Civilization and Its Discontents | Study Guide

Sigmund Freud

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Civilization and Its Discontents | Summary



Chapter 1

Sigmund Freud postpones for a chapter his analysis of civilization and its effects on the individual, choosing to begin the book with a discussion of another vital aspect of human experience instead: religion. Freud refers to a philosophical discussion he had about the source of religion with his friend, the French writer Romain Rolland (1866–1944), winner of the 1915 Nobel Prize in Literature. In his 1927 book The Future of an Illusion, Freud claims religion is a false belief, an illusion prompted by wishful thinking: the wish for an all-powerful father figure who will protect those who believe in him. Although Rolland agrees with Freud on this, he does not agree this is the primary source of religion. Rolland says something called the "oceanic feeling" serves this primary function. As Freud understands the term, this oceanic sense is "a feeling, then, of being indissolubly bound up with and belonging to the whole of the world outside oneself."

Freud says he has never felt anything as "bizarre" as this, so he uses his sense of reason to try to ascertain how it might arise in other people. He refers first to his own psychoanalytic theory about the ego (conscious self) and the id (unconscious mind) and wonders whether a blurring of the boundaries between them might be the source of the oceanic feeling. He notes these boundaries erode only in two abnormal states: love and psychosis.

The only time such a blurring is normal, Freud says, is during infancy. Newborn humans don't yet have a sense of an individual self, separate from the people and objects around them. So Freud turns first to history and then to biology to find evidence a primitive psychological state can continue to exist after infancy right alongside a more developed and mature one. He muses it may be possible, just as ruined buildings in Rome stand next to modern ones or neonatal anatomy persists into adulthood. Perhaps the oceanic feeling is the persistence of the kind of undifferentiated experience everyone has during infancy.

Even if this is true, however, Freud rejects his friend Rolland's notion this is the source of religion. Freud continues to insist the roots of religion lie in a different aspect of infantile psychology. "To me," Freud writes, "the derivation of religious needs from the helplessness of the child and a longing for its father seems irrefutable." Freud has circled back to his original position: religion is a delusion based on the fervent wish to believe in the existence of an omnipotent fatherlike deity.

Chapter 2

Freud continues his discussion of religion in this chapter. "The religions of mankind too must be described as examples of mass delusion," he states. He does not relent from categorizing religion as a "patently infantile" belief system. But he also criticizes those who think they can make religion more mature and more suitable for the modern age by substituting the idea of an impersonal universal force for a paternalistic god. Surprisingly, Freud unites with more traditional religious believers in calling such an effort blasphemous.

He continues to be curious about what purpose religion serves. In Freud's view every person follows the "pleasure principle," by which he means maximizing the amount of pleasure they can experience in life. Everyone's id, or unconscious, drives their ego-selves to do this via an energy Freud calls libido. But the world interferes: pain is lurking everywhere, threatening pleasure. There is never enough food, enough love, enough sex—and even when there is, these things are always temporary. On top of this our fragile bodies are doomed to fail, whether through injury, illness, or old age. "One is inclined to say that the intention that man should be 'happy' has no part in the plan of 'creation,'" Freud writes.

This perilous situation is as true for the believer as it is the nonbeliever, so religions and philosophies are all searching for ways to cope with this intolerable state of affairs. The coping strategies all boil down to variations of three basic methods: distraction from pain, substitution of a more pleasurable activity for the pain, or intoxication via drugs and alcohol. Some systems even advocate getting rid of desires: denying pleasure itself as a radical means of avoiding pain. Others make a virtue of tamping down one's desires.

Freud rejects all these methods but offers no alternative, because he does not think there is one. "Not even religion can keep its promise," he states. Rather, Freud believes in a realistic approach: accept the inevitability of pain and realize it can be avoided only temporarily. He condemns the one-size-fits-all prescriptions offered by all religions. "There is no advice that would be beneficial to all," he says. Every individual must experiment to find their own "salvation" via a highly personal balance of distraction, substitution, and even intoxication.

Chapter 3

Now Freud begins to zero in on the subject promised in his book's title. In the previous chapter he establishes the myriad ways in which happiness eludes people. No matter how driven people are to maximize their pleasure, the world opposes them. No one can permanently escape the forces of nature, the vulnerabilities of their bodies, or the obstacles set in their paths by other people. This is why people have banded together into groups and come up with the set of rules, expectations, and regulations called civilization. But in a giant paradox, the very system developed to guarantee maximal happiness is the source of most human suffering, or so Freud contends. "Much of the blame for our misery lies with what we call our civilization," he says. He takes this conclusion a step further as well, proclaiming boldly, "We should be far happier if we were to abandon it and revert to primitive conditions."

This "hostility" to civilization isn't peculiar to Freud; he believes everyone feels it. This is because civilization makes a series of contradictory demands on individuals, asking them to do or think or feel two incompatible things at the same time. He cites numerous examples of this, such as Christianity's insistence people rigorously strive to be virtuous in this life although the afterlife is of ultimate importance.

He also alludes to people's mistaken conviction the present system of regulations is a degeneration from some mythical original paradise of peace and harmony. People look at primitive tribes and make the error of thinking their lives are simpler; in truth these tribe members also are bound by complex social regulations. On the other hand, people expect too much of science and technology. Freud contends all such advances may extend life and make people more comfortable, but the final outcome is the same: death.

But the central and inescapable paradox is civilization must dictate relationships between individuals to assure safety. This in turn means people must police themselves. To some extent they must deny themselves what they want, either through suppression or what Freud calls sublimation: channeling their primal drives away from their real goals and desires toward an acceptable substitute. This has many benefits for society. Freud believes sublimation is the source of all art, philosophy, and science. But it also leaves the individual in an insoluble quandary: how to find a happy balance between what civilization demands of them and their own libidinal drives.

Chapter 4

Although Freud was not an anthropologist, here he posits a theory about how society developed among prehistoric peoples. Beyond the perhaps obvious idea people banded together for mutual protection and a shared workload, Freud sees groups as useful in satisfying both the male and female sex drives. In a group such as a family, males could be assured of an available female to provide sexual gratification. And females, in Freud's view, wanted males around to help protect their young.

He expands at length on this theme of the sex drive, or Eros as he sometimes calls it, as the foundation of civilization. Freud believes sex is a powerful motivator of human behavior. He offers somewhat conflicting ideas about whether sex and love are the same impulse and whether it is wise for modern humans to base their happiness on sex and love. The Eros drive is always threatened by the danger of losing the lust or love object, whether because of death or infidelity. To escape this threat, some people redirect Eros from a personal mate to the group. Although people venerate such altruistic love, Freud calls it an "aim-inhibited impulse" and deems it a lowering of standards.

But civilization arose from altruistic regard for others. It continues to exist despite an eternal conflict between love for the smaller group of mate and family versus love for the larger group of society as a whole. This conflict is complicated even further by conflict between men and women. Freud believes women are more devoted to their families than to society.

On top of these conflicts, individual members are always chafing at society's limits on their sexual behavior. Civilization is built on a series of taboos about sex partners, frequency, and circumstances. Although only "weaklings" always observe such prohibitions, and society sometimes deliberately ignores some sexual transgressions, the conflict remains. "The sexual life of civilized man has been seriously damaged," Freud states.

Chapter 5

Freud hardly takes a breath between the end of the previous chapter and the start of this one. After saying civilization inhibits sex, he says this is the basis of much of the individual suffering he sees in his work as a psychoanalyst. "It is precisely these frustrations of sexual life that those whom we call neurotics cannot endure," he writes.

He then launches into a long rant against the Christian commandment to "love one's neighbor as thyself." Freud sees this as a ludicrous and even bizarre demand. It is not possible for individuals to love anyone else as much as they love themselves, Freud contends. But it also is unwise to do so, given what he sees as the inherent aggression and even cruelty of humankind. Although the Christian commandment may be a response to the fundamental hostility people show toward one another, Freud thinks it's an absurd and ineffective one.

Yet he agrees society must do something. "Civilization has to make every effort to limit man's aggressive drives," Freud says. Society tries to achieve this in many ways, from platitudes meant to inspire good behavior to strictures against bad conduct. When these methods fail, civilization levies punishment. But even punishment does not work to corral human nature, according to Freud. "For all the effort invested in it, this cultural endeavor has so far not achieved very much," he states.

Human aggression is rooted in human sexuality, and Freud now sees civilization's efforts to limit aggression by restricting sex haven't succeeded. Caught between the threat of violence from other people and the frustration induced by society's limits on individual expression of sexuality, everyone is unhappy. "Civilization has traded in a portion of his chances for happiness for a certain measure of security." Maybe it is time, Freud observes, to explore new ways to improve civilization so its members can be happier.

Chapter 6

Before introducing a new element into the psychoanalytic system he has been developing throughout his career, Freud first leads readers through a rapid and condensed survey of this system. He reintroduces some terms he uses earlier in the book, such as the ego, or self, and the libido, the energy by which individuals act to fulfill their needs for sex and love. He also introduces some new terms. Ego-drives are directed inward and serve to protect the self, whereas object-drives are directed outward, fueled by the energy of the libido to acquire whatever it wants. Neurosis is the condition of unease a person experiences when the two kinds of drives conflict. Narcissism occurs when the libido turns back inward to focus on the ego, or self.

Freud says this system has been useful in understanding and treating human behavior, but he has begun to feel there is something he is overlooking. If there is a life drive, or Eros, then mustn't there be a death drive—a basic human drive toward aggression and destruction? He believes the two drives almost never appear separately. They usually function together as they do in sadism, wherein the sexual and aggressive drives go hand in hand.

Apparently Freud's colleagues in the field of psychoanalysis are not convinced his so-called death drive exists, because he spends some time in this chapter bristling at their criticism of his theory. "'For the little children do not like it' when there is talk of man's inborn tendency to 'wickedness,'" Freud says.

In any case, now Freud has a name for the aggressive impulse he sees as native to humanity: a death drive to go along with Eros, the life drive. Eros binds individuals together into families and groups but faces constant opposition from the aggressive energy of the death drive, which wants to tear them apart.

Chapter 7

Civilization makes its members pay twice for the privilege of abiding within its shelter. It is not enough for people to deny their own wishes and wind up living in perpetual frustration, Freud says. To negate the destabilizing and destructive power of people's innate aggression, civilization turns the force of their own death drives against them as well. It is forced back inward to each person's superego, or conscience, where it can then tyrannize the individual with a nonstop stream of self-accusation. "It hardly matters whether one has already done something wrong or merely intends to," Freud says. The superego punishes the individual anyway with an overwhelming sense of guilt.

The rest of the chapter delves deeply into a psychoanalytic view of how guilt develops both in individual children and in adult members of a civilization. The process is the same in both instances. Initially when children misbehave, they fear the tangible consequences of their actions—the punishment meted out by their parents. Even more, however, they fear the loss of their parents' love and approval. Over time children start to punish themselves with a sense of guilt. In a sense their parents take up residence in their minds. Eventually children stop hearing the echoes of their parents' voices scolding them; they hear their own scolding voice. The parents' rules have become enshrined as the voice of conscience inside the child's superego.

The same thing happens in society, although in this case individual members of society are like children and civilization is like the parent. But civilization has added the power of the aggressive death drive to make the sense of guilt even worse. The only way for people to satisfy this corrosive sense of guilt is to constantly renounce their own desires and drives, over and over again, every day. But unsatisfied drives don't dwindle away; they just get more insistent. The more individuals renounce themselves, the more they are tempted. This vicious cycle makes the emotional cost of living in civilization even steeper—a dilemma for which Freud gives no answer.

Chapter 8

Freud apologizes for taking so long to make his point but says everything he has discussed is necessary to prove increased guilt and loss of happiness are the inescapable penalties for cultural progress. People don't always realize their discomfort or anxiety has a cause outside of their own psyches. They blame themselves instead.

Despite his apology for being long-winded, Freud spends pages reviewing what he wrote in the previous chapter about the superego, guilt, remorse, and aggression. He also briefly discusses how repressed drives lead to the development of neuroses. But he is more interested in the conflict between individuals and civilizations. People want to be as happy as possible, and they see membership in a civilization as the best assurance of happiness. But happiness is not society's goal; peace and stability are what it needs to survive. For this to happen, however, individuals must sacrifice the happiness for which they joined civilization in the first place!

Civilization makes things even harder for its members by making impossible demands on them. "It issues a commandment without asking if it can be obeyed," Freud says. An example is the Christian precept he discussed earlier in the book about loving one's neighbor. Yes, this protects against aggression within a group, but "it is impossible to keep," Freud claims.

This is the tragic dilemma at the heart of civilization. The behavior it demands of its members is excessive and unrealistic. It promises a measure of happiness but asks for a sacrifice costing twice as much in unhappiness. Freud has no solution for this. In a pessimistic close to the chapter and to the book, he writes, "I cannot bring them any consolation."

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