Great Books: Peter Brooks on Freud's "Civilization and its Discontents"


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We want to be happy, we want to get what we want, we want to love and be loved. But life, even when our basic needs are met, often makes us unhappy. You can't always get what you want, Freud noted in his 1930 short book, Civilization and its Discontents. Our desires are foiled not by bad luck, our failures, or the environment -- but by the civilization meant to make life better. So why isn't civilization set up to maximize our happiness and pleasure? Why does more civilization also mean more psychological suffering?

In his trenchant short book, Freud shows how culture is not the refinement of humanity but an effort to socialize everyone into a system that produces the types of "discontents" and "unease" which characterize modern existence.

I spoke with Peter Brooks, an expert on Freud who has taught at Yale, Harvard, Oxford, Stanford, the University of Virginia and other universities. He's authored many books, including: Troubling Confessions: Speaking Guilt in Law and Literature (2000), Psychoanalysis and Storytelling (1994), Reading for the Plot (1984), and, with Alex Woloch, Whose Freud? (2000). Professor Brooks linked Freud's Civilization and its Discontents to the earlier Thoughts for the Times on War and Death where Freud noticed that the veneer of civilized behavior was thin indeed, and that within months of the beginning of World War I people who had co-existed peacefully were capable of inflicting the most gruesome violence on their neighbors.

I asked him: if civilization and progress inevitably leads to more psychological suffering, what's our way out?

Uli Baer is a professor at New York University. He is also the host of the excellent podcast "Think About It"

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226 episodes