Freud declared the tenacious sense of guilt to be “the most important problem in the development of civilization.”
Those of us living in the developed countries of the West find ourselves in the tightening grip of a paradox, one whose shape and character have so far largely eluded our understanding. It is the strange persistence of guilt as a psychological force in modern life. If anything, the word persistence understates the matter. Guilt has not merely lingered. It has grown, even metastasized, into an ever more powerful and pervasive element in the life of the contemporary West, even as the rich language formerly used to define it has withered and faded from discourse, and the means of containing its effects, let alone obtaining relief from it, have become ever more elusive.
This paradox has set up a condition in which the phenomenon of rising guilt becomes both a byproduct of and an obstacle to civilizational advance. The stupendous achievements of the West in improving the material conditions of human life and extending the blessings of liberty and dignity to more and more people are in danger of being countervailed and even negated by a growing burden of guilt that poisons our social relations and hinders our efforts to live happy and harmonious lives.
I use the words strange persistence to suggest that the modern drama of guilt has not followed the script that was written for it. Prophets such as Friedrich Nietzsche were confident that once the modern Western world finally threw off the metaphysical straitjacket that had confined the possibilities of all previous generations, the moral reflexes that had accompanied that framework would disappear along with them. With God dead, all would indeed be permitted. Chief among the outmoded reflexes would be the experience of guilt, an obvious vestige of irrational fear promulgated by oppressive, life-denying institutions erected in the name and image of a punitive deity.
Indeed, Nietzsche had argued in On the Genealogy of Morality (1887), a locus classicus for the modern understanding of guilt, that the very idea of God, or of the gods, originated hand-in-hand with the feeling of indebtedness (the German Schuld—“guilt”—being the same as the word for “debt,” Schulden).1 The belief in God or gods arose in primitive societies, Nietzsche speculated, out of dread of the ancestors and a feeling of indebtedness to them. This feeling of indebtedness expanded its hold, in tandem with the expansion of the concept of God, to the point that when the Christian God offered itself as “the maximal god yet achieved,” it also brought about “the greatest feeling of indebtedness on earth.”
But “we have now started in the reverse direction,” Nietzsche exulted. With the “death” of God, meaning God’s general cultural unavailability, we should expect to see a consequent “decline in the consciousness of human debt.” With the cultural triumph of atheism at hand, such a victory could also “release humanity from this whole feeling of being indebted towards its beginnings, its prima causa.” Atheism would mean “a second innocence,” a regaining of Eden with neither God nor Satan there to interfere with and otherwise corrupt the proceedings.2
This is not quite what has happened; nor does there seem to be much likelihood that it will happen, in the near future. Nietzsche’s younger contemporary Sigmund Freud has proven to be the better prophet, having offered a dramatically different analysis that seems to have been more fully borne out. In his book Civilization and Its Discontents (Das Unbehagen in der Kultur), Freud declared the tenacious sense of guilt to be “the most important problem in the development of civilization.” Indeed, he observed, “the price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt.”3
Such guilt was hard to identify and hard to understand, though, since it so frequently dwelled on an unconscious level, and could easily be mistaken for something else. It often appears to us, Freud argued, “as a sort of malaise [Unbehagen], a dissatisfaction,”4 for which people seek other explanations, whether external or internal. Guilt is crafty, a trickster and chameleon, capable of disguising itself, hiding out, changing its size and appearance, even its location, all the while managing to persist and deepen.
This seems to me a very rich and incisive description, and a useful starting place for considering a subject almost entirely neglected by historians: the steadily intensifying (although not always visible) role played by guilt in determining the structure of our lives in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. By connecting the phenomenon of rising guilt to the phenomenon of civilizational advance, Freud was pointing to an unsuspected but inevitable byproduct of progress itself, a problem that will only become more pronounced in the generations to come.