Sigmund Freud on the Sphere of Mind

I’ve been reading on Civilization and Its Discontents for quite a while now as I’ve been making the transition into college life. (Quite an experience to say the least, expect an article about that.) While washing clothes in our dorm house I decided to crack this book open and have a read, one of the best times to do so in my opinion – makes it relatively easy to sit and indulge in a good word bite.

I stumbled upon some good stuff in this book and figured it was time to share some ideas. Freud expands on a lot of the things that go on in our minds that perhaps we don’t pay enough attention to, or in my case maybe a little too much attention. He talks about the ideas of reincarnation, the manipulative nature of a certain religion, and what it would be like to travel through time gaining experiential knowledge one would have no hope of attaining otherwise (this is more like a shift in perspective, a reflective viewpoint if you will). Most of his concepts bear¬†quite the insight so a good bit of my work here is for share. Hope you enjoy it ūüėČ

kc civilization


“It is impossible to escape the impression that people commonly use false standards of measurement – that they seek power, success and wealth for themselves and admire them in others, and that they underestimate what is of true value in life. And yet, in making any general judgement of the sort, we are in danger of forgetting how variegated the human world and its mental life are.”

“At the height of being in love the boundary between ego and object threatens to melt away. Against all the evidence of his senses, a man who is in love declares that ‘I’ and ‘you’ are one, and is prepared to behave as if it were a fact. What can be temporarily done away with by a physiological [i.e. normal] function must also, of course, be liable to be disturbed by pathological processes. Pathology has made us acquainted with a great number of states in which the boundary lines between the ego and the external world become uncertain or in which they are actually drawn incorrectly. There are cases in which parts of a person’s own body, even portions of his own body, even portions of his own mental life – his perceptions, thoughts and feelings -, appear alien to him and as not belonging to his ego; there are other cases in which he ascribes to the external world things that clearly originate in his own ego and that ought to be acknowledged by it. Thus even the feeling of our own ego is subject to disturbances and the boundaries of the ego are not constant.”

This is closely related to ascribing meaning to the world. We often fuel a perception that says ‘if A happened then my suspicions of B must be true’ or ‘if this happened it must have some intrinsic meaning’. Thoughts like this bear only as much meaning as we assign to it. Our thoughts and interpretations often trip us up and we are forced to decide whether these thoughts are valuable and a product of our better self, or if we’re just overthinking a minor situation. You don’t want to overthink but you do want to consider the voice inside you and assure mental security.

“Some of the things that one is unwilling to give up, because they give pleasure, are nevertheless not ego but object; and some sufferings that one seeks to expel turn out to be inseparable from the ego in virtue of their internal origin. One comes to learn a procedure by which, through a deliberate direction of one’s sensory activities and through suitable muscular action, one can differentiate between what is internal – what belongs to the ego – and what is external – what emanates from the outer world.”

This is an example of addiction vs. personality traits. Both can be manipulated to our advantage to better suit our lifestyle via active involvement in making improvements, or in the case of addiction, to destroy us and our capacity to reason. Our external influences can be harder to kick than our ego-based influences, but the ego is the primary factor in all change. A strong capacity to control the ego is necessary to be rid of suffering.

“In this way one makes the first step towards the introduction of the reality principle which is to dominate future development. This differentiation, of course, serves the practical purpose of enabling one to defend oneself against sensations of unpleasure which one actually feels or with which one is threatened. In order to fend off certain unpleasurable excitations¬†arising from within, the ego can use no other methods than those which it uses against unpleasure coming from without, and this is the starting-point of important pathological disturbances.
In this way, then, the ego detaches itself from the external world. Or, to put it more correctly, originally the ego includes everything, later it separates off an external world for itself.

Our present ego-feeling is, therefore, only a shrunken residue of a much more inclusive¬†–¬†indeed, an all-embracing –¬†feeling which corresponded to a more intimate bond between the go and the world about it.”

Its pretty crazy. We share a bond with this world, pull meaning out of it, then reflect on our vision and determine a course of action. The world assists our decision making by presenting us with choices or letting us grant our own wishes, yet it also helps us on an individual level all at the same time, for each and every one of us. The world we live in is an interwoven circuit of human trial. Everything is connected – down to the micro-particle.

“If we may assume that there are many people in whose mental life this primary ego-feeling has persisted to a greater or less degree, it would exist in them side by side with the narrower and more sharply demarcated ego-feeling of maturity, like a kind of counterpart to it. In that case, the¬†idealization¬†contents appropriate to it would be precisely¬†those of limitlessness and of a bond with the universe – the same ideas with which my friend elucidated the ‘oceanic’ feeling.”

Here is a small portion of Chapter One regarding¬†the sphere of the mind…

¬†“This brings us to the more general problem of preservation in the sphere of mind. The subject has hardly been studied as yet; but it is so attractive and important that we may be allowed to turn our attention to it for a little, even though our excuse is insufficient. Since we overcame the error of supposing that the forgetting we are familiar with signified a destruction of the memory-trace – that is, its annihilation – we have been inclined to take the opposite view, that in mental life nothing which has once been formed can perish – that everything is somehow preserved and that in suitable circumstances (when, for instance, regression goes back far enough) it can once more be brought to light. Let us try to grasp what this assumption involves by taking an analogy from another field. We will choose as an example the history of the Eternal City. Historians tell us that the oldest Rome was the Roma Quadrata, a fenced settlement on the Palatine. Then followed the phase of the Septimontium, a federation of the settlements on the different hills; after that came the city bounded by the Servian wall; and later still, after all the transformations during the periods of the republic and the early Caesars, the city which the Emporer Aurelian surrounded with his walls. We will not follow the changes which the city went through any further, but we will ask ourselves how much a visitor, whom we will suppose to be equipped with the most complete historical and topographical knowledge, may still find left of these early stages in the Rome of to-day. Except for a few gaps, he will see the wall of Aurelian almost unchanged. In some places he will be able to find sections of the Servian wall where they have been excavated and brought to light. If he knows enough – more than present-day archaeology does – he may perhaps be able to trace out in the plan of the city the whole course of that wall and the outline of he Roma Quadrata. Of the buildings which once occupied this ancient area he will find nothing, or only scanty remains, for they exist no longer. The best information about Rome in the republican era would only enable him at the most to point out the sites where the temples and public buildings of that period stood. Their place is now taken by ruins, but not by ruins of themselves but of later restorations made after fires or destruction. It is hardly necessary to remark that all these remains of ancient Rome are found dovetailed into the jumble of a great metropolis which has grown up in the last few centuries since the Renaissance. There is certainly not a little that is ancient still buried in the soil of the city or beneath its modern buildings. This is the manner in which the past is preserved in historical sites like Rome.
¬† ¬† ¬†Now let us, by a flight of imagination, suppose that Rome is not a human habitation but a physical entity with a similarly long and copious past – an entity, that is to say, in which nothing that has once come into existence will have passed away and all the earlier phases of development continue to exists alongside the latest one. This would mean that in Rome the palaces of the Caesars and the Septizonium of Septimius Severus would still be rising to their old height on the Palatine and that the castle of S. Angelo would still be carrying on its battlements the beautiful statues which graced it until the siege by the Goths, and so on. But more than this. In the place occupied by Palazzo Caffarelli would once more stand – ¬†without the Palazzo having to be removed – the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus; and this not only in its latest shape, as the Romans of the Empire saw it, but also in its earliest one, when it still showed Etruscan forms and was ornamented with terra-cotta antefixes. Where the Coliseum now stands we could at the same time admire Nero’s vanished Golden House. On the Piazza of the Pantheon of today, as it was bequeathed to us by Hadrian, but, on the same site, the original edifice erected by Agrippa; indeed, the same piece of ground would be supporting the church of Santa Maria sopra Minera and the ancient temple over which it was built. And the observer would perhaps only have to change the direction of his glance or his position in order to call up the one view or the other.
     There is clearly no point in spinning our phantasy any further, for it leads to things that are unimaginable and even absurd. If we want to represent historical sequence in spacial terms we can only do it by juxtaposition in space: the same space cannot have two different contents. Our attempt seems to be an idle game. It has only one justification. It shows us how far we are from mastering the characteristics of mental life by representing them in pictorial terms.
     There is one further objection which has to be considered. The question may be raised why we chose precisely the past of a city to compare with the past of the mind. The assumption that everything past is preserved holds good even in mental life only on condition that the organ of the mind has remained intact and that its tissues have not been damaged by trauma or inflammation. But destructive influences which can be compared to causes of illness like these are never lacking in the history of a city, even if it has had less chequered past than Rome, and even if, like London, it has hardly every suffered form the visitations of an enemy. Demolitions and replacement of buildings occur in the course of the most peaceful development of a city. A city is this a priori unsuited for a comparison of this sort with a mental organism. 
¬† ¬† ¬†We bow to this objection; and, abandoning our attempt to draw a striking contrast, we will contrast, we will turn instead to what is after all a more closely related object of comparison – the body of an animal or a human being. But here, too, we find the same thing. The earlier phases of development are in no sense still preserved; they have been absorbed into the later phases for which they have supplied the material. The embryo cannot be discovered in the adult. The thymus gland of childhood is replaced after puberty by connective tissue, but is no longer present itself; in the marrow-bones of the grown man I can, it is true, trace the outline of the child’s bone, but it itself has disappeared, having lengthened and thickened until it has attained its definitive form. The fact remains that only in the mind is such a preservation of all the earlier stages alongside the final form possible, and that we are not in a position to represent this phenomenon in pictorial terms”

“Perhaps we are going too far in this. Perhaps we ought to content ourselves asserting that what is past in mental life may be preserved and is not necessarily destroyed. It is always possible that even in the mind some of what is old is effaced or absorbed – ¬†whether int the normal course of things or as an exception to such an extent that it cannot be restored or revivified by any means; or that preservation in general is dependent on certain favourable conditions. It is possible, but we know nothing about it. We can only hold fast to the fact that it is rather the rue than the exception for the past to be preserved in mental life.”

Without a doubt the question of life after death is tough. In recent research, the data hasn’t been too clear on whether or not there is an afterlife. Some suggest that our form post-deterioration carries conscious information, but no good evidence has surfaced with strong support for conscious being¬†that persists after death. It is clear that there is no way to unravel these secrets at the time. Perhaps the secret is hidden right in front of our faces; we return to the dust from which we came. This sounds harsh at first but there is great beauty in its truth. We as¬†human beings are¬†at the height of our potential,¬†with a broad field¬†of¬†awareness, and a sharp sense of¬†understanding, all¬†generated from the most simple matter we see around us.

“In my Future of an Illusion [1927c] I was concerned much less with the deepest sources of the religious feeling than what the common man understands by his religion – with the system of doctrines and promises which on the one hand explains to him the riddles of this world with enviable completeness, and, on the other, assures him that a careful Providence will watch over his life and will compensate him in a future existence for any frustrations he suffered here. The common man cannot imagine this Providence otherwise than in the figure of an enormously exalted father. Only such a being can understand the needs of the children of men¬†and be softened by their prayers and placated by the signs of their remorse. The whole thing is patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will ever be able to rise above this view of life. It is still more¬†humiliating to discover how large a number of people living to-day, who cannot but see that this religion is not tenable, nevertheless try to defend it piece by piece in a series of pitiful rearguard actions. One would like to mix among the ranks of the believers in order to meet these philosophers, who think they can rescue the God of religion by replacing him by an impersonal, shadowy and abstract principle, and to address them with the warning words: ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain!’ And if some of the great men of the past acted in the same way, no appeal can be made to their example: we know they were obliged to.”

I assume this quote speaks to many¬†people out there. Many lives have been¬†poisoned¬†by bad religion.They¬†would have otherwise¬†attained boundless¬†insight if not for a¬†leech to scripture, perhaps from early indoctrination or their own¬†personal concepts. If any¬†belief in a superior power, man should consider the ‘one of the world’ as his face of impassible¬†wisdom. Know one knows the secrets to the universe. Once one secret is revealed 10 new ones pop up. Once their all digested, you have 1,000 new secrets waiting to be discovered, and on into infinity. The mystery of life and¬†existence is much¬†more aggrandizing to me than a handbook¬†on how to please¬†a cosmological¬†dictator. Not to throw dirt on good religion, it has its uses¬†(there’s a number of¬†kind¬†verses within scripture), but the behavior we’ve seen in the past due to religious¬†intolerance¬†is too blinding¬†to ignore.

“The question of the purpose of human life has been raised countless times; it has yet recieved a satisfactory answer and perhaps does not admit of one. Some of those who have asked it have added that if it should turn out that life has no purpose, it would lose all value for them.”

It our duty to give our life purpose. Seeing as you or I aren’t the only ones here, we must make our lives matter for the sake of our own name. Why wouldn’t you want to be great and serve mankind? There is no special place for us if we don’t choose to create one.

“Nobody talks about the purpose¬†of¬†the¬†life of animals, unless, perhaps, it may be supposed to lie in being of service to man. But this view is not tenable either, for there are many animals of which man can make¬†nothing, except to describe, classify and study them; and innumerable species of animals have escaped even this use, since they existed and became extinct before man set eye on them. Once again, only religion can answer the question of purpose of life. One can hardly be wrong in concluding that the idea of life having a purpose stands and falls with the religious system.¬†(That’s debatable.)
We will therefore turn to the less ambitious question of what men themselves show by their behaviour to be the purpose and intention of their lives. What do they demand of life and wish to achieve in it? The answer to this can hardly be in doubt. They strive after happiness; they want to become happy and remain so. This endeavour has two sides, a positive and negative aim. It aims, on the one hand, at an absence of pain and unpleasure, and, on the other, at the experiencing of strong feelings of pleasure. In its narrower sense the word ‘happiness’ only relates to the last. In conformity with this dichotomy in his aims, man’s activity develops in two directions, according as it seeks to realize – in the main, or even exclusively – the one or other these aims.
¬† ¬† ¬†As¬†we see, what decides the purpose of life is simply the programme of the pleasure principle. This principle dominates the operation of the mental apparatus from the start. There can be no doubt about its efficacy, and yet it programme is at loggerheads with the macrocosm¬†as much as with the microcosm. There is no possibility at all of its being carried through; all the regulations of the universe run counter to it. One feels inclined to say that the intention that man should be ‘happy’ is not included in the plan of ‘Creation’.”

“What we call happiness in the strictest sense comes from the (preferably sudden) satisfaction of needs which have been dammed up to a high degree, and it is from its nature only possible as an episodic phenomenon. When any situation that is desired by the pleasure principle is prolonged, it only produces a feeling of mild contentment. We are so made that we can derive intense enjoyment only from a contrast and very little from a state of things. Thus our possibilities of happiness are already restricted by our constitution.”

I tend to view long term happiness as much more fulfilling. Working our butts off isn’t as unbearable with an attainable goal in mind (happiness – long term and short term) is exciting, especially when you’re rewarding yourself along the way, through people, experience, and discoveries about ourselves that we¬†were never aware of.

“Against the dreaded external world one can only defend oneself by some kind of turning away from it, if one intends to solve the task by oneself. There is, indeed, another and better path: that of becoming a member¬†of the human community, and, with the help of a technique guided by science, going over to the attack against nature and subjecting her to the human will. Then one is working with all for the good of all. But the most interesting methods of averting suffering are those which seek to influence our own organism. In the last analysis, all suffering is nothing else than sensation; it only exists in so far as we feel it, and we only feel it in consequence of certain ways in which¬†our organism is regulated.”

We turn internally when dealing with conflict but we must connect with the world as well to facilitate growth and progression. The latter end of this paragraph is related to uplifting your mood, as well as subjective experience. No one is a mind reader.

“The complicated structure of our mental apparatus admits, however, of a whole number¬†of other influences. Just as a satisfaction of instinct spells happiness for us, so severe suffering is caused us if the external world lets¬†us starve, if it refuses to sate our needs. One may therefore hope to be freed from a part of one’s sufferings by influencing the instinctual impulses. This type of defense against suffering is no longer brought to bear on the sensory apparatus; it seeks ti master the internal sources of our needs.”

“These things that, by his science and technology, man has brought about on this earth, on which he first appeared as a feeble animal organism and on which each individual of his species must once more make its entry (‘oh inch of nature’) as a helpless suckling – these things do not only sound like fairy tale, they are an actual fulfillment of every – or of almost every – fairy-tale wish. All these assets he may lay claim to his cultural acquisition. Long ago he formed an ideal conception of omnipotence and omniscience which he embodied¬†in his gods. To these gods he attributed everything that seemed unattainable to his wishes, or that was forbidden to him. One may say, therefore, that these gods were cultural ideals. To-day he has come very close to the attainment of this ideal, in the fashion in which ideals are usually attained according to the general judgement of humanity. Not completely; in some respects not at all, in others only half way. Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much more¬†trouble at times. Nevertheless, he is entitled to console himself with the thought that this development will not come to an end precisely with the year 1930 A.D. Future ages will bring with them new and probably unimaginably great advances in this field of civilization and will increase man’s likeness to God still more. But in the interests of our investigations, we will not forget that present-day man does not feel happy in his Godlike character.”

“We require civilized man to reverence beauty wherever he sees it in nature and to create it in the objects of his handiwork so far as he is able.”

We are all ‘gods’ within the bounds of our own capabilities. We are creative forces and we bring about something beautiful and new each¬†time we put these forces to use. Its about unlocking hidden potential.

“No feature, however, seems better to characterize civilization than its esteem and encouragement of man’s higher mental activities – his intellectual, scientific and artistic achievements – and the leading role that it assigns to ideas in human life.”

Advanced civilizations encourage and implore intellectual exercise. I feel like if we did this via education, self-knowledge, etc. we would build a godlike planet РUtopia of sorts with capabilities beyond human imagination, or the postulations of science fiction.

Civilization and Its Discontents dives deep into what we thought was common knowledge, expanding our brains on what we thought we knew about each other, and the ways in which we think. All you young philosophers out there give this book a read, it is truly eye opening.


Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud

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