Civilization’s primary conflict, which Freud outlines in the essay, is that between the will of the individual and the will of the group, the society in which that individual lives and works. Freud notes that all individuals, even those in prehistoric civilizations, exist in societies. Thus their freedoms, or supposed freedoms, must be understood in the context of what a society allows them and requires them to do. Freud argues that, in the past, more “primitive” societies had weaker central governments, and allowed greater personal latitude for certain kinds of acts. Sexual acts, or instances of violence, tended to be handled within families, which were ruled by powerful father-figures.
But Freud complicates this picture by “fast-forwarding” to Western society of the past several hundred years. He notes that outright critics of “civilization” as such, who claim that society impinges on their individual freedoms, neglect the fact that societies also keep humans safe—which is itself a kind of freedom. The “deal” brokered between the individual and the society, then, is one of exchange. Individuals give up a certain amount of autonomy, and as a result, they gain the protection of the group.
This set of arguments is not necessarily psychoanalytic, however. Freud makes the above theory his own by connecting it to his ideas of the ego and super-ego, which, Freud states, create the same “structure” within an individual as exists within a society. That is, the “ego” accepts an internalized, government-like “monitor” in the form of the super-ego, which keeps the ego from merely gratifying every wish, desire, act of aggression, or instance of satisfaction it craves. The super-ego thus similarly keeps the ego from being totally free, by placing checks on it. But the super-ego also protects the ego, by ensuring that a person recognizes the desires of others. In other words, people’s super-egos stop them from being utterly selfish, thus enabling cooperation and reciprocal benefit within a society.
Individuality vs. Social Bonds ThemeTracker
Individuality vs. Social Bonds Quotes in Civilization and Its Discontents
At the height of being in love the boundary between ego and object threatens to melt away.
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.
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.
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 . . .
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.
. . . 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.
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.
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.
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 . . .
Perhaps St. Francis of Assisi went furthest in exploiting love for the benefit of an inner feeling of happiness.
The tendency on the part of civilization to restrict sexual life is no less clear than its other tendency to expand the cultural unit.
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 . . . .
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 . . .
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.
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.
. . . 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.
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.
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.
. . . the price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt.
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?
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?