Miserable and Unhappy Civilizations

21 April 2011


In my post From Neurotic Misery to Ordinary Human Unhappiness I cited Freud’s famous quote on this latter transition being the goal of psychoanalysis:

“…much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness. With a mental life that has been restored to health, you will be better armed against that unhappiness.”

Sigmund Freud, Studies in Hysteria, translated and edited by James Strachey

I further went on to comment, “Not only individuals but also entire societies can be transformed from the neurotic misery of compulsive ritual into a state of common unhappiness.” This is theme well worth following up on. I’m not going to attempt anything like a full exposition of this at the present moment, but I have a few comments I can make short of a full exposition.

Unhappiness is no piece of cake, but it beats neurotic misery.

Freud, being the doctor that he was, began by focusing on specific and particular pathologies that he attempted to cure — mental pathologies being, essentially, an extension and generalization from physical pathologies. Later in his career he maintained the same attitude but generalized his effort to take into account particular pathologies of whole societies and civilizations. Thus the psychoanalytic conception of civilization that one finds in Freud’s later works like The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and its Discontents constitutes a generalization of the psychoanalytical approach that Freud brought to the treatment of individual patients. In Freud’s final writings, the patient is civilization itself.

This focus on addressing particular pathologies is more significant than it sounds at first (who would not want to cure particular problems?), and we can gain a better appreciation for the carefully constructive character of Freudian methodology if we compare Freud to, for example, Abraham Maslow.

Abraham Harold Maslow, 01 April 1908 to 08 June 1970

Maslow’s humanistic psychology comes across as consciously and systematically trying to formulate a comprehensive psychology in opposition to Freud. What I mean by “opposition to Freud” is that Maslow’s doctrines (which he conveniently sums up in the final chapter of Toward a Psychology of Being, and which I urge the reader to consult) carefully avoid central Freudian doctrines and seem to focus without exception on what we might call the “positive” aspects of human psychology. Maslow is very ready to admit human limitations and failings, but his own failing seems to me to be a mis-reading of Freud.

Freud and psychoanalysis have been commonly derided for a “negative” approach to the study of the mind. Freud himself rejected this characterization. In the very last of his New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, he has a wonderful chapter on the place of psychoanalysis within science and the scientific world-view, in which he defends psychoanalysis as having extended scientific research to the realm of the mind. But the psychodynamic model of the mind in Freud’s hands gives a great deal of attention to the ways in which people misunderstand themselves. These failures of self-understanding, so crucial to the psychoanalytical conception of the mind, seem almost absent in Maslow, and Maslow seems (according to my reading) to be avoiding this merely for the sake of rejecting Freud and formulating a “positive” model of the mind.

This situation is closely parallel to the vogue that existentialist philosophy had in the 1950s and 1960s. It was thought to be an entirely “negative” philosophy, concerned with guilt, dread, anxiety, and death, and was widely believed to be a consequence of the German occupation of France during the Second World War, as reflected in the resentful minds of French intellectuals. Many people felt justified in rejecting existentialism on these grounds (essentially because they saw it as detrimental to human happiness), even if they knew nothing in detail about existentialism and its doctrines.

Sartre, the most famous of the existentialists, rejected the characterization of existentialism as anything negative, and publicly stated that he regarded it as the most optimistic of philosophies because it affirms human freedom (and in this I concur). Sartre also had an interest in psychoanalysis, and formulated his own psychoanalytic doctrines, in which self-deception has a central role. As different as Freud and Sartre were, they both recognized the role that self-deception plays in the functions of the mind, and it is the utter neglect of this important insight which seems to me to vitiate, or at least seriously weaken, Maslow’s attempt to formulate a “third way” in psychology.

Part of the difference between Freud’s approach and Maslow’s approach may be put to the obvious reason that Freud was seeking treatments for serious mental pathologies, while Maslow was trying to describe a healthy, fully-functional human being. But this is only part of the difference. Another part of the difference must be put to Maslow’s reactionary reading of Freud. In this context, however, in the context of diagnosing the ills of entire societies and civilizations, it is the former difference that interests us. We see immediately that the Maslovian generalization is Utopianism: describing a healthy, fully-functional civilization, whereas the Freudian generalization is to seek out particular pathologies in civilization and to address them in their specificity.

From a Freudian point of view, a healthy and functional civilization would be a civilization purged of neuroses and illusions. Such a civilization might well be an unhappy civilization, but in the same pragmatic spirit exemplified in the saying that “half a loaf is better than none,” an unhappy civilization is better than and preferable to a civilization held in the grip of neurotic misery. How are we to understand civilization in the grip of neurotic misery? Think of Europe during the Thirty Years’ War, a period of inter-communal religious strife also marked by a widespread witchcraze that claimed the lives of countless thousands: the experience of the Thirty Years War was so devastating that the emergence of the Enlightenment came about in part as a reaction of revulsion against the excesses of the previous age.

A Maslovian approach to civilization would presumably focus on the self-actualization of civilizations and filling out the pyramid of needs in such a way as to make this self-actualization possible. As I noted above, Maslow seems to go out of his way to avoid addressing the “negative” side of the human condition, and when one reads of Maslow’s pyramid of needs one gets the definite impression that an individual who has achieved self-actualization is probably happy, or pretty near to being happy. One gets no such similar assurance in reading the theories of Freud, and indeed despite the differences that recent evolutionary psychologists highlight between themselves and the psychoanalytic tradition, they have this disinterest in happiness (or, at least, the realization of its rarity in the life of man) very much in common.

Maslow's Pyramid of Needs, from Wikipedia

I have many times in this forum called attention to the tendency of utopian projects to culminate in unintended dystopian consequences. I think that a Utopian conception of the mind, focused on the self-actualization of all that is most admirable in human nature and the human condition, is probably vulnerable to this same weakness. While it sounds very pleasant to extrapolate from what it best in human nature to some possible better condition, this is the perennial Utopian project — though here in the context of the individual, seen in miniature and in isolation — and we know that the perennial Utopian project goes perennial wrong. A Utopian theory of mind is likely to result in dystopian consequences. I know that Maslow never addressed anything so far-flung as this, but this seems to me to be clearly implicit in his general outlook. So Maslow can’t be blamed for my extrapolation of his views, but by the same token I can’t be blamed for drawing this obvious conclusions.

I will content myself with one more observation today. As Freud generalizes his project, from the individual upwards to larger social structures, he is essentially moving up through the levels of ecological systems theory. With the psychoanalytical theory of mind, Freud is working at the level of the individual, which is the micro-system. Freud also considers the social context that produces neuroses, and this is the level of meso-systems. When in his later career Freud goes on to consider entire societies and then civilizations, he is essentially moving on to applying the same psychoanalytic principles to social exo-systems and macro-systems. The next step beyond Freud, then, is to extrapolate psychoanalytic principles to the level of what I have called the metaphysical system, at which point one would be engaged in an ontological psychiatry addressing the particular pathologies of being itself. This is a very suggestive idea, and if I can find a way to develop it fruitfully, I will return to it.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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