Civilization and Its Discontents | Study Guide

Sigmund Freud

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Civilization and Its Discontents | Chapter 4 | Summary



With a sense of anthropological authority audacious in a person who was not trained in the field, Freud outlines his view of how society developed among primitive peoples. Forming groups meant members could split the workload. Freud also uses a picturesque phrase to explain how families formed, saying the male sex drive "no longer made its appearance like a guest who turns up suddenly one day, then leaves and is not heard of again for a long time." Men wanted females around for sex, and females wanted males around to protect their young. Freud concludes civilization resulted from two basic drives: "Eros and Ananke [Love and Necessity] thus become the progenitors of human civilization too."

This sounds like a happy state of affairs, so Freud wonders why discontentment arose. To answer this question he first embarks on a thematic detour, as he has done throughout the book. Freud talks about the place of sexual, or genital, love in the psychology of primitive males. He appears to contradict himself here: first he says it would be a good idea for men to base their happiness "in the sphere of sexual relations," but in the next sentence he reiterates those who follow this advice are vulnerable to emotional pain if they lose their "love-object" to death or infidelity. He then appears to change his mind and say it is not a good idea for people to base their happiness on sex and love. Instead, he notes, some people stop focusing on finding one person to love them and focus on showing love for others. Although loving others may seem selfless, Freud views this as lowering expectations—what he calls an "aim-inhibited impulse." This is how saints are born, in his view.

Whether individuals restrict their need for sex and love within the family or transform this need into a general love for others, both behaviors bind people in a civilization. Ultimately, however, this kind of aim-inhibited love comes into conflict with civilization. First, there is a tension between family groups and society at large. Second, there is a tension between men and women. Freud claims women have "little aptitude" for the work of civilization and resent men for diverting so much of their libido, or psychic energy, to it rather than expending it on their own families—a claim that helped erode his standing in the psychotherapy field.

Third, Freud says, civilization severely restricts sexual activity—and this arouses extreme resentment. Although the rules vary from one group to another, all cultures have strict rules about who it is permissible to have sex with and who it is not. Incest taboos against having sex with close relatives are one example, and the prohibition of sex outside marriage is another. Homosexuality also is condemned, along with certain sexual acts labeled perversions. The penalties for violating these taboos can be extreme, ranging from social censure to punitive legal action. This shows how vital it is to civilizations to regulate the sexual activities of its members. The group needs individuals to channel their libido, or sexual energy, into building a civilization.

Freud brings the chapter to a close without fully answering his question about the origins of civilization's discontents. Instead he explores another thematic tangent in a long footnote in which he speculates about many aspects of human sexual makeup. These include bisexuality, sexual aggression, and the relationship of upright posture and the sense of smell to human acceptance or rejection of their sexual nature. He says one thing unequivocally: only "weaklings" meekly accept the restrictions civilization places on expressing their sexual drive. "Stronger spirits have insisted on a compensatory condition," Freud states, promising to explore this subject later in the book.


In developing his theory about how prehistoric people banded together into families, tribes, and larger social groups, Freud makes no reference to anthropological studies of primitive bands still in existence. Instead he based his ideas on the psychoanalytic work he did in his office with his patients. He built his theories from specific to general, and from past to present, He synthesized a framework for how society developed in the past based on his interpretations of how individuals develop from childhood to adulthood.

As for Freud's discussion of eroticism and libido, it is a mistake to interpret them in purely sexual ways. This leads to a narrow and incomplete understanding of what he meant. Note Freud alternates between using the words sex and love when referring to the relationship between men and women. Although at times it may seem like he is talking just about sex, for Freud the two are intertwined. However, he still believes all love—even that of parents for children, children for parents, and siblings for each other—begins as a sexual feeling. Through the process he calls "aim inhibition" sexual love is transformed into the kind of affection that binds families together and leads to friendship.

Finally, Freud's fleeting references to both women and nonheterosexuals raised hackles when he first wrote them and continue to do so today. Freud's views on the psychological development of women are often criticized. In this chapter he says women aren't even capable of channeling, or sublimating, their libido into the kinds of activities that build civilization. This attitude led other psychoanalysts to split from Freud even during his lifetime and develop theories that treat female psychological development more positively.

Freud is also criticized for claiming heterosexuality is the norm for a psychologically healthy person. Freud wrote about homosexuality many times, but his views are difficult to pin down because his statements on the subject were contradictory. Sometimes, as in the lengthy footnote at the end of this chapter, he seems to indicate all humans are bisexual and homosexuality is part of a normal continuum of human behavior. Elsewhere, however, he calls it an "inversion" or an example of psychological development that has gone astray. In the footnote to this chapter, Freud seems sympathetic to homosexuality. He notes society's demands everyone conform to one kind of sexual expression are a "grave injustice."

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