Civilization and Its Discontents

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Civilization and Its Discontents Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Sigmund Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud was the creator of psychoanalytic theory, and one of the twentieth-century’s most influential thinkers in the fields of psychology and sociology. Born in Austria to Galician Jewish parents in 1856, Freud trained to be a doctor at the University of Vienna, graduating in 1881. Freud studied the brain, including cerebral palsy and aphasia, before developing methods of treating psychological ailments through what he called “the talking cure,” which consisted of a combination of “dream analysis,” “free association,” and intensive questioning into the patient’s familial relations. Freud married Martha Bernays in 1886 and with her had six children. There were rumors as well that, after 1896, Freud had an ongoing affair with Martha’s sister, Minna Bernays. Meanwhile, Freud’s career flourished, in both private practice and as a professor. Freud’s ideas proved to be enormously influential, including his notions of repression and the unconscious, and his concepts of “the Oedipus complex” (describing a son’s desire to kill his father and wed his mother); “anal retentiveness” (regarding obsessive organization in early childhood) and the “ego,” “id,” and “superego”—which Freud described as the three components of the mind. Freud fled Austria in 1938 to escape the Nazis, and died a year later in England. His ideas remain important in psychology and many other fields, such as literary studies. Many of his students, including Carl Jung, also went on to influential careers in psychology, though many of their ideas diverged from their former teacher’s over time and they developed their own schools of thought.
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Historical Context of Civilization and Its Discontents
The First World War, from 1914 to 1918, produced an immense loss of life in the supposedly “civilized” European countries of France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. For a great many, including artists and intellectuals across Europe, the “Great War” was an indication of the bloodshed and savagery of which “modern man” was capable. The First World War involved 20th-century weaponry—destroying on a previously unimaginable scale—but unfolded according to 19th-century tactics, wherein soldiers rode on horseback or walked on foot, and fired weapons that required some minutes to reload. In a sense, the War was an anachronism from the beginning, and the only thing “modern” about it was the senseless loss of life it occasioned. After the War, in the 1920s, the US saw a period of rapid economic expansion, as did parts of Europe, although this expansion was predicated not on stable economic gains but a series of financial “bubbles,” often deriving from unstable and quickly-inflating currencies. Germany, subjected by the Allies to harsh penalties after “the Great War,” was hit particularly hard when these bubbles collapsed, and the 1930s saw that country transition from the democratic rule of the Weimar Republic to Hitler’s National Socialist (Nazi) party. Freud was writing precisely during this time of major European intellectual, political, economic, and social transition, when thinkers wondered urgently about the fate of national entities, of elected governments, and of financial institutions. Freud’s line of questioning—will civilization survive? and for how long?—was then neither abstract nor idle, but essential and pressing.
Other Books Related to Civilization and Its Discontents
Freud’s work is best viewed alongside other efforts, in the 19th and 20th centuries, to understand human beings living together in a society. This desire for understanding led to an explosion of research in what came to be termed the “social sciences,” or the objective, dispassionate, and often quantitative comprehension of how humans relate to one another. In her studies of the sexual and personal practices of Polynesian families, Margaret Mead (1901-1978) helped further the field of descriptive anthropology, with which Freud’s work shares a guiding spirit, if not an explicit methodology. Emile Durkheim’s descriptive and quantitative studies of European society, most famously on suicide and crime, helped promote and expand social inquiry in the second half of the 19th century. Karl Marx’s (1818-1883) study of “capital,” or the means of economic production, helped to solidify the field of “political economy,” or the manner by which economic realities come to shape political decision-making. Lastly, Max Weber’s (1864-1920) investigation of “the Protestant ethic” sought to trace the relationship between religious principles and economic stratification in European societies. From each of these works, Freud derived an objective, fact-based, and often oppositional, or counter-intuitive, method of investigation. Freud, like these thinkers, sought to describe human society “from without,” that is, avoiding some of the ideas about society that that very society produced. Civilization and Its Discontents, then, is an attempt by an individual within civilization to see, and know, civilization objectively, rather than subjectively.
Key Facts about Civilization and Its Discontents
  • Full Title: Civilization and Its Discontents (Das Unbehagen in der Kultur)
  • When Written: Late 1920s
  • Where Written: Vienna, Austria
  • When Published: 1930
  • Literary Period: The European interwar period: the end of “the Lost Generation” (although Freud himself worked well outside that literary group)
  • Genre: Social Psychology
  • Setting: Europe, between World Wars I and II
  • Climax: Freud identifies “the sense of guilt as the most important problem in the development of civilization” and “shows that the price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt.”
  • Antagonist: There is no single antagonist, although organized religion, specifically Christianity, are believed to foster guilt in modern man.
  • Point of View: First-person
Extra Credit for Civilization and Its Discontents

Original Title in German. The German title of the work, Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, might be rendered more literally as “The Uneasiness in Culture.” This gives, perhaps, a different spin on the work, making it seem that the “discontentment” of the standard English title is perhaps more pervasive than it would seem in its original version.