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Good Books – Aggression, Repression and Civilization

April 18, 2014

I am currently engrossed in some good books, so it seems to be the best thing for me to talk about on here right now.

I am reading a couple of books by Frankfurt school philosophers: Eros and Civilization by Herbert Marcuse and rereading, Minima Moralia by Theodor Adorno. I have previously read many books in this school of thought. They appealed to me strongly for two reasons, their opposition to positivist thinking, and their critical approach to Marxist social theory. Incorporating some areas he got right in his social analysis, while denying some of the more dubious, stronger claims of historical determinism.

Minima Moralia is a post second world war diatribe on the whole moral culture of a civilization that could lead to such wars. He was an exile from Germany and was right in the thick of this era of great progress, great change, but also great suffering. It reads with a similar passion to Nietzsche, though it is written in much more dense language so would not probably appeal to the average reader. There are also a lot of obscure cultural references, particularly in the area of aesthetic theory, that I struggle to understand myself.

But amongst it there are many valuable and well-thought through insights into the depth of complicity of civilization itself in, not just the world wars, but in allowing the rise of a fascist state such as the Nazis.

Eros and Civilization is a take on Freudian theory and its importance in the social, not just psychological, context. It is insightful to see things from a different angle such as this. So much of human behavior is performed blindly in line with drives and principles such as Freudian theory brings to light. I have always acted in great awareness of my own actions and motivations, but this is helping me to get a better grip of what motivates other people and society in general, in many of what seem on the surface, to be irrational actions. It is helping to reduce some of the chaos I perceive around me daily to some sort of order to allow me to feel more comfortable amongst it.

It is well and good to have moral ideals of behavior to try and live up to. But when you start confusing your own ideals with reality you tend to come up against a lot of misunderstandings with other people. Yes, we develop meaning in our lives, we have goals and aspirations. But we also have needs. Needs which can cause us much suffering if left unfulfilled. One thing I do not subscribe to is the idea that we have a natural drive towards aggression. And that we come to repress this as a result of civilization. This purely negative take on the influence of society forgets that the very notion of us having a sense of identity is tied up with society and culture. In this postulated natural state where we pursue all our desires without any conscience, the problem is that in such a state there is no “I”. Identity is not established at this stage. The behavior is thus anonymous. It cannot claim any grand principle of action such as aggression, it takes an “I” to behave in such a way. And this “I” only emerges with civilization.

Aggressiveness is itself a product of prior repression and “socialization”. It is not what we are. It is the derivative of the formation of a false ego ideal. We imagine we are greater somehow that we in fact are, we imagine we are entitled to more than is our due, and so we act aggressively to try and force this ideal on reality. This is where the line lies between aggression and assertiveness I think. Assertion comes from a better appreciation and reflection on ones true ego status.

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