Civilization and Its Discontents

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Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious Theme Analysis

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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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Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious Theme Icon

Sigmund Freud was a psychologist, therapist, and intellectual concerned with the forces at work in the human mind. His theory of “psychoanalysis,” which he developed over the course of his lifetime, has many aspects—but can be summed up, primarily, as the descriptive study of a system of internal checks and balances that regulate emotion and action.

Freud believed that the mind could be divided into the ego (the “I”), the id (deep, sometimes perverse, desires) and the superego (the warden or overseer, keeping id and ego in check). In Freud’s theory of mind, humans generally are aware of the desires that drive their behaviors, but oftentimes they aren’t—and that makes these latter impulses unconscious. Freud argued that unconscious drives shape human beings’ lives—who they are and why they do what they do.

Civilization and its Discontents is a thought-experiment by Freud: an essay attempting to determine whether the same unconscious impulses that Freud saw as driving individual’s behavior could also be used to describe the formation of human civilization. Freud puzzles out whether civilization is itself a “good” or “progressive” thing: whether it makes human beings happier, healthier, and freer than an ideal “state of nature” before, or outside, civilization.

Freud concludes that the very same processes and antagonisms operating in the individual mind are the forces shaping whole civil societies. Thus Freud argues for—though he does not use the term—a “social psychology,” or a way of explaining society based on the accumulated effects of individuals’ minds.

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Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious Quotes in Civilization and Its Discontents

Below you will find the important quotes in Civilization and Its Discontents related to the theme of Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious.
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. 

The fact remains that only in the mind is such a preservation of all the earlier stages alongside of the final form possible.

Related Characters: Sigmund Freud (speaker)
Page Number: 34-35
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Freud creates an important metaphor of the mind as a kind of city, its image taken both from architecture and from Darwinian evolutionary theory. According to Freud's idea of the subconscious, the mind never completely eradicates the feelings or experiences it has had in the past—indeed, it could not eliminate memories even if it wanted to.

Instead, the mind creates new memories—new "buildings" of thought—on top of the old ones, but without eliminating them. This makes the cityscape of the mind a complicated one, and more or less an impossible one to visualize. This, too, is Freud's point: the mind can be compared to objects in the world, or to other processes with which we are comfortable (like economic exchange). But the mind has its own structures and its own "economies" beyond what apply in other aspects of human behavior. This is the purpose of his psychoanalytic investigation—to find out what these mental structures and processes are, and how they're peculiar to the mind. 

The origin of the religious attitude can be traced back in clear outlines as far as the feeling of infantile helplessness.

Related Characters: Sigmund Freud (speaker)
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

Freud has no problem arguing that religion is a remnant of an earlier, less advanced form of human engagement with the world. Freud believes that all organized religions are at least partly concerned with magic and superstitions. These are methods of explaining the world when scientific rationalism is not available to the mind.

But, interestingly and provocatively, Freud argues that the religious feeling, and the irrational desires and beliefs attached to it, are not merely existent in societies without science—as modern society attests. Instead, religious feeling transfers from traditional realms (the church) to internal patterns of thought, and to behaviors having to do with interpersonal relationships. Thus love, religion, and "infantile feeling" are all related in the consciousness of modern people. 

Chapter 2 Quotes

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

. . . we come upon a contention which is so astonishing that we must dwell upon it. This contention holds that what we call our civilization is largely responsible for our misery.

Related Characters: Sigmund Freud (speaker)
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:

This is one of the major and jarring points of Freud's inquiry. Civilization and modernity are often understood uncritically to be good and positive things. Both are progressions by which humans become better, cleaner, saner, smarter, more technologically proficient.

The power of Freud's argument, then, does not derive from his belief that civilization doesn't work, nor that technology and other advancements haven't taken place. Instead, Freud states that these advances in some realms necessitate pain, suffering, dislocation, confusion, or guilt in others. Thus, civilization requires that certain things be internalized, sacrificed, and misunderstood in the consciousness of individuals. 

Human misery is therefore created, in the present age, by modernity and by the impulses that conspire to make us "civilized." The question, then, is whether civilization can be its own cure, and can help those that it harms. 

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. 

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

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. 

The existence of the inclination to aggression, which we can detect in ourselves and justly assume to be present in others, is the factor which disturbs our relations with our neighbor and which forces civilization into such a high expenditure of energy.

Related Characters: Sigmund Freud (speaker)
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:

The Golden Rule might not be a "natural" state for humans in the world, but aggressiveness is understood, by Freud's theory, as a more characteristic attitude for people to take toward one another. Freud argues that, because humans are inclined to be distrustful of people they do not know, they are also inclined to not want to deal with them peacefully. Instead, people will work hard to assert themselves against others—to get what they want, and to satisfy their own libido over the needs and desires of another person—especially a person whom the subject does not know. Thus aggression, rather than love and brotherhood, is the default state of human interaction.

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.