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Last Reviewed 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 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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 2780 words.)

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