Civilization and Its Discontents

Civilization and Its Discontents Summary and Analysis of Chapters 3-4

Chapter 3

Freud begins by defending his "astonishing contention" that civilization is responsible for our misery: we organize ourselves into civilized society to escape suffering, only to inflict it back upon ourselves. Freud identifies three key historical events that produced this disillusionment with human civilization: 1) the victory of Christendom over pagan religions (Freud notes the low value placed on earthly life in Christian doctrine); 2) the discovery and conquest of primitive tribes and peoples, who appeared to Europeans to be living more happily in a state of nature; 3) scientific identification of the mechanism of neuroses, which are caused by the frustrating demands put on the individual by modern society. Antagonism toward civilization developed when people concluded that only a reduction of those demands - ‹in other words, withdrawal from the society that imposed them‹ - would lead to greater happiness.

Technology also brings the promise of better lives and greater happiness, but Freud disputes the notion that advances in technology automatically improve our quality of life. On the other hand, it is difficult to gauge the happiness of man at an earlier era because "happiness" is an essentially subjective sentiment. People in extreme situations of unhappiness might also be desensitized to their own suffering.

Civilization can be defined as the whole sum of human achievements and regulations intended to protect men against nature and "adjust their mutual relations." Technological advances have enhanced our power against nature, but also our capacities of sensory perception through such inventions as the telephone and photograph. These inventions have given man a sense of omnipotence and omniscience formerly attributed only to the gods. Freud goes so far as to call man a "prosthetic God."

In addition to protection from nature, other expectations of living in a civilized society include beauty (the aesthetic experience of various forms of art and artistic expression), cleanliness (both in terms of personal hygiene and public sanitation), order (a principle introduced by the sciences and learned from our observation of nature). Freud defends his inclusion of beauty within his list of expectations. According to him, civilization is not exclusively focused on what is useful. The cultivation of man's higher mental activities is one of civilization's central aims, and it achieves this aim in part through the production of art.

As for the regulation of our "mutual relations," a "decisive step" toward civilization lies in the replacement of the individual's power by that of the community. But this substitution henceforth restricts the possibilities of individual satisfaction in the interests of law, order, and justice. Civilized societies place the rule of law over individual instincts. Here Freud draws an analogy between the evolution of civilization and the libidinal development of the individual, identifying three parallel stages in which each occurs: 1) character-formation (acquisition of an identity); 2) sublimation (channeling of primal energy into other physical or psychological activities); 3) non-satisfaction/renunciation of instincts (burying of aggressive impulses in the individual; imposition of the rule of law in society).

Chapter 4

The communal life of human beings has its roots in the compulsion to work (created by external necessity) and the power of love (or an unwillingness to be deprived of one's sexual object). Freud conjectures that "genital erotism" spurred the formation of durable human relationships by making the satisfaction of sexual pleasure the prototype of other forms of happiness that could be achieved with and through companionship. Given the risks of love, some people make themselves independent of individual love objects and instead devote themselves to a universal love for all of mankind, typified by the Christian saints. Freud calls this phenomenon "love with an inhibited aim."

Even if one of the main purposes of civilization is to bind men "libidinally" to one another, love and civilization eventually come into conflict with one another. Freud identifies several different reasons for this later antagonism. For one, family units tend to isolate themselves and prevent individuals from detaching and maturing on their own. Women in particular have, according to Freud, a restraining influence on children and enter into opposition with civilization out of resentment over the intimacy and love that the requirements of work necessarily takes away from their marital relationships. Along these lines, civilization saps sexual energy by diverting it into cultural endeavors. It also restricts love object choices and mutilates our erotic lives. Taboos (against incest, first and foremost), laws, and customs impose further restrictions. Fear of sexual revolt leads to precautionary measures beginning in childhood. For Freud, Western European civilization represents a high water-mark in the regulation of sexuality. Even heterosexuality, freely practiced and endorsed by society, is forcibly channeled into monogamy and marriage. Even where society fails to regulate and put an end to behavior it deems transgressive, it still has a severely impairing effect on the sexual life of men.

Analysis of Chapters 3-4

A rhetorical maneuver commonly used by Freud is to introduce objections to his line of thinking from unspecific sources through a formulation such as "But here the voice of pessimistic criticism makes itself heard..." Freud's style of argumentation takes the form of a dialogue, like that of the patient-analyst relationship. In truth, Freud is not responding to an actual critic so much as he is anticipating and accounting for the possible grounds of opposition even before they are articulated. In the same vein, Freud uses passive constructions to conceal references to himself and the use of his own research in the service of his own arguments. "It was discovered that a person becomes neurotic because he cannot tolerate the amount of frustration society imposes on him" is one such example of Freud's circular and almost tautological thinking. This particular "discovery" is clearly the product of the present investigation, which Freud recasts as external verification of his claims about civilization.

The fluctuation between the first person pronoun and the collective "we" is rhetorically noteworthy because it blurs the distinction between personal observation and common knowledge. Freud often makes statements that he feels are intuitive or instinctively recognized as true or accurate, using the plural voice to present as "common sense" what is in fact a contestable interpretation or questionable assumption. Rather than define terms rigorously, he expects the reader to "be guided by linguistic usage or, as it is also called, linguistic feeling, in the conviction that we shall thus be doing justice to inner discernments which still defy expression in abstract terms."

In the short Chapter 3, Freud shows this rhetorical slipperiness most clearly. His claims are freewheeling; Freud offers little empirical evidence while attempting to lend a scientific veneer to his observations about civilization through the use of biology. His footnotes, more extensive in this chapter than in others, are replete with speculation on the social consequences of Homo Sapien assuming an erect posture, of the scent of excrement and anal erotism, of the fundamentally "bisexual" nature of human sexuality. The bizarre nature of these reflections is justified as a "digression which will enable us to fill in a gap which we left in an earlier discussion."

The misogynistic streak of Freud's thinking is in evidence in this chapter. Despite his disdainful attitude towards them, women play a pivotal and paradoxical role in the development of civilization, at once enabling its foundation and undermining the realization of its full potential. Freud's observations on "the primitive family," combined with those on the place of women in modern society, are lacking in historical perspective, and falsely assume a continuity in the gender relations undergirding the structure of the familial unit. On the other hand, Freud also acknowledges the increasingly repressive regulation of human sexuality in Western civilization. The conjoined imperatives of marriage and heterosexuality discussed at the end of the chapter are also viewed as historically recent phenomena.