Civilization and Its Discontents

by Sigmund Freud

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Civilization and Its Discontents appears as both an extremely long essay and a very slim volume, and is one of Sigmund Freud’s most significant and well-known works; it describes the clash that is inevitable between individuals and society. This struggle occurs because people desire freedom to express themselves and their instinctual drives, but society demands conformity and restrictions on those freedoms. Written in 1929 and published the following year, the book describes Freud’s own inability to experience the “religious feeling” that is such a central component of societal functioning, and although he is not religious himself he knows many people who have religious beliefs that permit them to relate more easily to their societies. Despite his own lack of religious fervor, Freud was a strong believer in the centrality of religion in human societies, how these communities develop, and how individual psychological forces must necessarily interact with forces in society. In this book, Freud also defines his classic formulation of the three forces that are inherent in every individual— the ego, the id, and the superego and questions how these forces are demonstrated by members within a community.

Another important component of this book is Freud’s discussion about the way that religion functions in society. He views religion as a type of unselfish and self-sacrificing love which is the ideal in human relationships. He speculates about whether or not societies are bound together by this unselfish love and its link to a spiritual feeling but also believes that this type of selflessness by itself cannot fully make up a society. He then discusses the way that human beings attach themselves to other people by way of sexual love. Men and women join together sexually to produce their offspring, and the sexual relationship between the parents becomes interrupted by the children and impossible to consummate. The relationship between couples is dependent on eros, the love drive, and thanatos, the death drive, which combines an intense and powerful sexual attraction with a primitive desire simultaneously to destroy those people or things that are most intimate and significant to the individual.

According to Freud, societies are large groups made up of smaller groups (i.e., the family), and societies also must act consistently with the drives of love and death. In other words, societies are bound together both by the selfish desire for freedom on an individual level and at the same time, experiences a strong desire for protection and stability within the group on the wider social level. There are other ways of explaining social organizations, such as the Golden rule in Christianity. Freud’s model, however, explains the paradox regarding the longing for individuality and freedom of the individual members of society who simultaneously crave the love, protection, and assistance of others within their group.

Freud ends the work by discussing the political climate during the late 1920s in Europe when communism and fascism were threatening to disrupt society. Freud wondered if this was representing the imminent decline of civilization, and concluded the book with a question: if societies, like individuals, can actually be overcome by an overabundance of anxiety in relation to the drives and impulses toward love and death, which he regards as a neurotic anxiety.

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