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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Civilization and Its Discontents, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Suffering, Aggression, and Death Theme Icon

Freud acknowledges that the death drive is one of the most difficult aspects of psychoanalytic theory to understand. Humans naturally feel that they want to continue to live, and to feel pleasure (Eros). The death drive, then, is an urge in human beings to destroy an object outside the self. The death drive is manifest, therefore, in what might be termed the “love-hate” relationship. Freud claims that these relationships are actually quite common—that humans frequently wish to destroy, to overpower, and to master another.

Freud believes that the death drive manifests itself both in individual and in social terms. In the individual, the death drive forms part of the regulatory mechanism of the super-ego, which seeks to master the ego, the self, especially those parts of the self that seek to love, or to have sex with, another person. Thus the super-ego causes the individual a great deal of suffering—making the love-relationship a complex one, since it is connected with pain and the prospect of more pain, should the love not last.

Within a society, the death drive causes social groups to assert dominance, and aggression, over and against other social groups, especially those that are geographically nearby. Geographic nearness is often a reflection of cultural or social nearness, in Freud’s system—this is something he calls the “narcissism of small differences.” In other words, societies, too, have super-egos, and when they see another society close to “themselves,” they wish, like the individual super-ego, to control and master that other group.

Freud essentially concludes his essay by arguing that societies use the death drive, on the individual and the group level, to create guilt, which then manages people’s actions—“keeps them in line”—controls them. Freud offers up the possibility, too, that because societies have egos and superegos, just like individuals, then societies might also be able to become psychologically “sick,” or “neurotic,” like some individuals—that their egos and superegos might be out of balance. Freud merely poses this as a mode for further inquiry—he does not answer his own provocative question in this essay.

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Suffering, Aggression, and Death Quotes in Civilization and Its Discontents

Below you will find the important quotes in Civilization and Its Discontents related to the theme of Suffering, Aggression, and Death.
Chapter 2 Quotes

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. 


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Chapter 3 Quotes

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 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. 

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.