Instinctual Scapegoat

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. ((Freud, Civilization & Die Weltanschauung, 1918)) 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” ((Freud, Civilization & Die Weltanschauung, 1918)) —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.” ((Freud, Civilization & Die Weltanschauung, 1918)) 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.


Freud: Civilization & Die Weltanschauung

Sigmund Freud was a controversial Austrian neurologist who is largely considered the founder of the psychoanalysis field of psychology. For this piece, Civilization & Die Weltanschauung, Freud diverts from the field of abnormal psych and the study of sexuality to write about the relationship between economics, civilization, philosophy, religion and science. Freud writes in 1918, around the end of the first World War.

It is clear that Freud is addressing an audience for this lecture, as he uses phrases such as “In an earlier lecture we have emphasized…”, beyond that Freud utilizes rhetoric skillfully to make his point, starting with the first sentence of the lecture in which he defines Weltanschauung,

 I mean an intellectual construction which gives a unified solution of all the problems of our existence in virtue of a comprehensive hypothesis, a construction, therefore, in which no question is left open and in which everything in which we are interested finds a place.

This definition can be applied to all of the topics on which he speaks. He, however, does not think that everything Weltanschauung applies to is created equal. Religion, he says, creates disastrous results by inhibiting thought, whereas he believes that reason/intellect are the human race’s best hope for the future. All of this culminates in Freud’s understanding of civilization and its evolution,  the struggle between death and the force that brings individuals together.

As an earlier poster pointed out, it is clear from Freud’s conclusion that he writes under the influence of war. In 1918 the Great War was coming to a close and Freud’s homeland of Austria was suffering massive losses. He was certainly not alone in seeking the meaning of the struggle between men.

Freud’s Weltanschauung

Sigmund Freud, known to college students everywhere for his ability to trace all human activity back to sex, published “Civilization and Die Weltanschauung” in 1918, near the end of World War I. While Freud never explicitly mentioned WWI in the excerpt discussed here, he did state that man’s natural inclination to aggression is one of the greatest impediments to civilization. The struggle between a number of contrasting factors, including the struggle between the instinct for life and the instinct for destruction (aggression) forms the evolution of human civilization, according to Freud.

Considering the time in which Freud wrote, and his references to Marxism, it seems impossible that Freud could have written on the topic of aggression without WWI influencing his thinking and writing to some extent. WWI provided a perfect example of the instinct for aggression (an unnecessary war and unnecessary loss of life) alongside an instinct for life (soldiers fighting to preserve their own lives and those of their countrymen and women). Freud also stated that the superiority of reason and intellect over other cultural forces, especially religion, provided the best hope for the future of civilization. He compared religion to neuroticism of the mind and saw it as an irrational, dangerous force. Whereas religion is divisive, in Freud’s mind, reason is unifying.

The early twentieth century was a time of great change, crisis, and rivalry in Europe. Religion and reason, life and aggression–these dichotomies explained die Weltanschauung of the time for Sigmund Freud.

Civilization and Die Weltanshauung

Three Points:

1) Weltanschauung offers a solution to all problems in existences by way of a comprehensive hypothesis and construction. That way, everything finds a place.

2) Religion is a negative influence on civilization, as it inhibits thought and exerts power over human emotions. Furthermore, religion is dismissed by Freud as outdated and ignorant.

3) Civilization progresses due to economic situations, and is comparable to an organic process. Evolution of civilization is brought on by the struggle for life of humans.

Two questions:

-Freud is highly opposed to both religion and destruction, believing that both inhibit thought and progress of civilization. Would civilization be best off without both of these things?

-Freud mentions that art and philosophy cannot be enemies to civilization. I think this point is controvertible. Can art and philosophy pose threats to society?

One observation:

Towards the end of his piece, Freud discusses the struggles that humankind is faced with. These struggles eventually aid in the progression of society. Freud writes of the struggle between life and destruction, and makes note of man’s natural tendency to be aggressive. Having written this either towards the end or directly following World War I, it seems that Freud must have been influenced by the extreme power of man’s aggression. He further explains that it is this aggression in men (which is expressed in war) opposes the development of civilization. He lived through a period of significant and powerful destruction in Europe, which led him to bring these points up.