Civilization and Its Discontents | Study Guide

Sigmund Freud

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Civilization and Its Discontents | Chapter 1 | Summary



The first paragraph of this chapter praises a man Freud never identifies by name. This man is known from other sources to be Romain Rolland, a French writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1915. Freud considered Rolland a close friend and shared early drafts of his books and articles with him, including those dealing with Freud's theories about the function of religion in human psychology.

In books such as The Future of an Illusion (1927), which preceded Civilization and Its Discontents by three years, Freud bluntly calls religion a false belief born out the fervent desire for an all-powerful being who can protect people. "What is characteristic of illusions is that they are derived from human wishes," Freud wrote in that book. Although Rolland agrees religion is both false and illusory, he tells Freud this is not the cause of religious feeling. Rolland says he and millions of others often feel a sense of deep connection with something bigger than both time and space, and this "oceanic feeling" is the true source of religion.

Freud says he has never felt this himself, so he finds it difficult to believe such a feeling exists in others. He even calls it "bizarre." But Freud is objective enough to say he is not entitled to dismiss the existence of such an emotion just because he has never experienced it. He embarks on a reasoning process to confirm or deny Rolland's theory this oceanic feeling is the fons et origo—the source and origin, in Latin—of all religion.

Freud decides he must look to the psychoanalytic method he invented to trace the development of these oceanic feelings. This leads him to talk about the ego, or each person's sense of self; and the id, each person's unconscious. The ego's hallmark is its sense of individual boundaries, of being distinct not only from others but from the world. This is the opposite of Rolland's sense of belonging to the universe. Freud can think of only two times when the ego loses its sense of discrete boundaries. One is when a person is in love. Freud uses the term "erotic passion" but he does not mean this in a strictly sexual sense. The other time is when someone is suffering from a psychological disorder.

So far Freud isn't finding any support for Rolland's theory about the source of religious feeling, but he keeps trying. He reviews how human beings develop psychologically from birth to adulthood. In this process the ego develops gradually. Newborns do not feel themselves separate from their caregivers or the world. Freud wonders if this lack of separation might persist and lead to the oceanic feeling. Is this the fountain from which religion flows?

Before he can accept this, however, Freud wonders if it is reasonable to assume something so primitive could survive alongside the more developed ego structures in an adult. Freud works through three different analogies as he tries to answer this question. He notes both primitive and evolved species exist side by side in the world. He weaves a rich and complex story about the history of Rome, from ancient times to the 20th century, noting the ruins standing alongside modern buildings. But Freud dismisses this historical example as "absurd" because in a city one cannot see in one spot all the structures that have risen and fallen over time. Since old and new cannot occupy the same space all at once, how can a primitive psychological state such as this oceanic feeling persist into adulthood?

Freud then switches to a different analogy, that of the body, whether animal or human. But the same problem arises. As the individual grows and the body changes, no trace of earlier structures remains. "The embryo cannot be discovered in the adult," Freud writes.

Finally he concludes there is no analogy, either in history or in biology, for an earlier form persisting after development. Yet it appears to be true in psychology, Freud asserts. Although primitive mental states do not persist in every person's mind, they do in some people. Freud believes this persistence of fundamental psychological states may be the rule for the majority of individuals. He is willing to concede his lack of feeling an eternal or oceanic link to the universe might put him in the minority. Although he cannot feel this sense of connection, many others do.

Nonetheless, he refuses to believe this oceanic feeling is the source of human religion. He continues to insist religion stems from a newborn's utter dependency on its parents and the consequent longing for a strong, protective father figure. "I cannot cite any childish need that is as strong as the need for paternal protection," Freud writes.

Freud concludes the chapter with a reference to an unnamed friend who practices yoga and meditation. It's not clear whether Freud is being sarcastic when he says these practices have made his friend "virtually omniscient." But Freud does reject his friend's conclusion these mystical techniques are a beneficial way to reconnect people with the primitive oceanic feeling within them. He ends with a quote from Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805), the philosophical German poet, who compares the rational intellect to a "roseate light." Clearly Freud is expressing a preference for reason over mysticism.


Freud invented psychoanalysis in the 1890s. Psychoanalysis is both a theory of how the human mind works and also a therapeutic method to help people better understand themselves to be relieved from mental and emotional suffering. In the first few pages of this chapter, Freud sketches a succinct but incomplete outline of his psychoanalytic theory. He uses the following words in a technical way: ego, id, object, pleasure principle, reality principle, and unconscious. To more clearly understand the assumptions behind Freud's statements in this chapter, it is helpful to define these terms.

Freud claims three different aspects of the mind fight for control in every person. The ego is the sense of self, a unique personal identity each of us possesses. The superego is a kind of conscience. It is the framework of values, ideals, and moral codes instilled in every individual by their families and by the society in which they are raised. The id is unconscious, beyond our awareness, and it is powerful. The id doesn't care about anything or anyone else, those "objects," as Freud calls them, existing outside the self. The id seethes with the basic drives of life, the unquenchable desire for food, sex, and survival. According to Freud the id wants what it wants—and it wants it right now. This is the basis of what Freud calls the pleasure principle.

It is easy to see how in this psychological system the ego of every individual would be caught in the middle of a never-ending conflict between the self-centered id and the rules and regulations imposed by the superego. In addition, the ego is constantly struggling to keep the boundless desires of the id in check as they meet the obstacles imposed by people and other objects in the outside world. This is what Freud means by the reality principle. As a child grows into an adult, the goal is to gradually overcome the incessant demands of the pleasure-oriented id to build a strong ego based on reality.

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