Sigmund Freud begins his long essay, Civilization and Its Discontents, by describing his inability to understand what he calls “religious feeling.” Freud is not religious himself, though he has good friends who are. Freud believes that religion is central to how societies function – even societies that no longer consist of orthodox believers. Freud attempts, in his essay, to understand how people relate to their societies, how societies are formed, and how individual psychic forces interact with larger, group-level forces. Freud isolates the individual’s ego, superego, and id – the self, the regulating self, and deep, base desires – as the three forces inherent on the personal level. He wonders how these forces are manifest on the social level.
Freud’s essay moves organically – that is, not in a strict order, but by association of related ideas. Freud wonders how religions function in society, and sees in religion a kind of generous, selfless love – at least, this love as an ideal. Freud wonders whether societies are held together by this selfless love, and by its related religious feeling, but states that these instances of generosity alone cannot constitute a society.
Freud then addresses how human beings come to join themselves to others. They do so, Freud argues, by means of sexual love within family groups. Men and women couple and produce children, and these children have “interrupted” sexual relationships with their parents, which cannot be consummated. These relationships depend both on the love-drive (eros) and the death-drive (thanatos) – a combination of deep, powerful sexual attraction, and a desire, too, to destroy that which is closest and most important to us.
Freud believes that, because societies are groups consisting of smaller groups, the family unit, that societies themselves must behave according to the love- and death-drives. This means that societies are held together both by selfish desires for liberty, on the individual level, and selfless desires for protection and group stability, on the broader social level. Freud believes that other methods of explaining social organization, like the Christian Golden Rule, only explain part of the problem – the group part. Freud’s model accounts also for the individual liberties of society’s members – who wish to both be free to live as they choose, and also desire the help, protection, and love of others.
At the end of the essay, Freud relates his work, indirectly, to the political conditions of the time of its writing. In Europe in the 1930s, the oncoming threat of Communism and Fascism – of different forms of “collective” society – cause Freud to wonder whether civilization is in fact in decline. Freud concludes the essay with an open question: whether societies, like people, can be “neurotic,” or overcome by an excess of anxiety regarding their base impulses to love and destruction.