1930:Vienna | Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents

SAC editor has summarized Freud’s eight-part essay. All passages within quote-marks or indented in block-quotes are from the Joan Riviere translation of Freud’s words. SAC editor has added hypertext hops and boldface to link and emphasize the points of greatest relevance to our course. Hypertext [ID] is used here to hop to another webpage for purposes of identifying the preceding item. It should not be confused with the Freudian concept of the "id".

Freud's essay works best for readers already familiar with Freud’s concepts of “id”, “ego” and “super-ego”. Another thing = Freud always refers to “man”, “he”, “his”, etc. when the contemporary writer might struggle to be less gender-narrow in concepts and expression. This is for Freud more than an issue of narrative style, and this issue has contributed to the waning of Freud's influence in the latter decades of the 20th century.

Based on his psychological theories of human consciousness, Freud sets out here to elaborate on the complex relationship between the two terms of his title =

(1) “civilization” [Kultur], i.e., restraint or super-ego
(2) “discontents”, i.e., pathologies caused when natural human urges well up from the unconscious libidinous id and are restrained

Part I begins by establishing the ego =


“Oceanic” feeling of mystic oneness with the world is very suspect. The Ego is selfishly and distinctly self-aware. It relates to externality aggressively and according to the “pleasure principle”.

It is however true that Eros [physical love] can create the illusion of “oneness” in the ego’s relationship to a “love-object”. “At the height of being in love the boundary between ego and object threatens to melt away.” But this sort of dissolution of the ego can be very pathological.

Less serious is the possibility that it might take the form of infantile regression. [Solipsism] The human mind is like Rome or any old city. Traces of ancient structures survive over the years of development and growth. The city in its infancy remains a visible feature of the modern city. [NB! hint of Descartes??]

But for the most part all this mystical nonsense about “oneness with the world” gets us nowhere.

[However, we will eventually see that Freud has some inkling that the goal of life is to create ascending levels of human unity, from the single individual -- ego -- to the whole of mankind, and that the role of civilization is to facilitate that psychologically difficult, even perilous and far from certain process.]


Religion in general is much the same as romantic ideas about love. It is an illusion. [Here Freud returns to the theme of Future of an Illusion.]

Yet “common man” cannot live without religious fantasies =

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, nonetheless try to defend it piece by piece in a series of pitiful rearguard actions.
Freud sticks with the issue of the “common man” and his religion, noting that the educated person with philosophy and arts can also find a way to relate to religion, while the person who has only religion has no natural way to relate to philosophy or the arts. Life is hard. Folks need to find solace where they can, according to their own lights.

But what is the purpose of life? A silly question. We do not ask what is the “purpose” of squids or ice. [SAC editor is responsible for the two specific examples of living organisms and inanimate objects.]

Is it not better to ask how humans signify their own presumed purpose of life “by their behavior”?

Studying human behavior shows us that the “pleasure principle”, the satisfaction of the ego, gives purpose to life as it is actually lived.

But humanity has never been able as a whole to accept that fact.

To put it in simple but even more troublesome terms, unrestrained indulgence of the libido fails to bring happiness. Unrestrained libidinous pleasure seeking does not work.

Humans must find a “displacement of the libido”. FOOTNOTE gives example of “displacement” and introduces here the significant concept “sublimation”. A most satisfactory form of displacement or sublimation is labor or professional life =

No other technique for the conduct of life attaches the individual so firmly to reality as laying emphasis on work; for this 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 indispensable to the preservation and justification of existence in society. Professional activity is a source of special satisfaction if it is a freely chosen one -- if, that is to say, by means of sublimation, it makes possible the use of existing inclinations, of persisting or constitutionally reinforced instinctual impulses.
Unfortunately most people work only to subsist so as to allow them to seek libidinal pleasures elsewhere. [Here Freud touches again on the theme of the common man.] But then why not make “love the center of everything”? The reason is that the pleasure principle “cannot be fulfilled”. [Freud here repeats earlier point.]

And why not then wash all these problems away in religion? This too fails, but does have one benefit for some = It can prevent many people from experiencing psychopathologies of other sorts =

Religion ... 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.
There are many roads to happiness, but the painful truth is that none of them leads there for certain. There is always a price to pay.

We might well summarize Freud’s point so far as this = Humans suffer psychic “discontents” with no reference yet to “civilization” and its particular discontents. Now he takes up the particular discontents of civilization =


Suffering has three sources =

(1) superior power of nature
(2) feebleness of our own bodies
(3) “inadequacy of the regulations which adjust the mutual relationships in the family, the state and society”.
We can do nothing about the first two. And while we can do a great deal about the third -- and over the centuries humans have done a great deal -- we have to acknowledge that failures in the third realm -- civilization -- must have some obdurate psychological cause.

Great industrial, scientific, engineering, and technical advances have been made in recent decades. Freud emphasizes medicine, hygiene, transportation and communications. “Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God.” Yet misery seems, if anything, to increase.

It could be said, and has been said, that it is civilization itself that causes misery, and “we should be much happier if we gave it up and returned to primitive conditions” [EG=Rousseau]. But that is ridiculous. Civilization may not bring liberty, freedom or happiness, but it does restrain primitive impulses in the human psyche. Civilization may not solve all problems, but it does prevent many problems. Science provides the only route to understanding how the irremediable aggressive instincts of humans can be restrained in civilization.


Civilization creates an environment in which primitive libidinous impulses can be sublimated. But civilization exacts its own particular price. Freud earlier established that the unrestrained libidinous life did not work to bring happiness. Now we learn that restraint too has its costs. Libido love, genital love, strives for objects, and suffers if restricted. Civilization forces “deflection” of libidinal urges.

But only “weaklings” give in to restraint unconditionally, and the strong give in only if they receive compensation in other “deflected” values. The strong find substitutes for the natural fixation on aggressive genital satisfaction.


At the heart of Freud’s message is a disturbing presumption about human nature =

[M]en are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and kill him. Homo homini lupus [Humans are wolves to fellow humans -- an ignorant slander of wolves, by the way -SAC ed.]. Who, in the face of all his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion? As a rule this cruel aggressiveness waits for some provocation or puts itself at the service of some other purpose, whose goal might also have been reached by milder measures. In circumstances that are favorable to it, when the mental counterforces which ordinarily inhibit it are out of action, it also manifests itself spontaneously and reveals man as a savage beast to whom consideration towards his own kind is something alien.
And there appears to be nothing we can do about it. Communism, for example, aims to abolish private property as the source of all human evil. Anyone who knows anything about poverty and great disparities of wealth can understand this, but the communist system is doomed to failure. “[T]he psychological premises on which the system is based are an untenable illusion.” Take away property, and humans will find other issues to fight about. Humans have many ways of venting their aggressions on one another.

How about abolition of the family and introduction of free love? Surely that would remove the whole problem of sexual aggression. We cannot say what directions civilization might take under these circumstances, “but one thing we can expect, and that is that this indestructible feature of human nature will follow it there”.

Even the early Christian communities based on brotherly love soon drew strict and intolerant lines between them and others. One result was anti-Semitism, similar to communist “anti-bourgeois” attitudes. Where will the communists turn next once they have eradicated the bourgeoisie?

If civilization imposes such great sacrifices not only on man’s sexuality but his aggressivity, we can understand better why it is so hard for him to be happy in that civilization. In fact primitive man was better off in knowing no restrictions of instinct. To counterbalance this [however], his prospects for enjoying this happiness for any length of time were very slender. Civilized man has exchanged a portion of his possibilities of happiness for a portion of security.
Except that Freud is trying to fit the history of the human community into his scheme of individual psychoanalysis, he has at this point groped his way to the same point well established two centuries earlier by 17th-century English political philosophers Thomas Hobbes [ID] and John Locke [ID].

Then Freud takes a step beyond these more optimistic political philosophers = “[T]here are difficulties attaching to the nature of civilization which will not yield to any attempt at reform.” Freud offers as a major example of this what he terms “the psychological poverty of groups” =

The danger is most threatening where the bonds of a society are chiefly constituted by the identification of its members with one another, while individuals of the leader type do not acquire the importance that should fall to them in the formation of a group. The present cultural state of America [USA] would give us a good opportunity for studying the damage to civilization which is thus to be feared. But I shall avoid the temptation of entering upon a critique of American civilization; I do not want to give an impression of wanting myself to employ American methods.


Freud here returns to a theme opened in section V, but quickly put aside in order to make those dark points about human nature. Now he returns to the contrary but equally destructive urges of Eros [erotic love] and Death. He now explores how their contrariness, their struggle with one another, holds out some hope.

Aggression is the greatest impediment to civilization. But civilization is the ultimate end-goal 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. Why this has to happen, we do not know; the work of Eros is precisely this. These collections of men are to be libidinally bound to one another. Necessity alone, the advantages of work in common, will not hold them together. But man’s natural aggressive instinct is the derivative and the main representative of the death instinct which we have found alongside of Eros and which shares world-dominion with it. And now, I think, the meaning of evolution of civilization is no longer obscure to us. It must present the struggle between Eros and Death, between the instinct of life and the instinct of destruction, as it works itself out in the human species. This struggle is what all life essentially consists of, and the evolution of civilization may therefore be simply described as the struggle for life of the human species. And it is this battle of the giants that our nurse-maids try to appease with their lullaby about Heaven.


Super-ego is an aggressor against ego. Roughly speaking, the super-ego is an internally accepted social restraint on the aggressive ego. [The super-ego is the force of unified egos; it is civilization.]


“The sense of guilt is the most important problem in the development of civilization.” [...] [T]he price that we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of a sense of guilt.”

Children are taught nothing about realities of sex or (as we have seen earlier in the text) truths about aggression. They have been given “illusions”, “myths” and “lullabies”. This is no way to prepare them for the actual world ahead. It is

...as though one were to equip people starting on a Polar expedition with summer clothing and maps of the Italian Lakes. In this it becomes evident that a certain misuse is being made of ethical demands.
Guilt may be described as “the fear of the super-ego”

“...the process of human civilization and of the development of the individual [...] must share in the most general characteristics of life.”

Ethics are therapeutic attempts by the super-ego to control the ego. “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is comforting to some, even though it is psychologically impossible. It does serve a useful disciplinary role as a cultural super-ego =

The commandment is impossible to fulfill; such an enormous inflation of love can only lower its value, not get rid of the difficulty. Civilization pays no attention to all this; it merely admonishes us that the harder it is to obey the precept the more meritorious it is to do so. But anyone who follows such a precept in present-day civilization only puts himself at a disadvantage vis-á-vis the person who disregards it.
Ethics are ineffective, granting only “narcissistic satisfaction” to those who want to think they are better than others.

At this point the ethics based on religion introduces its promises of a better after-life. But so long as virtue is not rewarded here on earth, ethics will, I fancy, preach in vain. I too think it quite certain that a real change in the relations of human beings to possessions would be of more help in this direction than any ethical commands; but the recognition of this fact among socialists has been obscured and made useless for practical purposes by a fresh idealistic misconception of human nature.
As for the larger question of civilization and its discontents, it may very well be true that “the whole effort is not worth the trouble”. That is to say, the sacrifice of libidinal pleasure and happiness in return for security may not be worth it. But Freud admits he cannot say. Nor can he offer consolation in the face of these harsh possibilities and the unquestionable psychological facts that underpin them.

[The essay was written in late 1929, ten years before the outbreak of WW2, sixteen years before the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Thus the final words take on historical poignancy = ]

The final question in these days is whether the community can prevail over the “human instinct of aggression and self-destruction”. Men have gained such control over nature and have amassed such power in their hands. “They would have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man.” Freud sees a great struggle ahead between Death and Eros, and he will not predict who will win.