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Civilization and Its Discontents | Quotes


To me the derivation of religious needs from the helplessness of the child and a longing for its father seems irrefutable.

Narrator, Chapter 1

Freud believes the origin of religious belief can be traced to children's desperate need to feel protected by their father. Adults transfer this need from their father to the image of an all-powerful supernatural being they hope will protect them from the vagaries of fate.


[It] strikes us as an initial attempt at religious consolation, as another way of denying the danger that the ego perceives as a threat from the outside world.

Narrator, Chapter 1

After denying the source of religion is an oceanic feeling of oneness with the universe, Freud admits such a feeling could offer consolation to those already inclined to religious feelings. But this comfort is based on psychological denial of the reality of life's risks and dangers.


The question of the purpose of life ... has not yet received a satisfactory answer and perhaps does not admit of one.

Narrator, Chapter 2

Freud rejects religion as a source of meaning or purpose. He later says the pleasure principle is what drives people; everyone seeks to maximize happiness and minimize suffering.


That man should be 'happy' is not included in the plan of 'Creation.'

Narrator, Chapter 2

The pleasure principle is "at odds with the whole world," says Freud, so unhappiness is far more likely than happiness. Pain, loss, and death are inescapable. These arise from three sources: the body, nature, and other people's actions.


The religions of mankind too must be described as examples of mass delusion.

Narrator, Chapter 2

To distract the self from the reality of pain, people can seek temporary happiness in illusions such as art and literature. People can acknowledge these illusions for what they are: products of the imagination. Religion is different because believers do not recognize it too is an illusion, created not in heaven but in their own mind.


Much of the blame for our misery lies with what we call our civilization.

Narrator, Chapter 3

Freud now begins to focus on the book's main topic: the third of the three sources of suffering he outlined earlier: other people. Although he phrases it here as a discussion point raised by someone else, Freud is stating the theme he will spend the rest of the book proving. Civilization exists to enhance people's safety and happiness, but the sacrifices people must make to belong to society often make them unhappy.


It is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built up on ... the non-satisfaction of powerful drives—by suppression, repression, or some other means.

Narrator, Chapter 3

All members of society are forced to relinquish at least some of the things they want for the good of the larger group. This creates what Freud calls "cultural frustration," when people must renounce urges arising from the most fundamental drive of the human psyche: the libido. People either do this consciously, through a process called suppression, or unconsciously, through a process called repression.


The demand for a uniform sexual life for all ... disregards all the disparities, innate and acquired, in the sexual constitution of human beings.

Narrator, Chapter 4

To safeguard its interests, civilization strictly regulates how people express themselves sexually. Any sexual activity outside heterosexual marriage is prohibited. Freud says it is a "grave injustice" to deprive people of sexual enjoyment just because they do not embrace the cultural ideal of monogamous heterosexuality.


Civilized man has traded in a portion of his chances for happiness for a certain measure of security.

Narrator, Chapter 5

To survive, cultures must restrict sexual behavior and tame people's natural aggressive drive. One way to do this, Freud says, is to channel aggression and direct it toward something external: for example, another tribe, religion, or country.


Besides Eros, then, there was a death drive.

Narrator, Chapter 6

With these words Freud introduces the concept of Thanatos, the death drive, which he sees as a necessary counterpart to the life drive, Eros. Eros is directed toward self-preservation and the protection of larger groups such as family and civilization. He says it is easier to understand the death drive if it is thought of as the impulse behind aggression and destruction.


This program of civilization is opposed by man's natural aggressive drive, the hostility of each against all.

Narrator, Chapter 6

Freud sees the death drive as the biggest threat to civilization. Eros is at constant war with Thanatos. The constructive power of love to build families and nations is ever threatened by the destructive power of hostility and aggression, which play out both between members of a single group and between different civilizations.


Aggression is ... directed against the individual's own ego.

Narrator, Chapter 7

Civilization neutralizes the destructive death drive by turning it back against individuals. Every society's rules and regulations are internalized in every person's superego as the voice of conscience. Individuals end up judging themselves, and the resulting guilt keeps them in line so civilization does not have to.


The very people who have attained the highest degree of saintliness are ... the ones who accuse themselves of being most sinful.

Narrator, Chapter 7

The superego makes people anxious about both real and potential misbehavior. Those who are virtuous suffer more from guilt than do those whose consciences are less strongly developed. Those who break the rules have less anxiety than those who obey them.


The price we pay for cultural progress is a loss of happiness, arising from a heightened sense of guilt.

Narrator, Chapter 8

All people pay a kind of happiness tax to enjoy the benefits of living in a civilization. Guilt—conscious or unconscious—is the currency used to pay that tax. Extreme levels of unconscious guilt can lead to painful mental disturbances called neuroses.


Human beings have made such strides in controlling the forces of nature ... they will have no difficulty in exterminating each other.

Narrator, Chapter 8

On the book's final page, Freud admits he has no solution to the fundamental paradox of civilization: people must give up some of their freedom and happiness to enjoy a measure of safety and security. Worse still, Freud—writing in the short interval of peace between two world wars—is deeply pessimistic about the fate of Western civilization. The destructive power of innate aggression, coupled with advances in science and technology, now make it possible for warring countries to wipe each other off the face of the earth.

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