As a disclaimer to this ambitious text, Freud prefaces his argument by stating that we are limited in how we can predict the future by how we perceive the present and the little we know about the past. That being said, there are two aspects of human civilization. The first is the way we attempt to control the forces of nature for our benefit. The second is how we control relations between each other.
Humans are generally hostile to civilization, which limits our powers of acquisition. Therefore, civilization must be defended against individuals. Leaders use coercion to curb human antisocial instincts. As much as we like to believe our great civilizations rested on the opposite, people are not inherently fond of work, and it is impossible to argue against someone’s passions. Early childhood experiences are crucial, because they train children to love civilization. The key to holding civilizations together, then, is not economics but psychology.
Freud introduces some key words here to explain how this is possible. The tactics of coercion used by leaders are considered the mental assets of a society. A societal regulation (i.e. a moral or a law) is a prohibition. The unsatisfied instincts resulting from prohibitions are frustrations. The condition produced when an individual experiences frustration due to prohibition is privation.
Through generations of conditioning, external prohibitions become internalized and part of the super-ego. This lends a certain degree of stability to a civilization, although a class revolt may be created by prohibitions that overly restrict the underprivileged classes, especially if they do not receive a big enough share of the wealth. Hostility to civilizations also manifests itself in this way when nations deal with one another.
Other pacifiers are cultural ideals in the form of art and science. Cultural ideals lead to a narcissistic satisfaction with civilization, even for the underprivileged, because they also have a share by merely belonging to that civilization.
The most important aspect of a culture’s collective psychology is its illusions, or religious ideas. Without necessary civilization to protect us from each other, we’d all be in a Hobbesian state of nature. Cruel nature still exists and inflicts unavoidable damage, though, in the form of fate and storms, earthquakes and typhoons. In an attempt to ease our anxiety, we have ascribed human characteristics to that part of nature we cannot control. Not only does this make our helplessness more tolerable, but it also gives us something to appease and bribe.
Our first gods were animals, but we quickly moved on to mother gods, as the mother-figure is the first to love us as children. Eventually, we switched to father gods and then one father god, as the father-figure soon proves stronger than the mother-figure in childhood.
As toddlers, we learn quickly that if we want love, we go to mom; if we want protection, we go to dad. Civilization has the same maturation process as a child.
The religious ides of a culture lend credibility to prohibitions, because they can be ascribed to god’s will. Despite deprivation, children and civilizations will suffer restrictions to please their father and god. The father-figure god also lends an element of fear to the relationship, thus ensuring prohibitions are more strongly adhered to.
The significance of a culture’s illusions is that the lack of credible proof causes psychological problems. Many defenses have sprung up to attempt to prove a god watching over us, but they all lack substance. Some examples are: Our ancestors believed; and, questioning faith is against religious doctrine. Wishes create illusions, and although wish-fulfillment as a means for creation doesn’t disprove the possibility of truth, it certainly doesn’t prove it, either. The fact that so many illogical defenses of religion exist must mean that many people’s beliefs are rather insecure.
Scientific influences have begun to replacereligious ideas as we learn more about how the world works. Freud suggests that those with no other moral checkpoints than laws could become dangerous if some other ideal does not take the place of religion before it is completely dismantled. Prohibitions against killing, for example, are still good even if they do not come from god. If prohibitions are understood as coming from men, they might more easily be improved upon than if thought divine.
Religion is like a cultural neurosis. Children experience the same neurosis when learning to suppress instincts for their own good. And Freud believes bright children would remain as inquisitive and intelligent as adults instead of becoming average if we taught them civic love and scientific reason instead of religion.
While Freud may be proposing a new illusion to be indoctrinated and perpetuated, he is certain it will lead to a state in which science can prevail. And science is no illusion.