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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 324

In Civilization and its Discontents, published in 1930, Freud connects his idea of the individual psyche, bubbling with violent tendencies, to civilization as a whole. He writes that civilization as a whole asks individuals to curb the instincts that arise from the id , including the urge to kill...

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In Civilization and its Discontents, published in 1930, Freud connects his idea of the individual psyche, bubbling with violent tendencies, to civilization as a whole. He writes that civilization as a whole asks individuals to curb the instincts that arise from the id, including the urge to kill or to engage in the pleasure principle through unrestricted sexual acts. Society and the law ask humans to curb these instincts and punish acts such as murder that arise from the id. Therefore, society functions as a kind of superego, trying to limit the instincts that come from the id, and the limits that society creates make humans discontented because they can not satisfy the pleasure principle. Society is therefore a double-edged sword, as it is supposed to promote pleasure and peace but actually creates internal conflict and unease. This sense of paradox causes us discontent.

The view that Freud presents of human nature is one of darkness and violence. He also presents society as an entity in which humans seethe with discontent and the urge to break out to satisfy their primal urges. Many scholars have commented on the historical context of this work, as Freud and his contemporaries had lived through the horrors of the First World War. Many people felt that the horrors that they had witnessed, including trench warfare and gas attacks, had tainted their view of people and had caused them to think of human nature as evil and violent. Society's ability to control the dark urges of the human mind seemed feeble at best.

Freud's work seems oddly and eerily prescient, given that the Second World War and the Holocaust would erupt only a few years after his work was written. Freud himself was trapped in Nazi-controlled Austria until he escaped to England shortly before the Second World War broke out in Europe. The darkness he describes in the human mind behind the veneer of society was evident during the war.


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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 303

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.

Civilization as a Control

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 254

Civilization, which mandates the socialization of human instincts, confers many benefits in controlling realistic dangers. It also exacts a price in the suppression of intrinsic human nature.

Threats to life arise from the random destructiveness of natural events, the feebleness of our bodies, and maladjustments in human relationships. The technology of civilized society has vastly diminished these threats. It has extended human sensory capacities through microscopes and telescopes, enabled people to travel vast distances at high speeds through motorized vehicles, tamed floods through dams and controlled water channels, and extended the expected length of life. Through technology, people have become a sort of “prosthetic God.” Social organization also has evolved. The arbitrary will of the strongest individual, imposed in primitive times, becomes tempered by the will of the majority of a civilized community. Beauty, order, and cleanliness approach much higher standards in civilized societies. Regulations prescribe how tasks are to be accomplished with monotonous precision. Time becomes available for higher mental activities such as philosophical and religious concerns. Genuine progress in tackling physical threats to existence is undeniable.

These benefits have been purchased, however, at a considerable cost in diminishing the potential for human happiness. A major task of civilized social organization is that of controlling human instincts of sex and aggression lest they manifest themselves in murder, rape, and incest. The very foundations of civilization rest on the suppression and redirection of such desires. These desires are powerful and persistent. The task of controlling and channeling them is a difficult and painful one.

Sex and Aggression

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 510

Eros, or love, is a troublesome instinct. Sexual love is the glue that binds intimate relationships, but it must be rigorously controlled. The course of individual development from early childhood involves a sequence of suppressions and displacements of various forms of the sexual instinct. The toddler, for example, takes an “anal erotic” interest in the excretory function. This must yield to a conflicting disdain for dirt and excrement. The preschool child’s love for the parent of the opposite sex assumes a sexual component. Such “incestuous desires” must be suppressed and stricken from memory. Reemerging genital sexual desires during adolescence become the basis for emotional ties to a loved sex-object and the formation of a new family. Each advance toward more mature sexual expressions involves the conflict of renouncing less mature erotic urges. Few adult individuals, indeed, find all their sexual interests flowing neatly into the prescribed channels. The cultural demand for a single monogamous relationship based on a permanent bond between one man and one woman seldom permits total sexual fulfillment. Inhibited and frustrated sexuality and persistent disruptions by the residues of immature erotic desires form the common lot of humankind.

Civilized society demands displacements of erotic love even more distant from instinct-based objects. The risks of concentrating all one’s emotional involvements on a single individual who could be lost by unfaithfulness or death encourages most adults to expend some of their affection on a broader circle of friends in less erotically charged relationships, in “aim-inhibited love.” Civilization depends on such emotional ties to broader communities. The pleasure such ties can give is much weaker and more muted than the pleasures of erotic fulfillment. Mentors implore us to observe such unrealistic injunctions for aim-inhibited love as the Christian admonition to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” A serious attempt to observe such an admonition would spread an individual’s love impossibly thin. It would, moreover, disadvantage those vulnerable people who in observing this admonition fail to react to enemies with appropriate assertiveness.

Civilization demands even more rigid controls on aggression than on sex. Aggression is instinctive in its origin, built into human nature. Although earlier viewed in psychoanalysis as a derivative of self-preservation motives, aggression is more aptly treated as an intrinsic derivative of the unconscious desire of organisms to “return to the inorganic state,” a death instinct. Aggression is everywhere and exists regardless of the way a particular society is organized. The Marxist view of aggression as a mere side-effect of the ownership of private property is most assuredly wrong. Aggression is expressed in young children before they have any concept of property. Differences in talents and status would still spawn aggressive competition even if private property were abolished. Even the most brutal forms of aggression can be rationalized as virtuous acts. The most savage acts of crusading Christians were considered to have a high moral purpose. Remarkably similar competing groups search for small differences and build hatreds on these differences. Although sublimated aggression sometimes inspires the competitive uses of talent, this instinct more commonly has destructive consequences.

Guilt and Other Responses

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 474

Compounding the anxiety and malaise of the civilized condition is guilt. Guilt originates in the social anxiety experienced by transgressing children who anticipate punishment and rejection by their seemingly omnipotent, protecting parents. Such anxious guilt experienced after forbidden deeds or even thoughts becomes automatic and “internalized” as a part of one’s own personality in the conscience or “superego.” The superego, a residue of parental values, is oppressive, absolute, punitive, and irrational. The pain of guilt may be experienced after perfectly sensible acts that violate taboos that remain from resisting the unconscious impulses of early childhood. Guilt may be felt as a consequence of impulse-driven thoughts and fantasies never carried out or even expressed in words. An irony of nature is that the people most moral in actions are those who most inhibit impulses and who most torture themselves with guilt. The people of Israel in biblical times, for example, whose priestly religion prescribes “overly strict commandments,” were obsessively condemned by their prophets for “sinfulness.” Guilt continuously inhibits the capacity for spontaneous joy among civilized human beings.

The defenses of everyday life help but a little. One can withdraw from emotional involvements with others and thereby protect oneself against the wounds of social rejection. One can attempt a quiet happiness from the mastery of internal needs as recommended by the percepts of Eastern religions. One can sublimate passions by the creation of artistic beauty or by the solution of scientific riddles. One can temporarily lose oneself in erotic love. One can release pent-up instincts and accept the anguish that follows such short-lived pleasures. One can seek escape through intoxicating substances that dull pain.

One common solution to the stresses of life is an involvement with the various illusions provided by religion. Such illusions are particularly convincing because they are supported by social consensus. In the earlier stages of childhood, the helpless infant longs for the powerful and supportive father in whose hands he or she feels safe. The believer faces the dangers of the world by transferring this infantile fantasy of the powerful father to an image of God. For the religious person, the purpose of life is defined and the frustrations and injustices of life are compensated in the hereafter. An “oceanic feeling” of spiritual union with the universe reported by religious people involves a psychological retreat to the period of earliest infancy before any distinction is made between oneself and the surrounding world. Freud regarded most such religious experiences as “patently infantile” escapes from reality.

Unfulfilled but incessant sexual passions, simmering anger, the self-flagellations of conscience, and the cruelties of nature and bodily decay are the lot of civilized human beings. Neither love, drink, madness, enjoyment of beauty, involvement in work, nor the consolations of religion provide a permanent escape from this fate. Whether civilization will endure is still an open question.

Impact and Subsequent Views

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 380

Because Freud’s work fit the temper of the bleak times, it proved astonishingly popular and the first edition quickly sold out. In subsequent years, various schools of thought within psychology and psychoanalysis have each in their own way softened the gloomy thesis of this work. Psychoanalysts of the next generation gave renewed emphasis on the part of personality Freud called the ego. The ego is the reasoning part of personality that makes sense out of the world and adjusts instinctive demands realistically. Not only did the newer generation of psychoanalysts hold that the ego was stronger than maintained by Freud, but they held that this ego had its own motives for developing and expressing the individual’s own talents. To the ego psychoanalysts, instincts became less threatening after they were molded by the human capacity to reason.

An important movement within post-1950 psychology was even more antagonistic to Freud’s pessimistic thesis. This movement, called humanistic psychology, was identified with the psychotherapeutic method of Carl Rogers. To Rogers, the vital and often hidden part of the human personality is its built-in potential for growth. Each of us is born with possibilities for creative achievement and love that can be thwarted only if we are kept from actualizing ourselves. Our nature is basically good. Humanistic psychology represented a full-circle return to Rousseau’s thesis of the noble human corrupted by an ignoble society.

Freudian views seem to many current psychologists too gloomy an interpretation of the human condition, and certainly too simplistic in view of what is now known about bodily chemistry and its effect on the brain and human emotions. Yet few would consider Freud’s views entirely wrong, and they retain their import for philosophy. If spontaneously expressed impulses of the real self are not always depraved, neither are they always virtuous. Many psychologists have dealt with criminals who seem to feel quite good about themselves after perpetrating spontaneous acts of great brutality. All humans some of the time and some humans most of the time have a darker side than is acknowledged by the humanists. Civilization and Its Discontents, which acts as a counterbalance to the pre-Freudian optimism of Rousseau and the post-Freudian optimism of humanistic psychology, remains among the most widely read of Freud’s books.


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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 535

Additional Reading

Bettelheim, Bruno. Freud and Man’s Soul. New York: Vintage, 1984. Bettelheim argues that the erroneous translation of Freud’s most important concepts has led us to view his work as primarily scientific. In fact, Freud is always deeply personal in his appeals to humanity, and he writes not of what has been mistakenly translated as “mind” or “intellect” but of the soul (die Seele).

Clark, Ronald W. Freud: The Man and the Cause, a Biography. New York: Random House, 1980. This is a very readable biography, which is especially good in its treatment of Sigmund Freud’s private life.

Frankland, Graham. Freud’s Literary Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A study that argues for the influence of literary themes on the development of Freud’s thinking.

Fromm, Erich. Greatness and Limitations of Freud’s Thought. New York: Harper and Row, 1980. This is a critique of Freud by a dissenting psychoanalyst. Fromm believed that Freud exaggerated the role of sex in determining human behavior and that Freud’s concept of love was narrow and self-serving.

Gay, Peter. Freud: A Life for Our Time. New York: Norton, 1988. In this important biography, Gay discusses in exhaustive detail the entire span of Freud’s life, in the process revealing enough conundrums to pique the interest of any psychoanalyst. He devotes an entire chapter to Civilization and Its Discontents, including circumstances that precipitated the writing of the book such as the horrors of World War I and the nature of the Jewish diaspora.

Grubrich-Simitis, Ilse. Back to Freud’s Texts: Making Silent Documents Speak. Translated by Philip Slotkin. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996. This important contribution to the study of Freud offers understanding of the man as a writer as well as insight into Freud’s creative process. The text details the history of Freud’s German-language publications and examines key works.

Ricoeur, Paul. Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation. Translated by Denis Savage. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1970. Ricoeur provides an unusual survey of Freudian thought, focusing on language and symbolism with an insightful reading of Civilization and Its Discontents, the primordial mutual hostility of humans, and the cultural function of guilt.

Rieff, Philip. Freud: The Mind of the Moralist. 3d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979. Rieff provides clarity to one of the more difficult concepts of Civilization and Its Discontents: the relationship between civilization and its treacherous ally, neuroses. Rieff analyzes Freud’s ambivalence toward repressive culture and his regard for health at the expense of culture.

Rosenzweig, Saul. Freud, Jung, and Hall the King Maker: The Historical Expedition to America. St. Louis, Mo.: Rana House, 1993. Rosenzweig describes Freud’s only visit to the United States in 1909. The 1909 expedition was important because it introduced Americans to the theory and development of psychoanalysis and allowed Freud to interact with Carl Gustav Jung, and G. Stanley Hall, the organizer of the visit. Text includes completed correspondence between Freud and Hall.

Volosinov, V. N. Freudianism: A Critical Sketch. Translated by I. R. Titunik. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. Volosinov provides a useful chapter, “Freudian Philosophy of Culture,” in which he elaborates on such central issues of Civilization and Its Discontents as social solidarity and cultural creativity.

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