Civilization and Its Discontents Analysis

Sigmund Freud


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

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

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...

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Guilt and Other Responses

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...

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Impact and Subsequent Views

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.


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...

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