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Burston, D. (2017). Wooden Ships: Cultural Cohesion and Continuity in Freud and Erikson. Free Associations, 18(2):18-26.

(2017). Free Associations, 18(2):18-26

Wooden Ships: Cultural Cohesion and Continuity in Freud and Erikson

Daniel Burston

What holds cultural communities together, especially in times of crisis? And what causes them to fragment sometimes, even when they enjoy material prosperity? These are not idle questions. In The Future of An Illusion (Freud, 1927) and Civilization and Its Discontents (Freud, 1930) Freud drew attention to the forces that disrupt or destroy cultural cohesion, including our supposedly innate propensities to incest and homicide, our natural disinclination for work, and our eagerness to enslave or objectify others. According to Freud, the intrapsychic forces that normally prevent these impulses from surfacing or being acted on are anchored in a kind of social contract, in which participants yield a significant portion of their freedom to follow their spontaneous inclinations and desires in exchange for guarantees of security and freedom from violence in turn (Freud, 1930.)

This collective renunciation of aggressive instincts is supported, said Freud, by a ‘cultural super-ego’ that intervenes to punish transgressions and enforce the laws impersonally, ostensibly for everyone's benefit (Freud, 1927), and by the secondary transformation of our raw, instinctual desires via sublimation and ‘aim-inhibited’ Eros, resulting in strong interpersonal and institutional bonds, the glue or cement that presumably holds a family and a culture together, and holds the individual's aggressive drives in check (Freud, 1930.) Though no fan of democracy himself, Freud nevertheless allowed that the social stability engendered by these ‘civilizing’ trends are endangered by stark economic inequalities, which afford the ruling elite far more opportunities for instinctual satisfaction and the sublimation of the drives than commoners enjoy.

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