There is no doubt that Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) is one of the most important and influential psychiatrists of the world. Although he was a physician, Freud dealt mostly with psychology and created the branch of “psychoanalysis”. His ideas on the nature of human influenced not only psychology but also some other branches like philosophy and political science. “Civilization and Its Discontents” is one of the most popular books of Freud which war written and published in 1929, ten years before Freud’s death. It is the one of the last books of Freud and has a very pessimistic viewpoint. Freud wrote this after the death of his daughter in poor health conditions at the age of 73. These negative aspects might have effected Freud’s psychological situation while writing this book. This book is also very important to understand and evaluate Freud’s political views since he talks about the human nature and puts forward his negative views on communism in many parts of the book. In this assignment, I am going to explain Freud’s understanding of the “oceanic” feeling and the rise of religion on three grounds. Before passing to these points, let us first look at the meaning of oceanic feeling.
In the introductory paragraphs, Freud investigates the meaning of “oceanic” feeling in relation with the religion discussion. Freud describes oceanic feeling as “a sensation of eternity, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded” (Freud, p. 11). According to Sigmund Freud, oceanic feeling is a subjective fact which is derived from “various Churches and religious systems, directed by them into particular channels, and doubtless also exhausted by them” (Freud, p. 11). Freud claims that he does not have this kind of a feeling but this does not give him “right to deny that it does in fact occur in other people” (Freud, p. 12). By this oceanic feeling Freud tries to explain the sense of boundlessness and oneness felt between the ego and the outside world. In other words, it is like “a feeling of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world as a whole” (Freud, p. 12). This feeling is a purely subjective fact, not an article of faith. For Freud, the parental protection starting from the childhood is one of the major sources of this oceanic feeling since it creates "fear of the superior power of Fate”. Moreover, distinction between inside and outside is a crucial part of the process of psychological development, allowing the ego to recognize a reality separate from itself. Freud justifies his views about the relation between the oceanic feeling and the rise of religion by focusing on three points.
The first argument given by Freud is about ego-feeling. In Freud’s view every human is born with the feeling of self called as ego-feeling. This ego-feeling change over time and after the realization of the internal and external world which does not exist in childhood, the ego transforms into adult-ego. While during the childhood and baby period, a human has an intimate bond between his ego and the world around himself, he later looses this bond as he grows up and his ego becomes adult-ego. Thus, “an infant at the breast does not as yet distinguish his ego from the external world as the source of the sensations flowing in upon him” (Freud, p. 13) but the ego later “detaches itself from the external world” (Freud, p. 15). The gradual weakness of ego’s bond with the external world leads to the increase of oceanic feeling and religion.
The second point Freud makes is about the problem of preservation in the sphere of mind. Freud thinks that the oceanic feeling takes its roots from the preservations in mind. In his view, “in mental life nothing which has once been formed can perish” (Freud, p. 16). In other words, when someone learns something or has a special feeling, this would never be forgotten. Thus, ego-feeling during the infancy has always been existing and comes to surface sometimes in the future. It is not easy to erase the past and thought, feelings in the ancient times and that is why some people experience the all-embracing feeling because of their previous ego-feelings.
The third point Freud makes is about the role of human nature. Freud thinks that feelings are “the expressions of a strong need” (Freud, p. 20) and humans’ emotional needs that have always been existed, may lead to the rise of oceanic feeling. Fear of the unknown and the incapacity to explain everything by science may have played a special role in the religious beliefs. Freud asserts that “the origin of the religious attitude can be traced back in clear outlines as far as the feeling of infantile helplessness” (Freud, pp. 20-21). As people’s ego transform into adult-ego, they lose their limitless security feeling and their fears become bigger and bigger. So, as people grow and separate the external world from their ego, their need to believe in something that will provide security grows too. This can be one of the reason of the rise of religious belief in relation to oceanic feeling.
In my opinion, Freud’s ideas on the oceanic feeling and the rise of religion are plausible but he seems to have forgotten some other reasons and he starts with an assumption that believing in God or in a religion is related to human psyche and it cannot be related to any other thing. However, as far as I am concerned, two alternative explanations can be made too. First of all, it is a fact that religious thought and belief is imposed on us by various ways (Church, mosque, state’s religious institutions, parents, religious celebrations etc.). This socialization period might have played a role in the rise of religion rather than human psyche and oceanic feeling. Second alternative explanation can be the existence of God or a divine power that allows us to have this special feeling. Freud ignores these two points but he has still formed a solid theory which is consistent and plausible.
- Freud, Sigmund, “Civilization and its Discontents”, (1989),
: W.W.Norton & Company New York