Freud, “Civilization and the Individual” Discussion Notes
by Suzanne Ghais 1/24/11
Note: My citations are from the 2nd Edition

Freud makes an analogy from the individual psyche to society as a whole. He discusses ethics, including such principles as “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” as a kind of cultural superego attempting to control people’s innate tendencies towards aggression, just as the superego attempts to control the individual’s id through “strict ideal demands” (146). (Indeed, the individual superego and the cultural superego are linked.) This, however, is not successful, either in the individual or in civilization, since the superego does not take into account the happiness of the ego and it overestimates the extent to which the ego can control the impulses of the id. A better way to address societal aggression might be “a real change in relations of human beings to possessions” (147) (though he doesn’t say why).
If the individual might develop neurosis when faced with demands by the superego that the ego cannot fulfill, Freud suggests that perhaps civilization can be diagnosed with some kind of collective neurosis, and perhaps there even might emerge some kind of collective therapy. He cautions, however, against overdoing the analogy from individual to society. He concludes by pointing out the anxiety emerging from the ability of humanity to destroy itself, and wonders if Eros might ultimately prevail.
Choice quote:
“The commandment [to love thy neighbor as thyself] is impossible to fulfil; such an enormous inflation of love can only lower its value, not get rid of the difficulty. Civilization pays no attention to all this; it merely admonishes us that the harder it is to obey the precept the more meritorious it is to do so” (p. 147, emphasis added).
Discussion:
To what extent are the neuroses of civilization rooted in the Abrahamic (Judeo-Christian-Islamic) tradition? These religions share stark rules of right and wrong, enforced with promises of reward or punishment in the afterlife. This seems consistent with the “strict ideal demands” of ethics as the societal superego described by Freud. By contrast, in Buddhist thought, morality is cultivated through gentle yet assiduous training in overcoming greed and aversion and learning detachment. Instead of pronouncements about right and wrong, Buddhism emphasizes cultivating self-awareness of one’s attachments (to material things, to status, to ego, etc.), acknowledging the interconnectedness of all living beings, and following a lifelong path of spiritual improvement. Might this resemble the “change in relations of human beings to possessions” to which Freud refers? Do Buddhist societies display neuroses as in the West? (Am I romanticizing or idealizing Buddhism or its adherents?)