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Civilization and Its Discontents

Civilization and Its Discontents

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2016 Reprint of the American Edition of 1930. In this seminal book, Sigmund Freud enumerates the fundamental tensions between civilization and the individual. The primary friction stems from the individual's quest for instinctual freedom and civilization's contrary demand for conformity and instinctual repression. Many of humankind's primitive instincts (for example, the desire to kill and the insatiable craving for sexual gratification) are clearly harmful to the well-being of a human community. As a result, civilization creates laws that prohibit killing, rape, and adultery, and it implements severe punishments if such commandments are broken. This process, argues Freud, is an inherent quality of civilization that instills perpetual feelings of discontent in its citizens.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393059953
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 01/28/2005
Series: Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Series
Edition description: The Standard Edition
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 956,545
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) is one of the twentieth century's greatest minds and the founder of the psychoanalytic school of psychology. His many works include The Ego and the Id; An Outline of Psycho-Analysis; Inhibitions; Symptoms and Anxiety; New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis; Civilization and Its Discontent, and others.

Louis Menand, professor of English at Harvard University, is the author of The Metaphysical Club, which won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in History. A longtime staff writer for The New Yorker, he lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Peter Gay is the author of more than twenty-five books, including the National Book Award winner The Enlightenment, the best-selling Weimar Culture, and the widely translated Freud: A Life for Our Time. He lives in New York City.

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Civilization and Its Discontents

By Sigmund Freud, Joan Riviere, THOMAS CROFTS

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1994 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-81201-4


The impression forces itself upon one that men measure by false standards, that everyone seeks power, success, riches for himself and admires others who attain them, while undervaluing the truly precious things in life. And yet, in making any general judgment of this kind, one is in danger of forgetting the manifold variety of humanity and its mental life. There are certain men from whom their contemporaries do not withhold veneration, although their greatness rests on attributes and achievements which are completely foreign to the aims and ideals of the multitude. One might well be inclined to suppose that after all it is only a minority who appreciate these great men, while the majority cares nothing for them. But the discrepancy between men's opinions and their behaviour is so wide and their desires so many-sided that things are probably not so simple.

One of these exceptional men calls himself my friend in his letters to me. I had sent him my little book which treats of religion as an illusion and he answered that he agreed entirely with my views on religion, but that he was sorry I had not properly appreciated the ultimate source of religious sentiments. This consists in a peculiar feeling, which never leaves him personally, which he finds shared by many others, and which he may suppose millions more also experience. It is a feeling which he would like to call a sensation of eternity, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded, something "oceanic." It is, he says, a purely subjective experience, not an article of belief; it implies no assurance of personal immortality, but it is the source of the religious spirit and is taken hold of by the various Churches and religious systems, directed by them into definite channels, and also, no doubt, used up in them. One may rightly call oneself religious on the ground of this oceanic feeling alone, even though one reject all beliefs and all illusions.

These views, expressed by my friend whom I so greatly honour and who himself once in poetry described the magic of illusion, put me in a difficult position. I cannot discover this "oceanic" feeling in myself. It is not easy to deal scientifically with feelings. One may attempt to describe their physiological signs. Where that is impossible — I am afraid the oceanic feeling, too, will defy this kind of classification — nothing remains but to turn to the ideational content which most readily associates itself with the feeling. If I have understood my friend aright, he means the same thing as that consolation offered by an original and somewhat unconventional writer to his hero, contemplating suicide: "Out of this world we cannot fall." So it is a feeling of indissoluble connection, of belonging inseparably to the external world as a whole. To me, personally, I may remark, this seems something more in the nature of an intellectual judgment, not, it is true, without any accompanying feeling-tone, but with one of a kind which characterizes other equally far-reaching reflections as well. I could not in my own person convince myself of the primary nature of such a feeling. But I cannot on that account deny that it in fact occurs in other people. One can only wonder whether it has been correctly interpreted and whether it is entitled to be acknowledged as the fons et origo of the whole need for religion.

I have nothing to suggest which could effectively settle the solution of this problem. The idea that man should receive intimation of his connection with the surrounding world by a direct feeling which aims from the outset at serving this purpose sounds so strange and is so incongruous with the structure of our psychology that one is justified in attempting a psycho-analytic, that is, genetic explanation of such a feeling. Whereupon the following lines of thought present themselves. Normally there is nothing we are more certain of than the feeling of our self, our own ego. It seems to us an independent unitary thing, sharply outlined against everything else. That this is a deceptive appearance, and that on the contrary the ego extends inwards without any sharp delimitation, into an unconscious mental entity which we call the id and to which it forms a façade, was first discovered by psycho-analytic research, and the latter still has much to tell us about the relations of the ego to the id. But towards the outer world, at any rate, the ego seems to keep itself clearly and sharply outlined and delimited. There is only one state of mind in which it fails to do this — an unusual state, it is true, but not one that can be judged as pathological. At its height, the state of being in love threatens to obliterate the boundaries between ego and object. Against all the evidence of his senses, the man in love declares that he and his beloved are one, and is prepared to behave as if it were a fact. A thing that can be temporarily effaced by a physiological function must also of course be liable to disturbance by morbid processes. From pathology we have come to know a large number of states in which the boundary line between ego and outer world become uncertain, or in which they are actually incorrectly perceived — cases in which parts of a mans own body, even component parts of his own mind, perceptions, thoughts, feelings, appear to him alien and not belonging to himself; other cases in which a man ascribes to the external world things that clearly originate in himself, and that ought to be acknowledged by him. So the ego's cognizance of itself is subject to disturbance, and the boundaries between it and the outer world are not immovable.

Further reflection shows that the adults sense of his own ego cannot have been the same from the beginning. It must have undergone a development, which naturally cannot be demonstrated, but which admits of reconstruction with a fair degree of probability. When the infant at the breast receives stimuli, he cannot as yet distinguish whether they come from his ego or from the outer world. He learns it gradually as the result of various exigencies. It must make the strongest impression on him that many sources of excitation, which later on he will recognize as his own bodily organs, can provide him at any time with sensations, whereas others become temporarily out of his reach — amongst these what he wants most of all, his mothers breast — and reappear only as a result of his cries for help. Thus an object first presents itself to the ego as something existing outside, which is only induced to appear by a particular act. A further stimulus to the growth and formation of the ego, so that it becomes something more than a bundle of sensations, i.e., recognizes an outside, the external world, is afforded by the frequent, unavoidable and manifold pains and unpleasant sensations which the pleasure-principle, still in unrestricted domination, bids it abolish or avoid. The tendency arises to dissociate from the ego everything which can give rise to pain, to cast it out and create a pure pleasure-ego, in contrast to a threatening outside, not-self. The limits of this primitive pleasure-ego cannot escape readjustment through experience. Much that the individual wants to retain because it is pleasure-giving is nevertheless part not of the ego but of an object; and much that he wishes to eject because it torments him yet proves to be inseparable from the ego, arising from an inner source. He learns a method by which, through deliberate use of the sensory organs and suitable muscular movements, he can distinguish between internal and external — what is part of the ego and what originates in the outer world — and thus he makes the first step towards the introduction of the reality-principle which is to control his development further. This capacity for distinguishing which he learns of course serves a practical purpose, that of enabling him to defend himself against painful sensations felt by him or threatening him. Against certain painful excitations from within, the ego has only the same means of defence as that employed against pain coming from without, and this is the starting-point of important morbid disturbances.

In this way the ego detaches itself from the external world. It is more correct to say: Originally the ego includes everything, later it detaches from itself the external world. The ego-feeling we are aware of now is thus only a shrunken vestige of a far more extensive feeling — a feeling which embraced the universe and expressed an inseparable connection of the ego with the external world. If we may suppose that this primary ego-feeling has been preserved in the minds of many people — to a greater or lesser extent — it would co-exist like a sort of counterpart with the narrower and more sharply outlined ego-feeling of maturity, and the ideational content belonging to it would be precisely the notion of limitless extension and oneness with the universe — the same feeling as that described by my friend as "oceanic." But have we any right to assume that the original type of feeling survives alongside the later one which has developed from it?

Undoubtedly we have: there is nothing unusual in such a phenomenon, whether in the psychological or in other spheres. Where animals are concerned, we hold the view that the most highly developed have arisen from the lowest. Yet we still find all the simple forms alive today. The great saurians are extinct and have made way for the mammals, but a typical representative of them, the crocodile, is still living among us. The analogy may be too remote, and it is also weakened by the fact that the surviving lower species are not as a rule the true ancestors of the present-day more highly developed types. The intermediate members have mostly died out and are known to us only through reconstruction. In the realm of mind, on the other hand, the primitive type is so commonly preserved alongside the transformations which have developed out of it that it is superfluous to give instances in proof of it. When this happens, it is usually the result of a bifurcation in development. One quantitative part of an attitude or an impulse has survived unchanged while another has undergone further development.

This brings us very close to the more general problem of conservation in the mind, which has so far hardly been discussed, but is so interesting and important that we may take the opportunity to pay it some attention, even though its relevance is not immediate. Since the time when we recognized the error of supposing that ordinary forgetting signified destruction or annihilation of the memory-trace, we have been inclined to the opposite view that nothing once formed in the mind could ever perish, that everything survives in some way or other, and is capable under certain conditions of being brought to light again, as, for instance, when regression extends back far enough. One might try to picture to oneself what this assumption signifies by a comparison taken from another field. Let us choose the history of the Eternal City as an example. Historians tell us that the oldest Rome of all was the Roma quadrata, a fenced settlement on the Palatine. Then followed the phase of the Septimontium, when the colonies on the different hills united together; then the town which was bounded by the Servian wall; and later still, after all the transformations in the periods of the republic and the early Caesars, the city which the Emperor Aurelian enclosed by his walls. We will not follow the changes the city went through any further, but will ask ourselves what traces of these early stages in its history a visitor to Rome may still find today, if he goes equipped with the most complete historical and topographical knowledge. Except for a few gaps, he will see the wall of Aurelian almost unchanged. He can find sections of the Servian rampart at certain points where it has been excavated and brought to light. If he knows enough — more than present-day archaeology — he may perhaps trace out in the structure of the town the whole course of this wall and the outline of Roma quadrata. Of the buildings which once occupied this ancient ground-plan he will find nothing, or but meagre fragments, for they exist no longer. With the best information about Rome of the republican era, the utmost he could achieve would be to indicate the sites where the temples and public buildings of that period stood. These places are now occupied by ruins, but the ruins are not those of the early buildings themselves but of restorations of them in later times after fires and demolitions. It is hardly necessary to mention that all these remains of ancient Rome are found woven into the fabric of a great metropolis which has arisen in the last few centuries since the Renaissance. There is assuredly much that is ancient still buried in the soil or under the modern buildings of the town. This is the way in which we find antiquities surviving in historic cities like Rome.

Now let us make the fantastic supposition that Rome were not a human dwelling-place, but a mental entity with just as long and varied a past history: that is, in which nothing once constructed had perished, and all the earlier stages of development had survived alongside the latest. This would mean that in Rome the palaces of the Caesars were still standing on the Palatine and the Septizonium of Septimius Severus was still towering to its old height; that the beautiful statues were still standing in the colonnade of the Castle of St. Angelo, as they were up to its siege by the Goths, and so on. But more still: where the Palazzo Caffarelli stands there would also be, without this being removed, the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, not merely in its latest form, moreover, as the Romans of the Caesars saw it, but also in its earliest shape, when it still wore an Etruscan design and was adorned with terra-cotta antifixae. Where the Coliseum stands now, we could at the same time admire Nero's Golden House; on the Piazza of the Pantheon we should find not only the Pantheon of today as bequeathed to us by Hadrian, but on the same site also Agrippa's original edifice; indeed, the same ground would support the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva and the old temple over which it was built. And the observer would need merely to shift the focus of his eyes, perhaps, or change his position, in order to call up a view of either the one or the other.

There is clearly no object in spinning this fantasy further; it leads to the inconceivable, or even to absurdities. If we try to represent historical sequence in spatial terms, it can only be done by juxtaposition in space; the same space will not hold two contents. Our attempt seems like an idle game; it has only one justification; it shows us how far away from mastering the idiosyncrasies of mental life we are by treating them in terms of visual representation.

There is one objection, though, to which we must pay attention. It questions our choosing in particular the past history of a city to liken to the past of the mind. Even for mental life, our assumption that everything past is preserved holds good only on condition that the organ of the mind remains intact and its structure has not been injured by traumas or inflammation. Destructive influences comparable to these morbid agencies are never lacking in the history of any town, even if it has had a less chequered past than Rome, even if, like London, it has hardly ever been pillaged by an enemy. Demolitions and the erection of new buildings in the place of old occur in cities which have had the most peaceful existence; therefore a town is from the outset unsuited for the comparison I have made of it with a mental organism.

We admit this objection; we will abandon our search for a striking effect of contrast and turn to what is after all a closer object of comparison, the body of an animal or human being. But here, too, we find the same thing. The early stages of development are in no sense still extant; they have been absorbed into the later features for which they supplied the material. The embryo cannot be demonstrated in the adult; the thymus gland of childhood is replaced after puberty by connective tissue but no longer exists itself; in the marrow-bone of a grown man I can, it is true, trace the outline of the childish bone-structure, but this latter no longer survives in itself — it lengthened and thickened until it reached its final form. The fact is that a survival of all the early stages alongside the final form is only possible in the mind, and that it is impossible for us to represent a phenomenon of this kind in visual terms.


Excerpted from Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud, Joan Riviere, THOMAS CROFTS. Copyright © 1994 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Sigmund Freud: A Brief Chronology
Translator’s Note

Civilization and its Discontents (1930)

Appendix A: Other Works of Freud

  1. From “‘Civilized’ Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Disease” (March 1908)
  2. From “Thought for the Times on War and Death” (1915)
  3. From Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920)
  4. From The Future of an Illusion (1927)
  5. From Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, Why War? (1932)
  6. From Moses and Monotheism (1939)

Appendix B: Contemporary Reviews of Civilization and Its Discontents

  1. E. G. Catlin, “Freud No Freudian” Saturday Review (27 September 1930)
  2. Joseph Jastrow, “Unhappiness Psycho-Analyzed” Saturday Review of Literature (6 December 1930)
  3. Harold D. Lasswell, “Review: Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud,” American Journal of Sociology (September 1931)

Appendix C: Scholarly Responses to Civilization and Its Discontents

  1. Herbert Marcuse, “The Dialectic of Civilization” (1955)
  2. Philip Rieff, “Freud & the Value of Religion” (1959)
  3. Paul Ricoeur, “On Metaculture & ‘Death Against Death’” (1970)

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Civilization and Its Discontents 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
GaryWolf on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The impact of Sigmund Freud on contemporary Western thought can hardly be underestimated. Many of the key "psychological" terms we employ can be traced back to his writing. Although fascinating and often insightful, much of his influence has been destructive, providing comfort and a scientific imprimatur for a large portion of the anti-Western diatribes of the last generation.Let us first dispose of several misconceptions that have clouded the popular image of this brilliant thinker. To begin with, Freud is no touchy-feely, tree-hugging, crystal-gazing therapist from Vermont. He is a hardened observer of human nature, quite Hobbesian, convinced that aggression and unbounded self-interest are primary factors in the motivation of human behavior. He mocks those who preach unlimited love, as well as those who would coddle criminals. His views on women would shock many an unsuspecting feminist.Likewise, Freud is clear in his opposition to utopian political schemes, such as communism. He writes that the Marxist view of private property is based on a fallacy:"The psychological premises on which the [communist] system is based are an untenable illusion. In abolishing private property we deprive the human love of aggression of one of its instruments, certainly a strong one, though certainly not the strongest; but we have in no way altered the differences in power and influence which are misused by aggressiveness, nor have we altered anything in its nature. Aggressiveness was not created by property."It is quite possible that Freud's psychoanalytic treatment of mentally ill individuals, or even of merely miserable ones, has proven to be highly effective. This is arguable, but it belongs to another discussion. Let us give him the benefit of the doubt, and say that his contribution in this field was worthy of his reputation.The problem begins where psychoanalysis ends and the development of a comprehensive theory of human society begins. Percolating throughout his writing is a misapplication of concepts from the psychology of the individual to the level of civilization--which, incidentally, is one of Freud's favorite words. For example, take the notion of guilt, which he claims is the "most important problem in the development of civilization." Guilt certainly has a role to play in our lives, and the shedding of unnecessary guilt goes a long way to ameliorating one's peace of mind, but the most important problem?Freud's highly influential work, "Civilization and Its Discontents," abounds with such sweeping, grandiose statements, the applicability of which seldom extends further than the Viennese café in which he was seated when the epiphany struck him. Here's another one:"Civilization is a process in the service of Eros, whose purpose is to combine single human individuals, and after that families, then races, peoples and nations, into one great unity, the unity of mankind. Why this has to happen, we do not know; the work of Eros is precisely this. These collections of men are to be libidinally bound to one another."One might think that the study of aesthetics could somehow rise above the fray of the battling instinct gods, but this also is traced back to the shadowy domain of individual impulses:"All that seems certain is [beauty's] derivation from the field of sexual feeling. The love of beauty seems a perfect example of an impulse inhibited in its aim. `Beauty' and `attraction' are originally attributes of the sexual object. It is worth remarking that the genitals themselves, the sight of which is always exciting, are nevertheless hardly ever judged to be beautiful..."One could easily imagine this being said by a character in a film by Fellini, in a scene satirizing the mumbo-jumbo of ivory tower academics.Freud's remarks on religion, which he holds in the highest contempt, are indicative of an abysmal ignorance. He claims that religion derives from the "infant's helplessness and the longing for the father aroused by it." Other factors
Torikton on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The single most important book I've ever read.
justine on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Classic Freud where he extends his psychological theory from the individual's development toward a universal theory of cultural development.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I must say this is a real good book. I mean you best to read his other Standard Edition books to get a better understanding of things if you don't know my=uch on psychology but very easy to understand
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