Civilization and its Discontents Summary

Sigmund Freud

Civilization and its Discontents

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Civilization and its Discontents Summary

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In Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud addresses the problems that living in a civilized society poses for the individual. He begins by addressing the feeling of yearning for an “oceanic” sense of “oneness” that all people feel, and which institutionalized religion is skilled at capitalizing on. But the feeling he describes is not religious. Rather, it is the sense that there is something like eternity, that all humans are part of the same whole. Again, this is not religious or progressive. Rather, he sees the human experience of this “oceanic” feeling as a regression towards the state prior to an individual’s (or the ego’s) ability to his or her ability to differentiate between themselves and the outside world.

Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan later took a similar approach in his theories on the “mirror stage” of child development. At roughly 15 months an infant developing at a normal pace will recognize itself in the mirror. The child now knows that there is something outside of itself, and that it has a self. For Freud, it is at this early point that the problems of civilization arise for all humans.

Freud posited that all humans are driven by the incentives of the “pleasure principle,” which simply states that humans seek to maximize their pleasures while avoiding all possible pain. This is the paradox of Civilization and its Discontents: Civilization, according to Freud, is the greatest cause of human unhappiness. In order to maintain harmonious relationships with neighbors, friends, family, coworkers and others, the individual must act according to certain strictures and rules. However, these regulations may stifle adherence to the Pleasure Principle.

Life in a society necessarily assumes a certain amount of conformity from its citizens. Once the citizens awaken to the reality that they cannot pursue their own limitless contentment as long as they must act in accordance, at some level, with the wishes of others, unhappiness will logically set in, and by then it is too late.

Next, the family unit is examined. The family, while an institution of comfort and security and familiarity, is also a micro-society that prevents personal growth and exploration. The libidinal impulse – sexual desire – cannot be indulged as fully as an individual burdened with familial obligations might require. Family also insists on the maintenance of relationships that will inevitably cause pain at times.

The themes of guilt and anxiety are at the heart of Civilization and its Discontents, as is the case with so much of Freud’s other writings. All human possess varying degrees of aggressiveness. They may manifest in different ways, but the unifying theme of all is that they will and must be suppressed by one’s inclusion in society. Aggression unrelieved, according to Freud, will eventually be turned inward and result in crushing guilt. This creates a feeling of a debt that cannot be paid, which, having no means of expression, will cause inordinate anxiety and suffering. This “guilty conscience” will always be a torment to anyone who decides to opt in to a society, and is known in Freudian terms as the superego.

In the book’s finale, Freud meticulously defines his terms: superego, conscience, and ego, before turning to a discussion of the concept of eros. Eros is not just a synonym for love. Rather, it encompasses all progenitive acts, such as survival, sex, and anything else resulting in the prolongation of life. Eros is the counterpoint to Freud’s “death drive,” which is the human impulse of self-destruction and self-sabotage. Civilization and its Discontents ends with Freud pondering which of these two innate instincts will ultimately prevail.

Civilization is a good introduction to Freud’s thinking. It is a relatively slim book, and is less jargon-dense than many of his other writings. Whatever the nomenclature, it prompts universal questions. Why do people act in ways that will undermine their own happiness? Is it possible, as Plato suggested, to imagine a truly just city, if civilization itself creates misery? This reduced level of abstraction will be welcome to any who have felt thwarted by Freud’s incredibly theoretical writings on dreams and sexuality.

It is more accessible because it provides thought experiments that anyone can perform and evaluate. Because it is unlikely that someone encounters the book that does not also live in a society, society becomes the laboratory by which the reader may study Civilization, and its effects on that particular individual. It is one of Freud’s only works that does not require the reader to take his word for it, or to accept his definitions.

Civilization and its Discontents simply posits that civilization makes people unhappy. If the reader can accept this proposition, it may be possible to find ways to improve one’s life, even while trapped in Freud’s view of what community takes away from humanity and pleasure.