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The Individual vs SocietyWords.
Subject areas: Sociology, Philosophy
The early twentieth century marked a period of rapid industrial and technological change in a society which began to redefine the roles of the individual and society. Max Weber and Sigmund Freud were two revolutionary thinkers of the time who recognized the importance of this relationship and tried to determine whether the power balance between society and the individual was tilted in one particular direction or the other. A world becoming an increasingly complex and restrictive forced these thinkers to ask themselves if society had indeed finally become a force too dynamic for the individual to manipulate; that if in fact it was society that had mastered the man. Although both thinkers provide radically different views of culture and society they are both essentially trying to answer the same question: does the individual control society or does society control the individual? The relevance of such an argument might first be debated, for one might first respond to this question with some doubt; surely we have control of ourselves, do we all not have control of our own faculties at this very moment? At this moment you are reading or being subjected to a reading of this paper, therefore if this indeed is not fulfilling some immediate obvious desire it is accomplishing some sort of other goal. Likely this goal is to achieve an education but again we might ask ourselves why? Surely we all want to further our scholarly qualities and develop our minds but more likely this again has an underlying goal to succeed in society. Society has shown us that in most cases it requires a good deal of education in order to succeed. Therefore we might entertain the question, is our presence here a product of our own desires or that of society’s? The point of this reasoning is only to point out something we may not immediately recognize regardless of what our own free will may dictate, we cannot help but be influenced by the values and morals of modern-day society(GRAMSCI’S HEGEMONY). And it is because of this influence, the rewards which it offers and the punishments which it threatens, that the individual has found himself actually being manipulated by this larger body.
Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud expresses this point in his greatest achievement, Civilization and Its Discontents. Pointing out this conflict between the individual and society Freud concludes, “. . . the two processes of individual and of cultural development must stand in hostile opposition to each other and mutually dispute the ground.” (Freud, 106) And then after describing the affects of civilization as a “drastic mutilization” of his desires, Freud goes on to conclude that “. . . the price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt.” (Freud, 97) Again we see a sharp contrast as the desires of the individual and those of civilization. Now it seems that the term “free will” could be grossly misunderstood because everyone’s will is in some way bound by society.
Freud describes this overbearing consciousness of society as the “superego.” In his studies, Freud has dissected the mind into three separate spheres, the “id”, where instinct and desire resides; the “ego”, which is ones conscious self; and the “superego”, the origin of morals and of the conscience. Regardless of the physiological relevance of this schism of the mind, what Freud is trying to theorize is how the human being thinks. But the implications of this model are unique because Freud takes it a step further and applies it to society as well. “It can be asserted that community, too, evolves a super-ego under whose influence cultural development proceeds.” (Freud, 106.) This super-ego of society is the basis for the conflict between society and the individual. What Freud is pointing is that society is controlled by a conscience, just as the individual is. “Another point of agreement between the cultural and individual super-ego is that the former, just like the latter, sets up strict ideal demands, disobedience to which is visited with ‘fear of conscience’. (Freud, 107.) So if individual and cultural development are in opposition to each other and each has its own conscience, where does that leave us? As civilization becomes more complicated and absorbs more of our life and through Freud one can see that indeed it is the society whose conscience comes first over the individual.
Sociologist Max Weber used the relationship between society and the individual to explain the evolution of capitalism in terms of social development. A value system that was originated in Christian ascetic idealism, gradually found itself becoming embedded into Western society (Gramsci’s HEGEMONY). This system of values, or rationalism, was based on concept of a “peculiar ethic”, which Weber identified as “an economic spirit, or the ethos of an economic system.” (Weber, 27.) It is this spirit that has embodied society and it is this spirit, rather than the will of the individual, that wields the weapon of capitalism. “Thus the capitalism of to-day, which has come to dominate economic life, educates and selects the economic subjects which it needs through a process of economic survival of the fittest.” (Weber, 55.) Regardless of who accepts or rejects this economic system imposed by society, those who posess the instinct to survive will have no choice but to accept it.
While this religiously-influenced economic system may have once been desirable, Weber now labels it an “iron cage.” In essence, the conscience of society has superceded that of the individual. “The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order.” (Weber, 181.) But what this “Protestant ethic” has really done is force the individual to embrace capitalism and the morals which surround it as a way of life. Society has dictated that in order to succeed we must be employed and we must earn as much money as possible, even if it does not coincide with our own happiness. So, in essence, Weber is portraying society in much the same way as Freud. Weber concludes that the Protestant Ethic that society has enveloped has succeeded today in reducing employment to strictly a means of acquisition. “Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved” (Weber, 182.) Capitalism has been absorbed into the mainstream of society and accepted not only as a norm, but the only acceptable mode of acquisition.
The question of the exact nature of the relationship between the individual and society exists even today. Regardless of whether we are talking about the individual’s psyche or about his sociological development it appears that man may not have been all that difficult to master; that perhaps we can simplify our existence into terms of sexual urges or economic needs. Whether or not one subscribes to the complete hypotheses of Weber and Freud though, there is no doubt that both authors describe a society that exercises considerable control over the individual. Now as we approach the turn of the century and again experience another surge of technological development we might do good in asking ourselves how much power over our lives we have as individuals, and how much power has been subverted from us by a society which has its own “individual” needs.