Book review History Politics Psychology

Civilisation and Its Discontents. Sigmund Freud (1930)

In this long essay, Freud examines the puzzling phenomenon of individuals in civilised societies pointing to civilisation as the root of all evil. If you want to discover the meticulous, erudite, prescient scientist behind the caricature that Freud has become in contemporary culture – this succinct, clearly-reasoned analysis marrying history and psychology is a good starting-point.

Today most of us, including students of psychology, know Freud only at secondhand or thirdhand. We read of him in a subsection, in the chapter on Human Development, in our textbooks on Introduction to Psychology. We read his theory of the tripartite structure of personality (id-ego-superego) (in Greek, ego / εγώ means simply “I”); we read his emphasis on unconscious sexual and aggressive urges in explaining human behaviour; we read his theory of individual development as an account of the individual confronting a series of sexual conflicts. Encountering this reductio ad absurdum of Freud, I, as an undergraduate, dismissed Freud as a proponent of savage, unsavoury, depressing, unfalsifiable theories of human behaviour. I was wrong – as I’ve discovered since, reading Freud himself. If you want to discover the scientist behind the caricature that Freud has become in contemporary culture (becoming a caricature is inevitable for anyone so influential: think Einstein, Shakespeare, Beethoven) – the long essay Civilisation and Its Discontents is a good starting-point.

My acquaintance with Freud, speaking for himself, began in my early 20s with his [Case] Studies On Hysteria. 19th-century Europe was a bad time to be female, especially female upper-class. Inhuman and unscientific ideas about (the lack of) female sexuality imprisoned many women in lives narrow, infantilised, and intolerable: often leading to psychological illness. Hysteria was a popular form for this illness: psychological distress became manifest in primarily/exclusively physiological form. (Today, we call these psychosomatic/somatoform disorders.) Freud specialised in diagnosing and treating hysteria, adapting mesmerism (hypnotism) to the treatment of hysteria. Studies presents a handful of Freud’s cases, meticulously documented over the course of many months’ observation. Freud’s inference of the cause of hysteria was simple: At some point, the patient had undergone a trauma so great that the conscious mind could not face it; the trauma was buried in the unconscious; this buried trauma now ails the patient via tics, physiological discomfort, or nightmares. Freud’s plan of treatment was also intuitive: He hypnotised his patient to unearth the source of her trauma, thus nullifying it. A process simple in principle, difficult in practice. Case Studies documents Freud’s painstaking, precise, self-interrogatory approach; and the monumental attention to detail he brought to his scientific practice. (He began his career studying invertebrate physiology.)

Civilisation and Its Discontents is partly a response to treatises like British Marxist Edward Carpenter’s Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure (1889), which vilify civilisation as the greatest crime that humankind has perpetrated on itself, and which propose a return to the ‘noble savage’ life as the only path ahead. Espoused by intellectuals from D. H. Lawrence on, and still popular in liberal circles today, this ideological dismissal of civilisation is theoretically problematic, and pragmatically unconstructive. Lawrence’s own idea of a solution to civilisation was to take off with a few friends to an island, there to found a miniature utopia. The anthropological research on which the myth of the savage as noble, peaceful, and happy – e.g. Margaret Mead’s – has been intensively interrogated.

Freud’s project in this long essay is to identify the roots of the discontent that many of us feel in civilised societies today. (His essay is more relevant now than ever: now, when an epidemic of loneliness is sweeping the globe, and hundreds of millions of us feel alone in the crowd.)

Freud begins by analysing the appeal of religion to human emotion. Freud himself is a self-assured atheist; but he seriously entertains the idea that many people are susceptible to a feeling one of oneness with something much larger, which then furnishes one basis for religious sentiment. Freud acknowledges, too, that life is painful, and we need help to tolerate it: “There are perhaps three such measures: powerful deflections, which cause us to make light of our misery; substitute satisfactions, which diminish it; and intoxicating substances , which make us insensitive to it. Something of the kind is indispensable.” Freud acknowledges religion as a powerful set of defence mechanisms.

Next, Freud analyses the paths to happiness recommended by religion and philosophy: paths calling upon community service, pair-bonded love and family, and scientific/artistic creativity. He acknowledges that this last path is open to a minority of individuals. In contrast, the pathways to happiness offered by religion “are the same for every man, regardless of constitution.”

After laying this groundwork for a broader analysis of the nature of human discontent, Freud introduces in Section III of his essay the three major sources of human discontent: (a) nature; (b) our own bodies; (c) and other people. Freud identifies (c) as the most prominent origin of our discontent.

The observation that (1) most of our problems come from interpersonal conflicts within civilisation – has led many people to believe that civilisation is the source of all our problems, and to try to leave civilisation: paradoxically, armed with the same goods that civilisation has created (modern medicine and clothing; methods for food preservation; books and art). Freud identifies corollary observations that lead some people to this (to Freud) astonishing conclusion: (2) the myth that primitive peoples live conflict-free; and (3) the observation that technology has not solved every human problem, but has created new problems. Freud acknowledges the failures of technology, but reminds us that technological progress is not the only, or even the primary, criterion whereby we measure the achievements of a given civilisation.

Freud then gets to the heart of the matter: the reason civilisation causes discontent is that civilisation requires the individual to curb many of his easiest and most powerful sources of happiness: sex and aggression. Freud then proposes a theory of the origins of civilisation itself: astutely, and bespeaking his training as a biologist, Freud suggests that the human family began when the female was unable to provide for, and defend, her offspring alone. (Human family units are not unique in nature – e.g. nesting seabirds have them too – but the family unit of parents and children is uncommon in nature in general, including in mammals and even primates.) The male was then obliged to get involved in parenting; the male then policed his mate’s breeding.

Civilisation depends largely on the individual curbing his own sources of pleasure. Of course we’re dissatisfied. But the alternative of returning to savagery is an improbable fantasy.

Civilisation demands the curbing of our instincts: but how did this curbing occur? Freud proposes that the superego originated as a device whereby the individual redirects his instincts for aggression inwards. Instead of physically hurting each other, we mentally punish ourselves for violating social norms – violating them in reality, or even in fantasy. The superego becomes our internalised policeman that permits civilised interactions between independently rule-conforming individuals. In this development of the conscience, Freud presciently acknowledges the inextricable interplay of what scientists today call nature and nurture: “…this interaction of constitutional and environmental factors is a universal aetiological condition for all such purposes.”

Civilisation is a model for popular scientific writing. Freud lays out his argument clearly, develops each chain in his link of reasoning coherently and succinctly, refuses to draw any unsupported conclusions, acknowledges gaps in his own theories and in the state of the field, and acknowledges clarifies confusions regarding terms where – as is inevitable in the rapid development of a new field – they occur (e.g. between “superego” and “conscience”). Freud refuses to overstep his mandate as a scientist: after astutely analysing the reasons why many of us point to civilisation as an evil, Freud himself refuses to pronounce any value judgments about civilisation; and about whether civilisation is on the whole a force for good or for bad. Freud does end with a brief, ominous warning about the limited role of religious or secular ethics in controlling human behaviour: “So long as virtue is not rewarded here on earth, ethics will preach in vain… A real change in the relations of human beings to material possessions would be of more help [in directing human behaviour in fruitful and peaceable channels] than any ethical commands… An idealistic conception of human nature” has impeded our progress in moving towards peace and prosperity as a species.

Freud remains a landmark in psychology and culture. His analysis of the influence of unconscious and instinctual forces in human behaviour, society, and illness may technically be unfalsifiable – but remain powerful and appealing. And, in many cases, true. If we substitute “unconscious” with “non-conscious,” it remains true that most of the products of our cognitive processing remain permanently inaccessible to consciousness. We open our eyes. We see everything clearly. How do we see? Vision requires massive amounts of neural computation that humans and other creatures perform effortlessly, instantly, and accurately – tasks that artificial intelligence still struggles to perform. We see effortlessly – but all of our visual computation (just for example) remains nonconscious. Freud did science an enormous service by drawing our attention to what happens under the hood – his influence was a salutary counterweight to his roughly contemporaneous behaviourism (also useful, also limited).

If, as I did, you’ve dismissed Freud as a sex-obsessed, pessimistic, unscientific, obscurantist figure, and if you want to give Freud himself a chance – Civilisation and Its Discontents is a good place to start finding out just how wrong we were.

Read a free PDF of Civilisation and Its Discontents here.


By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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