At the closing of his work Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud confesses to his audience that he has no solution to the problems outlined in the book. Likewise, Friedrich Nietzsche admits in his Genealogy of Morals that he does not know if we will ever be able to escape our fraught values. Neither philosopher attempts to comfort his readers because both thought that consolation was a way of hiding reality. And, according to each, our stark reality is that we live in a civilization constructed to directly antagonize our instinctive desires. In order to live as fully as possible under these dire circumstances, our only real option is to unearth and fulfill our wishes despite the controls created by society. Within this context, art, and by extension fun, are significant because they can help us reach this difficult fulfillment.
Nietzsche’s most famous phrase is “God is dead.” By this he means that ideals, absolute morality, History, and perfect form are all dead, or rather, unborn. Because, for Nietzsche, Philosophy failed mankind since Plato began theorizing about ideals. For the German philosopher, there never was and never will be one single correct way to live or to understand life. What’s more, he considered morality to be a construct created by the weak to ensure that the strong follow the rules. It is through the creation of an impossible and unreachable ideal of what is right, represented most commonly at the time by a Bourgeois God, that society is then able to generate the guilt with which it keeps individuals in check.
Freud also considered that guilt is generated by cultural demands, namely society’s structural renunciation of our two primal desires: Sex and Violence. When our instinct for violence is repressed for much too long by the law of the land, we must seek an outlet for this aggression, and it takes on the form of guilt. So, according to Freud, guilt is nothing more than self-inflicted violence. The Austrian psychologist’s theories posit that if this guilt, this violence aimed at the self, is allowed to build up without a form of release, it can erupt in symptoms as severe as illness and hysteria. Since Freud’s self-appointed mission in life is to “reduce hysterical misery to common unhappiness,” reducing guilt is an important part of his work.
Both Nietzsche and Freud agree that guilt is a very modern problem that operates through the use of memory. In order for us to feel guilty about something, we must remember what it is we are doing wrong. Specifically, Nietzsche believed that Bourgeois values generated guilt in two ways. First, by reminding us of the ever-present suffering of others. Second, by attaching our ideal of perfection to an unattainable and far-removed notion of God, which destines all of us for certain failure. Public punishment of those who fail to adhere to the norms of society is also a useful reminder of what those norms are.
Freud was in complete agreement with Nietzsche’s way of connecting the dots between history and illness. However, Freud believed that punishment was a manifestation of humanity’s innermost need for aggression and that individuals derived pleasure from seeing others suffer. In this sense, punishment for Freud serves as a release for our aggressive instincts and actually helps assuage the primal forces that generate guilt.
Neither thinker offers a manual for salvation from the guilt that society wreaks on the individual. Instead, Nietzsche invites his readers to follow any philosophy that helps them live with intensity and joy. On a similar note, Freud urges his patients to discover what it is that they really want and act upon these desires.
Because Art can partially satiate our innermost desires and direct us toward a life of intensity, it becomes valuable from both a Nietzschean and Freudian perspective. Art is also important because it is a means through which we can manifest repressed desires. Indeed, Freud even went so far as to consider the creative process as a somatization of our primal urges for sex and violence. Although art and its modern offshoot, fun, are not a grand solution to the problems created by a society built in opposition to individual desire, according to Nietzsche and Freud, they help make life livable.
Even though neither thinker offers a recipe for happiness, they contribute immensely to the possibility of personal self-fulfillment by identifying, defining and disparaging guilt. The first step in breaking free from guilt is no doubt to understand how it functions and to recognize its methods of control as injurious. Indeed, we could even consider them immoral. And it is thanks to the work of Nietzsche and Freud that we took this first step.