Michael Mentele Software Engineer

Book Review of Civilizations and its Discontents

Book Author: Sigmund Freud

This book was a solid ‘meh’ for me.

Why?
1. The book is rather high level, and the style is wandering. I much prefer Richard Dawkin’s style–clear points, backed up by evidence and logical arguments in plain language.
2. I find it says little in many words. For example, the perspective on the tension between individual freedom and societal compliance is an obvious tradeoff ie. the more social support and structure there is the more infringement on personal freedom.

For this review, I’m going to simply comment on a few lines that stood out to me.

(referring to religion) The whole thing is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, … it is painful to think the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life.

I do agree that religion is delusional, that seems obvious, but I also know that it can be logical to be deluded so my view is more, ‘whatever floats your boat’.

they strive after happiness to become happy and remain… we can derive … enjoyment only from contrast and very little from the state of things.

I completely agree. People have the wrong goal. They want to be ‘happy’ but what does that mean?

There is a mass delusion that happiness can be achieved, but happiness is a state, and being in a state is something you do. But you cannot stop, rest on your laurels, or retire and ‘be happy.’ This is a trap. Why? Because the brain works on contrast, you must do ‘happy’.

But I don’t even like the term happy. I think it is an unworthy goal. I’m in the stoic camp, we should strive for serenity and satisfaction of a life well lived. Happiness is usually conflated with joy but joy is overrated. The accomplishments that I remember most are the hard things I’ve done, that made a real difference. That made progress towards my purpose.

Seriously, think about how life has changed since the middle ages… Life is easy! Everyone should be happy relative to a life of serfdom and plague. Objectively, if happiness
was a state, we should have reached it by now.

Here are the problems with ‘I just want to be happy.’
1. Positive feelings are relative. Even if you felt great, let’s say you achieved a state of constant orgasm, it would soon become ‘normal’ and you’d need to chase new highs. The human brain is highly tuned to contrast. An orgasm feels good because you felt normal. So then, what does it mean to ‘be happy?’ Are you constantly dialing up the positive feelings? This just reminds me of a heroin addict.
2. The idea of happiness most people chase is some vague idea. Most people’s cause of suffering is a lack of clarity and ownership of their own lives. They live the life expected of them by society, they want to be ‘nice’ and get a degree and a ‘good’ job. Why? Why do you want that? Do you want that? What do you want? What is your purpose in life? What are you tyring to achieve this century? This decade? This year? Why are you trying to achieve it? Once I had solid answers to these questions my life became infinitely better than happy; it became satisfying. How do you even make day to day decisions without a long term target? People are lost, that is why their lives suck, and they ‘just want to be happy.’

What decides the purpose of life is simply… the pleasure principle.

I disagree, moving away from the negative is often the stronger motive force. Daniel Kahneman showed that we tend to value negative to positive in a 2:1 ratio. That is you’d have to find $200 to make up for losing $100.

(in regards to drugs) they are responsible… for the useless waste of a large quota of energy which might have been employed for the improvement of the human lot

In general, the way most people use ‘drugs’ I would agree. Obviously, drugs have a lot of upside but Frued is referring to drugs without a medicinal utility. Using drugs is an easy way to escape pain in the now and move into short term pleasure. This is a vicious cycle since you then don’t solve root problems.

But this is a more general problem than drugs.

People live in a hamster wheel always filling their free time with some sort of salve be that drugs, tv, sex, gambling, etc. so that they can avoid actually thinking about their lives and address the root cause of their lack of kickass.

Frued goes on to make some interesting comments on eastern philosophy ie. Budhism.

Is peace via utter non-attachment a cop out? I think non-attachment is not useful in and of itself. Those who completely disentangle themselves from the concerns of the world are copping out and going to the other extreme.

Attachment isn’t black and white. You can overfit and you can underfit. It all depends what your purpose is. In general though you want to be attached to what you can control and unattached to all else. This is why I’m a strong
proponent of stoicism as a life OS.

Give a shit about what you can control, the rest, have zen. Simple as that.

The programme of becomming happy, which the pleasure principle imposes on us, cannot be fulfilled yet we must not… give up our efforts…

I agree because continual pursuit of ‘happiness’ really means a continual pursuit of progress. And a constant state of progress means a far more interesting future.

But again, happiness is a terrible goal. We should constantly pursue a satisfying life and minimize regret.

We shall never completely master nature… our bodily organism … will always remain a transient structure with a limited capacity for adaption and achievement.

Okay sure. But we will change so much in the transhumanism era our capacities will far supercede our current ones. There is no such thing as infinite capacity inside a finite package so this is a meaningless statement.

Freud goes on to comment on how we cannot remove the sources of suffering, civilization and individuals are at odds with eachother… blah blah.

My question is, why do we have this idea we should remove suffering? Pointless suffering is bad, but so much suffering is good. Tension can be good. You need some friction to ensure that good ideas and good actions can be properly tested and vetted. This is natural selection in the abstract.

Freud goes on to discuss whether primitive cultures were happier. Does it matter? Happiness is not a good goal and is not what we should optimize for as a society.

This book is definitely not one I’ll return too and does not deserve a top 100 stop let alone a top 10.

Tai Lopez why is this book in your top 10?