Civilization and Its Discontents | Study Guide

Sigmund Freud

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Civilization and Its Discontents | Main Ideas



Even before Civilization and Its Discontents was published, Sigmund Freud's views on religion were well known. He had written about the topic in at least two earlier works. In a 1907 essay Freud contends religion is no different than the obsessional neuroses suffered by patients in his psychoanalytic practice. Then in The Future of an Illusion, published just three years prior to Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud claims religion is a fantasy with no basis in fact.

He reiterates this harsh assessment in the first two chapters of this book. When Freud calls religion "infantile," he is not just hurling insults. He uses the word in the technical sense it has within his psychoanalytic theory about child development. Freud thinks all infants idealize their fathers, believing them to be both omniscient and omnipotent. Children are desperate to please their fathers to obtain not just their protection but also their love. When Freud looks at religion—especially at the model of God as expressed in Judaism and Christianity—he sees an almost exact parallel between infants' view of their human father and believers' view of their divine father.

This is the basis of Freud's theory of religion as an illusion, or false belief, based in what he calls wish fulfillment. The world does not get any less dangerous as people move from childhood to adulthood. If anything, adults are even more aware of their vulnerability. Threats surround them on every side. It is not just disease and death they fear, but also the loss of all the things that make life worthwhile: financial security, professional status, personal reputation, the love of family and friends, and union with a mate. Adults long to return to their infancy, when they believed their father could protect them from all this; therefore, they wish such a figure into existence. People tell themselves an elaborate fairy tale about an all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful Father above who loves them so much he hears their prayers and will protect them from all harm.

Survival and Destruction

In his theory of evolution, the famous English biologist Charles Darwin (1809–82) explains all creatures in nature—from bacteria to human beings—are driven by a powerful urge to live, at least long enough to reproduce and ensure their genes' propagation. Freud sees an analogous drive in the human mind, or psyche. Eros, he calls it, and although Freud sometimes uses the term to refer specifically to the sex drive, his conception of Eros is broader. He frequently talks about Eros as a person's drive to love and be loved. On some occasions Freud writes about Eros in an even more expansive sense, as a person's drive to live.

Eros is a fundamental concept in Freud's psychoanalytic system, one he wrote about frequently prior to Civilization and Its Discontents. But during the same period Freud remained relatively quiet about a new idea he was exploring: the psychological concept he calls the death drive. Although he never uses the term Thanatos for this "new" drive, it's now known by this name. Both terms, Eros and Thanatos, are taken from ancient Greek mythology: Eros is the god of love, and Thanatos is the messenger of death.

Freud understands "death drive" is not the best name for Thanatos, although even today it is frequently misunderstood to mean that. In psychologically healthy people, there is no tug-of-war between a desire to live and a desire to die. Freud hastens to explain it is more accurate to think of Thanatos as humankind's innate aggressive impulse. As such, it is not necessarily at odds with Eros. Actually, Eros and Thanatos often work together. Eros fuels a person's desire to find a mate, secure the love of a parent, or acquire power and money. Thanatos—the spirit of aggression–is directed outward toward other people to help individuals get what they want. Eros and Thanatos often work in concert for self-protection.

This is especially true when talking not about a single individual but about a group. It is easy to see how Thanatos explains hostility and even violent conflict between groups such as tribes and nations. In Freud's view this is how civilization uses Thanatos against its members. Civilization encourages this aggressive drive to destroy its enemies—whether on a real battlefield or in the court of public opinion. And whenever individual members threaten to upset society's rules and regulations, civilization urges them to turn Thanatos against themselves. Again, this does not mean society is encouraging suicide. Freud believes aggression turned inward is at the heart of much psychological distress. Mental disturbances such as depression and anxiety are a kind of civil war between Thanatos and the individual's superego.


Freud was not a political theorist, but his psychoanalytic view of the trade-off individuals make to share in the benefits of civilization is similar to social contract theory. This is an idea espoused by English thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and John Locke (1632–1704) and the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78). They all believed individuals make a conscious and rational decision to trade away some of the freedoms they enjoy living alone for the safety and security of life in a group.

Freud doesn't believe human beings are as rational as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau make them out to be. In Freud's view the unconscious id is far more powerful than people realize. Although he differs on these points, Freud agrees people band together in groups. But they do so for deep-seated psychological reasons. It is easier to find a mate and build a family in a group than alone in the wilderness, so Eros—the drive for sex and love—propels people in this direction. Eros also seeks protection from the ever-present danger of losing those things once acquired. Therefore the ego, or self, is willing to accept the prospect of giving up some things to prevent that. The superego, or conscience, readily internalizes civilization's rules and dictates them to the ego.

But Freud says there is a third part of the mind, the id, or unconscious—and it is not at all happy about this arrangement. Driven by the pleasure principle, the id is frustrated when it can't get what it wants the moment it wants it. Eventually the strict restrictions placed upon individuals, especially in terms of their sexual behavior, lead even the ego to rebel. This leads to far more than just occasional unhappiness. In Freud's view this is the direct cause of the modern plague of anxiety, depression, and neurosis.

In Civilization and Its Discontents Freud leaves readers with a pessimistic message: people are trapped, and there is no escape. To reap civilization's many benefits, individuals must submit to its many rules and regulations. But this is a trick—a pact with the devil. Everyone believes they will be happier living in civilization until the day their Eros—their drive for life—crashes up against the larger group's cultural imperatives. The benefits of living in civilization are enormous, but so is the price people pay in personal unhappiness.

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