Civilization and Its Discontents | Study Guide

Sigmund Freud

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Civilization and Its Discontents | Chapter 7 | Summary



Freud has established the foundation of his theory of civilization, so now he moves closer to answering the book's central question. "What means does civilization employ to inhibit the aggression it faces?" he asks. In other words, how does civilization thwart individuals and create discontent? Freud believes he can find the answer by studying individuals' psychological development. Civilization neutralizes individuals' aggression by forcing them to turn the death drive inward. The superego takes up the destructive drive, and it creates guilt through the conscience's stern demands. Freud sees guilt as punishment—a form of aggression toward oneself. This is how civilization weakens and disarms individuals, "setting up an internal authority to watch over him, like a garrison in a conquered town."

Freud launches into a lengthy analysis of how an individual comes to develop a sense of good and evil. He says it begins when children fear misbehavior will lead to loss of parental love. When individuals internalize the rules they have been taught, either by their parents or by society, true guilt arises. In a sense the authority figure comes in and takes over. Civilization conquers and subdues individuals by getting inside their heads and hijacking their superegos.

Here is the paradox: the most virtuous people suffer the most anxiety and guilt, because their superegos are so insistent in their behavioral demands. To Freud's mind the problem is civilization's demands, made through the superego, always involve renouncing individuals' drives. This leads to fear, tension, and "enduring inner unhappiness."

The whole process is a vicious cycle, Freud states. When individuals fear external authority, and then fear the superego, they then renounce certain drives. Each time they suppress a desire and forbid themselves from doing what they want, their superego gains power and issues louder and more frequent demands to give up even more things. Freud debates at length which process plays a greater role in fortifying the conscience. Do the superego's demands feed it and cause people to renounce their own desires? Or do individuals renounce desires first, causing the conscience to grow stronger? He concludes both things probably occur, and he humorously notes readers must be exasperated with him.

This doesn't stop him, however, from continuing to tease out the roots of conscience in an individual's psychological development, and the distinction between feelings such as guilt and remorse. Just as a child growing up has to overcome both erotic and aggressive drives to be part of a family, so too does the individual have to repress drives to be part of civilization.


Freud locates the source of tension within civilization not just in repression of various drives, but specifically in what he called the Oedipus complex. Oedipus is the focus of an ancient Greek myth about a man adopted at birth who later accidentally marries his biological mother and then kills his father. Through his studies of both mythology and human nature, Freud came to believe this myth represented a universal truth about psychological development. He thinks even infants have sexual impulses, although not in the same way adults do. And for male children, the first sexual (or love) object is their mother; they wish to kill their father to have her attention all to themselves. But at the same time, male children love their fathers and want their approval and protection, too. Finding a way to resolve this unbearable internal tension is the fundamental challenge of life for men. This is the backdrop of Freud's long discussion of sons, fathers, murder, guilt, and remorse.

Freud says only males deal with the Oedipal complex. But his colleague and later rival Carl Jung (1875–1961), the Swiss psychoanalyst, came up with an alternate theory. Jung believes young girls aged three to six also go through a stage when they resent their mothers and compete with them for their father's attention. Jung calls this the Electra complex. Electra was another figure in Greek myth, one who plotted the murder of her mother to avenge her father's murder by her mother.

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