The Human Pursuit of Happiness
A recurring theme throughout the novel, Civilization and Its Discontents, is the dogged mission of mankind attempting to achieve happiness, but always falling short. “Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks” (Freud 41). Many live out their lives seeking happiness through their gods, families, and by striving to maintain satisfaction throughout the different facets of their lives. They ultimately learn that the satisfaction is only temporary and that the displeasures in life always build up and diminish their state of happiness. “The contention holds that what we call our civilization is largely responsible for our misery, and that we should be much happier if we gave it up and returned to primitive conditions” (Freud 58). While this is believed by many, it is not a valid statement. Although our current civilization has its own set of unique problems created by the advances in technology and the ideas of the current inhabitants of Earth, earlier civilizations also had a specific set of problems that deterred them from their ideal state of happiness. Many extremely diverse societies over a long period of time have tried to overcome this issue of unhappiness with no success. No matter the type of civilization, man will always want more and have the desire to come out on top of his competition: his neighbors. The goal of all civilizations is to achieve a lasting happiness; however, mankind will never be able to truly maintain this happiness because of the complexities of life and nature as well as the way that humans interact with one another when placed in society.
The Communist movement had a goal to achieve and maintain a lasting happiness by creating an ideal society where everyone was seen as equal, but as one can determine, they did not pass the test of time as they are not currently in power in most of the world. The Communists believed that they had found the recipe for solving the unhappiness of mankind though the abolition of private property: “If private property were abolished, all wealth held in common, and everyone allowed to share in the enjoyment of it, ill-will and hostility would disappear among men” (Freud 97). Their movement was able to gain momentum quickly because, instead of the minority revolting, the working class, which was the majority of the population, now wanted this change. Their proposal, however, did not last long and fell short of this goal of complete happiness based on the fact that humans are wired to be competitive and aggressive with one another.
“Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, baron and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in one word, oppressor and oppressed, standing constantly in opposition to each other, carried on an uninterrupted warfare, now open, now concealed; a warfare which always ended either in a revolutionary transformation of the whole of society or in the common ruin of the contending classes” (Marx & Engels 126).
Since property and all items that determined class were shared among the citizens of the Communist party, the Communists determined that there would no longer be social classes. The competition that came in the form of social ranks of the citizens would apparently just disappear because everyone would have the means to survive. This theory is also incorrect because, although it may work for a short period of time, it is human nature to be greedy and have the desire to be one step ahead of one’s neighbors. “We wish only to suppress the miserable character of this appropriation, by which the worker only lives in order to increase capital, and only lives so long as the interests of the ruling class demand it” (Marx & Engels 137). The “other” that Freud famously refers to in his book, Civilization and its Discontents, relates to the ruling class that Marx and Engels refer to in their manifesto. This idea of all of the different types of citizens uniting to face this ominous “other” would keep everyone together in a happy, productive society for a while. It would not last forever though because eventually, when they defeat the “other”, the human characteristics of competition would show once again and there would no longer be an enemy uniting them all for a single cause. The citizens, especially the previous upper class citizens who yearned for capital gain, would retaliate and find ways to gain just the slightest advantage over their peers. This would eventually cause the demise of the Communist nation because the happiness temporarily gained by working for the good of the state and not having to worry about providing the basic means of survival for one’s own family would crumble as select citizens became more powerful over others as they gained the slight advantage from natural competition and greed.
In the novel, Reading Lolita in Tehran, the regime attempted to create a society that displayed their views of a perfect world in order to achieve happiness, but they had failed. “In the first photograph, standing there in our black robes and scarves, we are as we had been shaped by someone else’s dreams. In the second, we appear as we imagined ourselves” (Nafisi 24). The first picture represents a dream that the official ayatollah had come to make a reality when he came to rule and tried to make his perfect world. This society oppressed women and made it required by law that they wear the veil. Although it was once a symbol to represent one’s devotion to her religion, peace, and happiness, it was now an oppressive symbol, created from the dream of a man who had no reverence for women. This oppressive society fails at creating happiness because, although a majority of the male citizens were happy and thrived in this system, all women citizens had to live in fear and did not have even the slightest possibility to be happy. “The revolution has emptied their heads of any form or thought, and our own intelligentsia, the cream of the crop, is no better” (Nafisi 200). The new revolutionized society made most of its citizens blind to the fact that they were truly unhappy and persuaded them to believe that they had it good and were lucky. It taught them that outside nations, such as the United States of America, were very immoral, awful places to live and should be destroyed so that they may not influence the citizens of this new society. “Living in the Islamic Republic is like having sex with a man you loathe” (Nafisi 329): Nafisi is placing the act of living in this constricting society on the same disgusting level as rape. This shows just how unhappy and controlled the minorities are in this twisted society created by the ayatollah. Men had free reign and could do basically whatever made them happy. They could have multiple wives, control every major decision their wives made, and even beat them when they were unhappy with them. This type of society and the happiness it brought to a select few, of course, could not last forever; those who felt as if they were being oppressed would eventually take action and little by little take back the society they once knew in order to attempt to find their fleeting happiness and destroy the tasteless happiness of their oppressors.
Many societies have come and gone, but the one thing that could relate every single one of them is their never-ending struggle for eternal happiness. Some have turned to different gods, societal structures, and even the oppression of different groups of people to find this happiness, but it is always temporary. The Communists tried to achieve happiness by setting the playing field equal for all contenders in life, while the Islamic Republic went about this task by raising up the men and looking down on women and other countries. While there was happiness for a short period of time, it eventually died out when human nature kicked in. People slowly started to have urges to get ahead of their neighbors and be aggressive with one another. These urges led to people who were discontent with life and wanted serious change. For these reasons, as hard as people try to achieve a lasting happiness, they will never be able to fully grasp this because of the way they were wired when they were created; they will always be looking for the next greatest thing to save them from the harsh reality of life, but to no avail because, no matter what they turn to, it will always fail to provide them with eternal happiness.
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