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Civilization and Its Discontents Study Guide & Essays

Chapter II
In Chapter Two, Freud expresses his antagonism to organized religion in forthright and
barely diplomatic terms, calling it delusional and infantile. Aggressively secular in his
orientation, Freud takes Goethe's view that science and art can provide - and even improve
upon - the benefits of religion. Freud enacts his own belief in the importance of the arts by
inserting generous citations of poetry and other insights from literary sources throughout.
According to Freud, the purpose of human life is not redemption in an afterlife, but the
achievement of happiness. His theory of the pleasure principle clashes directly with the
biblical "intention that man should be happy," which Freud notes with irony "is not
included in the plan of Creation."
Most surprising is Freud's emphasis on the compensatory value of beauty - the idea that
aesthetically pleasing "human forms and gestures, natural objects and landscapes, artistic
and even scientific creations" can stave off suffering and provide temporary pleasure. The
logical connection between psychoanalysis and beauty is, in the end, quite tenuous and
insufficiently explored. Freud never adequately integrates his interest in beauty into the
broader scheme of the pleasure principle. In discussing the topic of beauty and aesthetics,
he borrows heavily from the theory of Immanuel Kant, a prominent eighteenth-century
German philosopher whose seminal work, The Critique of Judgment (1790), continues to set
the terms of contemporary debate on the definition, value, and function of beauty. Kant
believed, as Freud does, that beauty does not inhere in the material qualities of the object
but is a function of the viewer's receptivity to it.
Chapter 2
In Future of an Illusion, Freud laments the common man's preoccupation with the
"enormously exalted father" embodied by God. The whole idea of placating a supposedly
higher being for future recompense strikes Freud as infantile. The reality is, however, that
masses of men persist in this illusion for the duration of their lives. According to Freud, men
exhibit three main coping mechanisms to counter their experience of suffering in the world:
1) deflection of pain and disappointment (through planned distractions); 2) substitutive
satisfactions (mainly through the replacement of reality by art); 3) intoxicating substances.
Freud concludes that religion cannot be clearly categorized within this schema.
Reconsidering the subject, Freud avers that religious belief alone can answer the question of
the ultimate purpose of life. Most immediately, men strive to be happy, and their behavior
in the outside world is determined by the pleasure principle. But the possibilities for
happiness and pleasure are limited, and more often we experience unhappiness from the
following three sources: 1) our body; 2) the external world; and 3) our relations to other
men. We employ various strategies to avoid displeasure: by isolating ourselves voluntarily,
becoming members of the human community (i.e. contributing to a common endeavor), or
influencing our own bodies. Intoxication is a particularly prevalent method of influence.
Sometimes we aim to control our instincts through practices of spiritual meditation.
Sublimation of instincts is another method of influence, involving the "displacement of
libido" or re-channeling of energies into other activities.
The discipline required to influence our internal psyche makes this strategy available to very
few; more commonly, we derive satisfaction from illusions, such as the enjoyment provided
by works of art, which provides temporary relief from the misery of the outside world.
Another strategy, as mentioned previously, is isolation, but reality intrudes far too forcefully
for a solitary illusion to persist. Finally, Freud points to love as a potentially intense source
of happiness, the downside being the vulnerability and defenselessness of the ego that
accompany love for another person.
Freud reflects on the role of beauty in achieving happiness: while undoubtedly a source of
pleasure, beauty has no discernible nature or origin, even if philosophical studies in
aesthetics have succeeded in describing the conditions under which it is experienced. For its
part, psychoanalysis would appear to locate beauty in sexual feeling, since beauty is often
an attribute of the desired sexual object.
It is impossible to reach a state of full happiness. None of the above strategies will work
completely. "Happiness is a problem of the economics of the individual's libido," Freud
states. Each individual must identify the type of happiness most important to him as well as
the capacity of his own mental constitution to experience happiness. Adaptation to the
external environment is also key to a maximum yield of pleasure. Religion reduces these
variables by dictating a simple path to happiness. It thereby spares the masses of their
individual neuroses, but Freud sees little of value in religion beyond this. If the believer
realizes that religion has put such a constraint on the possibilities of his happiness, his only
option becomes to find pleasure in "unconditional submission" to his faith. But Freud
remarks that such a self-aware individual could most likely find other, less arduous paths to
Freud discusses religion -- it is connected with science and art. F quotes Goethe, "He who
possesses science and art also has religion; but he who possesses neither of those two, let him
have religion!" Life is difficult for us so we need to cope in these ways: (1) deflection,
(2)substitutive, (3) intoxication. It's hard to place religion in either of the three categories.
Religion tries to answer the question: what is the purpose of life? Hard to find the answer to that.
But we can say that all men aim at happiness: "absence of pain and unpleasure," and "strong
feelings of pleasure." This is called the "programme of the pleasure principle." But it is at odds
with the rest of the world, and even when we get happiness for a long period of time it creates
"mild contentment". We experience unhappiness from: (1) our own bodies, (2) the outside world,
(3) our relations to other people. To protect ourselves from unpleasure we: (1) isolate ourselves,
(2) join the human community (F likes this one), (3) influence our bodies (intoxication). There's
also meditation ("mastering the internal sources of our needs") like Yoga, or sublimation
(displacing the libido). "One gains the most if one can sufficiently heighten the yield of pleasure
from the sources of psychical and intellectual work." But these are limited in effectiveness and
only available to some people. Mass delusions are common, have limited effectiveness. One
example is religion. One more way of coping with the world: Love. "But it does not turn away
from the external world; on the contrary, it clings to the object belonging to that world and
obtains happiness from an emotional relationship to them." But opening oneself up with love
also makes the person vulnerable, especially against the loss of the thing that's loved.
On happiness and beauty: mildly intoxicating, but no obvious use. It's a derivation from the field
of sexual feeling.
"Happiness... is a problem of the economics of the individual's libido... every man must find out
for himself in what particular fashion he can be saved." Therein lies the problem with religion; it
"restricts this play of choice and adaption, since it imposes equally on everyone its own path to
the acquisition of happiness and protection from suffering.
II. Re-Articulation of the Pleasure Principle
A. Double-sided nature of the pleasure principle:
1. In its positive manifestation, the pleasure principle simply names the egoistic
drive for the satisfaction of all our demands; it is a drive to gain pleasure.
-- But we quickly realize that the external world and the demands of others
interfere and prevents the satisfaction of many of our desiresenter the Reality
Principle, our awareness that our demands cannot all be met.
2. This leads to a second, negative expression of the pleasure principle; the attempt
to avoid displeasure as much as possible.
-- We thus learn to renounce desires or demands that cannot be met, since this
causes us less displeasure than giving in to the desire and having it left
B. Palliative Measures: Strategies that help us avoid lifes miseries:
1. Deflections: we re-channel our demands and desires into areas where they can
more easily be satisfied. In this category Freud includes scientific activity or other
forms of professional achievement. These are paths of least resistance. (Closest
connection to reality.)
2. Substitutive Satisfactions: these are forms of compensation for lack of pleasure
elsewhere. Here Freud includes all forms of illusion, including religious fervor,
fantasy, escape into art, etc. These overlap with what Freud elsewhere refers to as
3. Intoxication: we escape our displeasure by forgetting it, shunting it aside and
turning to things like alcohol, drugs, etc. Here we treat the symptoms (our
displeasure itself), not the causes (the reasons for our displeasure). As strategies
of avoidance and denial, these can increase the real displeasure they are intended
to circumvent. (Farthest from reality.)
Typical responses to this need for pleasure and protection from displeasure:

1) retreat, asceticism, life of the "monk"; killing off the instincts;
2) go on the attack = the person of action, the politician, reformer, etc.; controlling the instincts;
3) displacement or sublimation = finding pleasure through substitute sources over which one has
better control, such as scientific work, scholarship, etc.; substitute satisfactions, exchanging
inhibited avenue for one more easily achieved;
4) escape into illusions = fantasy, religion, drugs, etc.;
5) adopting an "aesthetic" attitude = cultivating a love of beauty (essentially another
substitutive satisfaction), art; a particular mode for finding satisfaction = finding what is
beautiful in the world, seeing the "positive" side of everything;
6) embracing or transforming the world, turning to philanthropy and other forms of caritative
engagement with the world and society = turning Eros into Caritas, general love and care for
humanity; working to improve reality so that it generates fewer possibilities of displeasure for
Chapter III
Freud begins by defending his "astonishing contention" that civilization is responsible for our
misery: we organize ourselves into civilized society to escape suffering, only to inflict it back
upon ourselves. Freud identifies three key historical events that produced this
disillusionment with human civilization: 1) the victory of Christendom over pagan religions
(Freud notes the low value placed on earthly life in Christian doctrine); 2) the discovery and
conquest of primitive tribes and peoples, who appeared to Europeans to be living more
happily in a state of nature; 3) scientific identification of the mechanism of neuroses, which
are caused by the frustrating demands put on the individual by modern society. Antagonism
toward civilization developed when people concluded that only a reduction of those
demands - in other words, withdrawal from the society that imposed them - would lead
to greater happiness.
Technology also brings the promise of better lives and greater happiness, but Freud
disputes the notion that advances in technology automatically improve our quality of life. On
the other hand, it is difficult to gauge the happiness of man at an earlier era because
"happiness" is an essentially subjective sentiment. People in extreme situations of
unhappiness might also be desensitized to their own suffering.
Civilization can be defined as the whole sum of human achievements and regulations
intended to protect men against nature and "adjust their mutual relations." Technological
advances have enhanced our power against nature, but also our capacities of sensory
perception through such inventions as the telephone and photograph. These inventions have
given man a sense of omnipotence and omniscience formerly attributed only to the gods.
Freud goes so far as to call man a "prosthetic God."
In addition to protection from nature, other expectations of living in a civilized society
include beauty (the aesthetic experience of various forms of art and artistic expression),
cleanliness (both in terms of personal hygiene and public sanitation), order (a principle
introduced by the sciences and learned from our observation of nature). Freud defends his
inclusion of beauty within his list of expectations. According to him, civilization is not
exclusively focused on what is useful. The cultivation of man's higher mental activities is
one of civilization's central aims, and it achieves this aim in part through the production of
As for the regulation of our "mutual relations," a "decisive step" toward civilization lies in
the replacement of the individual's power by that of the community. But this substitution
henceforth restricts the possibilities of individual satisfaction in the interests of law, order,
and justice. Civilized societies place the rule of law over individual instincts. Here Freud
draws an analogy between the evolution of civilization and the libidinal development of the
individual, identifying three parallel stages in which each occurs: 1) character-formation
(acquisition of an identity); 2) sublimation (channeling of primal energy into other physical
or psychological activities); 3) non-satisfaction/renunciation of instincts (burying of
aggressive impulses in the individual; imposition of the rule of law in society).
Three sources from which our suffering comes: (1) superior power of nature, (2) feebleness of
our bodies, (3) "inadequacy of the regulations which adjust the mutual relationships of humans".
We can't defeat nature entirely but we can remove some suffering through activity. As for the
third one, we find it hard to even admit that the social regulations we have made should harm us.
"And yet, when we consider how unsuccessful we have been in precisely this field of prevention
of suffering, a suspicion dawns on us that here, too, a piece of unconquerable nature may lie
behind -- this time a piece of our own psychical constitution."
What we call civilization is largely responsible for our misery. Christianity as representative of
civilization. (So when F criticizes religion, he's criticizing civilization.) Happiness is subjective.
We can't feel what someone else feels, exactly. "...civilization describes the whole sum of the
achievements and the regulations which distinguish our lives from those of our animal ancestors
and which serve two purposes -- namely to protect men against nature and to adjust their mutual
relations." --> control of fire; tools as extensions of human organs --> man becomes god-like, a
"prosthetic God". But this doesn't make man happy.
Civilization: control over nature, value of useless beauty (the flower beds), cleanliness and order,
and ESPECIALLY higher mental activities: religion and philosophy. Basically, "the motive
force for all human activities is a striving toward the two confluent goals of utility and a yield of
pleasure," so civilization is between the scientific and the aesthetic. Another important aspect of
civilization: social relationships.
power of Love: importance in founding civilization, but also comes in conflict in
aggression is a problem in civilization
"love my neighbor as myself" is not useful and Freud doubts its effectiveness
man's instinct of aggression threatens civilization
communism solves only economic problems and is not an effective solution
the benefit of civilization is security, but it also inhibits human beings
the solution is not to eliminate civilization but to make it more inhabitable
Eros: love instinct v. Aggression, Death instinct; need to unite with others v. desire to
civilization must overcome death drive
superego as the policeman of the ego. It diverts aggression from outward manifestation to
inward (guilt)
repression --> aggression --> guilt
role of guilt in civilization (religion); cultural superego
civilization is neurotic
But "one day someone will venture to embark upon a pathology of cultural communities."
III. Civilization: Learning to "sip" rather than "guzzle"!
CIVILIZATION: strategy for renouncing powerful individual pleasures whose occurrence
is unpredictable and sporadic in favor of more constant but less intensive pleasures. Instead
of being "episodic" and appearing by chance, pleasure can be managed and controlled--like
having a full cupboard or pantry to which you can turn whenever you have a need to be stilled.
In the economy of pleasure, we sacrifice intensity (binge drinking!) in favor of more limited
but constant pleasures.
Civilization itself as a mechanism or tactic for the re-distribution of pleasure;
-- not only in economy of individual pleasure, but also
-- more equal distribution of pleasure among individuals;
-- demands compromises in our innate ego-centrism. (Freud Reader 752)
We learn both to SHARE and to HOARD for later use.
Chapter V a, b
Chapter 5
Freud notes that civilization's antagonism toward sexuality arises from the necessity work of
building communal bonds based on friendship. If the activity of the libido were allowed to
run rampant, it would likely destroy the monogamous love-relationship of the couple that
society has endorsed as the most stable.
Freud next objects to the commandment "Love thy neighbor" because, contrary to Biblical
teaching, he takes a pessimistic view of fellow man, whose primal instinct Freud considers
to be aggressive, not loving. The biblical commandment runs counter to the original nature
of man, and history is the proof: man has proven time and again that he will exploit, abuse,
humiliate, cause pain, torture and kill other men, from the invasion of the Huns to the First
World War. Civilization is continually threatened with disintegration because of this
inclination to aggression. It invests great energy in restraining these instincts. The law has
tried to refine itself to the point of regulating most forms of aggression, but it still fails to
prevent it.
Freud then turns to socialist thought. Communists claim to find the path to deliverance
through the abolition of private property, which thereby eliminates an economic system that
allows certain individuals to accrue disproportionate wealth and abuse his fellow men. For
Freud, communism is based on a faulty assumption, since it in no way alters human nature,
only one of the motivations by which it operates (i.e. greed). Aggression predates the
ownership of property. It has also served throughout history to bind communities together
against those outside them. The Jews in the Middle Ages were, for instance, the victims of
intolerance by Christians; and in Russia, vilification of the bourgeois has served as a rallying
cry for the communist government.
Freud concludes that civilized man has exchanged the possibility of happiness for security.
But primitive society is not to be envied, since in that context, only the head of the family
enjoyed instinctual freedom at the expense of all others. Some of these limitations of
modern society are surmountable, while others are intrinsic to civilization. Freud does not
specify which limitations on our instinctual freedom fall into which category. The most
dangerous society, according to him, is one in which the leader is exalted and individuals do
not acquire an adequate sense of identity. Freud points to American society as an example
of this danger, but refrains from pursuing his criticism further.
V. Civilization as a Source of Our Unhappiness, Our Malaise or Discontent
A. Paradox: Civilization, although its purpose would seem to be amelioration of human
misery and suffering, is actually partially responsible for that suffering, according to
Freud. This explains our subliminal hostility toward civilization.
1) What is the purpose of civilization?
a. It protects humans from nature, provides a line of defense
b. It adjusts and regulates the mutual relations among human beings; it establishes
conventions for our organization and interaction.
c. But aside from these more pragmatic, utilitarian aspects, civilization also promotes
things that seems useless: e.g. beauty (art), order, rules of cleanliness, etc. In short,
civilization also produces "luxuries." It enhances the "quality of life."
2) What are the negative aspects of civilization that cause it to produce unhappiness?
a. The power of the individual is sacrificed to the power of the group; strong individuals
find that they are marginalized and must make greater concessions. (Here Freud alludes
to a prominent Nietzschean thematic: the subordination of the powerful individual to the
norm of a morality sanctioned by the weak for their own protection.)
b. Civilization diminishes the liberty and freedom of the individual. We mistakenly
believe that social institutions promote and protect our liberties, but in fact
they limit them and hence are the cause of considerable displeasure.
c. The conditions of civilization demand from us renunciation of instinct; as we know
from Freud's theory, this is the most difficult thing for human beings to do because we
are as base egocentric and driven toward the satisfaction of our instincts. Moreover,
Freud believes these renunciations can come back to haunt us; they can recur in
pathological forms as the "return of the repressed."
d. Civilization places limitations on sexuality; it not only dictates what forms of sexual
expression are "permissible," and censors all others, but it even places strict restrictions
on the forms of sexuality it allows. E.g., society insists on monogamy, faithfulness to a
single partner, it limits sexual expression according to gender roles, etc.
Bottom line: When humans enter into social bonds and the strictures of civilization,
they sacrifice a portion of their happiness in the interest of greater security. Note
how this is essentially an economic decision: we trade immediate gratification for long-
term stability. In other words, we renounce pleasure in one large and intensive "payment"
and opt instead for pleasure on the installment plan, spread out in smaller increments over
a longer period of time.
According to Freud, all of this leads to a sense of what he calls "cultural frustration": we
feel inhibited, limited by our accession to culture. What civilization and the management
of our drives and instincts offers us, in short, is a greater degree of predictability, and
this helps compensate for the renunciations we have to make.
Chapter VI
Chapter 6
Freud quotes Schiller: "hunger and love are what moves the world." At first glance, the two
appear to be driven by opposing instincts. Hunger can be characterized as an ego-instinct or
satisfaction of internal needs, whereas love is directed toward objects external to the ego.
"Libido" is another term for this instinct. Freud finds himself forced to abandon this
antithesis when he considers the phenomenon of sadism, which is technically an object-
instinct, but also bound up in the ego and a desire for mastery. The concept of narcissism
elaborated in earlier writings by Freud also presents a complication to this simple opposition
between the ego-instincts and object-instincts, for in Freud's schema self-love
psychologically precedes - and is a necessary condition of - the love directed towards
In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud first elaborated the concept of the death drive,
opposed to Eros (the life instinct). The psychoanalytic community found this thesis highly
dubious; however, Freud says, its existence now seems undeniable. Aggression is "an
original, self-subsisting instinctual disposition in man" that "constitutes the greatest
impediment to civilization." The purpose of civilization is to bind men libidinally to one
another into communities; the death drive complicates this process greatly. For Freud, the
entire evolution of civilization can be summed up as a struggle between Eros and the death
VI. How Does Civilization Emerge?
A. Eros and Ananke, love and necessity, as the parents of civilization.
1. The family as germinal unit of society develops out of the wish to
remove the element of chance from genital satisfaction; the primitive
father demands the constant presence of the mother and compensates
her by providing stable satisfaction of her material, existential needs.
2. Caritas, or generalized love of humanity at large, emerges as a strategy
for avoiding the down-side of exclusive love. Love not only provides us
with the greatest satisfactions, but it also makes us more
vulnerable than any other emotion. To avoid or minimize this
vulnerability, we invest our erotic impulses into multiple objects. Note
once again Freud's economic thinking: even in love we hedge our bets,
protect ourselves from erotic bankruptcy by, as it were, diversifying our
erotic portfolio.
3. Civilization also emerges out of totemic culture on the basis of the
strategic union of the weaker sons against the power and authority of the
father. The banding together of the sons, their subordination of their
mutual hostilities for the purpose of a strategic alliance against the
father, is one of the first acts of civilization. Note how in this
conception civilization emerges from a negative, aggressive impulse;
the war of all against all, that constitutes the state of nature, is suspended
solely in order to dethrone a mutual and more powerful "enemy."
B. Eros and Thanatos, Love and Death, Affection and Aggression
1) Freud revises his theory of the instincts; where he had previously focused primarily
on libidinal drives (Eros), he now acknowledges what he calls the "aggressive
instinct," which he associates with the god of death, Thanatos. Freud had earlier
opposed those who postulated the existence of an aggressive instinct and resisted the
acceptance of this notion; in his later writings (after WWI), however, he reluctantly
comes to accept this hypothesis.
Eros Thanatos
interhuman bonding fragmentation, dissolution
of bonds
love and "caritas" aggression
Life Death
drive for integration war of all against all

2) Freud conceives of civilizationin parallel to his conception of the individual
psycheas a product of the struggle between these two fundamental instincts.
Civilization itself, thus, is "conflicted," the product of antagonistic drives and
impulses. The types of civilization that arise can reflect different blends of these two
drives, so that societies themselves, or cultures, might be seen to have a particular or
peculiar psychologically determined "character."
Chapter VII
VII. The Aggressive Instinct and the Generation of the Super-Ego
A. Freud returns in the context of the aggressive instinct to his deliberations on the
super-ego and contemplates three different possible developmental origins for this
psychic agency whose sole purpose (as conscience) is the discipline and punishment
of the ego.
1) The super-ego represents the introjection into the psyche of an external authority
figure, especially the father or the parents in general. This thesis is consistent with
what Freud theorizes in the context of his discussion of the Oedipus complex and its
2) The super-ego develops as the internalization of those aggressive instincts that one
cannot successfully turn outward.
-- The economy of the psyche demands that instincts can never be dispelled but only
diverted or re-directed. Since civilization forces us to check and repress our
aggressive instinct, those instinctual impulses that are suppressed are turned against
the ego itself. These internally directed aggressions become the basis for the super-
ego and its ego-punishment.
-- The more aggression that is diverted inward, the greater the power of the super-ego
becomes. That explains why often those who are least inclined to immoral acts are
also those who are most severely punished by their own conscience.
-- Note that for Freud all drive are bi-directional, can be
either externally or internally oriented; those impulses that can not be directed
against outside objects can be turned inward against the self, and vice versa.
3) Freud admits that these 2 possibilities seems potentially contradictory. To suspend
this contradiction he suggests that the first and second reflexes are actually both
operative and work in tandem with one another, making the super-ego even more
powerful. He then suggests that it is perhaps not so much introjection of external
authority, as in thesis 1, whose introjection explains the relationship between the ego
and external disciplinary figures, but perhaps simply the aggression the ego senses
against the father (or parents) that cannot be directed at its true object, and hence turns
inward against the ego, that is responsible for this relationship. Thus Freud essentially
fuses thesis 1 and thesis 2 to form thesis 3 about the generation of the super-ego. It
arises both from introjection of external authority and from the internalization of
aggression against that authority.
growth of the super-ego based on these 3 sources.
B. The Super-Ego and the Sense of "Guilt".
1) The theory of the super-ego explains why we feel guilty not only for
misdeeds we actually commit, but for the simple intention of committing some
misdeed, without ever carrying through on this intention.
-- Guilt is produced by the super-ego as that internal psychic control
mechanism that serves the interests of civilization by suppression our
aggressive instincts.
-- We feel guilty for the very wish or desire to do evil.
2) We must distinguish remorse from guilt. Remorse we feel after committing
some unacceptable deed. Guilt does not require action, but merely the thought
or intention of carrying out that act. Remorse is after the fact; guilt is before, or
in absence of the fact.
3) Freud concludes by asking why our dissatisfaction with civilization, which
inhibits our instinctual life and ultimately becomes, in the form of the super-
ego, our most severe tyrant and taskmaster, expresses itself merely as a vague
feeling of malaise.
-- His answer: Because it is a form of psychic anxiety, and like all anxiety it
is unconscious, not recognized or even recognizable directly, because it is
repressed and censored.
4) The price of human accession to civilization, according to Freud, is thus that
we become civilized at the price of sacrificing a degree of our egoistic
happiness and succumbing to a pervasive sense of guilt. This is what
constitutes our "discontent" with civilization, despite the obvious benefits it
brings us.