Civilization and Its Discontents | Study Guide

Sigmund Freud

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Civilization and Its Discontents | Chapter 8 | Summary



In a lovely and gently humorous paragraph, Freud apologizes to readers for not getting to his point faster and more directly. But all the lead-up was necessary, he states, to make his point about the relationship between guilt and civilization. "The price we pay for cultural progress is a loss of happiness, arising from a heightened sense of guilt."

Freud does not believe this relationship is obvious to everyone, which is precisely why books like his are necessary. The unconscious guilt everyone feels leads to "unease, a discontent" people falsely attribute to other causes. At least the various religions get this right, Freud says, in a rare measure of approval. Christianity in particular understands the role of guilt in civilization, even though Christians call it sin. However, Freud is dubious about the Christian solution: the sacrifice of one man, Jesus, can alleviate the sense of sin and guilt for all believers.

Freud reviews here much of the discussion from the previous chapter about the relationship between superego and conscience, guilt and remorse, impulse and action, inner- and outer-directed aggression. He also goes off on a tangent about whether or not frustration of both aggressive and erotic drives leads to guilt, and what role this plays in the development of neuroses. In this case he does arrive at a tentative resolution: when any drive is repressed, its thwarted libidinal or sexual aspects turn into neurotic symptoms, and its aggressive aspects are converted to guilt.

Once again Freud avers the development of civilization mirrors individuals' development. There is one cardinal difference, however. In individuals, the pleasure principle is paramount; people naturally want to be as happy as they can. Being part of a group is a necessary part of that—although Freud does not specify why it is necessary and even says people might be better off if it weren't! For a civilization, however, the paramount goal is forming a peaceful group. Sacrificing individual happiness is necessary to accomplish this goal. Freud phrases this conflict in economic terms, as a problem of how to allocate the libido's energy between the individual ego's drives and other group members' needs.

Not only individuals but entire "cultural epochs" have superegos, Freud now contends. Different periods of history each cultivate their own ideal standards of behavior. But just as with the individual superego, the cultural one can be too harsh and demanding. "It issues a commandment without asking if it can be obeyed." Freud says one of the goals of therapy is to convince the superego to lower its demands, because it is impossible for the ego to ever be in full control of the id with all its drives. "To demand more is to provoke the individual to rebellion or neurosis, to make him unhappy," Freud writes. This is especially true of the Christian command to love one's neighbor as one's self. Although it is a strong defense against aggression, the command "is impossible to keep," Freud claims. And the command causes as much unhappiness as does the aggression it is trying to prevent. Freud speculates not only individuals can be neurotic; entire cultures can be as well.

This is the central and potentially unresolvable paradox of civilization. The behavior it requires of its members to ensure safety and happiness—denial of individual drives—causes much unhappiness. Freud has no solution for this. Yet he refrains from passing judgment on the civilization of which he is a part, other than saying he does not agree with the "prejudice" it is the best possible path toward future perfection. But neither can he agree completely with the critics of this culture. "I plead guilty to the reproach that I cannot bring them any consolation," he writes, referring both to "pious believers" and "wildest revolutionaries."

In a pensive and deeply pessimistic concluding paragraph, Freud refers to World War I, which had recently torn Europe apart. Technology has made it possible for humans to control nature: "they will have no difficulty in exterminating one another, down to the last man." This is Thanatos, the power of aggression and destruction—the power of death. Can Eros, the power of love and life, contain it? "Who can foresee the outcome?" Freud asks as the book closes.


In a footnote on this chapter's first page, Freud says society does its youth a grave disservice by hiding the roots of their emotions and behavior. In a remarkable phrase, he says this is like "equipping people who are setting out on a polar expedition with summer clothes and a map of the North Italian lakes." Freud believes children need to understand their sexual and aggressive drives so they can deal with them in effective and healthy ways, leading both them and society to greater happiness.

Freud's beliefs stemmed in part from his work with patients in analysis. He began his practice in Vienna in the last 15 years of the 19th century, the end of the Victorian era. This is a good example of one of those cultural epochs that Freud mentioned. Among other things this era was marked by a strong belief in order and propriety. Sexuality could not be legislated out of existence, but it should not be discussed. It could—and should—be hidden and repressed, Victorian culture taught. Many of the patients who came to Freud for treatment were suffering from neuroses he believed stemmed from this repressed sexuality.

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