R. Gray
German 390/Comp. Lit. 396/Engl 363/CHID 498/JSIS 488/Lit 298

"Freud and the Literary Imagination"

Lecture Notes: Civilization and Its Discontents

I. Background

  1. Written 1929, published 1930. German title: Das Unbehagen in der Kultur.
    -- Unbehagen
    : "Malaise," a sense of uneasiness, dissatisfaction, vauge "discontent."
    -- Kultur: A more encompassing term than English "civilization"; includes science, technology, art society, etc. All human cultural achievements and advancements.

    First World War as defining experience for Freud and his contemporaries. WWI as the first technologically advanced war, with the use of tanks, poison gas, etc. Death became anonymous in the trenches, mass killing took place for the first time in this war. This experience generated a new sense of pessimism about the human being and human nature.

    -- Freud himself represents a profoundly pessimistic point of view in this treatise. He transfers the intra-psychic conflict (between ego and id; pleasure principle and reality principle; unconscious and conscious mind; etc.) that he had analyzed in his psychoanalytical writings over to the domain of human civilization. Civilization itself comes to be defined as a space of conflict, or as an extension into cultural community of the tensions that stigmatize the individual psyche. In this sense Freud shares in a general cultural pessimism, or anti-modernism, a kind of skepticism about the accomplishments of civilization, that is typical of this period.
  2. In 1927 Freud had published The Future of an Illusion, in which he criticized organized religion and religiosity in general as a mass delusion, a compensatory escape from the realities of existence.
    -- This text sets the stage for Civilization insofar as it marks a first extension of a psychoanalytic problematic into the general sphere of shared culture.
    -- Freud also begins Civilization by countering an objection to Future of an Illusion made by his friend, the French writer and critic Romain Rolland. Rolland agrees with Freud about the illusory nature of religion, but he maintains that humans share a common feeling of innate religiosity. Rolland calls this an "oceanic" feeling in which the individual feels bonded with the entire world and the whole human race. It is a sense of oneness, boundlessness, limitlessness.
    -- Freud acknowledges the existence of this "oceanic" feeling, but for him it does not bespeak an innate religiosity. Instead, he explains it by turning to psychoanalytic experience.
    -- Boundlessness, oneness, a sense of union with the entire world Freud identifies with infantile narcissism. This is the stage that, according to Freud, all infants go through immediately after birth until about the second or third year of life. In this stage, the child is pure ego and does not yet distinguish between the subjective self and an objective outside world.
    -- This state of absolute narcissism, in which the ego subsumes the world in its entirety, is not broken until the infant realizes that it cannot satisfy its own demands—it recognizes its reliance on others and an objective world on the basis of lack or the experience of unfulfillment. The world emerges as an "other," in short, only as a negative experience for the child: as the impossibility of satisfaction, a disruption of the demand for pleasure, as a threat and as something painful. The objective world for Freud is always nothing other than the object of desire, and it makes its presence known by the fact that the ego cannot satisfy its own desire, but that this satisfaction must come from elsewhere, from an other that the ego cannot control.
    -- The "religious" feeling described by Rolland Freud interprets as a psychic remnant of this initial infantile narcissism. He notes that it is not uncommon for such remnants of previous stages of one's psychic development to remain as part of the psyche even after this stage as such has been superseded. The "oceanic" feeling is just such a psychic remnant of our narcissistic ego. (See Freud Reader pp. 724-25)
    -- Freud concludes that the source of religious feeling is not simply the memory of primary narcissism; rather, for him it derives from the helplessness of the infant, its need for protection by a stronger, more powerful force. Hence religions project their gods typically as father figures, who are allusions to the desire for such a protective figure. (See Freud Reader 727)

II. Re-Articulation of the Pleasure Principle

A. Double-sided nature of the pleasure principle:

    1. In its positive manifestation, the pleasure principle simply names the egoistic drive for the satisfaction of all our demands; it is a drive to gain pleasure.
      -- But we quickly realize that the external world and the demands of others interfere and prevents the satisfaction of many of our desires—enter the Reality Principle, our awareness that our demands cannot all be met.
    2. This leads to a second, negative expression of the pleasure principle; the attempt to avoid displeasure as much as possible.
      -- We thus learn to renounce desires or demands that cannot be met, since this causes us less displeasure than giving in to the desire and having it left unsatisfied.

B. Palliative Measures: Strategies that help us avoid life’s miseries:

    1. Deflections: we re-channel our demands and desires into areas where they can more easily be satisfied. In this category Freud includes scientific activity or other forms of professional achievement. These are paths of least resistance. (Closest connection to reality.)
    2. Substitutive Satisfactions: these are forms of compensation for lack of pleasure elsewhere. Here Freud includes all forms of illusion, including religious fervor, fantasy, escape into art, etc. These overlap with what Freud elsewhere refers to as "fantasy."
    3. Intoxication: we escape our displeasure by forgetting it, shunting it aside and turning to things like alcohol, drugs, etc. Here we treat the symptoms (our displeasure itself), not the causes (the reasons for our displeasure). As strategies of avoidance and denial, these can increase the real displeasure they are intended to circumvent. (Farthest from reality.)

Typical responses to this need for pleasure and protection from displeasure:

1) retreat, asceticism, life of the "monk"; killing off the instincts;
2) go on the attack = the person of action, the politician, reformer, etc.; controlling the instincts;
3) displacement or sublimation = finding pleasure through substitute sources over which one has better control, such as scientific work, scholarship, etc.; substitute satisfactions, exchanging inhibited avenue for one more easily achieved;
4) escape into illusions = fantasy, religion, drugs, etc.;
5) adopting an "aesthetic" attitude = cultivating a love of beauty (essentially another substitutive satisfaction), art; a particular mode for finding satisfaction = finding what is beautiful in the world, seeing the "positive" side of everything;
6) embracing or transforming the world, turning to philanthropy and other forms of caritative engagement with the world and society = turning Eros into Caritas, general love and care for humanity; working to improve reality so that it generates fewer possibilities of displeasure for all.

III. Civilization: Learning to "sip" rather than "guzzle"!

CIVILIZATION: strategy for renouncing powerful individual pleasures whose occurrence is unpredictable and sporadic in favor of more constant but less intensive pleasures. Instead of being "episodic" and appearing by chance, pleasure can be managed and controlled--like having a full cupboard or pantry to which you can turn whenever you have a need to be stilled.

In the economy of pleasure, we sacrifice intensity (binge drinking!) in favor of more limited but constant pleasures.


Civilization itself as a mechanism or tactic for the re-distribution of pleasure;
-- not only in economy of individual pleasure, but also
-- more equal distribution of pleasure among individuals;
-- demands compromises in our innate ego-centrism. (Freud Reader 752)

We learn both to SHARE and to HOARD for later use.

IV. The Three Sources of Human Suffering

  1. The human body: it is feeble, weak; we are mortal; the body causes us pain.
  2. The world: the superiority of nature; natural catastrophes; our inability to control nature; nature as necessity.
  3. Social relations: society, social legislation, other human beings—all of these also limit the satisfaction of our pleasure
    1. Of these 3 sources, the first 2 seem unavoidable; we cannot overcome the frailty of our bodies, and we will never control nature completely.
    2. But the third category, social relations, seems as though it should be under human control. We cannot explain why we cannot dispense with social suffering, why we cannot regulate our social interactions in such a way that they do not avoid the greatest displeasure for all.
    3. This leads Freud to one of his central hypotheses: The reason why we cannot dispense with social displeasure is because a piece of nature lies behind social conflict. (See Freud Reader p. 735) In other words, our social compacts are not determined simply by reason, but are also by a function and manifestation of our instincts. The conflict that arises for us as social conflict is a reflection of the tensions that structure the human psyche. We cannot escape social conflict because it is merely a re-iteration on the communal level of the psychic conflicts of the individual. Nature, in short, remains the common denominator of all our sources of pain.
    4. This will lead Freud to the formulation of a new thesis: the existence of an aggressive instinct that parallels and complements our other primary instinct, the libidinal drive.

V. Civilization as a Source of Our Unhappiness, Our Malaise or Discontent

  1. Paradox: Civilization, although its purpose would seem to be amelioration of human misery and suffering, is actually partially responsible for that suffering, according to Freud. This explains our subliminal hostility toward civilization.
  2. 1) What is the purpose of civilization?
    a. It protects humans from nature, provides a line of defense
    b. It adjusts and regulates the mutual relations among human beings; it establishes conventions for our organization and interaction.
    c. But aside from these more pragmatic, utilitarian aspects, civilization also promotes things that seems useless: e.g. beauty (art), order, rules of cleanliness, etc. In short, civilization also produces "luxuries." It enhances the "quality of life."

    2) What are the negative aspects of civilization that cause it to produce unhappiness?
    a. The power of the individual is sacrificed to the power of the group; strong individuals find that they are marginalized and must make greater concessions. (Here Freud alludes to a prominent Nietzschean thematic: the subordination of the powerful individual to the norm of a morality sanctioned by the weak for their own protection.)
    b. Civilization diminishes the liberty and freedom of the individual. We mistakenly believe that social institutions promote and protect our liberties, but in fact they limit them and hence are the cause of considerable displeasure.
    c. The conditions of civilization demand from us renunciation of instinct; as we know from Freud's theory, this is the most difficult thing for human beings to do because we are inherently egocentric and driven toward the satisfaction of our instincts. Moreover, Freud believes these renunciations can come back to haunt us; they can recur in pathological forms as the "return of the repressed."
    d. Civilization places limitations on sexuality; it not only dictates what forms of sexual expression are "permissible," and censors all others, but it even places strict restrictions on the forms of sexuality it allows. E.g., society insists on monogamy, faithfulness to a single partner, it limits sexual expression according to gender roles, etc.
    Bottom line: When humans enter into social bonds and the strictures of civilization, they sacrifice a portion of their happiness in the interest of greater security. Note how this is essentially an economic decision: we trade immediate gratification for long-term stability. In other words, we renounce pleasure in one large and intensive "payment" and opt instead for pleasure on the installment plan, spread out in smaller increments over a longer period of time.
    According to Freud, all of this leads to a sense of what he calls "cultural frustration": we feel inhibited, limited by our accession to culture. What civilization and the management of our drives and instincts offers us, in short, is a greater degree of predictability, and this helps compensate for the renunciations we have to make.

VI. How Does Civilization Emerge?

  1. Eros and Ananke, love and necessity, as the parents of civilization.
    1. The family as germinal unit of society develops out of the wish to remove the element of chance from genital satisfaction; the primitive father demands the constant presence of the mother and compensates her by providing stable satisfaction of her material, existential needs.
    2. Caritas, or generalized love of humanity at large, emerges as a strategy for avoiding the down-side of exclusive love. Love not only provides us with the greatest satisfactions, but it also makes us more vulnerable than any other emotion. To avoid or minimize this vulnerability, we invest our erotic impulses into multiple objects. Note once again Freud's economic thinking: even in love we hedge our bets, protect ourselves from erotic bankruptcy by, as it were, diversifying our erotic portfolio.
    3. Civilization also emerges out of totemic culture on the basis of the strategic union of the weaker sons against the power and authority of the father. The banding together of the sons, their subordination of their mutual hostilities for the purpose of a strategic alliance against the father, is one of the first acts of civilization. Note how in this conception civilization emerges from a negative, aggressive impulse; the war of all against all, that constitutes the state of nature, is suspended solely in order to dethrone a mutual and more powerful "enemy."

B. Eros and Thanatos, Love and Death, Affection and Aggression

1) Freud revises his theory of the instincts; where he had previously focused primarily on libidinal drives (Eros), he now acknowledges what he calls the "aggressive instinct," which he associates with the god of death, Thanatos. Freud had earlier opposed those who postulated the existence of an aggressive instinct and resisted the acceptance of this notion; in his later writings (after WWI), however, he reluctantly comes to accept this hypothesis.



interhuman bonding

fragmentation, dissolution of bonds

love and "caritas"




drive for integration

war of all against all

2) Freud conceives of civilization–in parallel to his conception of the individual psyche–as a product of the struggle between these two fundamental instincts. Civilization itself, thus, is "conflicted," the product of antagonistic drives and impulses. The types of civilization that arise can reflect different blends of these two drives, so that societies themselves, or cultures, might be seen to have a particular or peculiar psychologically determined "character."

VII. The Aggressive Instinct and the Generation of the Super-Ego

A. Freud returns in the context of the aggressive instinct to his deliberations on the super-ego and contemplates three different possible developmental origins for this psychic agency whose sole purpose (as conscience) is the discipline and punishment of the ego.

1) The super-ego represents the introjection into the psyche of an external authority figure, especially the father or the parents in general. This thesis is consistent with what Freud theorizes in the context of his discussion of the Oedipus complex and its dissolution.

2) The super-ego develops as the internalization of those aggressive instincts that one cannot successfully turn outward.
-- The economy of the psyche demands that instincts can never be dispelled but only diverted or re-directed. Since civilization forces us to check and repress our aggressive instinct, those instinctual impulses that are suppressed are turned against the ego itself. These internally directed aggressions become the basis for the super-ego and its ego-punishment.
-- The more aggression that is diverted inward, the greater the power of the super-ego becomes. That explains why often those who are least inclined to immoral acts are also those who are most severely punished by their own conscience.
-- Note that for Freud all drive are bi-directional, can be either externally or internally oriented; those impulses that can not be directed against outside objects can be turned inward against the self, and vice versa.

3) Freud admits that these 2 possibilities seems potentially contradictory. To suspend this contradiction he suggests that the first and second reflexes are actually both operative and work in tandem with one another, making the super-ego even more powerful. He then suggests that it is perhaps not so much introjection of external authority, as in thesis 1, whose introjection explains the relationship between the ego and external disciplinary figures, but perhaps simply the aggression the ego senses against the father (or parents) that cannot be directed at its true object, and hence turns inward against the ego, that is responsible for this relationship. Thus Freud essentially fuses thesis 1 and thesis 2 to form thesis 3 about the generation of the super-ego. It arises both from introjection of external authority and from the internalization of aggression against that authority.

For a graphic that depicts the growth of the super-ego based on these 3 sources, click here.

B. The Super-Ego and the Sense of "Guilt".

    1) The theory of the super-ego explains why we feel guilty not only for misdeeds we actually commit, but for the simple intention of committing some misdeed, without ever carrying through on this intention.
    -- Guilt is produced by the super-ego as that internal psychic control mechanism that serves the interests of civilization by suppression our aggressive instincts.
    -- We feel guilty for the very wish or desire to do evil.

    2) We must distinguish remorse from guilt. Remorse we feel after committing some unacceptable deed. Guilt does not require action, but merely the thought or intention of carrying out that act. Remorse is after the fact; guilt is before, or in absence of the fact.

    3) Freud concludes by asking why our dissatisfaction with civilization, which inhibits our instinctual life and ultimately becomes, in the form of the super-ego, our most severe tyrant and taskmaster, expresses itself merely as a vague feeling of malaise.
    -- His answer: Because it is a form of psychic anxiety, and like all anxiety it is unconscious, not recognized or even recognizable directly, because it is repressed and censored.

    4) The price of human accession to civilization, according to Freud, is thus that we become civilized at the price of sacrificing a degree of our egoistic happiness and succumbing to a pervasive sense of guilt. This is what constitutes our "discontent" with civilization, despite the obvious benefits it brings us.

VIII. Implications of and Critical Observations on this Theory

A. The conflict with civilization transforms our psyche into a masochistic mechanism bent on punishment and disciplining of the ego.
-- This distinguishes fundamentally the super-ego from its earlier theoretical formulations, such as the censoring mechanism of the "pre-conscious."

B. The super-ego is not an innate psychic agency, it is not an original part of the psyche at birth. It is not given a priori, as are the unconscious (the id) and the ego.
-- The super-ego is a derivative psychic function, produced by the tensions between the individual ego and the disciplinary mechanisms of the society with which it must interact.

C. This tends to de-universalize Freud’s theory, since the super-ego is not a universally uniform psychic agency, as are id and ego, but rather a psychic construct that varies according to the societal context with which it is confronted.

D. This suggests—and perhaps this is what Freud means when he talks briefly at the conclusion of Civilization about "cultural neuroses"—that different types of societies will produce different forms of super-egos. For example: Has the U.S. become a "paranoid" society after 9/11? What about things like Nazi Germany, with the "Gestapo"? Can such an oppressive institution transform the social super-ego, maker it more "repressive"? The "roaring 20s" as a pleasure-seeking society?