Civilization and Its Discontents

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Themes and Colors
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
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Love, Sex, and Happiness Theme Icon

Freud outlines a complex and interrelated system of love, sex, and happiness, based on a drive he calls Eros. Eros is one of two fundamental drives—the other is Thanatos, or death. Eros is also understood, in psychoanalysis, as a manifestation of the Pleasure Principle—quite simply a desire for self-gratification, for what “feels best.” Eros, however, goes beyond the “minor” definition of the Pleasure Principle (an avoidance of pain), and becomes, instead, more active—the seeking, in another person, of a love-object, of the satisfaction of physical and mental desires. In other words, we love because we want to have sex, and we love, too, because we want to be loved, to be protected, desired, and respected.

Love, in Freud’s conception, is not always connected to sex. But Freud believes that sex is a powerful component of love, and that, in relationships where we say we love but do not have sex, we have in fact sublimated (essentially, “pushed down”) the desire for sex and transformed it into a different aim—that of friendship, or family attachment. This is one of Freud’s more controversial theories, and he argues for it implicitly in this book, and more explicitly elsewhere.

The upshot of all this is: for Freud, love and sex often lead to happiness, but need not necessarily do so. Love begets happiness when the love-relationship is strong and productive, but when it ends, it results in a deep despair. Similarly, sex includes within it the forms of aggression that cause us to want not only to be joined to another, but also to defeat, overpower, or master another. Thus, for Freud, love/sex/happiness might be seen, together, as part of an erotic drive—one that exists, always, in concert and opposition with Thanatos (the death drive).

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Love, Sex, and Happiness Quotes in Civilization and Its Discontents

Below you will find the important quotes in Civilization and Its Discontents related to the theme of Love, Sex, and Happiness.
Chapter 1 Quotes

At the height of being in love the boundary between ego and object threatens to melt away.

Related Characters: Sigmund Freud (speaker)
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

Freud's far-reaching text includes an analysis of what it means to be in love. For Freud, love is both an instance of joining with another person—of causing the individual to exist in a social network—and a heightening of the feeling of personal loneliness. For Freud, love is also bound up in sexual activity, wherein two bodies join and become "one."

The distinction between "ego," or the "I" moving through the world, and the "other" is also a very important idea for Freud, and it will be taken up throughout this essay. Love is one way of testing the limits of the self, and of placing that self near enough to another self to realize just how far apart those two persons, and minds, might be. 


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Our present ego-feeling is, therefore, only a shrunken residue of a much more inclusive—indeed, an all-embracing—feeling which corresponded to a more intimate bond between the ego and the world around it.

Related Characters: Sigmund Freud (speaker)
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:

Freud gives a kind of "historical" account of an individual's development from childhood to adulthood. He argues that for children, ideas of the "self" and the "other" are more fluid and confused, leading to feelings of love that border on the universal. This love, at least in theory, produces happiness, a feeling of "belonging" in the world.

As an individual grows up in a modern society, however, this feeling is superseded by various psychological and social forces. It is then the stated aim of Freud's investigation to track just how human beings, with their desire for love, enact that love in a society with others. And that enacting of love is not without its complications—especially its relationship to longing, lacking, guilt, and death. 

Chapter 2 Quotes

The question of the purpose of human life has been raised countless times; it has never yet received a satisfactory answer and perhaps does not admit of one.

Related Characters: Sigmund Freud (speaker)
Page Number: 41-42
Explanation and Analysis:

Freud does not shy away from tackling large topics. This, indeed, might be the largest of them all—the problem of what it means to be alive, and what human beings ought to do during their time on earth. Freud acknowledges that perhaps it is an unsolvable question, but this does not keep him from attempting to address it, in a way, throughout the remainder of the essay.

For Freud, human life does have a purpose, or series of purposes. This is important to note. That purpose is not necessarily derived from a religious feeling, nor from a relation of the individual to a social tradition, either ethical or theological. But Freud does believe that human life is oriented toward a set of ends. And he believes, too, that psychoanalytic theory can help to tease out and understand those ends. 

Another procedure [to avoid pain] operates more energetically and thoroughly. It regards reality as the sole enemy and as the source of all suffering, with which it is impossible to live, so that one must break off all relations with it if one is to be in any way happy. The hermit turns his back on the world . . .

Related Characters: Sigmund Freud (speaker)
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

Freud attempts to understand the different methods by which humans make their lives easier. Being a hermit, ignoring society, removing oneself from the world—this is, for Freud, similar to taking drugs, drinking, or otherwise smothering one's consciousness for long periods of time. Freud argues that this form of "numbness" to the world is a way of preventing suffering, of possibly extending happiness, and of allowing the individual to function in a society that is largely indifferent to his or her individual desires.

But Freud does not believe that a society can be constructed entirely of hermits. Indeed, if this were true, there would be no society at all. Thus Freud looks to other methods by which people ease the pain of social life without removing themselves from it entirely. 

One procedure I have not yet mentioned . . . I am, of course, speaking of the way of life which makes love the center of everything, which looks for all satisfaction in loving and being loved.

Related Characters: Sigmund Freud (speaker)
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

Freud argues that there is a form of radical altruism to which humans can aspire—this is the altruism of a perfectly religious and beneficent soul, who wishes to merge the ego with the outside world. This merger replicates the merging that the "infantile" spirit feels with the mother and, thus, with the world at large. Freud associates this radical form of loving, and desire to be loved, with not only the "primitive" in human development but the primitive in social development, too. In other words, Freud believes that societies outgrow this radical love as they become more "modern."

This quotation doesn't only refer to a mystical kind of religious love, however. Freud also addresses those whose purpose in life is the ideal of romantic or sexual love—provided that the lover feels a similar desire for total union with the one being loved.

Happiness, in the reduced sense in which we recognize it as possible, is a problem of the economics of the individual libido.

Related Characters: Sigmund Freud (speaker)
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

This is Freudian rationalism taken to its supreme principle. Happiness is not, for Freud, a set of moral principles, nor a state to be attained through achievements, love, or selflessness. It is, instead, a calculation. It is a way of understanding how one's libidos (the set of drives constructing individuals) function in a "market" of other libidos, and within the individual itself. Happiness can only be achieved by balancing one's libidos in a healthy way—but this is never entirely possible, since some desires are inherently contradictory (like Freud's idea of the "death drive").

Furthermore, this idea extends to civilization as a whole—balancing one's individual desires with the desires of others, and with the rules and requirements of civilization itself. Thus in one sense, Freud's idea of happiness is never truly attainable, and is fundamentally market-based. In a society, some people get what they want, and this, in Freud's theory, means that others do not get what they want.

Chapter 3 Quotes

Men . . . seem to have observed that this newly-won power over space and time, this subjugation of the forces of nature, which is the fulfillment of a longing that goes back thousands of years, has not increased the amount of pleasurable satisfaction which they may expect from life and has not made them feel happier.

Related Characters: Sigmund Freud (speaker)
Page Number: 60
Explanation and Analysis:

Freud extends his previous argument by stating that happiness, unlike other measures of the success of civilization, has not increased as society has "advanced." Other than written descriptions, there is no good way of knowing how happy people were—how satisfied and loved and sexually pleased they were—in earlier ages of human history. There can be no formula for making this inquiry into the historical state of happiness. Yet it appears unlikely that humans are any better at being happy than they were so many years ago. 

We do not, therefore, have any more developed "technology" for being happy and fulfilled now than we did in a primitive state. In fact, we might be quite a bit less happy because of advances in civilization—for reasons that the book goes on to attempt to explain. 

Civilization . . . describes the whole sum of the achievements and the regulations which distinguish our lives from those of our animal ancestors and which serve . . . to protect men against nature and to adjust their mutual relations.

Related Characters: Sigmund Freud (speaker)
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

These concepts—regulation, protection, and adjustment—are central to Freud's conception of what makes humanity modern. Modern societies consist of a set of rules designed to ensure order and the continuance of the society itself. Societies also protect people, or certain people, from violence, either violence that comes from within the society or from outside it. And societies grow and change as conditions around them change, in their physical environment, for example.

What Freud investigates, however, is how effective society actually is in achieving these ideals. Can society regulate itself effectively? Can it protect those who live within it? Does it always wish to? And can societies change as the people within them change? What makes a society change, and how quickly can it adapt to new circumstances?

We recognize as cultural all activities and resources which are useful to men for making the earth serviceable to them, for protecting them against the violence of the forces of nature . . .

Related Characters: Sigmund Freud (speaker)
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

The concept of "service" is important here. Freud argues, implicitly throughout and explicitly here, that humans are placed on the earth in order to use it for their ends. He does not state whether this is a religious and ethical or just a practical principle. In other words, he does not say whether he believes humans ought to use the resources of the earth for their own betterment, but he does state that this kind of relationship between humanity and the natural world seems to exist across civilizations.

Thus human happiness and the structure of social bonds derive in part from a human's relationship to his or her physical environment, from what can be taken from the earth and used. Societies tend to function best when they work out a productive relationship to the earth's resources that also does not completely destroy those resources. 

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. 

The tendency on the part of civilization to restrict sexual life is no less clear than its other tendency to expand the cultural unit.

Related Characters: Sigmund Freud (speaker)
Page Number: 84
Explanation and Analysis:

Freud identifies a fundamental tension in human sexual and romantic life. On the one hand, humans wish to have sex with one another, and heterosexual relationships will produce children through sexual activity. This, Freud believes, is a fundamental biological fact of human experience—it is not something that people, for the most part, have to think too much about in order to do. But society also imposes rules and restrictions on who can have sex with whom, and when.

These restrictions complicate and run counter to the biological desire for sex. Society might be "easier," or less rule-bound, if people were allowed to have sex with whomever they wanted, whenever they wanted. But Freud argues it is not merely our desire for order that keeps us from doing this—it is a larger social injunction against sexual pleasure, and indeed toward dissolution and destruction, that keeps humans from merely procreating in a world of creation and love. 

Present-day civilization makes it plain that it will only permit sexual relationships on the basis of a solitary, indissoluble bond between one man and one woman, and that it does not like sexuality as a source of pleasure in its own right . . . .

Related Characters: Sigmund Freud (speaker)
Page Number: 86
Explanation and Analysis:

Freud believes that there are several reasons for most societies' injunction against sexual activity outside the relatively limited bounds of marriage. First, he believes that society exists to regulate the libido, and that the power of the unregulated libido can lead to a difficulty in separating self from other, or self from object. Freud argues that this feeling is understood, in civilized societies, as being "primitive," even if it is also a radical religious belief (toward loving the neighbor) that is evident in the behavior of saints and other religious exceptions.

Freud also argues that the regulation of sexual relationships derives from an unwillingness to accept sexual procreation unproblematically as what it is—a pleasurable act of creation. If it were only this, then perhaps people could have sex constantly without complication. But sex is also a transaction (an economy) of the libido—it is an interaction between two egos with different sets of desires. This makes matters much more complex. 

Chapter 5 Quotes

The neurotic creates substitutive satisfactions for himself in his symptoms, and these either cause him suffering in themselves or become sources of suffering for him by raising difficulties in his relations with his environment . . .

Related Characters: Sigmund Freud (speaker)
Page Number: 89
Explanation and Analysis:

This is one of Freud's most profound, and perhaps most disturbing, conclusions. Psychological symptoms are not just the things that a neurotic sufferer wants to avoid—although they do cause pain and, at least superficially, are to be avoided or treated. But Freud argues that the definition of a true neurotic is the "enjoyment" of symptoms—of the pain that these symptoms cause. 

That idea of enjoyment is complex and has been further studied in the many decades since Freud wrote. But a symptom that a person enjoys combines pleasure and pain in a manner that Freud believes is central to the human experience. According to Freud, humans have both a pleasure-drive and a death-drive—they want to love and live but they are also fascinated by destruction and death, even if it means their own death. Thus the symptom has a strange hold on human consciousness—it is a reminder both of life without the symptom and of the irrational desire that keeps us stuck in our painful actions. 

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. 

Chapter 6 Quotes

Neurosis was regarded as the outcome of a struggle between the interest of self-preservation and the demands of the libido, a struggle in which the ego had been victorious but at the price of severe sufferings and renunciations.

Related Characters: Sigmund Freud (speaker)
Page Number: 104
Explanation and Analysis:

Neurosis, as Freud sees it, is one of the characteristic features of life in modern civilization. A neurotic is a person who wants what he does not have and does not have what he wants, and whose conflicting libidos are not balanced. For the neurotic, there is no uncomplicated relationship to one's drives and desires. Instead, the neurotic is a prisoner of his or her own making. The guilt the neurotic feels for wanting some things and for not wanting others is very, very difficult to stifle.

The neurotic, in addition, partly enjoys the struggle between wanting and not-wanting—they believe it to be a natural part of life, and indeed can derive pleasure from it. 

. . . besides the instinct to preserve living substance and to join it into ever larger units, there must exist another, contrary instinct seeking to dissolve those units and to bring them back to their primeval, inorganic state.

Related Characters: Sigmund Freud (speaker)
Page Number: 106
Explanation and Analysis:

This is Freud's most cogent definition and explanation of his idea of the "death-drive," which counters the love-drive. Humans, Freud states, like to join things together and create—to build families and communities, to bring people together out of love and shared interest. This is what allows people to live together in the first place.

But this love of others is countered by a very strong force of destruction, aggression, separation, self-interest, and greed. Civilization cannot eliminate the death-drive, but it can subdue it, and can direct it inward. The subject in a modern civilization has internalized the struggle of one person against another—and this struggle of wanting and not-wanting becomes apparent in the neuroses of individual psychological cases. 

Chapter 7 Quotes

The tension between the harsh superego and the ego that is subjected to it, is called by us the sense of guilt; it expresses itself as a need for punishment.

Related Characters: Sigmund Freud (speaker)
Page Number: 121
Explanation and Analysis:

Freud narrows in on exactly which parts of the human psyche are responsible for the eternal neurotic struggle, the management of the libido and the drive for love and self-preservation. It is the "harsh" regulating superego that tells a person what is good or not good, possible or impossible, socially positive or socially negative. And it is the ego that is "subjected" to this punishment and regulation. The id, for its part, is the portion of the mind that is subject most closely to the unconscious drives of the sexual and the destructive.

Thus the ego must always mediate between the regulating superego and the unregulated id. The ego is in an impossible, unresolvable position between these two poles, thus creating human psychological suffering and necessitating psychoanalytic treatment. 

A threatened external unhappiness—loss of love and punishment on the part of the external authority—has been exchanged for a permanent internal unhappiness, for the tension of the sense of guilt.

Related Characters: Sigmund Freud (speaker)
Page Number: 120
Explanation and Analysis:

Freud's argument here is complex and persuasive. He claims that a sign of cultivated, civilized society is the insistence on placing guilt, an internal struggle of regulation, into the ego. Societies regulate individuals with external rules, but also by causing people to regulate themselves through feeling that they are insufficient, bad, or weak—the ego, Freud states, will take over in these cases, reinforcing the social injunction for weakness by allowing the subject to feel compromised by illicit desire, and unable to save himself.

For Freud, the "tension" of modern life is the continual tension between wanting love (and sex) and wanting to be alone, between being interested in destruction and the fear of actually dying. These forces cannot be resolved, and the subject cannot find comfort. Instead, one must merely navigate the stormy psychological sea as best as is possible. This is the only possible equilibrium that modern societies can provide subjects. 

Chapter 8 Quotes

. . . the price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt.

Related Characters: Sigmund Freud (speaker)
Page Number: 131-132
Explanation and Analysis:

This is a succinct formulation of one of Freud's most important theses in the essay. Freud argues that civilization is a structure that people, when living in groups, assume. It consists of many factors, one of which is the championing of the rational, the "clean," and the organized over the disorder and relative violence of "primitive," or pre-civilized, life.

But for Freud, this change is not without consequence and sacrifice. The external punishment that is always lurking in pre-civilized life is made to be felt in modern society through the complex process of the internalization of guilt, and the perpetual belief that one is entirely at the mercy of one's desires, despite whatever one might do to attempt to control them. Control them too much, and one's psychic life becomes a prison. But don't control the id enough, and the social fabric itself is in danger of fraying altogether. 

If the development of civilization has such a far-reaching similarity to the development of the individual . . . may we not be justified in reaching the diagnosis that, under the influence of cultural urges, some civilizations, or some epochs of civilization—possibly the whole of mankind—have become neurotic?

Related Characters: Sigmund Freud (speaker)
Page Number: 147
Explanation and Analysis:

Freud makes a crucial point here, arguing that societies might be subject to the same psychological laws as individuals. As a consequence, a society might become psychologically "sick," might want what it cannot have and not want what it does have. Entire civilizations could suffer as individuals do—could exist in a constant interior war between what is wanted and what is feared, between pleasure and chaos, between constructive behavior and destruction. A neurotic society, like a neurotic patient, can possibly be cured, but Freud's ideas of treatment, of the "talking cure" and the processes of psychoanalytic therapy, were not, at the time of this writing, available to entire groups of people.

And now it is to be expected that the other of the two “Heavenly Powers,” eternal Eros, will make an effort to assert himself in the struggle with his equally immortal adversary [Thanatos]. But who can see with what success and with what result?

Related Characters: Sigmund Freud (speaker)
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

This final quotation in the book is of great historical importance, as Freud, and many thinkers of his time, wondered the extent to which Europe might collapse under the weight of a Second World War. Freud sensed that European society had not been righted by the First World War—and indeed, felt that the previous conflict and its aftermath might merely have stoked the flames of a neurotic society.

Freud believes, however, that one way to combat the fears of the unknown, of a civilization whose future is not assured, is to attempt to understand that society rationally and scientifically. One must do this even though society itself might not be rational, and might not want scientific answers to every question. It is this paradox that makes Freud's inquiry so complex and so useful, even in the many decades since this text's first publication.