The Pathology of Postmodernity

“[W]e may expect,” Sigmund Freud wrote in Civilization and Its Discontents, first published in 1930, “that one day someone will venture upon . . . research into the pathology of civilized communities.”  This statement directly follows Freud’s suggestion that, if it is true that the evolution of a civilization proceeds similarly to that of an individual, it is possible that many civilizations and perhaps all of humanity suffer from collective neurosis induced by the pressures of “civilizing trends.”  According to the Viennese doctor, the fundamental problem, or “discontent,” of a civilization is the unrealistic demands it makes of the id, in particular Christian society’s command to love others as we love ourselves.  Though Freud recognized that this injunction is the strongest possible defense against innate human aggressiveness, he also considered it a demand that is impossible to meet, as well as “a superlative example of the unpsychological attitude of the cultural super-ego.”  Hence, he concluded that “the price of progress in civilization is paid in forfeiting happiness through the heightening of a sense of guilt.”  Humanity, Freud speculated, may only be unified by ceasing to trouble about the happiness of the individual citizens who compose it.

It is a measure of the nearly total...

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