In 1929 Sigmund Freud wrote Civilization and its Discontents. I first read this book in 1953. It was the last work I read aloud to my blind high school teacher, Mr. Cohen. It shaped my life in three ways. Freud begins with his criticism of organized religions. He feels religion is a transfer of a child’s fears allayed by a strong father as protector to a non-existent invented god who plays that role and to whom we can petition our desires for help by prayer. He said that his friend, Nobel laureate novelist Romain Rolland, chided him by saying surely he must have felt an “oceanic feeling” looking at the vastness of the universe which conveys a Creator’s presence. Sorry, Freud replied, he had no such feeling so it clearly wasn’t universal. I was struck by Freud’s integrity and I resonated to his claim because I had never experienced either such an oceanic feeling about the presence of some supernatural being. The second thing I was struck by, was Freud’s effort to understand why so many sexual themes occupied our lives. These can appear in doodles, in sudden thoughts that pop into our heads at inappropriate times, in Freudian slips, and in our responses to seeing other people (such as arousal). Freud was my introduction to the scientific effort to understand human sexuality. It was an interest that years later resulted in my book The 7 Sexes (2013) which is a history of how our ideas on sexuality -- anatomical, physiological, and behavioral, arose.
The third aspect was Freud’s introduction of the idea of sublimation. He argued that some people take the tensions brewing in their minds and use it in destructive ways—acting defensively, having paranoid-like interpretations of others, striking out in destructive or aggressive ways. If such feelings are sublimated in this way by national leaders it can lead to wars. But others who are psychologically struggling with their problems of insecurity, disappointment, or anger may sublimate their feelings into creative work. They may write books, compose music, paint masterpieces, designing magnificent architecture, carry out brilliant experimental or theoretical scientific work. In short—Freud argued that civilization which we admire is an outcome of the same psychic energy that drives us to self destructive or externally destructive activity. Freud felt a second world war was imminent and that the technology it would introduce could lead to mass destruction of humanity. His book is a plea for those studying human behavior to find the switches that can shunt discontents into that productive life-enriching direction of civilization instead of the destructive energies that we pour into destroying our enemies, real or imagined. I consider the book a masterpiece in the study of the human condition although I have doubts about the triune mind of ego, superego, and id that he proposed for our minds or about the Oedipal theory he proposed as a type of Lamarckian acquired characteristic from a primal horde of sons murdering their fathers. I benefitted from reading this work because I have found that switch in my head to turn disappointments into creative activity – teaching, writing, and pursuing scholarly activities. Instead of feeling “there but for the grace of God go I,” my response has always been, “thank you, Freud, for giving me the insight to sublimate defeat and failure into works that endure and contribute to our understanding of science”.