Freud in Civilization and its discontents is pessimistic of the human condition in essence. His account of society is that most people follow the simple programme of the pleasure principle as a means for deriving meaning in life. Further, in Freuds view the ‘intention that man should be ‘happy has no part in the plan of creation’ but merely is an ‘episodic phenomenon’ that requires the universe to be tailored to your needs. However, Freud does not discount pleasure as something futile but recognises that the satisfaction of the ‘drives’ can be rewarding all the while understanding that such an ephemeral phenomenon like pleasure cannot be the sole basis for a meaningful and happy existence. Equally, looking at the state of western, consumer capitalism, there is no surprise such an agenda for meaning has been pushed. Namely, Coca Cola’s ‘choose happiness’ or Johnnie Walkers ‘Joy will take you further campaign’ have both played a part in the collective distortion that pleasure does simply equal happiness.
What this clears up is that pleasure is a fleeting, ephemeral form of joy that we can distinguish from happiness. However, once we admit this, many more possibilities arise that are not as closely related to the pleasure principle. Freud even offers a useful example of engaging in creative and intellectual pursuits, this is primarily because it is an endeavour that is stretched out over much time that cannot be achieved instantaneously and thus delays the gratification of pleasure. This is certainly a wiser pursuit than hedonism.
Yet, the reason why I have taken an interest in Freuds civilization and its discontents is not due to his own thesis’ on what makes for a good life but because of his excellent point made about the current state of wellbeing for many in the developed world. There is seemingly a great rise in living conditions and abundance(see: OurWorldInData), yet modernity seems to be malnourished when it comes to what accounts for a good life. This is not to say that many aspects of medical and technological progress have not improved our lives, they definitely have, but rather that there are crucial aspects of the past in which the developed world is lacking. Namely, Hegel states in the phenomenology of spirit that each epoch has had wise and important insights into the nature of experience. My goal is to recover these aspects of the past to inform individuals on how certain aspects of culture, thought and phenomenology certain communities in history fostered, can be useful tools of knowledge to live better in the present. Future posts will be aimed at addressing this through thought, art and film, as well as music.