Fragments of Discontent

There are many ways one could approach an analysis of Sigmund Freud’s 1929 classic Civilization and Its Discontents. For the present discussion, I will tackle it chronologically, working through each chapter briefly yet systematically. I decided on this method because I want to follow Freud through his argument, which will allow me to develop my thoughts while he does, so to speak. This means that the style of the paper will in some ways take the form of a stream of consciousness. I say “in some ways” because it will not be a true stream of consciousness, as I will not be writing the paper from beginning to end in one unedited and unfiltered sitting; however, I will write about each chapter after reading it and before moving on to the next one. Two important things will result from this method. First, in an effort to combine the stream-of-consciousness style with analysis, the writing will read as a dialogue—that is, as Freud presents his thoughts, I will respond with mine. Second, the paper will not follow from an explicit thesis (the read-then-respond method makes this impossible), but it will lead up to one. Certain themes—nationalism, the origins of World War I—will drive some of my interpretations of the text, though not all of them; I imagine that these thematic interpretations will lead to some general observations. This is a very risky undertaking, indeed, and the paper could end up being a complete disaster, but it is way for me to look at the text in a unique way to gain some new insights.[1] Now let us begin…


The first chapter opens with what on first reading seems like a casual thought: “It is impossible to escape the impression that people commonly use false standards of measurement—that they seek power, success and wealth for themselves and admire them in others, and that they underestimate what is of true value in life.”[2] After reading it a second time, though, it becomes clear that Freud is beginning his argument by pointing out societal flaws. People use “false standards of measurement” and “underestimate what is of true value in life,” and this is apparently so pervasive an idea that “it is impossible to escape.” Freud wants us to know that society (including the reader) is flawed, and we must confront this claim before moving beyond the first sentence. This is a skilled rhetorical move that sets the tone for the chapter. (Society may be flawed, but Freud certainly learned something from its educational institutions.) In fact, the rest of the chapter is essentially Freud attempting to show how the presumed source of people’s religiousness, a certain oceanic feeling, is being tragically misinterpreted. As he states it, “From my own experience I could not convince myself of the primary nature of such a feeling. But this gives me no right to deny that it does in fact occur in other people. The only question is whether it is being correctly interpreted and whether it ought to be regarded as the fons et origo of the whole need for religion.”[3] It is entirely possible that such an oceanic feeling exists, concedes Freud, but it is probably more likely that people are simply misinterpreting it. Again, Freud points to a central flaw in society, though this time hitting a little harder and a little smarter by pointing to people’s religiousness. Notwithstanding all the details involved in the chapter—on the ego, for example—he seems to be setting up a larger argument about defects in society.


In Chapter Two, Freud introduces the idea of the pleasure principle, which, as the name suggests, states that human experience is dictated by the desire to increase pleasure and decrease “unpleasure.” The pleasure principle is the key to achieving and maintaining the ultimate goal of men. “What do they [men] demand of life and wish to achieve in it?” asks Freud. “The answer to this can hardly be in doubt. They strive after happiness; they want to become happy and to remain so. This endeavour has two sides, a positive and a negative aim. It aims, on the one hand, at an absence of pain and unpleasure, and, on the other, at the experiencing of strong feelings of pleasure.”[4] That is, the desire for happiness leads to the pleasure principle. It is possible to argue that, prior to the First World War, Europeans turned to nation-states to realize at least some version of the pleasure principle in the pursuit of happiness. Nationalism fostered feelings of community; the union of the nation and the state into modern European nation-states legitimized this community, bringing its members closer together, and offered the community protection from other communities, who presumably had different aims and desires. If we allow ourselves the interpretive creativity to view nationalism as a type of religion, then Freud has something to add to this observation. When discussing people who view reality as the source of suffering (the opposite of happiness), he writes, “A special importance attaches to the case in which this attempt to procure a certainty of happiness and a protection against suffering through a delusional remolding of reality is made by a considerable number of people in common. The religions of mankind must be classed among the mass-delusions of this kind. No one, needless to say, who shares a delusion ever recognizes it as such.”[5] People who fear reality cope with suffering by distorting reality. Groups of these “delusional [remolders] of reality” in some instances become adherents to “the religions of mankind.” Religions are thus delusions. Following our interpretation, nationalism becomes “a mass delusion of this kind,” which is something that scholars writing about nationalism throughout the twentieth century and beyond, by way of Benedict Anderson, would refer to as “imagined communities.”[6]


Chapter Three is where Freud’s argument really takes off. In language that at this point in the book reads as if Freud likes nothing more than basking in his own brilliance, he writes,

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, and that we should be much happier if we gave it up and returned to primitive conditions. I call this contention astonishing because, in whatever way we may define the concept of civilization, it is a certain fact that all the things with which we seek to protect ourselves against the threats that emanate from the sources of suffering are part of that very civilization.[7]

Let us heed Freud’s suggestion to dwell on this idea. Civilization is the cause of suffering, or, put another way, civilization is what stands in the way of the achievement of happiness. This is the closest thing to a thesis at this point in the book. But there is much more to the passage. Not only does Freud claim that civilization is what stands in the way of happiness, but also that returning to “primitive conditions” is where happiness lies. It should not surprise us that Freud views civilization and primitive conditions as opposites, just as it is not surprising that he sees suffering as the opposite of happiness; these simple binaries are what give his argument traction. What should surprise us, insists Freud, is that we look to civilization to relieve us from suffering, not recognizing that it is the source of that suffering. Colloquially, Freud is saying that civilization is a scam. There is much more to the chapter, but it all hinges on this passage, which explains why I focused on it and it alone.


The major discussion of Chapter Four takes place around love, one of the two “parents of human civilization.”[8] (The other parent is necessity.) Freud probably thought this was quite the turn of phrase, but he probably missed how it foreshadows his paternalistic ideas about women later on in the chapter. In one particularly crude paragraph, Freud provides a clear window into men’s views on women in the 1920s. One of the first things he says is, “Women represent the interests of the family and of sexual life.”[9] This is one of the shortest and simplest sentences in the book so far. Apparently, Freud believes this knowledge is so commonplace that he felt no need to give the sentence his usual linguistic flourish. It is a fact plain and simple, and he makes sure we do not think otherwise by making the sentence plain and simple. Continues Freud, “The work of civilization has become increasingly the business of men, it confronts them with ever more difficult tasks and compels them to carry out instinctual sublimations of which women are little capable.”[10] Two things stick out here. The first is that Freud believes women are incapable of instinct, a view Freud shares with too many men in today’s world. The second is that Freud sees men as carrying the burden of civilization. Not only do they perform the all the instinctual work of civilization, but they also do the exacting work of civilization. Civilization “confronts them” and “compels them,” and the men face the challenge. Freud continues this line of thought throughout the paragraph, reminding us of all that men are required to do for civilization before concluding “the woman finds herself forced into the background by the claims of civilization and she adopts a hostile attitude towards it.”[11] Man is capable of so much intellectual balancing, but woman is not. Her mind is so simple that she cannot fully appreciate the work of man; as a result, she becomes hostile toward civilization. This is Freud’s view of women.


Chapter Five centers on Freud’s response to the imperative “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” In his mind, because men are inherently aggressive, this civilizational apothegm is complete hogwash. Freud maintains that a “neighbour is for [men] not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him.”[12] It does not take much effort to see where Freud is going with this idea, and it takes even less effort if one makes parallels between neighbor and nation-state, even before Freud does so explicitly. Continues Freud two sentences after,

As a rule this cruel aggressiveness waits for some provocation or puts itself at the service of some other purpose, whose goal might also have been reached by milder measures. In circumstances that are favourable to it, when the mental counter-forces which ordinarily inhibit it are out of action, it also manifests itself spontaneously and reveals man as a savage beast to whom consideration towards his own kind is something alien.[13]

Freud believes that civilization’s raison d’être is the suppression of aggression, but since this aggression is natural and ever present, it is always fighting to be released. At the right moment, this aggression can explode into acts of unparalleled savagery. Any interpretation of this passage through the lens of modern European history has to see the obvious allusion to World War I (this is hinted at above when I said it is not hard to see where Freud was taking his argument), so it should come as no surprise when Freud uses “the horrors of the recent World War” as support for his claim in the very next sentence. In this view, the First World War was inevitable; in fact, this view sees all wars as inevitable. Although this viewpoint seems extreme, this is exactly the argument Freud is making. In other words, taking his argument to its logical conclusion is exactly what Freud wants us to do.


Yet, if civilization is implicated in so much human suffering, why are its “achievements” not also implicated?[14] Why, we might ask, is Freud not ready to disavow the Enlightenment principles in which he has so much faith? In a passing remark following a hypothesis on the death instinct, Freud cautions, “But this is how things appear to us now, in the present state of our knowledge; future research and reflection will no doubt bring further light which will decide the matter.”[15] In apparent disagreement with many of his contemporaries (and present-day scholars), Freud seems to think that bourgeois civilization made it out of the savagery of WWI unscathed. Faith in the “light” of the Enlightenment is evidently the only acceptable religion, what Freud himself defines, at least in part, as “the system of doctrines and promises which … explains to him the riddles of this world with enviable completeness.”[16] If faith in the Enlightenment is a religion, then, according Freud’s owns logic, “it must be classed among the mass-delusions of mankind. No one, needless to say, who shares a delusion ever recognizes it as such.”[17] Civilization may be defunct, but bourgeois civilization is alive and well.


I am not merely trying to be witty here. Freud’s contention is that “civilization is largely responsible for our misery, and that we should be much happier if we gave it up and returned to primitive conditions,”[18] yet he consistently calls upon civilization to assist him in his argument. Are we to interpret this as an error or an oversight, or is Freud simply trying to impress us? If “beauty has no obvious use; nor is there any clear necessity for it,”[19] then why does he defer to Goethe, the “great poet,” to sum up his points in Chapter Seven? Perhaps even more confusing, Freud ends the chapter with a paean to Goethe and other artists (in the general sense) in a paragraph that has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the chapter: “And we may well heave a sigh of relief at the thought that it is nevertheless vouchsafed to a few to salvage with out effort from the whirlpool of their own feelings the deepest truths, towards which the rest of us have to find our way through tormenting uncertainty and with restless groping.”[20] This paragraph is so out of place that I have to hope it leads to some larger, relevant point in the last chapter of the book. If it does not, then I have to read this nod to the archetypal practitioners of civilization as a gaping hole in Freud’s logic.


Alas, the random paragraph at the end of Chapter Seven does not lead to some larger point, but at least Freud apologizes for “empty stretches of road and troublesome détours.”[21] Onward.

Since I began my discussion of the book by analyzing the first sentence of the first paragraph, I thought it prudent to end the discussion by analyzing the first sentence of the last paragraph. However, the last paragraph contains several sentences worth looking at, so I will have to forgo the symmetry. In what are surely some of the best sentences of the book, Freud writes,

The fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction. It may be that in this respect precisely the present time deserves a special interest. Men have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent that with their help they would have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man.[22]

The specter of the First World War permeates this passage, and I do not think it is too much to say that it has a deep influence on Freud’s thoughts concerning civilization. Although he poses it as a question, it is clear that Freud does not think civilization can master human aggression. Look to the present, he says; that is, look to the cataclysm of World War I. Self-destruction is already under way. Civilization allows men to control nature, and men use that power to kill each other: proof that “civilization is largely responsible for out misery.”[23]

Civilization and Its Discontents is without doubt an exemplar of psychoanalysis applied to society, but it is also a pretty good lens into the European worldview in the aftermath of the First World War. It offers insights into views on nationalism, women, and bourgeois civilization, among many others. By reading then responding, I was able to look at each of the book’s chapters systematically and pull out what was relevant or interesting for the present discussion. I found this method very rewarding, as it forced me to read the text differently and freed me to write creatively. Using stream of consciousness (in a very loose sense) to write the paper was a huge gamble, and I cannot speak to the success of it just yet, but the imaginative reader would see the technique as an example of my writing instincts breaking free from the suppression imposed on them by the demands of academia. Maybe Freud was onto something after all.

[1] I have read Civilization and Its Discontents once before; hence the desire for new insights.

[2] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010), 23.

[3] Ibid., 25.

[4] Freud, 42.

[5] Freud, 51.

[6] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 2006).

[7] Freud, 58.

[8] Freud, 80.

[9] Ibid., 84.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Freud, 84.

[12] Ibid., 94-95.

[13] Ibid., 95.

[14] In Chapter Three, Freud writes that “the word ‘civilization’ describes the achievements and the regulations which distinguish our lives from those of our animal ancestors and which serve two purposes—namely to protect men against nature and to adjust their mutual relations.” Freud, 63.

[15] Ibid., 110.

[16] Freud, 39.

[17] Ibid., 51.

[18] Ibid., 58.

[19] Ibid., 53.

[20] Ibid., 129.

[21] Freud, 131.

[22] Ibid., 149.

[23] Ibid., 58.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s