John Gray in Five Books:
Let’s talk about Freud then. Tell us what he says about human nature and society in Civilisation and Its Discontents.
Freud is a very relevant figure to this discussion. The limits of progress are in the flaws and divisions of human nature, which are integral to being human. The way Freud represents this in a number of his works, including Civilisation and Its Discontents, is to say that there are a variety of instincts – a very unpopular term now which may not be scientifically valid – from benevolence and love on the one hand to violence and aggression on the other, which are equally part of the human animal.
Civilisation, as Freud understands it, begins with the restraint of violence – although of course it doesn’t end there. A civilised state is one which controls violence. Freud’s key point is that because humans are self-divided in the way I’ve described, civilisation always carries with it a degree of repression of instinctual satisfaction, which in turn means that the civilisational condition will always be one of discontent. In other words, it’s not possible to imagine – and dangerous to experiment with – any conception of a civilisation emptied of its discontent, in which all desires are satisfied and society doesn’t exact a price for the repression of violent impulses.
Freud thought that civilisation is inestimably valuable – unlike some other writers in central Europe, he was never tempted by barbarism. But he also recognised that civilisation is inherently flawed, not because of political repression and corruption or economic inequality, but because of the nature of the human animal. That is why civilisation can never be rid of its faults, can never be entirely benign. I think that is true. In the language of religion, it might be called original sin. In other religions such as Buddhism, it is called original ignorance. However one wants to put it, it is a truth that humans are ineradicably flawed, and that is a commonplace in pretty much any religious tradition. It’s only recently, in the last 150 years, that the idea which Freud presented in a secular form is considered to be shocking.