How does Freud define love in Civilization and Its Discontents?

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Sigmund Freud discussed “love” in a number of contexts, including “parental love,” “sexual love,” and love as a mechanism by which people seek an escape from pain.  And, of course, he discussed love in a manner that transcended these boundaries, and for which he is best known in popular culture.  The essence of his treatment of the subject of “love” in his 1930 study Civilization and its Discontents falls mostly into the category of love as an alternative state to which people succumb but which also helps provide for a more optimistic mental state than would otherwise be the case.  In Volume Six of his Collected Works, he states “Whoever loves becomes humble. Those who love have, so to speak, pawned a part of their narcissism.”  Early in Civilization and its Discontents, Freud, in emphasizing the narcissistic compulsions of man and the role of ego in shaping perception and outlook, notes that the one force that restrains ego is love, as suggested in the following quotes:

“The impression forces itself upon one that men measure by false standards, that everyone seeks power, success, riches for himself and admires others who attain them, while undervaluing the truly precious things in life. And yet, in making any general judgment of this kind, one is in danger of forgetting the manifold variety of humanity and its mental life.”

“But towards the outer world, at any rate, the ego seems to keep itself clearly and sharply outlined and delimited. There is only one state of mind in which it fails to do this unusual state, it is true, but not one that can be judged as pathological. At its height, the state of being in love threatens to obliterate the boundaries between ego and object. Against all the evidence of his senses, the man in love declares that he and his beloved are one, and is prepared to behave as if it were a fact.”

Freud takes great pain to emphasize that love is multifaceted and motivated by a myriad of factors, but the central premise of his discourse is that love plays an enormous role in regulating or manipulating emotions.  Again, in the following quote from Civilization and its Discontents, the father of modern psychoanalysis had this to say about the subject of love:

“I do not suppose that I have enumerated all the methods by which men strive to win happiness and keep suffering at bay . . . Nor is it content to strive for avoidance of pain that goal of weary resignation; rather it passes that by heedlessly and holds fast to the deep-rooted, passionate striving for a positive fulfilment of happiness. Perhaps it really comes nearer to this goal than any other method. I am speaking, of course, of that way of life which makes love the centre of all things and anticipates all happiness from loving and being loved. . . We are never so defenceless against suffering as when we love, never so forlornly unhappy as when we have lost our love-object or its love.”

“Love” as a concept is a naturally-occurring phenomenon that possesses the strength to alter the mental state in ways against which many people would ordinarily, given the power, seek to control.  In a broader context, though, Freud viewed “love” as a unifying force essential for the evolution of civilization, as one’s compassion for those within his group is a natural outgrowth of the development of feelings and sensations associated with love and desire.  It is in this broader context, however, that he notes the radical discrepancy between the natural role and importance of love in sustaining civilization and the establishment and enforcement of societal taboos against the very manifestations of compassion and love that gave rise to the community that then established this paradoxical governance.  Freud is entirely understanding of the necessity of laws and cultural restrictions on behavior, as not all desirous behavior is consistent with the requisites of civilization.  As he notes, “the prohibition against incestuous object-choice, perhaps the most maiming wound ever inflicted throughout the ages on the erotic life of man.”

Freud’s treatment of “love” is sufficiently developed that it has filled volumes.  He recognized it as a natural state of being, and observed the influences it held on personal and collective demeanor. 

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