Civilization and Its Discontents

Civilization and Its Discontents Themes


Freud proposes that the primal instinct of human beings is to act aggressively towards one another. In primitive societies, the head of the family gave free reign to the instinctual manifestations of his aggression at the expense of all others; in civilized society, we have restrained our inclination to aggression through the rule of law and the imposition of authority (both internal and external), to ensure the maximum security and happiness for all. While we originally entered society precisely to escape the forces of mutual aggression and self-destruction, the necessity to thwart our aggressive instincts has paradoxically caused great unhappiness, an increasingly burdensome sense of guilt, and in the most extreme cases, various forms of psychological neurosis. Individuals have consequently begun to rebel against civilization with an aggression that exceeds the level of aggression originally suppressed, threatening the disintegration of society.

The Individual and Civilization

Freud draws an extended analogy between the libidinal development of the individual and the evolution of civilization, identifying three parallel stages in which each occurs: 1) character-formation (acquisition of a distinct 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). Freud also identifies a key difference between the two processes: the program of the pleasure principle, which consists in finding and achieving happiness, is retained as the central aim of individual development; whereas in the context of civilization, personal happiness is often ignored in the interests of social unity and cohesion.

Eros and the Death Drive

The concept of a "death drive" was originally elaborated in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1927), where it was opposed to Eros, or the life instinct. Freud theorized that all subjects must maintain within the economy of their libido a balance between these two instincts or "drives." Freud invokes the concept extensively in his discussion of civilization, particularly in pointing to historical examples of violent and destructive behavior. He concludes that the entire story of civilization itself can be defined‹ - albeit in very broad terms‹ - as an ongoing and unresolved struggle between Eros and its main adversary, the death drive.

Civilization and Happiness

Freud argues that civilization is intrinsically inimical to human happiness. The process of "civilizing" the human being involves stifling many of the sexual impulses that lead most directly to pleasure. Freud also notes that participation in civilized life entails the renunciation of one's aggressive impulses. Thus, to be civilized we must do without the two strongest claims to our instincts, sex and violence. These two pleasures find sublimated outlets in various activities - sports instead of violence, for instance - but this fulfillment cannot replace the direct experience of instinct-fulfillment found in simpler social organizations. As Freud writes, "If civilization requires such sacrifices, not only of sexuality but also of the aggressive tendencies in mankind, we can better understand why it should be so hard for men to feel happy in it. In actual fact primitive man was better off in this respect, for he knew nothing of any restrictions on his instincts."

The Primal Father and his Psychological Heritage

In Totem and Taboo (1913), Freud first introduced one of his most controversial cultural speculations: he proposed that human societies were initially organized much like those of great apes, with one dominant male (the primal father) monopolizing the females. Freud suggested that eventually the displaced sons of the primal father banded together and killed their oppressive patriarch - however, this act proved deeply traumatic. According to Freud, remorse over the deed produced the first sensation of guilt, and the primal father became internalized as the prohibiting super-ego. The primal father is later manifested in the omnipotent figure of "God the father," in the deified kings of ancient civilizations, and in the charismatic patriarchal leaders of more recent history. Indeed, Freud's theory seems to anticipate the all-powerful group leaders of the years immediately following the publication of Civilization - Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin.

Conscience and the Super-Ego

Freud identifies an overwhelming sense of guilt as one of the central problems threatening modern civilization, and attributes it to the operation of the super-ego, an internal psychical agency that monitors the intentions and actions of the ego, keeping the aggressive instincts of the latter in check. Another term for the super-ego is conscience. Freud traces the formation of the super-ego back to the primordial act of rebellion against authority: the killing of the primal father by his sons, who were left with such a sense of remorse that they internalized the authority formerly represented by their father. The super-ego often puts severe demands on the individual that he cannot realistically met, causing great unhappiness. Freud also posits the existence of a collective super-ego, embodied by forceful leaders or men of great achievement, that operates on a larger scale within a given culture or society.

Critique of Organized Religion

The vast majority of men regulate their behavior according to the principles of religious doctrine, submitting their will and fate to the judgment of a God, whom Freud considers to be little more than an inflated father figure. Religion is based on the "future of an illusion" (the title of his previous essay) because it answers the central question of our purpose on earth by gesturing toward an afterlife. In the dictating a simple and clear path to happiness, religion spares the masses of their individual neuroses, but Freud sees few other benefits: if the believer were to realize the extent to which religion limits the possibilities of his happiness, his only option would become to find pleasure in "unconditional submission" to his faith. In Freud's view, there are less arduous and circuitous paths to happiness.