Eros and Civilization (Marcuse)

Marcuse reworks Freud’s categories from the individual to society. To paraphrase Henry van Til, Marcuse is Freud externalized. There is a dialectic between the Eros principle and the Thanatos principle. In order for civilization to thrive, it has to suppress the libido, the free drive.

Freud identifies civilization with repression.

The Frankfurt end-game is a “non-repressive civilization” (Marcuse 5). “The very achievements of repression seem to create the preconditions for the gradual abolition of repression.” “The reality principle materializes in a system of institutions” (15). In other words, our continually suppressing the Eros-drive reshapes our very psychology which is further instantiated in institutions. Yet this pleasure principle remains latent in civilization.

Man experiences a dialectical conflict between the “life instinct” (Eros) and the death instinct (Thanatos). Key argument: man’s primary mental processes are sustained by the life principle, which is the pleasure principle. The problem: how can man continue in civilization if civilization is a suppressing of this life principle?

Key argument: correlation between progress and “guilty feeling” (78). Civilization will be violent in its structure because civilization is simply an expanding of the Father-figure, against whom the sons will always war. technology allows man to increase output while minimizing input, thus freeing “time” for Eros. In other words, in previous eras an emphasis on Eros meant denying civilization, but now with technology we can emphasize Eros while promoting civilization (93).

But the “Regime” (for lack of a better word) won’t allow this to continue uncontrolled, for if man is utterly free, then he is free from external control. How will the Regime do this? Possibly by technology, since technology can abolish both the individual and the “social function of the family” (96). Since technology has negated the family, who is the new father-figure? The corporo-capitalist bureaucracy. Marcuse notes, “Social control and cohesion are strong enough to protect the whole from direct aggression, but not strong enough to eliminate the accumulated aggressiveness” (101).

Key argument: Man’s history represents a splitting between the fantasy principle and the reason-principle (142). Man has a divided ego. For Marcuse aesthetics is self-defeating. If art is committed to form, then it is negated for it cannot then pursue freedom. Form = negation.

reason has been reduced to the rationality principle (159). Narcissus gazes into the river, which symbolizes the flux of time. Narcissus and Orpheus represent latent desires which are at odds with rationality-principle.

Kant: the aesthetic judgment is the realm where sense and imagination meet; it is the medium b/t freedom and nature.

Marcuse wants to use Kant and Schiller’s aesthetic to base a non-repressive civilization, one that contains a new rationality-principle. But here is the problem: Marcuse claims to unify art with reason, but most of his discussion (184-185) seems like an antagonism between the two. For Marcuse sees art-beauty as arising from the dark, latent forces.

Combine this with the Eroticization of society where one frees the libido from non-repressive civilization, and you have the nightmare which is modern art. This explains why most National Endowment for the Arts is pornographic and interested in bodily fluids. They take the correct insight that we have these dark, primal forces and they externalize them in society.


(1) Marcuse has put his finger on the tendency of modern industrial world to alienate workers, and this alienation often moves in dialectical ways.

(2) Marcuse points out the dangers of reducing economics to simply raising production while lowering costs–such leads to alienation (156).


(1) As Nancy Holland notes, “ Although scarcity may not have seemed to be an irreducible given when Marcuse wrote his book, the limits of the world’s supply of food, water, energy, and even clean air are now all too obvious” (Holland 76).

(2) As it stands Freud’s apparent definition of freedom is untenable: freedom from authority (be it ego or society) to pursue the id. Such chaos would necessarily reduce to anarchy, which is no freedom at all. How far does Marcuse go with this? I can sense he rejects (correctly) Freud on the personal level but applies him on the social level.


Author: Ephraim's Arrow

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, charismatic gifts

1 thought on “Eros and Civilization (Marcuse)”

  1. Put in Marcuse’s terms, sometimes I think the idealized Freudian social matrix would look like the Grand Inquisitor from Dostoevsky or Huxley’s Brave New World. The repression of eros is through calculated, programmed channels for its expression. The chaos is contained properly. It’s an orgy with rules. And there are the few, brave, sacrificed souls who have to bear the weight of knowledge to keep the system functioning. Maybe it’s like the Giver or Plato’s Republic, or maybe it’s like today where our college hedonists burn themselves out and turn from sex and drugs to business and capital managing.

    All in all, it sounds nightmarish. I’d rather take my chances with the twisted hearts of men.


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