Civilization and its Discontents By Sigmund Freud essay

The title ‘Das Unbehagen in der Kultur’ by Freud itself carries deeper meaning than the title itself. If we begin to translate the title and flip-flop the words, we will find there is more to it in the real meaning of the title. The words that immediate comes up in our mind are “The Uneasiness in Culture” or “The Discomfort in Culture”, and immediately we begin to realize Freud is talking something about the problems with our culture or some certain apprehensions that we face against our culture.

Freud understood the dilemma faced by the humans who are basically aggressive in nature, which is in itself could be very destabilizing and impulsive, but he also maintained that the main thrust of the human society lies in his maintaining the balance between eros (the libido) and thanatos (the death-drive) and between love and aggression. In the world of today and even since generations, it is this balance that man has not been able to maintain and will not be able to maintain in the future too.

The following essay will trace on the various complexities being involved by humans in trying to maintain this balance and the reason behind why individuals feel constant strife in maintaining this balance. Sigmund Freud, the greatest philosopher and man of many dispositions has captured many psychological facets of our human lives and ‘Das Unbehagen in der Kultur’ is one of his best works of human endeavors and what man has made out of himself in the process of creating civilizations.

‘Das Unbehagen in der Kultur’ is a German translation of Freud’s deep study of human civilization and the role of individuals in the so-called civilized world. It was written in 1929 and first translated and published in Germany in 1930. Freud analyzed the tensions continuously disturbing human psychology in his dealing with the expectations and requirements of his own created civilizations. There is always a conflict between the man’s natural instinct and ego creating discontentment in man’s relationship with civilization.

One of the greatest tensions that man is exposed to is the concept of “Love your brother as you love yourself”: it not only contradicts the main fundamental instinct nature of aggression but is also very difficult to put into practice. Freud’s theoretical proposition revolves around the basic question that what would happen when individuals neither are adjusting nor want to adjust or coordinate their instinct desires with the demands of society. And in this statement lies the most paradoxical situation because man is a social animal and each man on this earth is dependent on the other even for his basic existence.

If the balance is disturbed then the whole meaning of civilization loses ground. The birth of civilization is rooted in the individual, whose ego instinct is helping to generate maximum happiness for himself and to gain this happiness, he needs society and civilization. As opined by Freud, many of the roots of civilization are dug deep into egoism. We all join together in a common bond to create what is known as civilization. In-fact Thomas Hobbes had also asserted this point in his Leviathan, and social contract theorists are too delving deep to arrest the same theme in their analogues.

Hobbes said that there is always some rational interest that lies behind this relationship with the society. Within the Freud’s thoughts, it is clear that a whole new wave of psychological thoughts is underway behind’s man’ s each move. He is less interested in what we should do than what in fact we do, though he framed the questions as to whether or not we should regard civilization as the most favorable or harmful? The answer to this question lies in the aspect that whether the civilization is taking us towards happiness or not.

According to Freud, this happiness amount to the avoidance of pain and effort towards achievement of pleasure, which are most valuable proposition and the urge to acquire happiness is imbibed within us naturally. Civilization has been the result of many years of man’s efforts to fight against dangers from nature and to maintain harmony with each other, in Freud words, “to adjust their mutual relations. ” (Freud, 1989) But it is this civilization only which has become a cause of curse for the individual. We have to forgo our own interests in lieu of the interest of whole community.

Human beings have organized to escape themselves from miseries but it is from these miseries only, they could not escape themselves from. Freud account these miseries to three most important historical events: first is victory of Christianity over pagan religions, secondly the discovery and conquest of primitive tribes and peoples, who were thought to be living more happily amidst the nature and third is mechanism of neuroses getting identified scientifically which is caused by the frustrating demands put on the individual by modern society Freud identified several reasons for the discontentment against society.

One is the family system always posing hindrance in the growth of individuals, crushing the sexual energy, causing restrictions on the love and destroying our erotic lives. Freud analyzed this situation of man by chalking out parallel between the evolution of civilization and the development of libido of the individual in three stages: 1) character-formation, in other words acquiring an identity; 2) sublimation i. e. primal energy being channeled into other psychological or physical activities; 3) non-satisfaction/abandoning of instincts due to suppression of aggressive impulses by individual or dictating rule of law in society.

The aggressiveness is inherently born within the conscience of every human being and the aggressiveness emerges from the inner soul of the man only when the individuals have to crush their own feelings and instincts resulting in frustration which he attributes to Libido in the form of sadism (oral, urethral, anal). (Oakes, 2007) There is always a conflict with both the man’s sexual urges and the rules dictated to us by the civilized society and secondly with Thanatos, a death instinct which is most self destructive and has the most disparaging repercussions on the society.

Murder, genocide and war coming to the surface time and again are the most concrete evidence for Freud to posit his view that man is not just inherently good. In his own words: “The element of truth behind all this, which people are so ready to disavow, is that men 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 not only 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 to kill him. Who, in the face of all his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion? ” (Freud 1989)

Freud echoed that no one on this Earth could refute his point, as history is an evidence of the extent to which man can go into to satisfy his libido defying all the conventional wisdom and dictates and rules of the society. It is very difficult for the man to control his aggressive derive and various organizations or groups provide many of the individuals’ space and opening to show their hostility against intruders. “It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness.

” (Freud 1989) This tendency is shown towards nearby territories and communities to which he called the ‘narcissism of small differences’ (Oakes, 2007) and the best example of this attitude is the Racism and anti-Semitism, etc. Paradoxically, we human beings have created societies to put in check this aggressive nature of human beings but as more and more we try to control this aggressiveness, the more and more we are getting carried away by this impulse of aggressiveness.

“The existence of this inclination to aggression, which we can detect in ourselves and justly assume to be present in others, is the factor which disturbs our relations with our neighbor and which forces civilization into such a high expenditure. In consequence of this primary mutual hostility of human beings, civilized society is perpetually threatened with disintegration. The interest of work in common would not hold it together; instinctual passions are stronger than reasonable interests.

Civilization has to use its utmost efforts in order to set limits to man’s aggressive instincts and to hold the manifestations of them in check by psychical reaction formations. Hence, therefore, the use of methods intended to incite people into identifications and aim-inhibited relationships of love, hence the restriction upon sexual life”. (Freud 1989) The instinct of this aggressiveness is so strong that in many of the circumstances it is very difficult for him to control it without causing any damage to his own feelings and desires.

Freud says that the hostility occurring within the smaller sects are good for them as they give them outlet to reprieve themselves from their plight of their aggressiveness and do good for their own culture. The aggressiveness is quite small if we measure the extent of the battle man is facing within himself and his natural instincts. The usefulness of this aggressiveness can also be seen in the economic warfare among capitalist classes, among workers and between capitalists and workers. By delving into aggressive nature, Freud did not forget the essence of true life, which he states is as being in a state of happiness.

Intoxication, sublimation of libido into work, the displacement of libido into enjoyment of beauty, etc are some of the ways of Freud to make the man realize the way he can reduce sufferings and move towards happiness and pleasure despite the pains man can get by releasing his aggressiveness. Eros and self preservation are two traits that help the man adopt better to this world of civilization and the sexual love help us to unite as couples, in families and groups. But if restriction is imposed on the sexual mores, it amounts to discontent. In Freud’s own words,

“As regards the sexually mature individual, the choice of an object is restricted to the opposite sex, and most extra-genital satisfactions are forbidden as perversions. The requirement, demonstrated in these prohibitions, that there shall be a single kind of sexual life for everyone, disregards the dissimilarities, whether innate or acquired, in the sexual constitution of human beings; it cuts off a fair number of them from sexual enjoyment, and so becomes the source of serious injustice. ” (1989) One of the main functions of the society is also to make the man incorporate within himself the urge for super ego, which controls his ego.

If a man is suppressed to express his inherent desire, he tries to overcome it by redirecting himself towards his own ego raising his consciousness towards realizing his guilt and ultimately his self-punishment. In this civilized society, Freud did not forget the role of religion in the basic essence of human existence. Religion has enabled the man not just to understand morality but also to feel morality within oneself. But along-with that he also make us realize the fact that it is not necessary human beings can attain morality by religion alone, as there are several factors accountable for a man to be considered as moral or not.

There is no evidence that can reveal religion to have exerted itself in the attainment of moral values. For Freud, both the science and religion are poles apart and move quite at a contradictory speed. Hundred of years of belief in God have not solved any purpose. The root cause of guilt arises from the consciousness of doing or planning to activate some bad designs. It is absolutely irrelevant whether the man’s action is bad or not but it is ego which makes us feel the desire to know the actions as bad or good.

It is also beyond the man’s capacity to comprehend what is good and what is bad. Some actions are good for some one whereas for others, same actions are bad and the actions that are considered as bad might be good to maintain the spirit of ego. For Freud, only the danger of loss of love is the worst thing happening to man. Among children this threat is very great as it involves the risk of losing their parents. The sense of guilt is in itself a very troubled dispossession being faced by man and it too comes at a cost of happiness.

When Freud wrote Civilization and its Discontent, the world was striving to revive from the onslaught of World War I. Devastation of war had generated a new sense of pessimism about the nature of human beings and his own disease at the later stage of his life made him consciousness to make man ponder over his own nature and his relation with society. There are several demands of the society and the civilization that man has to follow in-order to himself maintain his identity and to survive but in this quest his inner urges are thwarted leading to disillusionment.

Freud left the question unanswered in the end for us to find within ourselves and our consciousness how by keeping our self interest and identity intact, we can develop ourselves crossing many barriers of our so called civilized world. Man can go to any extent in defying all the norms of so called civilized society, to attain happiness but it is this happiness he won’t be able to attain as it is very difficult for us to maintain the balance between the eros (the libido) and thanatos (the death drive), love and aggression. It is a desirable state of being because it is a way of world because we are the part of the world and it is the demand of the world.


Freud, Sigmund. (1989). Civilization and Its Discontents. (Ed. Peter Gay. Trans. James Strachey) New York: WW Norton & Company. (Original work published 1930). Oakes, J. 2007. Commentary on Sigmund Freud’s “Civilization and Its Discontents”. Retrieved on May 31, 2008 from W. W. W: http://www. motif. janetoakes. com/Civilization_Discontents. htm