Civilization and Its Discontents

Civilization and Its Discontents Study Guide

Civilization and Its Discontents, which Freud wrote in the summer of 1929, compares "civilized" and "savage" human lives in order to reflect upon the meaning of civilization in general. Like many of his later works, the essay generalizes the psycho-sexual theories that Freud introduced earlier in his career - the Oedipal conflict, the theories of sexual impulses, repression, displacement and sublimation. Whereas before Freud was interested in specific neurotics, one might say that in Civilization Freud expands his interest to identifying the neurotic aspects of society itself. He extends his inquiry from man-in-particular to man-in-general.

The work is frankly pessimistic in tone, and many commentators have attributed this dark view to the devastating experience of the First World War. This horrible conflict seems to have justified his insistence on the violent and cruel nature of humanity. Earlier, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Freud revised his earlier thesis that human beings are driven by a desire for erotic fulfillment by proposing that humans are equally driven by a desire for destruction. This theory of the "death-drive," which Freud formulated in the midst of the war, finds a wider application in Civilization.

From a chronological standpoint, this essay extends most immediately on Freud's reflections in The Future of an Illusion (1927), in which Freud describes organized religion as a collective neurosis. Freud argues that religion performed a great service for civilization by taming asocial instincts and creating a sense of community around a shared set of beliefs, but it has also exacted an enormous psychological cost to the individual by making him perpetually subordinate to the primal father figure embodied by God. An avowed atheist, Freud refines his theories in Civilization and Its Discontents to outline more emphatically the relation between psychoanalysis and religion, as well as between the individual and civilization.

Published in 1930, Civilization and Its Discontents has never been out-of-print. It was perhaps Freud's most widely-read essay during his lifetime and it continues to be among his most influential studies. It stands as an authoritative analysis of culture and human civilization, made more relevant by the atrocities committed in the following decades, particularly the Nazi Holocaust, Stalinist genocides, and nuclear bombs dropped on civilian populations in Japan. Some have pointed to the prophetic nature of Freud's observations about the destructive currents running throughout human civilization; indeed, Adolf Hitler's 1933 rise to power by democratic majority found in Freud a personal historical witness to the phenomenon that he had previously attempted to account for in psychoanalytic terms in his writings.