are intolerable to many and spoil their enjoyment of sexual intercourse.”  However, in other cultures these odours are valuable sexual stimuli (55).
So, we have bisexual, homosexual, sado-masochism, non-monogamous, and/or “non-genital” bents that we’re repressing for the sake of the social order – or maybe for our own sake somehow.  We can imagine a state where we live with sexual freedom and shared work and interests, but it doesn’t exist. It seems that for the fulfillment of communal bonds, the restriction of sexual life becomes inevitable, but we can't figure out why: “Yet we lack any understanding of the necessity that forces civilization along this path and can account for its opposition to sexuality.  There must be a disturbing factor that we have not yet discovered” (57).  And the question becomes, Why does civilization necessarily oppose sexual freedom?  He doesn’t try to answer this even though it seems central to his thesis. 

I think we are more jealous than other creatures in such a way that if we have open sex it causes animosity that doesn’t exist in the rest of the animal kingdom, and it works against community to have a web of sexual relationships, so we like people to pair up.  If people are non-monogamous, instead of seeing the bounty available to us all, we see that Martha, our favourite, is getting with someone else tonight, and we want to kill them both because of it.  An unpartnered woman is a threat to this stability, able to destroy family cohesiveness, so she must be persuaded or coerced to partner up, or else is ostracized.  And I don't think our possessiveness over one another is going anywhere soon.  It's too useful to us even though it unnecessarily restricts us.  And I think it's partially because we know that if everyone is free to have sex with whomever they like all the time, it doesn't mean that anyone will want to have sex with me (or you).  So, because of the reality that some people will get left out of the game, we're more certain of rewards (sex) if we latch on to one person for the duration and do what it takes to keep them loyal to us.  But, really, that's not working either.  


On Aggression as a Natural Phenomenon

He uses game theory to show that living by the axioms, “love thy neighbour as thyself” and “love thine enemies” aren’t advantageous to the individual (57), and instead we should “love thy neighbour as thy neighbour loves thee” (59), which generally we do – except if our neighbour is much nicer than we are:
“Human beings are not gentle creatures in need of love, at most able to defend themselves if attacked; on the contrary, they can count a powerful share of aggression among their instinctual endowments. Hence their neighbour is not only a potential helper of sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to take out their aggression on him….since passions that derive from the drives are stronger than reasonable interests” (61)
Really I think that last line is the crux of all our problems – that our passions override our reason more than we’d like.  Plato said that a couple thousand years ago, but we still don't much listen.

Freud counters the communistic idea of sharing because, “it’s pointless to try to have equality among all men anyway because, “nature, by her highly unequal endowment of individuals with physical attributes and mental abilities, has introduced injustices that cannot be remedied” (63).  But more importantly, “with the abolition of private property the human love of aggression is robbed of one of its tools.”  We need private property in order for aggression to be distributed – in other words, if we make the crime of break and entering impossible by allowing everyone to own everything together, then we’ll end up with more rapes and murders.  Aggression has to have an outlet, and railing against stuff is a good one.  “Aggression was not created by property; it prevailed with almost no restriction in primitive times, when property was very scanty.  It already manifests itself in the nursery, where property has hardly given up its original anal form.”  And it’s good to have people cluster in smaller groups so they can use their aggression to keep out outsiders, and thereby be kinder to one another (64).  If you don’t believe in inborn aggressive drives, look at the extreme intolerance found in Christian groups towards outsiders (65).

I think it's an interesting proposition that we construct society such that there are minor aggressive outlets available so we don't get into major aggressive outbursts.  Maybe a riot is just a necessary explosion after years of societal repression.  It's catharsis.  And it could be argued that video games are saving us.  But I don't think so.  While I do agree that we all have inborn aggression (which was a new idea at the time and controversial for the masses who believed God created us to be good), I think we can safely re-direct our aggressive energy (sports, art, work, play) without later exploding.  We don't need to be harmful.  People who harm often just haven't found a non-violent outlet.  

Freud recognizes that civilization imposes sacrifices not only on sexuality, but also on aggression. The world’s held together by hunger and love.  “Hunger could be taken to represent those drives that seek to preserve the individual creature, whereas love strives after objects, and its chief function, favoured in every way by nature, is to preserve the species” (68).  And we’re back to the struggle between the individual and the civilization.  Restrictions provide us with more certainty of a longer life, but more frustration with our repressive society. It’s a good trade-off, but could we make it better?

“I can no longer understand how we could have ignored the ubiquity of non-erotic aggression and destruction and failed to accord it its due place in the interpretation of life” (72).   “The tendency to aggression is an original, autonomous disposition in man…it represents the greatest obstacle to civilization” (74)  We rejected the idea that we have a destructive drive for a while because we wanted to believe we were all created to be good and perfect.  It’s that whole problem of evil thing.  But if we can understand that there is no God, then there’s no conflict with the fact that we’re all born with a destructive drive.  It just is what it is. 


An Aside: a Comparison to Other Creatures

Freud suggests it’s curious that other creatures don’t show signs of cultural struggle (76), and he offers no solutions for this.  But I think some creatures distribute their functions in collective groups (bugs mainly) and others prefer isolation and just have to periodically fight for claims on their territory, but rarely to the death – a show of strength is often enough. But they live much shorter, more brutal lives without the restrictions of civilization.    

The problem we have with civilization, as I see it, is that we strive so hard for equality.  In collective groups, bugs will willingly die taking one for the team.  If we’re termites, nobody much minds that Joe was squashed.  We don’t rally around the injustice of it all and try to fight off larger creatures, and try to find a way to prevent that tragedy from ever happening again.  We just continue on with the jobs we’ve been naturally assigned from birth.  We wouldn’t compare and compete within our own group.  Frank wouldn’t care that Dave gets to boff the queen until he dies while Frank’s busy fixing up the place.  It’s a non-issue.  And animals that live in isolation just take what they need.  They have sex when they can, and eat when they can.  They don’t measure their territories and start a lawsuit because they have fewer square feet than their neighbour.  It just doesn’t matter to them that life isn’t perfectly fair.   Human beings are arrogant little sucks always worried about what we deserve and unable to be content with what we have even when we’ve got everything we need.  


But the struggle for equity is because we seem to be more aware of pain and suffering than most other creatures.  We have mirror neurons that make us suffer when we see others in pain.  That’s part of it.  We don’t want anyone to get hurt or die – pretty much ever.  But we also suffer if we aren’t near the top of the social hierarchy too (which runs counter to our struggle for equity) – and that’s an attitude we could easily change if we wanted to.   We have conflicting desires to be equal and to be the best.  But I digress…. 


On Inhibiting Aggression

Guilt.  When society externally punishes aggression, we internalize that in the super-ego, which often prevents us from acting out. “The tension between the stern super-ego and the ego that is subject to it is what we call a ‘sense of guilt’” this manifests itself as a need for punishment.   We naturally overcome aggression by setting up an internal authority generally co-related to societal restrictions.  It works because we fear loss of love (which will expose us to risks), and we have a belief in universal justice.  The beauty of the super-ego, and guilt, is that it punishes the thought of a misdeed – we feel bad even before we do anything bad whereas external authorities just punish the actual acts.  The severity of our super-ego (how much guilt we feel) has a societal co-relation, but not a paternal co-relation.  A severe dad doesn’t necessarily lead to a kid with a strong conscience, and a lenient upbringing can beget a stern conscience (85).  

He suggests that typically what happens is that, “a need generated by a drive acquires sufficient strength to prevail over a relatively weak conscience and achieve satisfaction; once satisfied, the need is naturally reduced, and the previous balance of forces is restored” (87).  So, when our aggressive and/or sexual drives make us do stupid stuff, when we feel remorse later (or during), that feeling helps it all balance out.  And he goes on to suggest remorse has Oedipal origins due to a love/hate relationship with the father, the first external authority (88).  Guilt is just a form of anxiety that happens to be useful to society (91). 

He ends with a statement that has comic-book appeal as he wonders if love can take up the fight against aggression:
“The fateful question for the human race seems to be whether, and to what extent, the development of its civilization will manage to overcome the disturbance of communal life caused by the human drive for aggression and self-destruction… Human beings have made such strides in controlling the forces of nature that, with the help of these forces, they will have no difficulty in exterminating one another, down to the last man.  They know this, and it is this knowledge that accounts for much of their present disquiet, unhappiness and anxiety. And now it is to be expected that the other of the two ‘heavenly powers’, immortal Eros, will try to assert himself in the struggle with his equally immortal adversary.  But who can foresee the outcome?” (106 - it's a really short book!)


In a Nutshell

Okay, he goes all over the place in this book, and doesn’t really follow a clear trajectory towards any useful conclusion – and he apologizes for that in the final chapter (“the author must beg his readers’ forgiveness for not being a more skillful guide”).  But I’ll attempt a summary:

Life is full of misery, not just externally, but internally because we each know we’re destructive and cruel.  We can be happiest if we avoid people and focus on productive work.  We think we want to get back to nature, but really civilization offers far less overall suffering and a longer life.  We think love will help, but it’s more trouble than it’s worth on an individual basis, and it seems watered down on a collective basis although it does help with the civilizing process.  We need to limit sex in order to be productive, but there’s no good reason to limit the variety of sexual activities available – which could increase our happiness.  The problem isn’t with sex, but that we’re all aggressive by nature.  Society needs to provoke guilt in order to keep people in line.  Either we’ll kill each other off, or, maybe, love will save the day after all. 

Something like that.  

9 comments:

  1. I came by here through Google searching sparknotes. This is a great summary. Thanks a lot!

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  2. thank you very helpful

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  3. great for my assignment lots of info thank you very much

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  4. whats the name of this book?? >marie snyder

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  5. It's called Civilization and Its Discontents. It's a short book, but dense.

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  6. Hey, thanks for the summary! Had to read this for philosophy. Chapters 7 and 8 were pretty interesting. Good work, Ms. Snyder.

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  7. A nice interpretation of a cumbersome text. Enjoyed it.

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