Some people seem to consider Sigmund Freud passé, others think him a joke. They think the first because he was, by anyone’s reckoning, a pioneer of scientific psychology and a whole lot of other work has since been done in the field. They think the second because all sorts of silly abuses have been perpetrated in his name. I am not convinced of everything I read in Freud, but I admit I find him profound and illuminating. Jeremiah said of the human heart that it is desperately wicked. Who can know it? Freud knew it better than most people.
In fact, it is Freud’s X-Ray vision aimed at human motivation that makes me believe in the doctrine of Original Sin, not the dubious proof-texting of St. Augustine or John Calvin (though they, too, were very brilliant). Freud showed how self-seeking we are even in our moments of greatest apparent altruism. He showed how thoroughly we rationalize behavior we know is wrong. Once one has read Freud, it becomes more difficult to deceive oneself with illusions of self-righteousness. And that is one of many good reasons to read him. I suggest beginning with his lucidly clear and fascinating book General Introduction to Psychoanalysis. It is great! It does not presuppose you’re already a specialist.
But what got me thinking about Freud recently is something he says with wider social relevance, something he says in his book Civilization and Its Discontents. Freud speculates that in the beginning of the human species, people lived pretty much like the Bonobo chimps do today. In other words, they just hung around eating and indiscriminately having sex. They were just simple-minded pleasure-seekers.
Civilization, however, could not get off the ground until early human beings began to rechannel some of that libido, that raw desire for pleasure, into socially constructive tasks and duties. Needful labors obviously included building or finding shelter, making fire, hunting for food, cultivating crops, tanning hides, and so on. There had to be labor and then division of labor, so we’re not all wasting time, each one of us having to reinvent the wheel on his own again and again. I don’t want to have to make my own shoes and do it badly; I’d rather you become an expert cobbler, and I’ll buy them from you. In this way, civilization develops.
The obsessive interest in sex and nakedness we see all around us today is a by-product of a very thorough re-channeling of the otherwise all-consuming sex-drive. We miss it because we are forced to be too busy with all manner of other social and job-related preoccupations. So we lust after sex as the forbidden fruit. This was especially clear in the first great era of pornography: the Victorian Era in England. (See Steven L. Marcus, The Other Victorians) People were so repressed that their efforts to let off steam issued in a fantastically elaborate shadow world of prostitutes and pornography, hellfire clubs and the like. We are talking about a pendulum swing, of course, where unhealthy repression gives rise to prurient obsession, and new repressive measures try to check such libertinism. The very hard trick is to learn where the middle is and to settle down there.
As a father, a patriot, and a church-goer, I look around me with regret at the society of youthful irresponsibility, Gen-X slackers aping the drug-taking stupidity of the Cheech-and-Chong 60s and 70s, zoning out on their Disc-Man players, plugged into Zombie Central. As a college professor, I have been appalled for years at the miserable communication and thinking skills of many if not most students. Their keen native intelligence is often buried beneath a hummus of ignorance their earlier education has done little to penetrate. Their values have been picked up from misbehaving politicians, rapist sports stars and half-naked rock divas.
One reason they are so badly off is that many of the so-called professionals in charge of their schooling are miserably inadequate to their duties. I will spare you more horror stories my daughters have groaningly shared with me from their Middle and High School classes and teachers.
I will say that they routinely mention how this or that kid in school is pregnant and/or on drugs, and that practically none of them have intact families. In a town of so many churches, I cannot see how such wholesale decadence is possible, except that it must, like Original Sin, have been transmitted generationally. The kids’ parents have as little clue as they do about what a successful marriage requires, since chances are they themselves rushed to the altar with a high school sweetheart without adequate preparation. Where do the kids get the drugs? Sometimes from their parents. At least many follow their parents’ examples.
A society like this is sliding down the path of least resistance toward the pre-civilized state of things described by Freud. If things continued this way, our society would eventually wind up as a vast pyramid with most people of all ages living parasitically as passive wards of the state, unable and unwilling to make any contribution to keep the whole enterprise going. They would find themselves ruled by the few self-disciplined people, who regarded self-control as a fair price to pay for power.
I don’t think we’re doomed to inevitably get to that point in a hand basket, so to speak. But it is advantageous to get a peek at where you’re headed in case you want to change direction. Here’s hoping we do!