Tag Archives: christopher hitchens

Civilization and Its Discontents

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud, with an introduction by Christopher Hitchens.

Civilization and Its Discontents presents itself as a direct sequel to Freud’s Future of an Illusion. Where the earlier text was chiefly concerned with the irrational adherence to religious ideas, this one starts out inquiring into the “deepest sources of religious feeling” (9), what might in more sympathetic hands be termed the psychology of mysticism. In section II of the essay, Freud at first tries to relate such sources to the chief means of palliating life’s suffering: i.e. “powerful diversions of interest, … substitutive gratifications, … and intoxicating substances” (10), which three may be taken as another iteration of the chief Platonic frenzies (dropping the Muses as was done by Ficino and his successors): oracular, erotic, and mantic. (In the writings of Aleister Crowley these become the musical, sexual, and pharmaceutical methods of inspiring ecstasy.) At the end of this section, Freud seems to imply that a chief function of religion is to guard against the abusive individual indulgence in the frenzies, and to supply a deferred substitute in the form of metaphysical guarantees. (As Crowley wrote, “No religion has failed hitherto by not promising enough; the present breaking up of all religions is due to the fact that people have asked to see the securities.”)

In the third of the essay’s eight sections, Freud pivots to concentrate on the business indicated by its title. He begins to explore the tensions between individual gratification on one hand and social growth and welfare on the other. In particular, he focuses at first on the occasional hostility toward cultural development as such, and the idealization of a pre-lapsarian state. As the discussion continues on to the etiology of culture generally, it becomes distinctly androcentric (“Women represent the interests of the family and sexual life; the work of civilization has become more and more men’s business,” 33) and culminates with a presentation of 1930s family life and sexual discipline that seems positively Victorian in the most pejorative sense of the term.

Returning to religion, Freud identifies the social instrumentality of the religious “love of neighbor,” as well as the insupportable demands that it makes of individuals. This context is the one in which he develops an outline of the conflict between Eros and Thanatos, the life-instinct and the death-instinct. The instinctual bind is what he then hypothesizes as the motive force in the development of the super-ego (i.e. conscience) in the individual.

In the closing passages, the idea of the super-ego of a community or of “an epoch of civilization” is introduced, and Freud proposes that such super-egos take their particular forms in reaction to perceived human figures, such as Jesus bestowing the “love of neighbor” fixation on the collective super-ego of Christian culture. The possibility to personify such a collective psychic function makes it provocatively similar to the “Aeon” as used in Thelemic parlance, especially when Freud posits the derangement and replacement of such a super-ego. And in this final section, while disclaiming “any opinion regarding the value of human civilization” (70), he does seem to come full circle to the critique of culture, suggesting that the survival of humanity itself may be dependent on the arrival at a new covenant between Eros and Thanatos at the collective level. [via]

Havel’s ‘Respect for Mystery’ versus the Techno-Gnostics

Havel’s ‘Respect for Mystery’ versus the Techno-Gnostics” by Joseph P. Duggan is a recent post over at The American Spectator which discusses a modern ‘techno-gnosticism’ while imagining a scene at the pearly gates made possible by the recent synchronous deaths of Václav Havel, Christopher Hitchens and Kim Jong-Il. This article is ostensibly about one of the people I’ve personally considered one of the great modern minds, and a definite influence for me, but I think it also has value for those interested in “scientific illuminism” as a potential warning to avoid a scientific attitude, or scientism, or techno-gnosticism, or, if you allow, a scientific management of humanity; that devolves into merely another superstition or fails to be life affirming or supportive of the overall human experience, or ignores illuminism.

“Most recently, this conscientious thinker was preoccupied with a disorder of the mind and soul as old as Descartes, vexing contemporary civilization no less today than it did during the Communist era. This is a mindset I call ‘techno-gnosticism,’ more or less the same ideology of scientism that Walker Percy and Neil Postman eloquently criticized. Among the consequences of this mindset are the global financial crisis and the collapse of post-Communist hopes for a ‘Europe whole and free’ into the reality of a Europe fractured and bankrupt.

One of Havel’s final testaments was his lecture at the Prague Forum in October 2010. He lamented ‘the swollen self-consciousness of this civilization, whose basic attributes include the supercilious idea that we know everything and what we don’t yet know we’ll soon find out, because we know how to go about it. We are convinced that this supposed omniscience of ours which proclaims the staggering progress of science and technology and rational knowledge in general, permits us to serve anything that is demonstrably useful.’

With an intimation of immortality, Havel observed: ‘With the cult of measurable profit, proven progress and visible usefulness, there disappears respect for mystery and along with it humble reverence for everything we shall never measure and know, not to mention the vexed question of the infinite and eternal, which were until recently the most important horizons of our actions.’

Who can say God lacks a sense of humor? Not the honest searcher Havel, sometimes agnostic but always a friend to religious believers. He finds himself in the queue in the celestial waiting room on the same day as atheist gnostic know-it-all Kim Jong-Il. If St. Peter likes a good laugh, he will grant Christopher Hitchens credentials to report on the scene for media fleeter than Fleet Street’s.” [via]

“Deep in reflection in the city that gave us Kafka and the Golem, Havel said at the 2010 Prague Forum: ‘I regard the recent crisis as a very small and very inconspicuous call to humility. A small and inconspicuous challenge for us not to take everything automatically for granted. Strange things are happening and will happen. Not to bring oneself to admit it is the path to hell. Strangeness, unnaturalness, mystery, inconceivability have been shifted out of the world of serious thought into the dubious closets of suspicious people. Until they are released and allowed to return to our minds things will not go well.'” [via]

“Two decades ago, Neil Postman saw things going not well at all. In his book Technopoly he described the metastasis of technology’s relationship to man from usefulness to power (technocracy), thence to a sort of totalitarian monopoly of the mind (technopoly).

Postman dissected scientism and technopoly into three ideological components. First is the idea that “the methods of the natural sciences can be applied to the study of human behavior.’ Second is that ‘social science generates specific principles which can be used to organize society on a rational and humane basis.’ The final pillar of technopoly is that ‘faith in science can serve as a comprehensive belief system that gives meaning to life, as well as a sense of well-being, morality, and even immortality.'” [via]