Sigmund Freud

Civilization and Its Discontents

Review by JongWook Hong, 2008

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, English tr. by James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1961. 108 pages.

Freud finished the first draft of this book in 1929, two years after he had finished another book, The Future of an Illusion (5). Freud carries over his ideas on religion and society from the earlier work to this book. Religion for him is a psychological need of human beings in order to gain comfort and a feeling of protection. It is a neurosis expressed and projected in the name of God.

Based on this thought, Freud draws a boundary between ‘what is internal,’ the ego, and ‘what is external,’ the world. His central interest is in the problem that arises because ego and the world are often in conflict. The reason the individual falls into religion is that religion answers their desire for purposeful life and happiness. For Freud, our pursuit of happiness is based on ‘the program of the pleasure principle’ (23). He argues that sexual satisfaction is the most natural and the most manifest pleasure principle. Civilization becomes an obstacle for this happiness, however, because the interests of civilization stress not individual happiness but the happiness of the commonwealth. The sexual relationship is typically between two individuals, but civilization concerns relationships among many individuals. Therefore, civilization requires regulation and limitation of individuals in order to achieve common goals (41-42).

Civilization also demands the sacrifice of individual ‘aggression.’ Freud argues that the human being is instinctively aggressive. People look at their neighbors not only as ‘potential helpers or sexual objects,’ but also as object of aggressions. Freud notes, “The existence of this 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” (59). Giving up aggression is not easy. Human beings feel vulnerable and uncomfortable. In order to inhibit aggression, civilizations deploy ‘internalization’ or ‘introjection.’ This is what he calls ‘the sense of guilt,’ which has two origins: “from the fear of loosing one's love” and “from the fear of conscience executed by super-ego” (73-75). Whether this sense of guilt appears consciously or unconsciously is beside the point since nothing can be hidden from the super-ego.

In conclusion, Freud argues that civilization forces us to renounce the individual’s instinctual pursuit of pleasure and aggression. Religion and religious ideas help achieve this through taming human instinctual expression. Certainly, his interpretation contributes to the understanding of religious ideas and experiences and cultural and social development within a psychological perspective. However, his negation of the possibility of ultimate realities and his overly narrow focus on instinctual desire lead him overlook the value of human religious lives. Perhaps it is not the super-ego that gives human the sense of guilt, but the finitude of being that humans express. Maybe it is not civilization that obstructs the individual’s pursuit of happiness, but the tendency of human beings to objectify everything. In fact, religion may be well suited to helping human beings overcome finitude and objectification.