Civilization and Its Discontents | Study Guide

Sigmund Freud

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Civilization and Its Discontents | Chapter 6 | Summary



Freud begins this chapter with the assumption he is restating material already known to his readers about psychoanalytic drives. Fortunately he decides to review this material anyway since many readers may not be as familiar with this material as he assumes. He sketches out the history of his theory of the impulses—or drives—motivating people to act. Freud says he began with an idea suggested to him by the German poet Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805): everyone is driven by two things in life, hunger and love. Freud interprets hunger as any motivation protecting the individual: in psychoanalytic terms, these are called ego-drives. Freud sees love as the impulse to acquire anything outside the person, which he in turn identifies with the psychoanalytic theory of the libido. Mental problems arise when the two kinds of drives, ego and libido, conflict.

In this fast-paced review of his theories of the mind, Freud also introduces other concepts such as sadism, narcissism, and psychosis. He spends the most time talking about narcissism: a person's life energy, or libido, is not only focused on the ego but also makes its "headquarters" in the self. It is easy to get lost in the passage in which Freud expands on this; he continually refers to complex ideas, theories, and people in the field of psychoanalysis, assuming readers will know what he is talking about.

This all builds toward the most important part of the chapter: Freud's introduction of his new theory of the death drive. This drive is in direct opposition to Eros, the drive for love and life. Freud acknowledges the difficulty of demonstrating a death drive exists, and he also notes this concept has been rejected by other psychoanalysts. It is easier to understand and accept, he explains, if one equates the death drive with what he sees as innate human aggression. In other words, when Freud says all people have a death drive, he is pointing out all people have the capacity for aggression, both toward others and themselves. The life drive and the death drive are intertwined almost symbiotically. Examples of this can be found in sadism, when the erotic drive for love is mixed up with aggression toward the love object. Another example is masochism, when the two drives are both directed inward.

Freud was apparently stung by the hostility his theory encountered among his professional colleagues; he chastises his opponents for clinging to childlike beliefs in the innate goodness of human nature. He draws a parallel between his concepts of life drives and death drives, love and destruction, and Christian concepts of good and evil.

The destructive drive, when directed outward, can help the ego get what it wants. Although this can be good for the ego, Freud sees it as "the greatest obstacle to civilization." He sums up this theory in the chapter's final page. Through the creative drive of Eros, individuals are bound together in families, tribes, and nations, forming civilization. But the destructive drive constantly threatens this arrangement. The struggle between the life drive and the death drive is played out not only within the ego of every individual but in civilization as well.


Although he never uses the word in Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud's concept of the death drive is usually referred to as Thanatos. The word is borrowed from Greek mythology; Thanatos was a minor deity who represented death. Like the modern mythical figure of the Grim Reaper, Thanatos was said to appear at the time of death to carry people to the underworld.

Although Freud says he came up with his theory of Thanatos from observations in biology, it has a parallel in physics. The laws governing the universe stipulate all systems have an inherent tendency to decay: to lose energy, and in the process, to lose order. Although there is no sense of aggression in the thermodynamic concept of entropy, there are echoes of it in Freud's notion all people harbor a destructive drive within themselves. And although there is no indication Freud was influenced by Asian philosophy, his idea of the constant interplay between Eros and Thanatos—life and destruction—is also reminiscent of the Chinese concept of yin and yang. Yang, like Eros, is the principle of light and action. Yin isn't quite the same as Thanatos, however. Although it is considered the principle of darkness, it represents passivity not aggression.

Freud also states in this section he originated the concept of Thanatos. But then later he says he himself was resistant to the idea of a destructive drive "when it first appeared in psychoanalytic literature." He doesn't specify who the source of the idea is, but many people believe it came from the Russian psychiatrist Sabina Spielrein (1885–1942). Spielrein obtained both a medical and a doctoral degree, being the first woman to write a dissertation on a psychoanalytic topic. A year later, in 1912, she published a paper entitled "Destruction as the Cause of Coming into Being." In it she introduced the concepts Freud would later develop into the drive he called Thanatos. Although he did not credit Spielrein in this book, Freud did acknowledge her elsewhere as the originator of these ideas.

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