Great Ideas Collection: Freud

In the fifth of our series exploring the books of Penguin’s Great Ideas Collection, Sophie Kingham reviews Sigmund Freud’s essay ‘Civilization and Discontent’ …

World War One had a great influence on Sigmund Freud and significantly impacted his observations of the individual and their interaction with civilization. He saw a world broken by war and full of discontent. However, he felt it was not simply war that created an individual’s unhappiness but civilization itself.

Written in 1929 (published 1930), Freud’s essay on civilization and its discontents discuss how humanity represses our primitive need for autonomy. He begins by generalising his psychosexual theories to compare civilized and savage people, however he then proceeds on a tangent; it appears this essay is a train of thought rather than a rigidly structured argument.

One of Freud’s initial points questions the purpose of life – a topic discussed many times but is still yet to receive a satisfactory answer. Instead, he turns to “the more modest question of what human beings themselves reveal, through their behaviour, about the aim and purpose of their lives, what they demand of life and wish to achieve in it”. Most individuals seek happiness, by either the positive aim of seeking pleasure, or the negative aim of avoiding sadness. However as Freud notes, “unhappiness is much less difficult to experience” meaning civilization is more likely to be discontent.

Freud proceeds to discuss what he refers to as ‘the social source of suffering’, which we refuse to recognise, “we cannot see why institutions that we ourselves created should not protect and benefit us all.” He fails to state which institutions contribute to our discontent, but one must assume he means government and law enforcement organisations. He continues, “Much of the blame for our misery lies with what we call our civilization”. This society we have created, full of rules, is repressing us, stifling our happiness.

Sexual frustrations are a further cause of discontent. In our civilized society, we are told to be monogamous and to follow the Christian commandment that ‘thou shalt not commit adultery’. Freud believes our primitive nature is being compromised and “it is precisely these frustrations of sexual life that those whom we call neurotics cannot endure”.

“However, civilization demands other sacrifices apart from that of sexual satisfaction,” states Freud, who goes on to quote other rules of conduct from the Ten Commandments. The self-confessed atheist (Freud) found it hard to imagine people disbanding the traditional view that God is watching over and will compensate them in a future existence for the trials and tribulations in this one.

He thought religion was repressing our natural selves for no reason. Society is shaped by the laws of religion that in turn leads to discontent, as people desperately try to abide these rules in the hope of an afterlife in paradise. And though there are more atheists nowadays, the laws of religion remain the basis of a civilized society therefore continuing to cause discontent by repressing the primitive nature of human beings. Indeed, “civilization has to make every effort to limit man’s aggressive drives and hold down their manifestations”.

Penguin, Great Ideas Collection
Penguin, Great Ideas Collection

Essentially the way our civilization shapes us, repressing our primitive sexual nature causes discontent amongst individuals, resulting in neuroses, “people became neurotic because they could not endure the degree of privation that society imposed on them”.

Today’s modern society may be more rebellious, with more open criminality, brutality and resistance to the norm, but there remains a sense of discontent. The paradox is impossible: with rules, we are repressed, unhappy, but without them, only chaos and fright.


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