The turn of the twentieth century saw the end of the Victorian Era in Europe, and the disciplines of literature, natural science, philosophy, and psychology spearheaded a backlash against formerly dominant middle class ideals. The psychologists Ivan Pavlov and Sigmund Freud studied conditioned reflexes and human instinct, bringing into question mans’ own agency, and thus his ability to marshal infinite progress. Freud’s “Civilization and Die Weltanschauung” was written in the waning days of World War I in 1918. The piece, much like the world at that time, sought peaceful rationality in the wake of violent chaos. According to Freud, the biggest threat to man’s intellect was religion, which both inhibited thought and threatened the objectivity of science. Religion seeks control over the “sensory world,” just as science does, but religion employs the “wish-world” within each person to harness this control.1 Man should remain faithful to reason rather than religion, Freud asserted, because “reason—is among the forces which may be expected to exert a unifying influence upon men”2 —an attractive prospect for those who had witnessed four years of bloody war.
The influence of World War I is further seen in Freud’s work through his discussion of human aggression. Freud claimed that man is naturally aggressive and that this aggression is the biggest impediment to the evolution of civilization. His emphasis on instinct is not surprising given the context of his writing; attributing the horrors of World War I to an instinctual element of man was easier than blaming moral failings and poor decisions. Freud ends his piece with the statement: “evolution of civilization may therefore be simply described as the struggle for life of the human species.”3 Freud himself had just witnessed conflict that feasibly could have actualized the extinction of the human species and his explanation for this conflict was the inescapable aggression of man.