Civilization and Its Discontents

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The Golden Rule Symbol Analysis

The Golden Rule Symbol Icon

Although not always a symbol in itself, in general usage, the Golden Rule is, for Freud, an indication of the errors of the Christian value system, and of Western morality in general. The Golden Rule, as Jesus formulates it in the Gospels, says that one ought to “do unto others what one would want others to do unto oneself.” This forms the basis of a communal and selfless moral and social system, at least in its ideal religious conception. But Freud, throughout Civilization and Its Discontents, believes that societies are not founded on this kind of generosity alone. Instead, all “civilized” groups of men and women are bonded by the competing impulses of the individual (the selfish) and the social (the selfless). In addition, societies must wrestle with the competing human desires of love (eros) and death (thanatos) – the first of which causes people to join in sexual and romantic relationships, and the second which spurs people to destroy those relationships, and the social structures surrounding them. This theory of drives, which underlies Freud’s system of psychoanalytic social psychology, is, according to Freud, a more accurate representation of human behavior than the demanding and ultimately impractical Golden Rule.

The Golden Rule Quotes in Civilization and Its Discontents

The Civilization and Its Discontents quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Golden Rule. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Norton edition of Civilization and Its Discontents published in 2010.
Chapter 4 Quotes

Perhaps St. Francis of Assisi went furthest in exploiting love for the benefit of an inner feeling of happiness.

Related Characters: Sigmund Freud (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Golden Rule
Page Number: 81
Explanation and Analysis:

Freud makes a controversial claim here, arguing that St. Francis, a famously benevolent, humble figure from history, was in fact "exploiting" the very idea of love for his own happiness (although Freud doesn't argue that this was intentional on Francis's part). Freud does not expand on just what he means by St. Francis as an individual, however. Does Francis represent an impossible ideal, attainable only by a vanishingly small number of true believers? Or is Francis instead an example to humans who wish to exert, through sheer force of will, a desire to love everything radically?

The latter does seem more likely for Freud, and so he regards Francis as an anomaly, as a marginal case that proves his point. Humans, for Freud, do not really wish to live their lives with such radical concern for the betterment of other people. That is why "saints" are "saints"—they are social exceptions, people whose libidinal economies are calibrated in such a way as to allow significant and long-standing love and support for others, and to allow them to achieve happiness from such a state. 

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Chapter 5 Quotes

Not merely is this stranger in general unworthy of my love; I must honestly confess that he has more claim to my hostility and even my hatred. He seems not have the least trace of love for me and shows me not the slightest consideration.

Related Characters: Sigmund Freud (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Golden Rule
Page Number: 92
Explanation and Analysis:

Freud here counters what he believes to be the inherent falsehood of the Golden Rule—the idea of "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Freud argues that strangers have no reason to care for the wellbeing of people outside their social circles; similarly, we have no reason to care for strangers. The Golden Rule therefore breaks down because it is not an economical principle—for Freud, it flies in the face of all logic.

Freud points out that hatred or mistrust of other people is a far more common and natural human emotion than disinterested love. Most people respond to new experiences and new people with a mixture of fear and apprehension. This anxiety about the unknown makes for a more sensible foundation of a moral and interpersonal system, as it guards against potential pain or danger. 

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The Golden Rule Symbol Timeline in Civilization and Its Discontents

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Golden Rule appears in Civilization and Its Discontents. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 4
Individuality vs. Social Bonds Theme Icon
Love, Sex, and Happiness Theme Icon
Suffering, Aggression, and Death Theme Icon
Religion, Delusion, and Belief Theme Icon
...religion—a love of all mankind, and the injunction to “love one’s neighbor as oneself” (the Golden Rule )—is an aberration, something nearly impossible for most humans to manage. (full context)
Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious Theme Icon
Individuality vs. Social Bonds Theme Icon
Love, Sex, and Happiness Theme Icon
Suffering, Aggression, and Death Theme Icon
Religion, Delusion, and Belief Theme Icon
Freud investigates the “ Golden Rule ” in greater detail, arguing that it is an impractical injunction for two reasons. First,... (full context)
Chapter 5
Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious Theme Icon
Individuality vs. Social Bonds Theme Icon
Love, Sex, and Happiness Theme Icon
Suffering, Aggression, and Death Theme Icon
Religion, Delusion, and Belief Theme Icon
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,... (full context)