Civilization and Its Discontents

Civilization and Its Discontents

My grandfather studied psychoanalysis at Hopkins. At the end of years of training, he gave it all up and switched to a more quantitative approach to psychology. As Freud himself says, "It is not easy to deal scientifically with feelings" and Grandpa decided that the Freudian approach was simply too resistant to quantification to serve as the foundation for a productive scientific career. But up until the very end, Grandpa held that Freud's understanding of human psychology was profound and real.

This was my first time reading unfiltered Freud and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. The overall tone and style of "Civilization and Its Discontents" reads like the musings of an armchair philosopher, but it clearly has scientific pretensions. While much of Freud has been debunked, there is no denying his influence and this book's arguments are certainly compelling. If nothing else, Freud provides a very different perspective from which we can attempt to understand our world.

The central argument of the book is that civilization impinges upon man's natural freedom and thus causes various psychological neuroses, the most prominent of which being a sense of guilt. Freud draws parallels between an individual's psychological development (particularly regulation of the ego by the super-ego) and the maintenance of order in society (repression of individual freedom by the collective). He claims that societies promote in-group/out-group dynamics to channel man's natural aggression to a societally-approved release valve.

But Freud doesn't stop there, he's also got provocative things to say about pleasure, love, sexuality, religion, and work. I found his thoughts on economic work to be particularly interesting. Freud says that "displacing a large amount of libidinal components, whether narcissistic, aggressive or even erotic, on to professional work" is a mechanism that society has created to alleviate our psychological nature and that work would be valuable for this reason alone even if it had no economic function. He also has some odd evolutionary hypotheses about genitals and psychology... I am not knowledgeable enough to determine how seriously to take these claims.

Overall, worth a read - even if only to gain an appreciation for its place in the history of ideas.

My favorite quotes below.


The original title chosen for it by Freud was ‘Das Unglück in der Kultur’ (‘Unhappiness in Civilization’); but ‘Unglück’ was later altered to ‘Unbehagen’ — a word for which it was difficult to choose an English equivalent, though the French ‘malaise’ might have served. Freud suggested ‘Man’s Discomfort in Civilization’ in a letter to his translator, Mrs. Riviere; but it was she herself who found the ideal solution of the difficulty in the title that was finally adopted.

The main theme of the book — the irremediable antagonism between the demands of instinct and the restrictions of civilization — may be traced back to some of Freud’s very earliest psychological writings. Thus, on May 31, 1897, he wrote to Fliess that ‘incest is anti-social and civilization consists in a progressive renunciation of it’ (Freud, 1950a, Draft N); and a year later, in a paper on ‘Sexuality in the Aetiology of the Neuroses’ (1898a), he wrote that ‘we may justly hold our civilization responsible for the spread of neurasthenia’.

But indeed no clear evaluation of the part played in these restrictions by internal and external influences and of their reciprocal effects was possible till Freud’s investigations of ego-psychology had led him to his hypotheses of the super-ego and its origin from the individual’s earliest object-relations. It is because of this that such a large part of the present work (especially in Chapters VII and VIII) is concerned with the further exploration and clarification of the nature of the sense of guilt, and that Freud (on p. 81) declares his ‘intention to represent the sense of guilt as the most important problem in the development of civilization’. And this, in turn, is the ground for the second major side-issue of this work (though neither of them is in fact a side-issue) — the destructive instinct.

The reluctance to accept an aggressive instinct independent of the libido was assisted by the hypothesis of narcissism. Impulses of aggressiveness, and of hatred too, had from the first seemed to belong to the self-preservative instinct, and, since this was now subsumed under the libido, no independent aggressive instinct was called for. And this was so in spite of the bipolarity of object-relations, of the frequent admixtures of love and hate, and of the complex origin of hate itself. (See ‘Instincts and their Vicissitudes’ (1915c), Standard Ed., 14, 138–9.) It was not until Freud’s hypothesis of a ‘death instinct’ that a truly independent aggressive instinct came into view in Beyond the Pleasure Principle


IT is impossible to escape the impression that people commonly use false standards of measurement — that they seek power, success and wealth for themselves and admire them in others, and that they underestimate what is of true value in life. And yet, in making any general judgement of this sort, we are in danger of forgetting how variegated the human world and its mental life are.

I cannot discover this ‘oceanic’ feeling in myself. It is not easy to deal scientifically with feelings.

Normally, there is nothing of which we are more certain than the feeling of our self, of our own ego.

But towards the outside, at any rate, the ego seems to maintain clear and sharp lines of demarcation. There is only one state — admittedly an unusual state, but not one that can be stigmatized as pathological — in which it does not do this. At the height of being in love the boundary between ego and object threatens to melt away. Against all the evidence of his senses, a man who is in love declares that ‘I’ and ‘you’ are one, and is prepared to behave as if it were a fact.

Further reflection tells us that the adult’s ego-feeling cannot have been the same from the beginning. It must have gone through a process of development, which cannot, of course, be demonstrated but which admits of being constructed with a fair degree of probability.

A tendency arises to separate from the ego everything that can become a source of such unpleasure, to throw it outside and to create a pure pleasure-ego which is confronted by a strange and threatening ‘outside’. The boundaries of this primitive pleasure-ego cannot escape rectification through experience. Some of the things that one is unwilling to give up, because they give pleasure, are nevertheless not ego but object; and some sufferings that one seeks to expel turn out to be inseparable from the ego in virtue of their internal origin. One comes to learn a procedure by which, through a deliberate direction of one’s sensory activities and through suitable muscular action, one can differentiate between what is internal — what belongs to the ego — and what is external — what emanates from the outer world. In this way one makes the first step towards the introduction of the reality principle which is to dominate future development.

The earlier phases of development are in no sense still preserved; they have been absorbed into the later phases for which they have supplied the material. The embryo cannot be discovered in the adult. The thymus gland of childhood is replaced after puberty by connective tissue, but is no longer present itself; in the marrow-bones of the grown man I can, it is true, trace the outline of the child’s bone, but it itself has disappeared, having lengthened and thickened until it has attained its definitive form. The fact remains that only in the mind is such a preservation of all the earlier stages alongside of the final form possible, and that we are not in a position to represent this phenomenon in pictorial terms.

We can only hold fast to the fact that it is rather the rule than the exception for the past to be preserved in mental life. Thus we are perfectly willing to acknowledge that the ‘oceanic’ feeling exists in many people, and we are inclined to trace it back to an early phase of ego-feeling. The further question then arises, what claim this feeling has to be regarded as the source of religious needs. To me the claim does not seem compelling. After all, a feeling can only be a source of energy if it is itself the expression of a strong need. The derivation of religious needs from the infant’s helplessness and the longing for the father aroused by it seems to me incontrovertible, especially since the feeling is not simply prolonged from childhood days, but is permanently sustained by fear of the superior power of Fate. I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection. Thus the part played by the oceanic feeling, which might seek something like the restoration of limitless narcissism, is ousted from a place in the foreground. The origin of the religious attitude can be traced back in clear outlines as far as the feeling of infantile helplessness.


The common man cannot imagine this Providence otherwise than in the figure of an enormously exalted father. Only such a being can understand the needs of the children of men and be softened by their prayers and placated by the signs of their remorse. The whole thing is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life. It is still more humiliating to discover how large a number of people living today, who cannot but see that this religion is not tenable, nevertheless try to defend it piece by piece in a series of pitiful rearguard actions.

Wer Wissenschaft und Kunst besitzt, hat auch Religion; Wer jene beide nicht besitzt, der habe Religion! [‘He who possesses science and art also has religion; but he who possesses neither of those two, let him have religion!’ —Goethe, Zahme Xenien IX (Gedichte aus dem Nachlass).] This saying on the one hand draws an antithesis between religion and the two highest achievements of man, and on the other, asserts that, as regards their value in life, those achievements and religion can represent or replace each other. If we also set out to deprive the common man, [who has neither science nor art] of his religion, we shall clearly not have the poet’s authority on our side.

Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks. In order to bear it we cannot dispense with palliative measures.

There are perhaps three such measures: powerful deflections, which cause us to make light of our misery; substitutive satisfactions, which diminish it; and intoxicating substances, which make us insensitive to it.

Once again, only religion can answer the question of the purpose of life. One can hardly be wrong in concluding that the idea of life having a purpose stands and falls with the religious system.

They strive after happiness; they want to become happy and to remain so.

As we see, what decides the purpose of life is simply the programme of the pleasure principle. This principle dominates the operation of the mental apparatus from the start.

What we call happiness in the strictest sense comes from the (preferably sudden) satisfaction of needs which have been dammed up to a high degree, and it is from its nature only possible as an episodic phenomenon. When any situation that is desired by the pleasure principle is prolonged, it only produces a feeling of mild contentment. We are so made that we can derive intense enjoyment only from a contrast and very little from a state of things. Goethe, indeed, warns us that ‘nothing is harder to bear than a succession of fair days.’ NOTE: reasons not to live in California!

We are threatened with suffering from three directions: from our own body, which is doomed to decay and dissolution and which cannot even do without pain and anxiety as warning signals; from the external world, which may rage against us with overwhelming and merciless forces of destruction; and finally from our relations to other men.

In the last analysis, all suffering is nothing else than sensation; it only exists in so far as we feel it, and we only feel it in consequence of certain ways in which our organism is regulated. The crudest, but also the most effective among these methods of influence is the chemical one — intoxication.

The feeling of happiness derived from the satisfaction of a wild instinctual impulse untamed by the ego is incomparably more intense than that derived from sating an instinct that has been tamed.

It is not possible, within the limits of a short survey, to discuss adequately the significance of work for the economics of the libido. No other technique for the conduct of life attaches the individual so firmly to reality as laying emphasis on work; for his work at least gives him a secure place in a portion of reality, in the human community. The possibility it offers of displacing a large amount of libidinal components, whether narcissistic, aggressive or even erotic, on to professional work and on to the human relations connected with it lends it a value by no means second to what it enjoys as something indispensible to the preservation and justification of existence in society. NOTE: So Freud is anti-Universal-Basic-Income?

And yet, as a path to happiness, work is not highly prized by men. They do not strive after it as they do after other possibilities of satisfaction. The great majority of people only work under the stress of necessity, and this natural human aversion to work raises most difficult social problems.

People who are receptive to the influence of art cannot set too high a value on it as a source of pleasure and consolation in life. Nevertheless the mild narcosis induced in us by art can do no more than bring about a transient withdrawal from the pressure of vital needs, and it is not strong enough to make us forget real misery.

But one can do more than that; one can try to re-create the world, to build up in its stead another world in which its most unbearable features are eliminated and replaced by others that are in conformity with one’s own wishes. But whoever, in desperate defiance, sets out upon this path to happiness will as a rule attain nothing. Reality is too strong for him. He becomes a madman, who for the most part finds no one to help him in carrying through his delusion. It is asserted, however, that each one of us behaves in some one respect like a paranoic, corrects some aspect of the world which is unbearable to him by the construction of a wish and introduces this delusion into reality. A special importance attaches to the case in which this attempt to procure a certainty of happiness and a protection against suffering through a delusional remoulding of reality is made by a considerable number of people in common. The religions of mankind must be classed among the mass-delusions of this kind. No one, needless to say, who shares a delusion ever recognizes it as such.

I am, of course, speaking of the way of life which makes love the centre of everything, which looks for all satisfaction in loving and being loved. A psychical attitude of this sort comes naturally enough to all of us; one of the forms in which love manifests itself — sexual love — has given us our most intense experience of an overwhelming sensation of pleasure and has thus furnished us with a pattern for our search for happiness. What is more natural than that we should persist in looking for happiness along the path on which we first encountered it? The weak side of this technique of living is easy to see; otherwise no human being would have thought of abandoning this path to happiness for any other. It is that we are never so defenceless against suffering as when we love, never so helplessly unhappy as when we have lost our loved object or its love.

The enjoyment of beauty has a peculiar, mildly intoxicating quality of feeling. Beauty has no obvious use; nor is there any clear cultural necessity for it. Yet civilization could not do without it.

It is worth remarking that the genitals themselves, the sight of which is always exciting, are nevertheless hardly ever judged to be beautiful; the quality of beauty seems, instead, to attach to certain secondary sexual characters.

The man who is predominantly erotic will give first preference to his emotional relationships to other people; the narcissistic man, who inclines to be self-sufficient, will seek his main satisfactions in his internal mental processes; the man of action will never give up the external world on which he can try out his strength.

Religion restricts this play of choice and adaptation, since it imposes equally on everyone its own path to the acquisition of happiness and protection from suffering. Its technique consists in depressing the value of life and distorting the picture of the real world in a delusional manner — which presupposes an intimidation of the intelligence. At this price, by forcibly fixing them in a state of psychical infantilism and by drawing them into a mass-delusion, religion succeeds in sparing many people an individual neurosis. But hardly anything more.


This contention holds that what we call our civilization is largely responsible for our misery, and that we should be much happier if we gave it up and returned to primitive conditions.

Men are proud of those achievements, and have a right to be. But they seem to have observed that this newly-won power over space and time, this subjugation of the forces of nature, which is the fulfilment of a longing that goes back thousands of years, has not increased the amount of pleasurable satisfaction which they may expect from life and has not made them feel happier.

And, finally, what good to us is a long life if it is difficult and barren of joys, and if it is so full of misery that we can only welcome death as a deliverer?

Future ages will bring with them new and probably unimaginably great advances in this field of civilization and will increase man’s likeness to God still more. But in the interests of our investigations, we will not forget that present-day man does not feel happy in his Godlike character.

We require civilized man to reverence beauty wherever he sees it in nature and to create it in the objects of his handiwork so far as he is able.

Indeed, we are not surprised by the idea of setting up the use of soap as an actual yardstick of civilization. The same is true of order. It, like cleanliness, applies solely to the works of man.

Beauty, cleanliness and order obviously occupy a special position among the requirements of civilization. No one will maintain that they are as important for life as control over the forces of nature or as some other factors with which we shall become acquainted. And yet no one would care to put them in the background as trivialities. NOTE: so German!

No feature, however, seems better to characterize civilization than its esteem and encouragement of man’s higher mental activities — his intellectual, scientific and artistic achievements — and the leading role that it assigns to ideas in human life. Foremost among those ideas are the religious systems, on whose complicated structure I have endeavoured to throw light elsewhere. [Cf. The Future of an Illusion (1927c).] Next come the speculations of philosophy; and finally what might be called man’s ‘ideals’ — his ideas of a possible perfection of individuals, or of peoples or of the whole of humanity, and the demands he sets up on the basis of such ideas.

The last, but certainly not the least important, of the characteristic features of civilization remains to be assessed: the manner in which the relationships of men to one another, their social relationships, are regulated — relationships which affect a person as a neighbour, as a source of help, as another person’s sexual object, as a member of a family and of a State.

Human life in common is only made possible when a majority comes together which is stronger than any separate individual and which remains united against all separate individuals.

This replacement of the power of the individual by the power of a community constitutes the decisive step of civilization.

The first requisite of civilization, therefore, is that of justice — that is, the assurance that a law once made will not be broken in favour of an individual.

The liberty of the individual is no gift of civilization. It was greatest before there was any civilization, though then, it is true, it had for the most part no value, since the individual was scarcely in a position to defend it. The development of civilization imposes restrictions on it, and justice demands that no one shall escape those restrictions.

The urge for freedom, therefore, is directed against particular forms and demands of civilization or against civilization altogether.

Now we have seen that order and cleanliness are important requirements of civilization, although their vital necessity is not very apparent, any more than their suitability as sources of enjoyment. At this point we cannot fail to be struck by the similarity between the process of civilization and the libidinal development of the individual.


The organic periodicity of the sexual process has persisted, it is true, but its effect on psychical sexual excitation has rather been reversed. This change seems most likely to be connected with the diminution of the olfactory stimuli by means of which the menstrual process produced an effect on the male psyche. Their role was taken over by visual excitations, which, in contrast to the intermittent olfactory stimuli, were able to maintain a permanent effect. The taboo on menstruation is derived from this ‘organic repression’, as a defence against a phase of development that has been surmounted. All other motives are probably of a secondary nature.

The diminution of the olfactory stimuli seems itself to be a consequence of man’s raising himself from the ground, of his assumption of an upright gait; this made his genitals, which were previously concealed, visible and in need of protection, and so provoked feelings of shame in him. The fateful process of civilization would thus have set in with man’s adoption of an erect posture.

The communal life of human beings had, therefore, a two-fold foundation: the compulsion to work, which was created by external necessity, and the power of love, which made the man unwilling to be deprived of his sexual object — the woman — and made the woman unwilling to be deprived of the part of herself which had been separated off from her — her child. Eros and Ananke [Love and Necessity] have become the parents of human civilization too. The first result of civilization was that even a fairly large number of people were now able to live together in a community.

A love that does not discriminate seems to me to forfeit a part of its own value, by doing an injustice to its object; and secondly, not all men are worthy of love.

We have already perceived that one of the main endeavours of civilization is to bring people together into large unities. But the family will not give the individual up.

The work of civilization has become increasingly the business of men, it confronts them with ever more difficult tasks and compels them to carry out instinctual sublimations of which women are little capable. NOTE: Oh Freud...

Present-day civilization makes it plain that it will only permit sexual relationships on the basis of a solitary, indissoluble bond between one man and one woman, and that it does not like sexuality as a source of pleasure in its own right and is only prepared to tolerate it because there is so far no substitute for it as a means of propagating the human race. This, of course, is an extreme picture. Everybody knows that it has proved impossible to put it into execution, even for quite short periods. Only the weaklings have submitted to such an extensive encroachment upon their sexual freedom, and stronger natures have only done so subject to a compensatory condition, which will be mentioned later.

Man is an animal organism with (like others) an unmistakably bisexual disposition. The individual corresponds to a fusion of two symmetrical halves, of which, according to some investigators, one is purely male and the other female. It is equally possible that each half was originally hermaphrodite. Sex is a biological fact which, although it is of extraordinary importance in mental life, is hard to grasp psychologically.

For psychology the contrast between the sexes fades away into one between activity and passivity, in which we far too readily identify activity with maleness and passivity with femaleness, a view which is by no means universally confirmed in the animal kingdom.

One must, it is true, forgive one’s enemies — but not before they have been hanged.’

One is irresistibly reminded of an incident in the French Chamber when capital punishment was being debated. A member had been passionately supporting its abolition and his speech was being received with tumultuous applause, when a voice from the hall called out: ‘Que messieurs les assassins commencent!’ [‘It’s the murderers who should make the first move.’]

Homo homini lupus. [‘Man is a wolf to man.’ Derived from Plautus, Asinaria II, iv, 88.]

instinctual passions are stronger than reasonable interests.

To be sure, if an attempt is made to base this fight upon an abstract demand, in the name of justice, for equality for all men, there is a very obvious objection to be made — that nature, by endowing individuals with extremely unequal physical attributes and mental capacities, has introduced injustices against which there is no remedy.

It is clearly not easy for men to give up the satisfaction of this inclination to aggression. They do not feel comfortable without it. The advantage which a comparatively small cultural group offers of allowing this instinct an outlet in the form of hostility against intruders is not to be despised. It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness.

I gave this phenomenon the name of ‘the narcissism of minor differences’, a name which does not do much to explain it.

I took as my starting-point a saying of the poet-philosopher, Schiller, that ‘hunger and love are what moves the world’.

The tension between the harsh super-ego and the ego that is subjected to it, is called by us the sense of guilt; it expresses itself as a need for punishment.

Civilization, therefore, obtains mastery over the individual’s dangerous desire for aggression by weakening and disarming it and by setting up an agency within him to watch over it, like a garrison in a conquered city.

Since civilization obeys an internal erotic impulsion which causes human beings to unite in a closely-knit group, it can only achieve this aim through an ever-increasing reinforcement of the sense of guilt.

This may have spoilt the structure of my paper; but it corresponds faithfully to my intention to represent the sense of guilt as the most important problem in the development of civilization and to show that the price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt.

Ethics is thus to be regarded as a therapeutic attempt — as an endeavour to achieve, by means of a command of the super-ego, something which has so far not been achieved by means of any other cultural activities. As we already know, the problem before us is how to get rid of the greatest hindrance to civilization — namely, the constitutional inclination of human beings to be aggressive towards one another; and for that very reason we are especially interested in what is probably the most recent of the cultural commands of the super-ego, the commandment to love one’s neighbour as oneself.

If the development of civilization has such a far-reaching similarity to the development of the individual and if it employs the same methods, may we not be justified in reaching the diagnosis that, under the influence of cultural urges, some civilizations, or some epochs of civilization—possibly the whole of mankind—have become ‘neurotic’?

The fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction.