34 pages 1 hour read

Sigmund Freud

Civilization And Its Discontents

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1930

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Summary and Study Guide


Civilization and Its Discontents is one of the most widely-read and influential works by Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis and a titan of the 20th century. The book examines the conflict between societies and their individual members, how cultures try to channel human drives toward constructive ends, and how individuals struggle to balance social demands for conformity with their own urges and yearnings.

Late in the 19th century, Freud founded psychoanalysis, a talking therapy that unearths a patient’s unconscious desires and buried traumas so the patient may transcend them and, thus freed, manage life more effectively. This therapeutic system inspired the growing field of psychology during the 20th century. Civilization and Its Discontents is one of the last of more than 20 books Freud wrote on the topic. Together, his works on psychoanalysis have influenced generations of therapists, popularizing such concepts as “libido,” “neurosis,” “super-ego,” “narcissism,” “Oedipus complex,” “reaction-formation,” and “the id.”

Civilization and Its Discontents first discusses the problem of human suffering and how individuals strive to avoid pain and enhance pleasure. Three main sources of pain plague humanity: old age, the harshness of nature, and social conflicts. And people tend to respond to suffering in three ways: distractions, intoxication, and fantasies. Individuals who fail to manage their suffering may become neurotic, displaying symptoms of anxiety, or they may fall into substance abuse or, in extreme cases, collapse into insanity. Freud considers religion merely a sop that fails to genuinely resolve human unhappiness.

Freud goes on to describe how civilizations evolved to tackle the problem of suffering. Early human societies transformed individual selfishness and sexual urges into affection for others. Codes of conduct facilitated society, but these rules sometimes caused more distress than they relieved. Modern people hold their cultures to high standards, often lamenting that ancient peoples must have been happier and that modern societies have failed to enhance satisfactions.

Next, Freud examines some of the ways, including political movements, societies attempt to resolve members’ conflicts. In the West, a prime directive is to “love thy neighbor as thyself”, an admonition Freud believes is impossible to fulfill and only makes things harder for individuals as they strive to improve their social interactions. The most difficult thing to resolve, however, is antisocial aggression that springs from the deep-seated destructive urge, or “death instinct,” within each human being.

The book concludes with an examination of the most successful tool of social control, the ingrained super-ego, which guards against antisocial thoughts and actions. Under the command of the super-ego, nearly every member of a society comes to regard as evil many otherwise pleasurable activities because they are deemed culturally inappropriate.

Freud observes that entire societies can be neurotic—that is, suffer a group affliction similar to that of an individual. He hopes his analysis will prove useful to the world at large as humanity strives toward a future with less suffering and more satisfaction.

The Dover Thrift Edition of Civilization and Its Discontents is translated by Joan Riviere, a psychoanalyst and associate of Freud’s. The book includes Freud’s footnotes, some of which are mini-essays in themselves.