Socrates’ Reaction to Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents Essay

Socrates’ Reaction to Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents

            Some characteristics of man have remained unchanged over the centuries; Freud laments that in his time “(p)eople commonly use false standards of measurement—that they seek power, success and wealth for themselves and admire them in others, and that they underestimate what is of true value in life” (Freud 35). I agree with Freud and have had similar thoughts about the sophists. Unfortunately Freud does not seem to agree with my position on the ultimate value: virtue is knowledge.  Perhaps I could convince him otherwise in a friendly dialectic.

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            Freud posits a fascinating concept: “in mental life nothing which has once been formed can perish—that everything is somehow preserved and that in suitable circumstances…it can once more be brought to light” (42). Then he would agree with me on the importance of teaching virtue to young students—even if they were later to accede to corruption or incontinence, they could later be redeemed when their virtue was restored. Virtue can only be laid on a foundation of continence. A man continent in all things will find happiness in his life, not, as Freud suggests, as a result of some “pleasure principle” (40).

            As friend Xenophon has no doubt related, I have been accused of and condemned to death because of what many said was my impiety—many claimed I had no belief in our gods. (Strauss 23). Nothing could be further from the truth, and I take great issue with Freud’s claim that “(t)he derivation of religious needs from the infant’s helplessness and the longing for the father…(is) incontrovertible” (Freud 47). He is placing himself above the gods; he claims “(t)he religions of mankind must be classed among the mass-delusions of this kind. No one, needless to say, who shares a delusion ever recognizes it as such” (60). He will of course see the fallacy of his argument on perception: if he comes to believe that a belief in religion or deity is a delusion, and improvable, why is his belief less delusional as it is equally improvable?

            I find it very difficult to believe a man of Freud’s intelligence would believe that “(t)here is no golden rule which applies to everyone: every man must find out for himself in what particular fashion he can be saved” (63). He must live in terrible times. Certainly we will all follow our individual path, but it is a unique path often influenced by others. Those unique paths can lead to shared destinations: wisdom, continence, virtue, and “good and the beautiful or noble things” (Strauss 81). There is nothing in my knowledge—and likely Freud’s—to indicate every man is capable of taking such a path, or of following a “golden rule”.

            There is shallowness to Freud’s philosophy beyond my comprehension. He is unable to accept the concepts of “(t)hou shalt love they neighbor as thyself” (Freud 100) and “(l)ove thine enemies” (102). He cannot let his concept and concerns for “aggressiveness” (103) become his excuse, unless the aggressiveness is within him. He cannot explain, at least to my satisfaction, where there is danger to the individual to treat someone as they would want reciprocated. He fails to grasp the importance of forgiveness or the transformation from enemy to friend brought about by love.

            I agree with Freud that aggression is detrimental to civilization as I suppose we both define it: “man’s natural aggressive instinct, the hostility of each against all and of all against each, opposes this programme of civilization” (119). I should know better than he, having been condemned to death by a very aggressive jury, although his flight from the anti-Jewish sentiments of his Germany carries the sentiment quite well. However Freud tends to imply this condition will always exist to hinder the development of “civilization”. Perhaps he is mindful of the concept of Utopia relished by some of my peers. The answer will lie somewhere in the middle: civilized man will guard equally against the too-easily-attained violent society in chaos as well as the impossible-to-attain myth of Utopia. Hopefully Freud was not being sarcastic when he suggested we “will be well advised, on some suitable occasion, to make a low bow to the deeply moral nature of mankind; it will help us to be generally popular and much will be forgiven us for it”(116).

I can also understand and appreciate his concepts of a “death instinct” (114) and guilt. (121) The self-destructive nature of man, as well as the sense of remorse for destructive behavior will be an eternal foundation for theatrical as well as real drama. Another concept of civilization is the requirement of moral leadership, what Freud refers to as a “cultural super-ego”: “the impression left behind by the personalities of great leaders—men of overwhelming force of mind or men in whom one of the human impulsions has found its strongest and purest, and therefore often it’s most one-sided expression” (149). It is true, as he claims, that often these men are held to ridicule and condemned in their own time—I modestly believe I am an example—but I take comfort in knowing my work will be recorded and exist beyond my lifetime for the scrutiny of  history. Hopefully history will be recorded with the clarity he gives to the mind; once recorded, it can be brought back and built upon. After all, not even the Nazis of your era could deter, much less destroy civilization.

Sigmund Freud’s Critique of Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount

  My Jewish heritage may be at the root of my feelings as I stated in Civilization and its Discontents: “(t)he most arresting example of this fateful conjunction (of a cultural super-ego) is to be seen in the figure of Jesus Christ—if, indeed, that figure is not a part of mythology, which called it into being from an obscure memory of that primal event” (149). For the sake of this argument, I will assume you exist, and the precepts you allegedly gave to your followers were dutifully recorded. Unfortunately, your thoughts have become a religion. I had a dear friend who related a “sensation of eternity” an “oceanic” feeling that is “the source of the religious energy which is seized upon by the various Churches and religious systems…” (36). Fortunately I am a scientist: “I cannot discover this ‘oceanic’ feeling in myself. It is not easy to deal scientifically with feelings” (36). Fortunately, I am immune to “the mass-delusions” of “the religions of mankind” (60). That is not to say your epistle is without some measure of value.

Perhaps I am one of the “false prophets” you warn about; to this I say I speak the truth as I know it and see no value in lying. Conversely, if your words are not clearly false, they have and will mislead millions of people through the ages into the destruction of others or the surrender and subjugation of themselves. What exactly do the meek inherit? What benefit accrues from being “righteously” persecuted? Victimization is not “holy” anymore than self-destruction. The Beatitudes’ instructions for the merciful, the pure of heart and the peacemakers are perfect for a perfect world. But, if this was a perfect world, those words would not be necessary and in an imperfect world those words are scarcely relevant.

Take for example your “golden rule”: “(t)herefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Gospel of St. Matthew, 7:12) This is absurd: “(w)hat is the point of a precept enunciated with so much solemnity if its fulfillment cannot be recommended as reasonable?” (101). You are completely ignorant of the reality of man; as I succinctly and scientifically stated:

The element of truth behind all this, which people are so ready to disavow, is that mean are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness…to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus. Who, in the face of all his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion? (104)

            It seems as though your own acolytes forgot your gold-plated rule, as well as your admonition to embrace your enemies and refrain from judgment of others. Were the Crusaders somehow exempt? Did the Jesuits get a faulty copy of your instructions when they set The Spanish Inquisition loose upon the innocents? I stated earlier, and I state again, “(w)hen 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” (108).

            Your words provide an excellent expository refinement of The Old Testament, which begs the question if it was followed as the Word of God, why does it need to be embellished, and if it was not followed as the Word of God, there is no reason to think this version would be heeded either. Murder, adultery, divorce, and revenge will always be with us and cannot be made to disappear by threat of damnation. As a psychiatrist I know one of the greatest maladies man can bring upon himself is guilt—and that does little, if anything to prevent uncivilized or murderous behavior.

            You and your Sermons have provided what I refer to as a great cultural super-ego. As the super-ego operates constantly within the individual, the cultural super-ego “monitors” society. “Another point of agreement between the cultural and the individual super-ego is that the former, just like the latter, sets up strict ideal demands, disobedience to which is visited with ‘fear of conscience’” (149). Yet from the time of the recording of your Sermon, history has noted century after century of human death and suffering. There is no reason to think history would have been any different had your words not been recorded. Aggression and self-destruction are human instincts, charity and forgiveness are not. You closed your work with reference to the Kingdom of Heaven, I closed mine with reference to the coming of World War II and the Holocaust. Millions wish your Sermon had made my reference unnecessary.

Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and its Discontents. New York: Norton & Company, 2005.

Strauss, Leo. Xenophon’s Socrates. South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 1998.