Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea's throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
-T. S. Eliot


Sigmund Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents

Though I had not read Civilization and Its Discontents before this week, I was vaguely familiar with it because this text has been referenced incessantly throughout my undergraduate career. It comes up during discussions of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, Shakespeare's Hamlet, literary critical theory classes, and discussions of philosophy. I even taught a class session last spring on Freudian influence in the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Did I speak authoritatively on Freud's arguments? Yes. Had I actually read more than a paragraph that was actually written by Freud? No. 

That's what education can do to you if you're not careful: suddenly you're being lectured by a student who met with a teacher who had a class in grad school taught by a professor who read a book written by someone who read Freud. This is not the main reason, but this is a huge reason I value the classical education I have received. My teachers don't simply ask me to dip my toes in the water; they take me to the place where the rock has split open and ask me to stand beneath the falls. 
All that to say, I was very glad to be finally turning the pages that the man himself wrote rather than just throwing around words like "Id" and "Superego" like I knew exactly what I was talking about. 

Here's what I ended up thinking about most: how does what Freud calls happiness line up with how other philosophers define it?

The Declaration of Independence comes to mind, which I studied last spring. There we are told that a man's unalienable rights are "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," thus making happiness something to be freely sought on an individual basis so long as it does not interfere with another man's rights. But Freud makes it plain that he has little respect or patience for America (in Section 5 he states that "the present cultural state of America would give us a good opportunity for studying the damage to civilization which is thus to be feared.").  That makes me think that Freud is not thinking of American ideology when he discusses happiness.

Interestingly enough, I have been reading Plato's Phaedrus for a different class this semester. In that text, Socrates explains to Phaedrus the myth of the soul, and that each soul is made up of a charioteer who is driving one good white horse and one ill-behaved black horse. Starting to sound familiar? As I read Freud this week, Plato's ordering of the soul kept reminding me of what Freud has to say about the relationship between the Id, Ego, and Superego.

The distinctions that I draw between these two three-part souls is this: while both souls have happiness as their goal, Freud's soul can only find happiness that is available through physical pleasure in the temporal world. While Plato acknowledges that there is happiness to be had on earth, the Platonic soul is seeking a happiness that will largely come in the afterlife, where each soul struggles to become more like a god. For Freud, the body is the receptacle through which we are able to experience pleasure and thus have happiness; for Plato, the body is an obstacle which interferes with the soul's pursuit of higher happiness by demanding lesser physical pleasures.

Another important distinction seems to be that while Freud recognizes the interaction between the Id, Ego and Superego as a constant war between the conscious, the subconscious, and shame, Plato claims that the soul must exist in perfect harmony among all three parts in order to be truly happy. This requires that the rational, the spirited, and the appetitive impulses of the soul must all be kept in a delicately perfect balance, which enhances the happiness a soul is able to experience. Freud, then, believes that the soul (or internal human process) is one that is defined by war, while Plato sees the ideal soul existing in peace. 

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