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Eros and Civilization by Herbert Marcuse Essay

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Updated: Apr 9th, 2020

One of the most notable aspects of the book Eros and Civilization by Herbert Marcuse, is that it fuses together the conceptual conventions of Freudian psychoanalysis, the existentialist ideas of Martin Heidegger and the author’s own insights, as to what should be considered the legitimate subject of a philosophical inquiry. In this paper, I will explore the validity of the above-stated at length.

The main idea that is being promoted throughout the entirety of Chapter 5 (Philosophical Interlude) in Eros and Civilization, can be outlined as follows: At the current point of its historical development, Western civilization is being associated with the generation of a ‘surplus repression’, as the mean of ensuring its structural integrity.

In its turn, this is the direct consequence of the fact that, in order for this civilization to remain on the path of progress, in the linear sense of this word, it may never cease seeking the additional ways to ‘channel’ the ‘instinct of death’ (Tanatos), on the part of its affiliates, into the socially-appropriate sublimative forms.

Consequently, this results in more and more Westerners finding it increasingly harder to be able to achieve the state of a self-actualization: “An innermost tendency in the organism militates against the principle (Logos) which has governed civilization and insists on return from alienation” (Marcuse 109).

The author explains this situation by the fact that, ever since the time of Greco-Roman antiquity, Western philosophical thought continues to be preoccupied with drawing a line between one’s sensual realm (Eros), on one hand, and the concerned person’s ability to operate with the utterly abstract categories of philosophy and logic (Logos), on the other.

Traditionally, the latter has been considered representative of humanity’s ‘metaphysical’ (true) calling, whereas, the realm of sensuality is being commonly deemed attributive of people’s physiological essence as ‘hairless apes’ and therefore – ‘shameful’. Yet, while facing life-challenges, people do it in the matter prescribed to them by the most fundamental laws of nature.

That is, when in the process of trying to explore their existential potential to its fullest, people remain primarily preoccupied with seeking to experience as many sensual pleasures, as possible – even when such their preoccupation appears to aim at suppressing/eliminating pain.

This, of course, creates an irreconcilable dichotomy between the workings of one’s ‘super-ego’, on one hand, and the unconscious anxieties of the person’s ‘id’ – hence, establishing the objective prerequisites for more and more Westerners to experience the sensation of an existential alienation.

As Marcuse pointed out: “The idea of reason becomes increasingly antagonistic to those faculties and attitudes which are receptive rather than productive, which tend toward gratification rather than transcendence – which remain strongly committed to the pleasure principle” (111).

In its turn, this has led Marcuse to promote the idea that the very paradigm of a ‘Western living’, concerned with prompting people to sublimate their sensual impulses into the sphere of a public life (the main cause of neurosis-related illnesses), must be revised. Instead of continuing being associated with the principle of ‘production’, this paradigm should become affiliated with the principle of ‘pleasure’.

According to the philosopher, this eventual development is being predetermined by the fact that, due to the exponential subtleties of the ongoing technological progress, people are no longer required to prioritize taking care of their domination-related anxieties, as the mean of ensuring that they remain ‘evolutionary fit’.

What it means is that the situation, when throughout the 20th century’s second half Westerns have been growing increasingly alienated from the means of production, is fully justified, because it should eventually lead to the abandonment of the paradigm of ‘repression’, as the cornerstone of the civilization’s discursive foundation.

Once, people no longer need to pursue the essentially mechanistic mode of existence (predetermined by the currently dominant discourse of ‘empowerment’), they will be in the position to live in accordance with the innate workings of their unconscious psyche, which in turn should qualify them to experience the acute sensation of happiness.

In light of what has been said earlier, the suggestion that Chapter 5 (Philosophical Interlude) does relate to the works of Freud and Heidegger, appears indeed thoroughly legitimate.

The reason for this is that, as it can be well inferred from the above-mentioned, Marcuse’s line of argumentation, deployed throughout this Chapter, heavily draws on Freud’s conceptualization of what accounts for the social effects of the interrelationship between one’s ‘id’, ego’ and ‘super-ego’. In other words, in order for just about anyone to be able to benefit from reading Eros and Civilization, he or she must be familiar with the main conventions of Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis.

The foremost of these conventions is concerned with Freud’s insistence that, while addressing life-challenges, people experience two diametrically opposite desires – the desire to achieve a sexual satisfaction with the object of their psychosexual fixation, on one hand, and the desire not to have information about this revealed to the morally oppressive society, on the other (Freud 120).

In its turn, this is the consequence of the fact that, during the process, individuals are being forced to observe the conventional code of behavioral ethics, adopted within the society – hence, allowing their ‘super-ego’ to define the qualitative aspects of how they position themselves in life. Simultaneously, this causes them to develop a number of the life-impending ‘secondary’ anxieties, such as the fear of being proclaimed socially unfit.

Because the workings of people’s ‘archetypical unconsciousness’ inevitably cause them to believe that the ultimate price of unfitness is death, they cannot help acting in the manner that their super-ego prescribes them to. This explains the phenomenon of people’s endowment with what Freud used to refer to as the ‘instinct of death’ (Tanatos), sublimated in their unconscious longing for destruction/domination.

Confirming that there is a dialectical link between Chapter 5 (Philosophical Interlude) and the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, cannot be considered overly difficult, as well. The reason for this is quite obvious – the very manner in which Marcuse tackles the subject manner in question (the presumably counterproductive essence of the Western civilization’s ‘oppressiveness’), is clearly reflective of the author’s tendency to think in terms of the philosophy of Existentialism, which in turn is being closely associated with the name of Heidegger.

For example, according to Marcuse, the functioning of the socially oppressive institutions in the West suggests that the purpose of the society’s existence can be well discussed outside of what accounts for the ‘natural right’ of its members to seek the state of an existential fulfillment. Marcuse considered this situation utterly inappropriate.

It is understood, of course, that this Marcuse’s point of view is fully consistent with Heidegger’s idea that the methodological framework of Western philosophical paradigm (regardless of whether it happened to be affiliated with ‘positivism’ or ‘metaphysics) can no longer be considered discursively sound.

After all, according to Heidegger, this paradigm remains largely unobservant of the fact that, ever since they realized themselves mortal, people cannot help but to regard their existence, as such that has a value of a ‘thing in itself’ (Tabachnick 491). What it means that it is indeed rather unjustified believing that the phenomenon of one’s existence can be discussed outside of what causes people to feel ‘alive’, in the first place – the so-called ‘dasein’ (a person’s instantaneously felt and often elusive sensation of a complete self-awareness).

It is understood, of course, that this Heidegger’s idea correlates perfectly well with Marcuse’s belief that, as time goes on, Western civilization becomes increasingly ‘inhuman’ – all thanks to its continual ignorance of the fact that there are clearly defined phenomenological overtones to just about any person’s positioning in life.

Thus, it will be thoroughly appropriate, on our part, to suggest that it is not only that Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (Chapter 5) does relate to Freudism and Heidegger’s Existentialism, but it also uses both of the mentioned schools of philosophy/psychology as the discursive foundation, upon which the book’s actual arguments are based.

I believe that the earlier deployed line of argumentation, in regards to the concerned subject matter, if fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. Apparently, as time goes on, the name of Herbert Marcuse will continue being invoked in conjunction with the names of Sigmund Freud and Martin Heidegger. As it appears from the paper, there is indeed a good reason to believe that it will be the actual case.

Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. New York: Norton, 1977. Print.

Marcuse, Herbert. Eros and Civilization. Boston: Beacon Press, 1966. Print.

Tabachnick, David. “Heidegger’s Essentialist Responses to the Challenge of Technology.” Canadian Journal of Political Science / Revue Canadienne de Science Politique 40.2 (2007): 487-505. Print.

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