Book Review: Understanding the Modern World through Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents

civilization-and-its-discontentsCivilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud

Civilization and Its Discontents is one of the last of Freud’s books, written in the decade before his death and first published in German in 1929. In it he states his views on the broad question of man’s place in the world, a place Freud defines in terms of ceaseless conflict between the individual’s quest for freedom and society’s demand for conformity. 

It stands as a brilliant summary of the views on culture from a psychoanalytic perspective that he had been developing since the turn of the century. It is both witness and tribute to the late theory of mind—the so-called structural theory, with its stress on aggression, indeed the death drive, as the pitiless adversary of eros. (Goodreads)

Written in 1929 and published in 1930, at the time when almost all of Europe was suffering from the bouts of the Great Depression, Civilization and Its Discontents presented a rather timely account of man’s progression in history propelled by what Freud referred to as the ‘love impulse’ and the ‘aggressive impulse’. It showed how man acquires company and culture as he advances further and further into human relations and how such associations bring along the weight of man’s discontentment and unhappiness upon his shoulders.

Freud began by an attempt to understand the spiritual feeling that is commonly present in man: a feeling of boundlessness, of transcendence, of eternity—that is oceanic. This feeling is neither the source of religious sentiment nor an article of faith, but rather is a ‘purely subjective fact’ that religious institutions seize so as to divert this feeling into a particular system of belief.

But Freud was not convinced that a feeling, as it were oceanic, was the source of religious sentiments in man. He even argued that he could not discover this feeling in himself. Instead, Freud argued, that the source of this is the longing for a father figure and for his paternal protection, a longing that has been weaned and nurtured in childhood, and permanently sustained up to  adulthood by ‘fear of  the superior power of Fate’, a longing that characterizes the feeling of ‘infantile helplessness’. But a figure such as God is too foreign, too distant even, for the frightful human to ever take shelter under his Name. As such, man sought ways to in order for him to get by in his difficult life.

Freud discussed three palliative measures which serve as coping mechanisms whereby man responds to the challenges of life. These are:

  1. Powerful deflections, which alleviate suffering by directing attention towards another object,
  2. Substitutive satisfaction, which replaces reality with phantasy, and
  3. Intoxicating substances, which numb our senses and make us insensitive, if only for a while.

Furthermore, Freud discussed modern civilization in terms of two basic types of man’s instinctual life. He began by tracing the origins of civilization in the love impulse called Eros. The love impulse drives man to love and to cooperate. The object of man’s [sexual] love is the female. Man protects his sexual object by creating alliances with other men. These alliances are needed in order to protect and to provide for the female and her offspring.

But as the need for alliances expand with the expansion of communities, so too are laws which regulate the members of the community.The establishment of these laws put the aggressive impulse, Thanatos, into action. Laws are established by means of violence. The subduer rules the subdued. Over time, the oppressed take the same course of violence to topple the oppressor. War ensues once again. For peace to be erected once more, the price to pay is violence.

The greater is the maintenance of civilization, the greater also is the energy expended by man, that at the end of the day, nothing ever mattered any more than to replenish his lost energy. His sexual libido is restrained by the demands of civilization. His duties as a husband and as a father are neglected. As a result, man’s primal love impulse is repressed. In turn, this repression heats up even more the aggressive impulse in man and finds its vent through man’s most destructive actions, which only airs to the striking truth that the more civilization approaches what it assumes as the direction of progress, all the more modern man find himself lost and off in the midst of all his accomplishments.


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