Civilization and Its Discontents | Study Guide

Sigmund Freud

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Civilization and Its Discontents | Chapter 5 | Summary



Freud sees the conflict between civilization and individuals as inevitable, given people want to bond with just one other person to gratify their drive for sex and love. Although Freud does not use this term, it is a case of civilization being the unnecessary third wheel. Two people in love don't want or need anyone else, he says—yet civilization wants couples to spend more of their libidinal energy on it than on each other.

Civilization's demands do not end there, however. It "demands other sacrifices apart from that of sexual satisfaction." What it wants is summarized in the Christian teaching to love one's neighbor as thyself—although Freud says this teaching is far older than Christianity. Freud tries to approach the saying like someone who has never heard it before—and he finds it bizarre. How is it possible to love someone else in this sacrificial way, Freud asks? And is it really a wise or prudent thing to do? Freud leads readers through an imaginary conversation in which a man asks himself a series of questions about this. Does his neighbor deserve such love? Is he a better person, or the close relation of a relative or friend? Would it not be wrong to rob friends and family of their just portion of love to devote it to a complete stranger? And what if the stranger wants to harm him? Freud answers this flood of questions with a rejection of the commandment. "What is the point of such a portentous precept if its fulfillment cannot commend itself as reasonable?" he asks. It would be better if the commandment told people to love their neighbors in a way that reflects how the neighbors behave.

Freud asserts humans are naturally aggressive and even cruel, and thus it is prudent to be wary of them and protect oneself. "Homo homini lupus," he writes in Latin. "Man is a wolf to man." As examples Freud cites several infamous wars, including World War I (1914–18), or the Great War, which he and his family had just survived in Europe. Therefore, although the effort has not been particularly successful, "Civilization has to make every effort to limit man's aggressive drives." This it does by limiting, restricting, or attempting to channel both sexual and aggressive drives through a complex set of social rules and prohibitions.

According to the tenets of communism, humans are inherently good, and conflict over property causes violence and discord. Freud says this is naive. "Aggression was not created by property," he states. For Freud the fundamental thing motivating human beings is the powerful drive to form bonds of sex and love with other people. And the competition to do this is "bound to become the source of the greatest animosity and the fiercest enmity." Freud wonders aloud how civilization would change if total sexual freedom was allowed but gives no answer.

But he does now see the answer to the book's central question about the origin of civilization's discontents in a clearer way. The severe restrictions civilization places upon both the sexual and aggressive drives of its members are key. "We are in a better position to understand why it so hard ... to feel happy in it." In fact, primitive man was probably happier than are modern people, although Freud sardonically notes early man didn't live long enough to enjoy it. "Civilization has traded in a portion of his chances for happiness for a certain measure of security," Freud observes.

Freud counters this, as he frequently does, with two caveats. First, only a few of those primitive peoples were lucky enough to get what they wanted. They had to be strong enough to enforce their desires on others. Second, the study of primitive people still living today shows they too are forced to repress their drives under a different but still complex set of social prohibitions and obligations.

He once again ends the chapter on an open and intriguing note. In a series of comments he does not illustrate with specific examples, Freud says he thinks it would be beneficial to explore ways to improve civilization so its members could be happier. He is not sure what those changes might be—but he is certain he doesn't want to follow the path taken in America, which he says is in danger of much misery.


In the middle of his discussion about how the primary source of conflict in human society is competition over sexual objects not property, Freud makes another of his trademark detours. Although he does not use the word, Freud speaks about a phenomenon called xenophobia in a unique way. Initially he speaks about hostility toward outsiders as if it were a beneficial safety mechanism. He says it is only possible to bind a large number of people together, and avoid conflict within the group, if they can join together and express hostility toward an external group. As an example, Freud cites the rivalry between the English and the Scots, among others. Calling this the "narcissism of small differences," he says it is a "relatively innocuous way of satisfying the tendency of aggressions and facilitating within the community."

But in the very next sentence Freud switches gears and points to the dangers of unfettered xenophobia. It's one thing for supporters of two different college football teams to feud with each other and quite another when groups such as the Jews are singled out for enmity. Freud, who was a nonreligious Jew, points out how two different civilizations treated the Jews. The ancient Romans, who did not base their culture around the ideal of universal love, showed tolerance for the Jews. But Christian countries, who supposedly did base their culture around this tenet, massacred the Jews during the Middle Ages. So although he begins by seeing the almost therapeutic utility of xenophobia, by the end of the passage Freud is alert to its extreme dangers.

Freud's vague comments about America, by which he likely means the United States, are tantalizing. What does he mean when he says America is threatened with the "psychological misery of the mass"? Freud says much of the country's cultural glue comes from everyone identifying with everyone else. Perhaps he is referring to the egalitarian cultural ideal America is—or should be—a classless society. A person raised with this ideal recoils at Freud's criticism. How can equality be a problem? The answer may come from Freud's second remark about the alleged American failure to accord sufficient status to its leaders. Freud was born in 1865, when Austria was ruled by an emperor, so he was not personally familiar with democracy. This lack of familiarity may have translated into distrust. However, his caution may also contain a kernel of truth. It may be perilously easy in an egalitarian culture to confuse equality with homogeneity. While all individuals are equal in terms of rights, dignity, and worth as human beings, this does not mean everyone is equally qualified to lead. Failure to recognize this distinction could mean those with the wisdom to lead are overlooked.

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