Civilization and Its Discontents is a work of social commentary by the physician-psychotherapist who founded psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. The early twentieth century when Freud first introduced psychoanalysis was a time of profound optimism. Thought was influenced by several strands of philosophy that assumed progress. Still popular nineteenth century utilitarian philosophers believed that individuals could rationally seek pleasure and avoid pain, and influential social critics such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx viewed humans as corrupted by evil social conditions but fundamentally virtuous. Obvious nineteenth century progress in scientifically based technology contributed to the optimism. By the turn of the century, social thought was dominated by a smug conviction that rational science would soon unlock the keys to existence itself.
Freud’s social views, based on the dreams and fantasies of his troubled patients, stood in stark contrast to this optimism. Human beings, to Freud, from earliest childhood were dominated by unconscious conflicts surrounding the sexual instinct. By 1930 when Civilization and Its Discontents appeared, Freud’s views had evolved to consider human nature as equally obsessed by another powerful instinct, destructive aggression. Not since the writings of English philosopher Thomas Hobbes in 1651 had such a bleak picture of humankind been presented. Hobbes had described the human condition as a “war of every man against every man” and felt humans needed strong controls imposed from without by a powerful ruler. Freud viewed the main checks on this human potential for destructive aggression to lie within, a tyrannical conscience imposing its burden of irrational guilt. Freud saw these controls as precariously balanced. At any time, this destructive aggression could be unleashed on humankind. As the economic depression of the 1930’s deepened and German Nazi Adolf Hitler emerged the dominant leader of all Europe, Freud spent his last years with the conviction this pessimism was not misplaced.