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Civilization and Its Discontents

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Civilization and Its Discontents is a book written by Sigmund Freud in the decade preceding his death in 1938. It was first published in German in 1930 as Das Unbehagen in der Kultur ("The Uneasiness in Culture") and is considered to be one of Freud's most important and most-read works, though today it is usually read more as a "cultural artifact" than for its theories.

Civilization and Its Discontents book cover
Cover of Civilization and Its Discontents.
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Contents

In this book he states his views on the question of man's place in the world, a place Freud describes as being on the fulcrum between the individual's quest for freedom and society's demand for conformity. As a result, civilization, or its culture, inhibits man's instinctual drives, which can (and perhaps must) result in guilt and unfulfillment. Freud bases much of his analysis on the theory of the origins of civilization he first posited in Totem and Taboo and the idea of a death instinct first developed in Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

In this book, Freud maintains that human beings are inherently aggressive. That love for all of humanity is far from an inherent state of the human mind. In order to live in a civilized society, humans must take their aggression and turn it on themselves in the form of a conscience (or super-ego) which takes the place of the father as the child matures.

Other important concepts of this book is the human instinct of aggression towards each other, dichotomy of Eros vs. the Death Drive and the super-ego.

Historical Context

This work should be also understood in context of contemporary events: First World War (1914-1918) and Adolf Hitler's rise to power have undoubtedly influenced Freud and impacted his central observation about the tension between the individual and civilization. Under such conditions, Freud develops his thoughts published two years earlier in The Future of an Illusion (1927), in which he criticized organized religion as a collective neurosis. Freud, an avowed atheist, argues that religion has tamed asocial instincts and created a sense of community around a shared set of beliefs, thus helping the civilization, yet at the same time it has also exacted an enormous psychological cost to the individual by making him perpetually subordinate to the primal father figure embodied by God.

Quotations

"...admittedly an unusual state, but not one that can be stigmatized as pathological .... At the height of being in love the boundary between ego and object threatens to melt away. Against all the evidence of his senses, a man who is in love declares that 'I' and 'you' are one, and is prepared to behave as if it were a fact."

"Civilization, therefore, obtains mastery over the individual's dangerous desire for aggression by weakening and disarming it and by setting up an agency within him to watch over it, like a garrison in a conquered city."

"One feels inclined to say that the intention that man should be 'happy' is not included in the plan of 'Creation'."

"Happiness, in the reduced sense in which we recognize it as possible, is a problem of the economics of the individual's libido."

"The question of the purpose of human life has been raised countless times; it has never received a satisfactory answer and perhaps does not admit of one."

Reference

  • Freud, Sigmund; Civilization and Its Discontents W. W. Norton & Company; Reissue edition (July, 1989), ISBN 0393301583

External links

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