Civilization and Its Discontents | Study Guide

Sigmund Freud

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Civilization and Its Discontents | Chapter 3 | Summary



In this chapter Freud tackles what he sees as perhaps the most challenging obstacle to personal happiness: other people. On the first page he notes civilization, which people created to protect them from danger and ensure their survival and happiness, is paradoxically the source of their misery. This is the book's central claim; Freud refers to the problem as "hostility to civilization."

Freud targets two sources of this hostility. The first source is Christianity and its "devaluation of earthly life." The second is the European belief primitive people were happier because they lived simpler lives with fewer rules and conventions. This is a fallacy; many early societies had complex rules. But this hasn't stopped many Europeans from continuing to believe in the myth.

Those who don't believe in the inherent joys of an allegedly simple, natural life claim the advances of science and technology make our lives much happier today than they were in the past. But Freud points out the same technologies enabling people to stay in touch with distant family members also make it possible for them to move away in the first place. Even the reduction in child mortality is a mixed blessing, he says, because it means people must now restrain their libidos to balance the lower death rate with a lower birth rate.

At this point Freud realizes he needs to define the term civilization, calling it the "total of those achievements and institutions that distinguish our life from that of our animal ancestors." Civilization is designed to protect its members both from nature and from each other. Going all the way back to primitive humans' development of tools and the use of fire, Freud embarks on a circuitous history of civilization broad enough to include everything from fairy tales to technology. The latter has even allowed people to become almost as powerful as the gods they once invented. Technology has allowed humans to come close to this kind of godhood: close, but not quite there. In a humorous analogy, Freud says humankind is like a "god with artificial limbs." Devices like telescopes and telephones can help extend humanity's reach, but they are not an integral or organic part of people's bodies.

Meanwhile civilization makes contradictory demands. It demands its members use machinery and technology to subdue nature and create safety, order, and cleanliness. But it simultaneously insists on the opposite: making room for the untamed wildness of nature so people can revere its beauty.

Another aspect of civilization is pivotal: the regulation of relationships between its individual members. Otherwise anarchy would reign and the strongest could have whatever they wanted regardless of fairness or justice. "The replacement of the power of the individual by that of the community is the decisive step toward civilization," Freud writes. This is turn means individuals must police themselves, as it were: they must restrict their pursuit of happiness for the common good. Freud believes people's fundamental struggle is finding a middle ground between civilization's claims upon them and their own libidinal drives.

As an example, Freud talks about the "anal eroticism" of children and how it contributes to civilization. Like the term libido, anal eroticism sounds sexual and even deviant to contemporary ears. But Freud's meaning is closer to toilet training than sex. Younger children—infants and toddlers especially—are just discovering how their bodies work and are fascinated with all its secretions. Meanwhile their parents spend a lot of time and energy training children how to control their excretory functions. Freud believes as children grow into adults, they transfer the energy used to control bowel movements to other areas of life. This contributes not only to a sense of cleanliness, Freud states, but also to a need for order, resulting in the anal personality type.

Order and cleanliness are essential components of civilization as well. For Freud this is proof of an essential "similarity between the process of civilization and the libidinal development of the individual." In the same way children transfer the "libidinal energy" of their "anal eroticism" to the pursuit of order and cleanliness in society, so do individuals channel, or sublimate, other primal drives. Freud believes this sublimation process produces the energy for artistic, philosophical, religious, and scientific thought by directing the libido to other endeavors.

But in the concluding paragraphs of the chapter, Freud notes civilization requires people to completely suppress some drives, not merely sublimate or divert them. This "cultural frustration," as Freud calls it, lies at the heart of hostility to civilization.


Freud's definition of civilization is complicated by two intertwined issues. First, he doesn't use that word himself. In the original German text Freud uses the word Kultur, or culture, not Zivilization, which means civilization. In English the two words are often used interchangeably, so for readers in the United States and other English-speaking countries, it makes sense to use the two words as synonyms.

But in German academic thought there is a marked difference in meaning between the words culture and civilization. The two people responsible for the most influential English translations of Civilization and Its Discontents, Joan Riviere and James Strachey, were both British psychoanalysts. They may not have realized European academics drew a crucial distinction between Kultur and Zivilization.

In German, culture is the older and broader term. It includes everything that makes human society different from the social groupings of primates, bees, ants, and other organisms. For Freud, who grew up speaking German, culture is an umbrella term encompassing all distinctively human activities, such as art, religion, and intellectual achievements—including civilization. In other words, civilization is just one specialized aspect of culture. It refers to the kinds of things that help make daily life run more smoothly, such as science, technology, economics, and the law.

Thus it can be jarring to see the label civilization applied to Freud's words in this chapter. He is referring here to distinctively human things, or as he wrote, "the total of those achievements and institutions that distinguish our life from that of our animal ancestors." Notice particularly his use of "total" here. That's why in the original German he used the word Kultur rather than Zivilization.

Yet English writers have always translated Kultur to civilization. Again, this is because the words culture and civilization are not clearly distinguished either in the English language or in British and American intellectual thought. In fact, the words culture, civilization, and even society are used as synonyms for each other in this study guide. All three words are used to refer to the same thing—what distinguishes human groups from other animal groups.

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