Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents was originally published in 1930, with a second edition in 1931. At this time Freud was suffering from inoperable cancer and Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party came into power. This depressing state of affairs was the backdrop for what has been called Freud’s “disillusioned look at modern civilization on the verge of catastrophe” (Gay, Peter: “Freud: A Brief Life”, Freud, xxii). Freud’s Civilization condensed his theories regarding the complexities of the relationship between modern civilization and the individual.
He describes the driving forces of the individual, with emphasis on aggression, guilt and remorse. Those driving forces, and instinct, will be in conflict with the value system of a larger society, particularly in refer-ence to religion and communism. Freud has given the reader his unique perspective on a rapidly changing world through the eyes of a psychoanalyst’s interest and knowledge of the individual as both creator and subject of his society and culture.
Whether the reader is in agreement or not, Freud’s discourse in Civilization and its Discontents is a timeless and extremely thought-provoking work. Freud begins his treatise with reference to the reality principle, to “differentiate between what is internal—what belongs to the ego—and what is external—what ema-nates from the outer world” (Freud, 15). He does this with reference to what has been referred to as an “oceanic feeling” and “oneness with the universe” (21).
As with his earlier work, the role of religion becomes a key factor, and he believes that in a sense, it is a protection for the individual against reality. Freud believes the individual creates a “wish” to “correct some aspect of the world which is unbearable” (32). Further, when a great many people indulge in this “delusional” behavior, this “remoulding of reality” becomes that “the religions of mankind must be classed among the mass-delusions of this kind” (32).
Freud skillfully avoids any need for argument or rebuttal, since “no one, needless to say, who shares a delusion recognizes it as such” (32). Freud believes that the communist revolutionary theory is bound to fail. On first glance it appears he is clearly in step with Karl Marx’ often quoted “opium of the people” attitude towards religion However, behind Marx’s timeless quote lies his belief of reli-gions in an economic context, and part of the overall misappropriation of wealth.
The revolutionary concept of the abolition of private property is what Freud believes to be the major failing of the communist program. “The communists believe they have found the path to deliverance from our evils… the institution of private property has corrupted (man’s) nature” (70). Freud’s concept is that “(i)n abolishing private property we deprive the human love of aggression of one of its instruments…” (71). Freud does not offer an alternative to Marxist revolutionary thought.
Interestingly, Freud disingenuously spares capitalism from criticism. In discussing the possible perils and collision of individual in-stincts with group identification and individual leadership, Freud states “America would give us a good opportunity for studying the damage to civilization…but I shall avoid the temptation of entering upon a critique of American civilization; I do not wish to give an impression of wanting myself to employ American methods” (74).
Throughout the text the concept of id, ego, and super ego are placed within the context of cultural constraints upon the individual. He believes the individual and perhaps instinctive drives of seeking pleasure, aggression, and ultimately seeking death will al-ways exist and be significant factors in shaping civilization. “This aggressive instinct is the derivative and the main representative of the death instinct which we have found alongside of Eros…” and thus is the meaning of civilization.
He also takes particular in-terest in the role of guilt (for thinking of “bad” deeds) and remorse (for “bad” deeds done. The entry of “conscience” is taken within the concept of the dual nature of the individual: the individualistic “egoistic” as opposed to “union with others in the community, which we call ‘altruism’” (105). Freud completes his work with some very interesting, and questionable, thoughts. “For a wide variety of reasons, it is very far from my intention to express an opinion upon the value of human civilization” (110).
Yet, in what is virtually his next breath, he states “the fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction” (111). Freud has self-deprecatingly stated that he felt he was “using up paper and ink” in “describing common knowledge” and things that were “self-evident” (75). He goes so far as to apologize “for not having been a more skilful guide” (97).
If what he has written was indeed self-evident common knowledge, it was in the sense of it being under the surface, with Freud skillfully bringing it to light, along the lines of an epiphany of “of course, that makes sense”. I believe Freud’s purpose in writing this book was to provide a unique perspective and analysis of civilization during a very tumultuous time, particularly in Europe. I believe he was successful for a variety of reasons. He was uniquely qualified to explain the psychological qualities of the individual.
Although not a sociologist per se, he was keenly aware of the interaction and conflict between society and the individual’s goals and moti-vation. Additionally, his work was a milestone in the field in that it not only presented novel theories but was written in a non-academic style accessible to the literate public and not just scholars. Many of his ideas were and still are controversial and no doubt part of his motivation was to create debate and further discourse on the individual in changing cultures and society.
Nonetheless I have two major criticisms of his work. His attitude toward religion as “delusional” is in my opinion short-sided and dismissive and fails to account for the role of faith for the individual. Additionally, his emphasis on what amounts to the individual’s “death wish” is contrary to what I believe is a very strong, if not overwhelming desire for self-preservation. Many will take offense at his take on religion, revolution, communism, and America.
Many will be upset at their inability to prove or disprove his theories and ideas. Many will take issue with his belief in a self-destructive, death-seeking ambition within. Yet all readers will be taken in by his ideas, and no reader can deny the relevancy of his ideas. The complexity of the relationship between the individual and society can only increase, particularly in a multi-cultural world. Individual motivations and emotions will always be at issue.
Freud has given us nothing less than a very thought-provoking primer on the individual and society, which will provide explanation as well as prediction. For these reasons I believe Freud was successful in his purpose and Civilization and its Dis-contents is a timeless fundamental work necessary for serious discourse by any observer of our cultures, societies, and civilization.
Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and its Discontents. New York: Norton & Co. 1961.