Civilization and Its Discontents

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Civilization and Its Discontents Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Freud continues his discussion of sexual control in the previous chapter, arguing that the “sexual frustrations” society imposes on individuals cause certain individuals, known as neurotics, to create certain symptoms in response (for example, excessive worry, bodily fixations, or obsessions). These symptoms give the neurotic both pleasure and pain—pain in their existence, and pleasure in the neurotic’s continual attempts to indulge in the symptoms and overcome them.
Neurosis is an important term in Freud’s system. In the definition provided in this chapter, neurosis is something like a “super-abundance,” an overflow of nervous energies – which cause the neurotic to have difficulty operating in the social world. Neurotics, therefore, possess a more pronounced version of the frustration and suppression of instinctual desires that all humans must deal with.
Themes
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Freud then turns his attention back to the concept of the Golden Rule, which he seeks to analyze, and to debunk, in greater detail. For, Freud argues, the rule makes no sense when held up to closer scrutiny. If love is a valuable thing, one in which humans put a great deal of esteem, then it cannot make sense for humans to “love” a stranger equally to a family member or close friend. This, Freud argues, would devalue the concept of love and make it meaningless—and surely this cannot be the intent of religious doctrine.
Freud’s definition of love in this chapter is similar to the one used previously in the text. Romantic love is a selfish, rather than selfless, proposition – it is the joining of one’s life with another’s for purposes of mutual benefit. Freud therefore has trouble reconciling this selfish definition of love with the selfless love advocated for by the Christian faith.
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Freud says that, although it might make sense to “love one’s neighbor insofar as that neighbor loves you,” it makes no sense at all to love one’s “enemies,” as Jesus also commands his followers in the New Testament. Enemies, Freud argues, should be loathed or competed against. This is the natural model of human society, and to argue that enemies ought to be loved is to ignore completely the real antagonism between some groups of humans.
Again, Freud finds Christ’s teachings to run counter to human nature and “common sense.” Freud’s implication here is that the Golden Rule might be a useful principle for a society to claim to follow—to advocate for in the abstract—but it is not a workable principle in practice. It is too generous, whereas humans are inherently egotistical.
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Freud goes one step further. He writes that not only is it unnatural for humans to love their neighbors and enemies as themselves, it is instead more natural for humans to be aggressive toward most people—even toward friends. This aggressiveness, competitiveness, and desire for one’s self-interest is deep-rooted in humans, enough so that “the primary mutual hostility of human beings [is]” a “perpetual threat” to “civilized society.”
Aggression will become an important drive later on in Freud’s text. Aggressiveness is, in this usage, the opposite of generous, Christian love. It is the desire, instead, to better one’s opponent – it is a tendency to view the world as a “me vs. them” competition.
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Freud continues: “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.” Freud attributes society’s restrictions on certain kinds of sexual and romantic relationships as a way of curtailing humans baser, more aggressive desires. Freud then makes a brief detour, arguing that human aggressiveness can take many forms, and that communists, who believe the elimination of private property would eliminate antagonism between humans, are in error. For, he concludes, human aggression will always find an outlet, economically or socially, even if a society determines that all its citizens are “equal” under the law.
Freud makes an interesting distinction in this section. He argues that some, like communists and socialists, believe human aggressiveness to be dependent on certain economic systems—namely the capitalist model. This itself was of great concern to people in Europe in the 1930s, when Freud was writing the text, as Fascism and Communism were pitted against one another as responses to the political and economic turmoil of a global depression in the 1930s. In any event, Freud maintains that aggression still exists in communist societies – it is simply framed differently from capitalist aggression.
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Freud also notes that antagonism between groups is not just limited to vastly different sets of people, but is actually more pronounced when groups are close together and largely similar, though still distinct: for example, the Spaniards and the Portuguese, or the “English and the Scotch.” Freud calls this amplified antagonism in close quarters the “narcissism of small differences.”
This is an important term, and one whose use extends beyond the bounds of the present text. It seems paradoxical that people close to one another might find increased reason to loathe one another, yet, as anyone in a small group or club can attest, tiny differences often beget major discord.
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Freud concludes the chapter by arguing that people have accepted limits on their sexuality and their aggressiveness, within social bounds, for a reason—because societies make people safer, and protect them from harm. This is the only reason why humans are willing to give up their sexual and bodily freedom—and the happiness that attends to this freedom—when they enter into civil societies together. Freud argues that, though it may be possible to improve humanity’s happiness on the whole within a civilization, one cannot make men free and happy by lifting civilization’s bans on unfettered sexuality and violence. This means that civilization itself might be incompatible with man’s desires for total happiness, even as civilizations continue to satisfy man’s need for safety and security. Freud sees this tension as central to modern life.
The question Freud poses, then, is not whether aggression exists – for he concedes that human aggression is a baseline across cultures, regardless of political system. Instead, he believes that the nature of civil societies is predicated on a willingness of some citizens to accept limitations on their aggression. They do this not out of altruism, but because in exchange they receive the advantages that a stable, smoothly-functioning society provides – like a police force, a court system, a fire department (or on a more primitive level,. This balance between liberty and order will be taken up in the following chapters, too.
Themes
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