Civilization and Its Discontents

by Sigmund Freud

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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 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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