Study Guide

Civilization and Its Discontents

by Sigmund Freud

Civilization and Its Discontents Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, one of his last and most influential books, treats human misery in establishing ideas about repression and the place of humans in the world. The book’s leading concepts can be traced back to Freud’s earliest pronouncements on incest in his letters to Wilhelm Fliess from the late 1890’s. A full analysis of the restrictions on the individual from external and internal forces that pave the way to civilization was not possible until Freud’s investigations of ego-psychology had led him to his hypotheses on the superego in Das Ich und das Es, 1923 (The Ego and the Id, 1926). Only by clarifying the nature of the superego and the sense of guilt—which he later declared to be the maker of civilized humanity—could he begin to explore the clash of that sense of guilt with the aggressive instinct derived from the self-destructive death drive that he had first confronted in Jenseits des Lustprinzips, 1920 (Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 1922). Using the concepts of the superego, the sense of guilt, and the aggressive instinct, Freud formulated the main theme of Civilization and Its Discontents: the ineradicable antagonism between the demands of the individual’s instincts and the restrictions of civilization.

The small book is divided into eight short chapters, each packed with complex ideas and analyses. Freud begins with a meditation on belief, discussing the “oceanic feeling”—a peculiar mood that he had found confirmed by many, in which the individual feels a sensation of “eternity,” something limitless and unbounded, and of being one with the whole external world. Although Freud admits he has not discovered this feeling within himself, he uses the concept to discuss the nursing infant who initially does not distinguish between his or her own ego and the external world. Because of internal pain and response from the external world to that pain, the infant begins the process of differentiating between what is internal (what belongs to the ego) and what is external (what emanates from the external world). In so doing, he or she arrives at the influence of the reality principle, which dominates further development, and the constructed ego, which will maintain sharp lines of demarcation toward the outside. The mature ego-feeling as separate and defined is, in fact, a shrunken residue of the all-embracing primary ego-feeling of infancy.

When this primary ego-feeling of undifferentiation persists alongside the sharply demarcated ego-feeling of maturity, the result is the “oceanic feeling.” Freud explains that what is primitive in the mind is preserved alongside the transformed. To further elucidate this concept, he uses one of his most famous analogies: As in twenty-first century Rome, underneath which there are ancient cities, so in mental life everything is preserved and, given the appropriate circumstances, can be brought back to life.

In his critique of religion, Freud maintains that in childhood, there is no need as strong as the need for a father’s protection. He traces the religious attitude in the adult back to the feeling of infantile helplessness. For the adult, likewise, a belief in God is the attempt to pacify the need for protection from the threatening dangers of the external world. The “oceanic feeling” becomes connected with religion because its recollection offers again the sense of protection and oneness and provides consolation for the imperiled ego. This throwback to infancy for consolation, Freud concludes, reveals that religion is patently infantile and foreign to reality.

Yet Freud concedes that life is hard, and that humans are faced with too many pains, disappointments, and impossible tasks. Humans therefore take palliative measures by drawing on the substitutive satisfactions offered by such deflections as art or intoxicating substances. Freud defines happiness as the absence of pain in combination with strong feelings of pleasure. In the quest for happiness, the purpose of life is the pleasure...

(The entire section is 1669 words.)