Civilization and Its Discontents

Overview

Freud enumerates what he sees as the fundamental tensions between civilization and the individual. The primary friction, he asserts, stems from the individual's quest for instinctive freedom and civilization's contrary demand for conformity and repression of instincts. Freud states that when any situation that is desired by the pleasure principle is prolonged, it creates a feeling of mild contentment. Many of humankind's primitive instincts (for example, the desire to kill and the insatiable craving for sexual gratification) are clearly harmful to the well-being of a human community. As a result, civilization creates laws that prohibit killing, rape, and adultery, and it implements severe punishments if these rules are broken. Thus our possibilities for happiness are restricted by the law. This process, argues Freud, is an inherent quality of civilization that gives rise to perpetual feelings of discontent among its citizens.

Freud's theory is based on the notion that humans have certain characteristic instincts that are immutable. These include, most notably, the desires for sex, and the predisposition to violent aggression towards authority figures and sexual competitors, who obstruct the individual's path to gratification.


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