Civilization and Its Discontents | Study Guide

Sigmund Freud

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Civilization and Its Discontents | Chapter 2 | Summary



Freud holds nothing back when talking about religion, calling it "patently infantile" and unrealistic in its insistence on an all-powerful male deity who can be placated by prayer to affect the course of a believer's life. Yet in the same paragraph, Freud also condemns those thinkers who try to replace the concept of God with something more abstract and impersonal—as if this makes the idea of a deity more plausible. Although he has different reasons for doing so, Freud says he would join with believers in calling this blasphemy.

Then he quotes Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), the great German writer, who said science and art are the substance of true religion. As in Chapter 1, Freud takes a psychoanalytic view of this statement to come to a conclusion about what religion is. He begins by saying people take one of three approaches when faced with the pain and sorrow of life. They either distract themselves, substitute other pleasurable activities, or use drugs and alcohol to numb themselves.

He then asks to which category religion belongs: distraction, substitution, or intoxication? To find the answer he first takes a step back. He says everyone generally assumes the goal of life is to be happy: to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. But right away there is a problem. People can never be more than momentarily happy because of the world's realities. Suffering surrounds everyone: nature attacks, bodies decay, and other people get in the way.

Freud says all the world's religions realize happiness is fleeting, so they don't make happiness their aim. Their goal is more modest: to prevent pain. They prescribe methods either to keep people from having desires in the first place, as in yoga and other Eastern systems, or by tamping down and reining in desires. But the relief this brings is nowhere near as strong as the relief of giving in and indulging one's desires. This reduces both the appeal and the success of such religious methods.

Freud continues to refine his analysis of the various ways people can distract themselves from the pain and suffering of reality and substitute other pleasures for it. Intoxicants are effective, Freud claims, but they can cause physical problems. They also divert energy people might use to improve their external conditions.

Some people do not turn away from the world. They embrace it, finding joy in beauty or in loving and being loved. But beauty can only distract from suffering, not end it, and love is a recipe for disappointment, Freud says. "We are never so desolate as when we have lost the object of our love or its love for us."

Another approach to dealing with the pain of the world is to escape from it through the imagination's illusions. People know such illusions are not real, unlike the illusions afforded by religion. Yet this approach fails as well, Freud says.

Finally he comes to those who reject reality entirely, trying to reinterpret it and convince themselves by means of wishful thinking their delusion is the truth. He says religion is just such a mass delusion. "Of course, no one who still shares a delusion will ever recognize it as such," he writes.

Freud concludes the chapter by saying individuals must find their own way to cope with life's unavoidable vicissitudes. Happiness will never be fully attainable, but through trial and error people can find a way to be as happy as possible. Interestingly, Freud frames this in religious terms: "Everyone must discover for himself how he can achieve salvation." If all else fails, he notes sardonically, there is always madness or chronic intoxication. Even this would be better than religion, in Freud's view. In the chapter's closing he blasts religion for forcing a one-size-fits-all prescription for happiness on everyone, regardless of their personality type. He chastises religion for being unrealistic, delusional, and irrational. Yes, it can save some people from neurosis, but only at the cost of treating adults like infants. Even then, religion is no more capable of providing happiness than any other method. Freud rails against those who seek consolation in passive acceptance of the "inscrutable" will of God. Not only is this ineffective, it infantilizes them.


Freud uses the word libido many times in this chapter. Freud's own understanding of the word evolved over the course of his career, and later psychologists added their own interpretations to it as well. What Freud meant in 1929 when he was writing this book is somewhat different than what he meant a quarter of a century earlier when he first introduced the term.

The word libido first appeared in 1905 in Freud's book Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. As the title indicates, libido then had an explicitly sexual connotation for him. Freud believed the libido, or sex drive, is as primal and strong as hunger: and like hunger, it exists in some form even in infants. As a child grows, the object of this sexual drive changes, but at all life stages libido is opposed by society's rules, which are then internalized in an individual's superego. When libido is thwarted in this way, it can turn into mental problems Freud called neuroses. This is where a process called sublimation comes in. Freud believed one way people can avoid neurosis is to voluntarily channel, or sublimate, their sexual energy into nonsexual activities. Involuntarily directing libido toward other goals is called displacement.

By the time Freud wrote Civilization and Its Discontents, his understanding of libido had evolved. This was partly because of the work of one of his closest disciples, the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung. Although the two parted company in 1912, when Jung published a paper saying libido wasn't specifically sexual, Freud eventually came to share that view. So when Freud writes about libido in this chapter, he means it in a broader sense, as a drive toward life. Libido can be associated with sex, but it can also be associated with what Freud called Eros, or love.

In this chapter Freud also talks a lot about the inevitability of bodily suffering. This is one of the three primary reasons people can't be permanently happy, he says. Freud writes from personal experience here. In 1923 he consulted doctors about a growth in his mouth. His doctors realized it was advanced cancer, stemming from years of heavy smoking. But they operated without telling Freud what was really wrong with him. Freud suffered life-threatening complications from this surgery and endured more than three dozen other operations in the last 16 years of his life. Every day was filled with pain. Toward the end of his life he even had to wear an artificial device to cover part of his jaw and a hole in the roof of his mouth. Although he continued treating patients until two months before his death, Freud knew all too well how physical suffering can prevent happiness.

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