Freud uses this chapter to describe how exactly people are able to maintain civil societies in spite of the overwhelming presence of the death-drive between persons in those societies. Freud believes that the love-drive alone would not be sufficient to hold societies together. In addition to Eros, then, people within societies must internalize the discipline and the rules a society imposes upon its citizens. This imposed, internalized discipline becomes an individual’s conscience, and it is civilization’s greatest insurance policy against total disruption and decay.
Freud’s notion of internalized discipline is perhaps the central explanatory mechanism for the book. This notion – that people in civilizations largely regulate their own behaviors, and that civilized governments simply reinforce these internal regulations – helps explain how people can both prize their own liberties within a society and work together for the common good.
Freud calls the internalized conscience—which is implanted in the individual mind by the controlling society—the “super-ego,” and argues that the super-ego motivates the ego to behave according to society’s rules. It does this by instilling in the ego a fear of the “loss of love”—that is, the loss of a community’s protection—if the individual incurs society’s wrath by breaking any of its rules.
Here Freud explains why the superego is so effective. “Loss of love” is the flip side of the love-drive – it is a fear all humans have, that their closest relationships will be taken away from them. Internalization of discipline is therefore effective because humans depend so much on the love of others.
Freud argues, too, that the super-ego tends to be most active in truly virtuous people. Therefore, the most virtuous people often believe themselves to be the most flawed, and their super-egos, in turn, motivate them to seek penance more and more for their supposed infractions of social rules. These individuals, who believe themselves to be terrible, are often the most generous and loving within a society.
This is another important point, offered almost as a footnote in the text. Freud here explains why the “saintly” seem so saintly – because they believe they are not, and therefore work their entire lives to become better. This, Freud argues, is the only way to be good: by feeling less-than-good.
Freud closes the chapter with a discussion of the development of the super-ego in children. Freud believes that family units are a reproduction of the social phenomenon by which the super-ego is the internalized presence of a disciplining authority reflecting the rules of society at large. In other words, children grow up fearing their parents’ authority—internalizing within the self both this authority and a resistance to it. The human conscience, then, is a battle between the self, which wants to assert its will and its instinctual desires, and the super-ego, which reflects the authority of the parents, who wish both to control and protect the child.
Freud ties together discussions of the self, family, and society here, synthesizing different strands of his argument from throughout the essay. Freud sees the family as a unit that is intermediate to the self and society. The family is the fundamental building block of society because it allows for a certain kind of control and regulation between people. Society, then, is a series of families connected in hierarchies of power.
Freud concludes that human guilt derives from, on the one hand, one’s love for one’s parents, and on the other, one’s desire to disobey them, even violently so. For the individual conscience, doing something bad is the same as desiring to do something bad, so the super-ego does not distinguish between purely psychic acts—like wanting to kill one’s parents—and physical acts like actually murdering them. Thus guilt can exist in people’s minds even when they have done nothing wrong, but have merely entertained the notion of doing something wrong.
The superego functions by way of guilt. Guilt, or the feeling that one has done something wrong, is the great motivator for human “good,” for actions that will benefit selves and families within a society. As Freud notes, guilt need not be connected to bad things actually done: it is in fact more powerful when linked to bad things only considered, without actually being executed.