It is hardly surprising the Freud, so profoundly the investigator of the individual mind and of individual needs, would have issues with civilization and the demands of any society. His emphasis is invariably on the personal, and his groundbreaking work explores the innermost drives – and demons – of the human psyche as it seeks to achieve contentment. Consequently, the framework of a society, removed from such primal elements and dedicated to the many, must be problematic for him. It is nonetheless important to note how these issues of Freud go to the most essential concerns of humanity. In probing the relationship between individual need and civilization, Freud present a powerful case for how the latter inevitably frustrates and perverts the most natural drives of men and women.

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In broad terms, Freud is incapable of accepting that civilization and individual contentment may be reconciled, simply because they are each based on interests inherently in opposition to one another. This is not a rationale casually presented; Freud, in more precisely the natures of the ego, super-ego, and id, addresses aspects of them which I fact conform to social needs and do not necessarily create the tension at the heart of his argument. For example, he observes that there is an interaction between two trends which may be seen as promoting happiness for the individual within the civilization: the egoistic drive for personal contentment, and the altruistic ambition to be of service to others and to merge within a larger community. This relationship itself, however, is generated by the ego, that most topical component in Freud’s structure of the psyche, just as the altruistic drive is to him not deeply rooted. The relationship is then precarious at best because: “neither of these descriptions goes far beneath the surface” (Freud 134). Freud fully acknowledges social man, which then encourages the idea of civilization. Nonetheless, this quality of mankind is also not powerful enough to sustain the suppression of the super-ego and id, which demand expression of primal drives and consequently cannot comply with the needs of a civilization. If civilizations are created and maintained, they are for Freud inevitably fragile because they intrinsically deny the self.

The human animal in Freud is, above all, directed by a variety of primal drives. In the psyche this is the id, and it is not easily or naturally suppressed. Herein lie, and from birth, the assortment of the most natural of impulses common to all human beings. Violence, for example, typically classified by civilization as a destructive force to be countered and punished, is for Freud an extension of natural human aggression. He does not view aggression in social terms, but only in psychological ones, and he asserts that this impulse is intrinsic to human existence and therefore antithetical to society. The same is true of the sex drive, and it is interesting how Freud applies this to civilization. He does not perceive is suppressed as aggression is, but rather refocused. Not unexpectedly, sexuality is in fact at the center of Freud’s range of issues with civilization, and he provides a basic outline of how the sexual drives of each gender are in a sense frustrated by the demands of a society, and to the extent of creating an unnatural order. Men, he determines, must focus the greater part of their energies on what a civilization requires to be successful. They are compelled to associate with men, which disrupts – and voluntarily, to a large degree – the more natural and sexualized disposition of their energies. Their natural instincts are sublimated by the urgency of civilization, and their libidos are directed toward it; this then is antithetical to the primal interests of women, centered upon family and sexuality, so women develop hostile feelings towards the civilization (Freud 73). Sexual desires, then, reflective of the most primal impulses, are channeled in unnatural directions for the well-being of the society.

All of this goes to a general restriction of essential and individual freedoms of the individual, and a restriction creating inevitable tension because these freedoms are in fact primal needs. For Freud, civilization and human drives must be utterly irreconcilable. At the same time, he notes how civilization typically proceeds to assert its own needs in ways assisting its own survival in this contest. For example, religion, so strongly an element in a civilization’s structure, places critical boundaries of the degrees of choice and expression an individual would otherwise exercise. It creates a template of sameness in which all actions, generally prompted by primal drives and often equating to sin, are categorized. Religion sets forth a framework for all in regard to how happiness may be achieved and suffering may be prevented (42). It cannot allow for individual expression or interpretation of acts in a moral sense because this would sanction an unlimited range of expressive possibilities. When, in other words, there is a moral structure in place as religion provides, primal drives are given distinct identities as elements within the civilization and usually dangerous to it. Classification then actually eviscerates the force of the drives, civilization is enabled and, for Freud, an unnatural and tense state of being is enacted. It is an “arms race” between the natural and individual, and the social, and it is for Freud perpetually unnatural.

The Freud canon is centered on human impulses as visceral and unquestionably demanding. The id is the core, composed of the aggressive and sexual tendencies marking each individual as such, no matter how the ego and super-ego somewhat ameliorate this force in a largely communal world. Civilization, conversely, is a construct, and one demanding a suppression and/or restriction of all such natural forces. For Freud, the conflict is unequal: “The passions of instinct are stronger than reasoned interests” (86). Nonetheless, civilization has its own defenses, such as religion, and the conflict is then perpetuated. No matter the state of the tension, however, it must be acknowledged that Freud presents a compelling case for how the demands of a civilization inevitably frustrate and pervert the most natural drives of men and women.