Book Summaries Psychology

Civilization and its Discontents Summary (7/10)

The price we pay for the advancement of civilization is the heightening sense of guilt that we experience. In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud explains why we feel guilt, where it came from, and what consequences it has had on the individual.


Freud starts his inquiry by alluding to a shared reality among religious people, the overwhelming oceanic feeling that is often called God. Man’s attachment to god, according to Freud, is really a longing for father. Adults who believe in god are like infants in their need for reassurance and their shared fear of the superiority of fate.

“He who possesses art and science has religion; he who does not possess them, needs religion”


God acts as a soothing presence in a life that is too hard for us. With this life comes many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks. We need to find palliative measures to counteract this.

Freud mentions three such measures. Powerful deflections: humour to make light of our misery. Substitutive satisfactions: actions that diminish it. Intoxicating substances: drugs to make us insensitive to it.

An example of deflection is found in Voltaire’s Candide when it concludes with advice to cultivate one’s garden.

The Pleasure Principle

Freud’s pleasure principle states that what people want is to become happy and remain so. They want to avoid pain and experience strong feelings of pleasure. And the pleasure principle dominates the mental apparatus from the start. But this intention is not included in the plans of creation or in nature. there is no possibility of it being carried through.

Happiness cannot exist independently. We can only be happy after the experience of unhappiness. Without a contrast, we can not be happy. This means that we can never remain happy, it is not part of our nature.

“What we call happiness can only result from the satisfaction of needs that have been damned up to such a degree, and it is by its nature an episodic phenomenon. When any situation that is derived by the pleasure principle is prolonged, it only produces a feeling of mild contentment. We are so made that we can derive intense enjoyment only from a contrast and very little from a state of things.”

Our biological makeup forces us to contend with this reality. However, unhappiness is easy to experience. There are three ways in which we are aggressed upon by the world: The first is our own body that is prone to decay, the second is the external world which may destroy us at any moment, and the third is our relations to other people which may deteriorate or end.

The neurotic cares most of all about his emotional relationship to others, the narcissist is interested in his internal processes, while the man of action is focused on the external world. But it is unwise to put all your eggs in one basket, it is too risky to do so.

Similarly, man has recognized sex as the most gratifying love experience, but in doing so he has put far too much weight on his sexual object. This dependence on an external solution is dangerous, and we have been warned by the wise men of our age to avoid it. Rejection creates too much damage, while aim inhibited action protects man from the potential dangers of sexual love.

We think of love for mankind as the highest point we can achieve, but indiscriminate love is a problem since not everyone deserves love. Aim-inhibited love that exists between family members and friends solves the exclusiveness problem of instinctual love, while instinctual love leads to the creation of families.

Civilization aims to bring people together in large unities, but families will resist this – they will try to prevent man from integrating with the larger circle of life. Every young person’s task is the leave the family, but this is difficult. Often cultures have employed rituals and rites of passage to accommodate this painful transition.

Sexual Restriction

Freud differentiates between the role of women and men. The former represents the interests of love and family while the latter is in charge of civilizational life, and whatever energy man gives to cultural goals, he removes from the realm of romantic love. As a result, women become hostile towards civilization. Taboos, laws, and customs restrict sexual love, and the lack of economic freedom limits sexuality. The sexual life of civilized man is impaired, it is no longer a primary aim in life. Freud says this may be wrong, but it is hard to decide.

Psychoanalysis shows us that the neurotics cannot tolerate these frustrations of sexual life, and they end up creating substitutive satisfactions for themselves and their symptoms and these either become suffering in themselves or sources of suffering in their environment and society. The latter is easy to understand but the former is a more difficult problem.

We don’t know what it is that causes civilization to go this path, to have this animosity towards sex. There must be a danger that we have not yet considered.

Deserved Love

“Love thy neighbour as thyself”

Why? What good will it do? and how? If I love someone, they must deserve it. Freud reasons that there are two reasons to love someone. One, is that I see that they are like me in so many ways that I can love myself in them, and two, they are perfect so that I can love my ideal in them.

But if they are a stranger and they cannot attract me emotionally, it would be hard to love them. It would be wrong to do so since it is an injustice to those that I do love that I have put a stranger on par with them. More than that, not only are they undeserving of my love, but they deserve my hatred, since they wouldn’t hesitate to injure if the opportunity to presented itself to them. What is the point of universal love then?

“Love thy neighbour as thy neighbour love thee”

This is a better rule according to Freud. By nature, man does not seek love, he seeks aggression. When you look at history, you will see many examples of men like Genghis Khan, and wars like the world war. Our instinct for aggression wastes considerable resources, but it is an innate part of who we are. Society for this reason is always at risk of disintegrating since instincts always beat reasonable interests. The job of society is to restrict these aggressive instincts. One way is to restrict sexual life and to promote aim inhibited love.

The communists assume that people are good by nature and the creation of property has corrupted them, but we know this is false. Aggressive people have always existed, even in primitive times, and property has served as outlet for aggression to manifest itself. When very similar nations such as Spain and Portugal show their hatred to one another – what Freud called “the narcissism of minor differences” – we see another example of aggressive instincts being satisfied.

Civilized man exchanged part of his happiness for security. Neurosis is the result of the struggle between the libido and self-preservation.

Narcissism has made us understand that the ego too has libido – the ego is the headquarters of instinct. Narcissism transfers value to the self, but there is also object libido, and the two take turns. Transference may be the ego’s way of protecting itself from sexuality.

The Death Instinct

Besides the life instinct (Eros), there is the instinct of death (Thanatos). A part of the instinct is diverted towards the external world and exists as destructiveness. There is internal destruction that occurs more slowly, but the aggression that is projected outwards comes at the expense of self-destruction. Therefore, limiting external destruction will result in self-destruction.

Sadism is love with aggression directed outward while masochism is love or erotism with aggression directed inwards. When aggression is directed inwards, it is unnoticed unless it is merged with erotism.

People usually doubt the existence of the death instinct and this is not surprising. Even children protest at the idea. It is difficult to grasp the death instinct, we have to imagine it lurking in the background behind Eros. Sadism can fulfil the death instinct without Eros and be accompanied with narcissistic enjoyment, fulfilling the ego’s wish for omnipotence. When the instinct of destruction is directed towards objects, it satisfies the ego, and give it a feeling of control over nature.

The inclination towards aggression is an instinct and is the greatest impediment to civilization. Civilization serves Eros, which tries to create more people, and man’s natural aggression opposes this program. We don’t know why Eros exists, it simply does. The struggle between Eros and Thanatos characterizes the eternal battle in life, it is the battle of the giants.

But what happens when someone tried to get rid of aggression? His aggression is internalized, it is not go away. It is directed towards his own ego and is then taken over by the part of his ego that relates to his superego. And the tension between the harsh ego and the superego creates a sense of guilt. It is expressed as the need for punishment. Civilization achieves its goal by weakening the individual’s ego, it makes people feel guilty when they do something they know is bad – even the intention alone can cause feelings of guilt.

We cannot say that we naturally know what is bad. What is bad is sometimes desirable to the ego, and not injurious to it. Man’s helplessness and dependence on others will make him succumb to what is good because he is afraid of punishment. What is bad is whatever threatens loss of love, and this also explains why there is no distinction in the amount of guilt one feels when he either manifests a bad action or merely thinks about doing so. It is the fear of loss of love, and it is social anxiety that results from being caught in the act. In children, it is fear of losing parental love, and in adults, it is the loss of social love that is dreaded.

The superego is the internal manifestation of the social authority. It creates anxiety within. The most virtuous people are the ones who have the most potent and violent superego.

Temptations are increased when man is abstinent yet satisfying the urge only momentarily reduces its intensity.   

Fortune and the Superego

Freud tells us that the extent of the power of the superego depends on fortune. When a man is fortunate, he is absent of the superego. But when man is misfortunate, his superego takes over, and he becomes extremely vigilant. When man is unfortunate, he interprets his fate as one where he is no longer loved by the highest power, and without this love, he looks for its representative in the superego – the same superego he neglected when things were going well.  

At first, when the social authority was what man feared, it was enough to renounce satisfaction to avoid punishment by an authority. But when the fear of the superego, this renunciation is not enough since the wish itself to transgress cannot be concealed from the superego – this leads to guilt.

It is not that all men behave this way. The Israelites, despite god’s continuous punishments only blamed themselves, whereas primitive man blames the object for not giving him what he wants. Primitive man does blame himself.

But for civilized man, the renunciation of instinct will relieve one from guilt from authority, but it will not relieve him of guilt altogether. In that sense, it no longer has a positive effect. The superego will cause man to be eternally unhappy and this problem can no longer be solved by an external authority. And there is a vicious cycle that man should contend with. The more you renounce, the more you will feel guilty, and this will lead to more renunciation. Conscience is the result of instinctual renunciation.

The superego transfers anxiety to the ego – think of the aggressive instinct, every instance of aggression given up is taken by superego and used against the ego – the child has internalized the father, the authority. A child’s aggressiveness depends on the amount of punitive aggression he expects of his father, a leniently brought up child can acquire a strict conscience, but it is easy to see that the severity of parenting can influence the emergence of a powerful superego.

The Oedipus Complex

Man’s sense of guilt stems from the Oedipus complex, the killing of the father by the brothers banded together in primitive times, a phenomenon Freud suspects did occur frequently. It was an act of aggression that wasn’t supressed but carried out.

The same act of aggression that was supressed in the child is supposed to be the source of his guilt. It makes no difference whether when kills his father or not, one is guilty no matter what. Remorse after killing father came from feeling love and hate towards father, Eros and Thanatos – this was the origin of conscience. Since this pattern repeated in the next generation, the sense of guilt was carried fort. Guilt results from the eternal struggle between Eros and Thanatos.  

Guilt isn’t just in the subconscious, it appears in consciousness as a guilty conscience. People have an unconscious need for punishment. Some people aren’t aware of their sense of guilt, they only feel it as a sense of uneasiness or anxiety before doing certain things –  the degree to which people are aware of their guilt is variable.

Sometimes, anxiety is so apparent that consciousness is consumed by it, other times, it is part of the subconscious and is not detectable by the consciousness. Religion have taken advantage of this sense of guilt, since they claim to redeem man from sin.

Freud’s Summary

The superego is an agency that we have ascribed, it watches and judges the ego. it censors the ego. Guilt is the result of the ego fearing the superego’s watchfulness. The need for punishment is an instinctual manifestation of the ego that is masochistic. It is the ego performing an erotic attachment to the superego. The sense of guilt predates the superego and conscience too. It is a recognition of the tension between the ego and the superego. One guilt comes from fear of external authority, the other from internal authority. Remorse contains the anxiety that operates behind the sense of guilt, it is a punishment, and can even include the need for punishment.

At one point, the sense of guilt was the aggression that was abstained from. But at another point (the killing of the father), it came from carrying out the act. The superego altered the situation. Before that, guilt coincided with remorse. The omniscience of the superego eliminated the distinction between violence carried out and violence intended. Guilt from an evil deed is conscious, but guilt from an evil impulse is unconscious.

The energy of the superego carries the energy of the external authority, and/or it is using the aggression that was not used up. Closer reflection has reconciled this apparent contradiction. In each case we are dealing with an aggressiveness that was displaced inwards. Generally, they operate in unison. Any kind of frustration, or thwarted self-satisfaction results in heightening the sense of guilt. How can we account for unfulfilled erotic demand?

“Neurosis comes from unconscious sources of guilt. When an instinct is repressed, its libidinal elements turned into symptoms, its aggressive components into a sense of guilt.”

While Eros vs Thanatos is an old idea, it is fundamental to understanding the development the civilization and the psyche. It is a general characteristic of life, but it fails to address the specifics.

Egoism (happiness) and altruism (the need for social cohesion) are what underlies the development of the individual. The aim of happiness is pushed to the background by civilizational demands. In fact, the civilization does not care about individual happiness. The individual tries to satisfy both urges. But we can see that the urge to personal happiness and union with other human beings result in a constant struggle. The struggle between the individual and society is a dispute within the economics of the libido – how sexual energy is distributed.

The community also evolved a superego that oversees cultural development. The superego is the remnant of the personalities of great leaders with great minds, men who have found in themselves the most one-sided expression. These figures were often badly treated. The figure of Jesus Christ is an example.

The cultural superego and the personal superego set strict demands. The contents of the subconscious that arouses guilt in the individual, if risen to the surface, will be the same as that seen in society. Ethics should be thought as a therapeutic attempt, by means of the superego, something that has not been achieved by any other cultural activities, to limit aggression. But the question is how to get rid of man’s predisposition towards aggression in the first place?

The criticisms of the superego according to Freud is that it takes no account of man’s happiness, the ego’s happiness. It is best to try to lower the demands of the superego, then. The cultural superego also doesn’t care about the mental well-being of man. It merely commands without caring about whether it is possible for man to obey it, it assumes that man’s ego can do anything, that his ego has unlimited control over the id. But this is a mistake, if more is demanded of man, a neurosis will develop, and he will become unhappy.

The assumption is that the civilizational path is a good one, but we don’t know what consequences it will have on the individual, and whether he will be able to tolerate these consequences.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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