Civilization and Its Discontents

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Civilization and Its Discontents is a book written by Sigmund Freud in the decade preceding his death in 1938. It was first published in German in 1930 as Das Unbehagen in der Kultur ("The Uneasiness in Culture") and is considered to be one of Freud's most important and most-read works, though today it is usually read more as a "cultural artifact" than for its theories.


In this book he states his views on the question of man's place in the world, a place Freud describes as being on the fulcrum between the individual's quest for freedom and society's demand for conformity. As a result, civilization, or its culture, inhibits man's instinctual drives, which can (and perhaps must) result in guilt and unfulfillment. Freud bases much of his analysis on the theory of the origins of civilization he first posited in Totem and Taboo and the idea of a death instinct first developed in Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

In this book, Freud maintains that human beings are inherently aggressive. That love for all of humanity is far from an inherent state of the human mind. In order to live in a civilized society, humans must take their aggression and turn it on themselves in the form of a conscience (or super-ego) which takes the place of the father as the child matures.

Other important concepts of this book is the human instinct of aggression towards each other, dichotomy of Eros vs. the Death Drive and the super-ego.

Historical Context

This work should be also understood in context of contemporary events: First World War (1914-1918) and Adolf Hitler's rise to power have undoubtedly influenced Freud and impacted his central observation about the tension between the individual and civilization. Under such conditions, Freud develops his thoughts published two years earlier in The Future of an Illusion (1927), in which he criticized organized religion as a collective neurosis. Freud, an avowed atheist, argues that religion has tamed asocial instincts and created a sense of community around a shared set of beliefs, thus helping the civilization, yet at the same time it has also exacted an enormous psychological cost to the individual by making him perpetually subordinate to the primal father figure embodied by God.


"...admittedly an unusual state, but not one that can be stigmatized as pathological .... 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."

"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."

"One feels inclined to say that the intention that man should be 'happy' is not included in the plan of 'Creation'."

"Happiness, in the reduced sense in which we recognize it as possible, is a problem of the economics of the individual's libido."

"The question of the purpose of human life has been raised countless times; it has never received a satisfactory answer and perhaps does not admit of one."


Between 1928 and 1930, Freud devoted himself exclusively to Civilization and its Discontents—apart from a handful of prefaces and his acceptance speech for the Goethe prize. Dated 1930, the book appeared in December 1929. It was an immediate success, selling twelve thousand copies the first year, with the first German reprint in 1931. The book has remained successful over the years, generating a vast amount of commentary. There were translations into English (1930), Spanish (1936), French (1943), Italian (1971), and Portuguese (1974). Freud himself was less expansive about it: during the composition of the text, Freud's cancer was painful and required care, and Max Schur became his personal physician in the spring of 1929. The first version of Civilization and its Discontents was written quickly, in July 1929. Freud wrote to Lou Andreas-Salomé on July 28, 1929 : "Today I wrote the final sentence, the one that concludes the book. ...It's about culture, feelings of guilt, happiness and other elevated subjects and, it rightly seems to me, quite superfluous, unlike the earlier work, behind which there was always some internal drive. But what is there to do? One can't smoke and play cards all day long. . . . During the writing, I rediscovered the most banal truths" (1966a [1912-1936]).

Freud began with Romain Rolland's criticisms of The Future of an Illusion (1927c) concerning the "religious sensation" and the "simple and direct fact of the 'eternal' sensation (which may indeed not be eternal, but simply without any perceptible limits, and oceanic)" (letter to Freud, December 27, 1927). He replied to Rolland on July 14, 1929, indicating that his remarks left him little rest.

Chapter one opens with a mention of the great man (Rolland) and explains the "oceanic" feeling through the concept of narcissism. Freud then develops the extensive metaphor comparing the unconscious to the archaeologist's Rome, which, like the initial ego, supposedly contains everything. It makes evident the preservation of memory traces, as if the various stages of the city since its foundation could exist simultaneously (as in the stratified spaces and multidimensional time of mathematics). Freud concluded that the oceanic feeling may exist as a memory trace, but stated that he would not pursue the investigation of the Mothers, which he mentions without elaborating. Instead, he maintains the supremacy of the religion of the Father. Like Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921c), Civilization and its Discontents begins by circling around psychical questions, and claiming that culture is born from the religion of the Father, characteristic of European monotheistic religions.

For several chapters Freud provides a fairly commonplace description of our relation to culture. Citing a number of European writers, Freud describes the impossibility of achieving happiness, the "essence of culture," the ambivalent relationships we entertain with it, and the opposition between culture and sexuality. For someone familiar with Freud's work, there is little to learn. But, using a frequent tactic, he outlines a broader scope of understanding before advancing his more incisive hypotheses, which are sketched in terms of the economic, dynamic, and topographical points of view.

It is as if Freud were asking why the forms and dynamics of groups that he constructed in Group Psychology were necessary, considering the inhibitions of sexual drives, the alienation that accompanies identification with large groups and the submission it entails. The response was economic: mankind's aggressive drives endanger culture. Freud then inserts the economic hypothesis into mental dynamics. Recalling the theory of drives, he suggests that the development of culture illustrates the struggle between Eros and death, the life instinct against the destructive instinct, as it unfolds within the human species. Once the dynamic relation has been established, there remains the problem of identifying mental formations, the correlative topography. The end of the book is devoted to a subtle study of the superego, the moral conscience, remorse, guilt, and the need for punishment. "I suspect that the reader has the impression that our discussions on the sense of guilt disrupt the framework of this essay . . . 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" (p. 134).

Freud's principal thesis is that the culture of patriarchal religion creates a particular way of working for the superego, which turns its aggression against the ego and expresses itself in the feeling of guilt. This process is unregulated. Once it is triggered, it worsens and becomes aggravated, exhausting not only the aggressive drives but the sexual drives as well. Moreover, "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" (p. 133). Eros itself serves the death drives or aggressive instincts, which culture serves as well. This results in the death-driven and unregulated dynamic of the cultural process.

Freud details the ontogenesis of the moral conscience and superego from the primitive social anxiety of the child—loss of the parents' love—to the erection of an internal authority, which does not distinguish between acts and intentions and whose power is reinforced with every rejection of a drive and every real misfortune. He then claims that the origin of the feeling of guilt is the murder of the primal father, who alone is capable of provoking the conflict of ambivalence and generating the superego.

In the last chapter Freud returns to the relations between the various terms discussed, while expanding the analogy between the origin of culture and individual development. He returns to the notion of the great man, who is likely to contribute to the development of the superego in a given cultural moment. Noting that psychic processes are sometimes more accessible in the group than the individual, Freud introduces the idea of analyzing the pathology in specific of cultural communities.

Just as Group Psychology analyzed the ego, Civilization and its Discontents examines the superego, as distinct from the ego ideal. In both texts, aggression and reality are integrated in a dynamic which links individual and collective psychology. To do this Freud simplified, identifying the death drive with the urge to destruction, and culture with Eros ("civilization is a process in the service of Eros, whose purpose is to combine single human individuals, and after that families, then races, peoples and nations, into one great unity, the unity of mankind" (p. 122). This is the text in which Freud best defends and illustrates the analogy, even the identity, between individual and cultural development—the family always serving as the medium of change.


  • Freud, Sigmund; Civilization and Its Discontents W. W. Norton & Company; Reissue edition (July, 1989), ISBN 0393301583

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