The Rise of “Civilization”: Comparing Mazlish and Freud

Opening Remarks

Both Mazlish and Freud strive to find a proper definition of “civilization,” looking at history and human behavior to observe the trends of cultural organization and interaction. Mazlish talks often about the Eurocentrism of the term “civilization” and how it is an unfair categorization of people with differences. Freud, similarly, sees the counter-intuition of the idea of separating people from one another based on seemingly arbitrary and unsensible comparisons. Freud, as he is popular for, was a psychologist who worked a lot on the human conscience and desirous tendencies, so in discussing “civilization,” he mentions the variations and opposite depiction of human desire under the context of some being better than others. Despite these two great minds fighting to find the correct, or at least more accurate and less discriminatory, definition of “civilization,” the precise acceptability of the term cannot seem to be completely agreed upon and is still up for debate.

Overarching Similarities

Freud explains that civilization is an attempt to regain certainty and safety in the world. It is a process of trying to revert to that oceanic feeling in which an individual is in unison with his surroundings. Freud argues that the correct process would be developing a distinct ego and creating a barrier between oneself and the world; furthermore, he states that character formation, sublimation of instinct, and renunciation of instinct are vital to the process of civilization. In order to utilize civilization, individuals must give up freedom and instinct to gain overall strength and security. This process forms individual identities in that it creates restrained beings who struggle with the bindings of civilization.  Similarly, Mazlish contends that civilization is a way of seeking identity and assimilating with those of similar race and background. Doing so creates an “us vs. them” approach to the world. By using their own standards of civilization, certain humans judge the rest of the world using those standards and attempt to make sense of the universe. They develop certain characteristics based on what the civilization designates as “right” or “wrong” using a self-created system of ethics. In unison with Freud, these members of civilization have internal systems to restrain themselves from harmful instinct to keep the civilization functioning.

Psychoanalysis vs. Histoty

While the connection between Mazlish’s discussion of the “civilizing force” seems to parallel Freud’s conception of ego formation, Mazlish’s work does not confront the innate psychological root of “civilization,” using instead the framework of historical construct to explain where the ideology comes from. Throughout his work, Mazlish emphasizes the importance of viewing the rise of civilization discourse as a historical phenomenon, something that found its cultivation in Enlightenment scholarship that was forced to explain the difference found in colonial encounter. However, such a characterization fails, from a Freudian perspective, to recognize the inevitability of such a “historical” phenomenon. In essence, such eurocentric discourse was not something unique to the period, but instead, another manifestation of a profoundly psychological phenomenon grounded in the biology of humans. Such an aggressive civilizing force is grounded, not in historical causes, but psychoanalysis. To illustrate this, we will focus on two components of the rise of “civilization”: its manipulative, exploitive power and its role in identity formation.

In regards to the first, Mazlish discusses the connection between “civilizing” and “conquering.” In his analysis, Mazlish’s explanation does not explicitly address the psychological core of this aggressive force, rather looking at the particular cases of colonialists like Cook, identifying how the relationship between being a civilization and civilizing barbarians was inseparable. Mazlish’s work serves mainly just to highlight the connection, fitting it into his historical account. What Freud does is to offer the psychological basis for this phenomenon. A significant instance of this is Freud’s discussion of the European reaction to “savage life.” Upon seeing the promiscuous lifestyle of the other, Europeans, constrained by the regulatory power of civilized life, envy the natives because, according to Freud, civilization breeds misery through the constraint of desire. Faced with this realization, the Europeans, frustrated by the unfavorable reality, must regain control of their position. Therein lies the source of the aggressive treatment. If their violence has been constrained in one area (their home society), violence towards the seemingly “happy” natives serves as a sublimated release of aggression in an attempt to regain control of their reality. If they can make the natives subject to their brute force, then they can have direct agency over the perceived “happiness” of these others.      

The second component regards the role of civilization rhetoric as identity cultivation. Mazlish emphasizes civilization’s historical placement as not only a method for describing the taxonomy of society, but also as a method of affirming what it is that made Europeans European. However, Mazlish does not go so far as to confront the psychoanalytic underpinnings of that phenomenon. According to Freud, this phenomenon closely relates to the method in which the ego is cultivated. As an individual comes into contact with its surroundings, there is a constant struggle against external limitations: body, nature, and society. What the ego does is define what it is that composes the individual as a distinct subject, separate from the external, something that figuratively parallels European otherization of native peoples. In essence, the only way to define what is European is to also define what is not European. Through the process of defining what was “civilized,” the Europeans sought to define the newly encountered peoples as the savage other, the uncivilized. While Mazlish touches on the phenomenon, his analysis fails to recognize the reality of this phenomenon as deeply grounded in human psychology. According to Freud, the rise of civilization discourse was not a historical construct, but rather, it was an inevitable manifestation of human behavior.

Human “nature”? 

Freud asserts that humans have a natural and deep seated desire to seek pleasure despite the consequences upon other men.  In fact, he states that it is instinctual for a man to seek whatever satisfies him most, even if it means turning to violence simply for the enjoyment of destruction.  According to Mazlish, the idea of civilization was created in order to justify one culture’s violence towards another.  In the name of “civilizing,” a group of people could forcibly take control of another group of people who were seen as outsiders or savages.  However, Mazlish might not have agreed with Freud that the pattern of violence and domination shown in history was due to an inherent quality among all humans. Instead, the conflict between civilization and the “uncivilized” may have resulted from the desires of the “civilized” to justify their ways and enforce them upon others, thereby solidifying their place as the dominant culture.


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