Civilization and Its Discontents

by Sigmund Freud
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 489

Civilization and its Discontents is a seminal text in the field of psychology, written by Austrian psychologist (and founder of psychoanalysis) Sigmund Freud, published in 1930. The book comprises eight chapters.

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In the first chapter, Freud discusses an "oceanic" feeling that he locates as the source of religious energy. According to a former acquaintance of Freud's (a poet), experiencing this "oceanic" feeling of "otherness" is sufficient to call oneself religious in the absence of one's affiliation with organized religion. Also in this chapter, Freud discusses the difference between the superego (which controls human behavior), ego (which determines how human's make decisions and behave among one another in practical affairs) and the id (which represents subconscious desires). Freud suggests that as an individual ages, they must reconcile their internal self with the external world.

In the second chapter, Freud both remarks that religion is at odds with Western society's high achievements in the arts and sciences, as the latter is a product of mature thinking, the former of infantile helplessness. Freud also describes pleasure as discernible only by the absence of pain.

In the third chapter discusses happiness and unhappiness. Freud says that unhappiness can be caused by the "superior power of nature" (ch. 3), the limitations of the human body, and human relationships. Freud also remarks on the futility of trying to measure such an abstract concept as human happiness.

In chapter 4, Freud introduces what he perceives as two types of love: sexual love and family love. The latter, he concludes is an inhibited form of former. Freud also comments that the family unit and union between a man and women is actually rooted in sexuality and basic needs (i.e., it was more expedient for a man to have a women to provide certain needs while the man provided others).

Chapter 5 discusses the concept of Christian love, specifically the injunction to love one's neighbor and enemy. Freud argues that to love these people is not only inefficient, but renders the concept of love meaningless. On the contrary, one should be aggressive to one's neighbors.

In chapter 6, Freud introduces the idea of a death instinct in addition to the love instinct. The instinct to love holds individuals together in a society, while the death instinct seeks to cause self-inflicted harm and dissolve societal units.

Chapter 7 discusses the superego at great length. Freud claims that the superego is especially active in virtuous people, who are constantly seeking to improve their own flaws. The superego's moral compass is supplied by one's experience with parental authority.

Chapter 8 posits the idea that societies evolve as children do. Therefore, mature societies have a more developed and active superego that can govern itself. Freud also contends that civilizations produce guilt in individuals, which is a form of aggression focused inward. Man has conquered nature, Freud notes, and so now will naturally focus on Eros (the love instinct), and it is not clear whether mankind will be successful.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1669

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 principle; however, all the rules of the universe run counter to it. Humans are threatened with suffering from three sources: the body, the external world, and the relations to others.

In opposition to the external world, humans have become members of a community within which individuals work for the good of all and for which the individuals attempt to control their instincts. The aim of the pleasure principle is not relinquished, but a measure of protection against suffering is secured by means of sublimating instincts. Work, both physical and intellectual, yields pleasure and provides security within the human community. Another method by which humans strive to gain pleasure is in loving and being loved, although it is in this state that humans are the most defenseless against suffering. Religion also offers a path to happiness and protection from suffering, but Freud sees it as doing so by restricting choice, decreasing the value of life, distorting the picture of the real world, and placing believers in a state of psychic infantilism that draws them into a mass delusion. Freud’s critical analysis of religion seems particularly germane to the phenomenon of religious cults.

Freud goes on to suggest that happiness is so hard to achieve because of the superior power of nature, the feebleness of the human body, and the inadequacy of the artificial regulations that maintain relations in the family, state, and society. Civilization serves two purposes: to protect humans against nature and to regulate human relations. Some nevertheless argue that civilization is largely responsible for human misery. There are those, for example, who cannot tolerate the frustrations that society imposes in the service of cultural ideals. Civilization (like human activity) strives toward goals of utility and a measured yield of pleasure. Yet, because the power of the community is in opposition to the power of the individual, community is possible only when a majority is stronger than any separate individual. The final outcome of law is a sacrifice of the individual’s instincts; members of a community restrict themselves in their possible satisfaction because justice demands that no one escape these restrictions. The struggle of humanity centers on the claim of the individual and the cultural claims of the group. Using suppression and repression, civilization is built on a renunciation of instinct. If, however, a deprived instinct of satisfaction is not compensated, Freud warns, disorders will ensue.

Freud states that although Eros (love) and Ananke (necessity) are the driving forces of civilization, the tendency of civilization is to restrict sexual life (the vital drive of Eros) as it expands the culture unit. The founding of families made genital eroticism central while also restricting it; humans made themselves dependent on a chosen love-object and, in so doing, exposed themselves to extreme suffering. Since, moreover, a community requires a single kind of sexual life, it is necessarily intolerant of deviation from the norm, which leads to potentially serious injustices when deviation is judged as perversion. Freud maintains that humans are organisms with a bisexual disposition but that the sexual life of civilized humans is severely circumscribed by heterosexuality. Civilization summons up aim-inhibited libido to strengthen the communal bond through friendship, but for this to be fulfilled, sexual restrictions are unavoidable.

Freud goes on to insist that the golden rule (“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”) cannot be recommended as reasonable. Humans are aggressive, not gentle, and one’s neighbor is one who tempts, exploits, rapes, steals, humiliates, and even kills. Aggression is an instinctual disposition and forces civilization into a high expenditure of energy because instinctual passions are stronger than reason. It is, for example, possible to bind a number of people in love only as long as there are other people to receive their aggressiveness. The Jewish people, Freud observes, have served civilizations in this way for centuries. Civilization is a process in the service of Eros to combine individuals, families, races, peoples, and nations into greater unities, but the inclination to aggression constitutes the greatest impediment to such bonds. The evolution of civilization, the human species’ struggle for life, is the struggle between Eros (life) and Thanatos (death).

Civilization inhibits aggressiveness that opposes it by sending that aggressiveness back where it came from—to the ego of the individual, where it is internalized as the superego. In the form of conscience or guilt, the superego then sets up an agency within the individual to disarm the dangerous desire for aggression. Threatened external unhappiness—loss of love or punishment by an external authority—is exchanged for a permanent internal unhappiness caused by the tension of guilt. Paradoxically, Freud points out, the instinctual renunciation imposed by the external world creates the conscience which then demands further instinctual renunciation. Remorse, he writes, presupposes that a conscience is already in place when a misdeed takes place.

The price paid for the advance in civilization is a loss of individual happiness through the heightening of guilt. The development of the individual is a product of the interaction of two urges, the urge toward happiness, called “egoistic,” and the urge toward union with others in the community, called “altruistic.” Because these two urges oppose each other, individual development and cultural development are in hostile and irreconcilable opposition. The cultural superego develops its ideals under the heading of ethics, but the commandment “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is an excellent example, notes Freud, of the unpsychological proceedings of that cultural superego. The commandment is impossible to fulfill, and those who follow it only put themselves at a disadvantage toward those who disregard it.

Freud is skeptical of the enthusiastic affirmation of civilization as the most precious possession of human beings. In conclusion, he offers no consolation, predictions, or even speculations but merely poses two fateful questions: To what extent will cultural development succeed in mastering the disturbances to communal life caused by the human instincts of aggression and self-destruction, and will immortal Eros make a sufficiently powerful effort to assert himself in the struggle with that equally powerful adversary, Death? Civilization and Its Discontents represents the summing up of a lifetime of reflection and invention from one of the twentieth century’s greatest thinkers.

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