Book Notes: Civilization and Its Discontents

Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud

My Opening Commentary:
Despite many of Freud’s theories and methodologies having not aged well, it doesn’t discount the fact that Freud was an exceptional analyst of human experience. Many of his analyses remain quite insightful and intriguing despite their clinical limitations.

If nothing else, Freud was at least honest and thorough. His breadth of knowledge is impressively on display throughout this book along with his depth of understanding of the human condition.

In this book, Freud identifies a number of potential sources of happiness and offers reasons for why some sources may be more or less legitimate and effective for certain people, yet he offers no universal prescription for how to attain happiness. He explores variations and consistencies of happiness yet seems much more interested in how evolutionary-biological and social forces create conditions of happiness across modern human life rather than how individuals can become happier.

He ultimately defends civilization and cultural evolution (essentially as better than the alternative) yet in the end he makes clear that he does not intend to assign an absolute, indisputable value to civilization.

Overall Freud’s positions in Civilization are generally exploratory and non-committal, although he does happen to write quite decisively about one thing: love. He seems to appoint love as the supreme value of human experience and is very clear about it being elemental to happiness, and while he makes sure to note the limitations of love he simultaneously shows how love’s natural limitations make it all the more valuable.


[Disclaimer:  This is not meant to be a book summary or book review. This is just stuff in the book that I found personally valuable or interesting at the time of reading. Most of these “notes” are actually highlights, i.e. directly copied lines from the book, but some notes are personal adaptations or added personal insights.]


– 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.

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.

– So the ego’s cognizance of itself is subject to disturbance, and the boundaries between it and the outer world are not immovable.

– [Man] 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.

[Reality Principle: maturity beyond the Pleasure Principle, particularly by means of delaying gratification]

– Perhaps we ought to be content with the assertion that what is past in the mind can survive and need not necessarily perish.

– The derivation of a need for religion from the child’s feeling of helplessness and the longing it evokes for a father seems to me incontrovertible, especially since this feeling is not simply carried on from childhood days but is kept alive perpetually by the fear of what the superior power of fate will bring.

I could not point to any need in childhood so strong as that for a father’s protection.

– The derivation of the religious attitude can be followed back in clear outline as far as the child’s feeling of helplessness. There may be something else behind this, but for the present it is wrapped in obscurity.

– That feeling of oneness with the universe which is its ideational content sounds very like a first attempt at the consolations of religion, like another way taken by the ego of denying the dangers it sees threatening it in the external world. I must again confess that I find it very difficult to work with these intangible quantities.

– That a solicitous Providence is watching over him and will make up to him in a future existence for any shortcomings in this life … The ordinary man cannot imagine this Providence in any other form but that of a greatly exalted father, for only such a one could understand the needs of the sons of men, or be softened by their prayers and placated by the signs of their remorse. …

The whole thing is so patently infantile, so incongruous with reality, that to one whose attitude to humanity is friendly it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life. It is even more humiliating to discover what a large number of those alive today, who must see that this religion is not tenable, yet try to defend it inch by inch, as if with a series of pitiable rearguard actions.

– Quoted poem (Goethe):

He who has Science and has Art, Religion, too, has he; Who has not Science, has not Art, Let him religious be!

– There are perhaps three of these means [of palliative remedies / auxillary constructions]: powerful diversions of interest, which lead us to care little about our misery; substitutive gratification, which lessen it; and intoxicating substances, which make us insensitive to it. Something of this kind is indispensable.

Voltaire is aiming at a diversion of interest when he brings his Candide to a close with the advice that people should cultivate their gardens; scientific work is another deflection of the same kind.

[Diversion of interest = life engagements (ie meaningful or purposeful activities; eg work) so as to ignore or override a tendency toward of suffering ]

The substitute gratifications, such as art offers, are illusions in contrast to reality, but none the less satisfying to the mind on that account, thanks to the place which phantasy has reserved for herself in mental life.

[Substitute gratifications = Engagement of pleasurable or enjoyable objects or activities (eg technologies and hobbies); pursuit of gratifying experiences that counterbalance experiences of suffering]

The intoxicating substances affect our body, alter its chemical processes.

[Intoxicating substances = consumption-based means of altering the mind and body, particularly in the form of medicine, drugs, and alcohol, and to a lesser extent food & drink (so as to temporarily neurochemically satisfy, or more specifically to directly & acutely alleviate unwanted sensations and emotions by ‘pleasurable numbing’)]

– Only religion is able to answer the question of the purpose of life. One can hardly go wrong in concluding that the idea of a purpose in life stands and falls with the religious system. [Sense of purpose being its ultimate appeal and function, and why religion persists beyond evidence & reason / No other fields will produce the “oceanic” feeling or a universal sense of purpose]

– We will turn, therefore, to the less ambitious problem: what the behaviour of men themselves reveals as the purpose and object of their lives, what they demand of life and wish to attain in it…

The answer to this can hardly be in doubt: they seek happiness, they want to become happy and to remain so.

There are two sides to this striving, a positive and a negative; it aims on the one hand at eliminating pain and discomfort, on the other at the experience of intense pleasures. In its narrower sense, the word happiness relates only to the last.

Thus human activities branch off in two directions — corresponding to this double goal — according to which of the two they aim at realizing, either predominantly or even exclusively.

– As we see, it is simply the pleasure-principle which draws up the programme of life’s purpose. This principle dominates the operation of the mental apparatus from the very beginning; there can be no doubt about its efficiency, and yet its programme is in conflict with the whole world, with the macrocosm as much as with the microcosm.

– When any condition desired by the pleasure-principle is protracted, it results in a feeling only of mild comfort; we are so constituted that we can only intensely enjoy contrasts, much less intensely states in themselves. Our possibilities of happiness are thus limited from the start by our very constitution.

Suffering comes from three quarters: from our own body, which is destined to decay and dissolution, and cannot even dispense with anxiety and pain as danger-signals; from the outer world, which can rage against us with the most powerful and pitiless forces of destruction; and finally from our relations with other [people].

The unhappiness which has this last origin we find perhaps more painful than any other; we tend to regard it more or less as a gratuitous addition, although it cannot be any less an inevitable fate than the suffering that proceeds from other sources.

– It is no wonder if, under the pressure of these possibilities of suffering, humanity is wont to reduce its demands for happiness, just as even the pleasure-principle itself changes into the more accommodating reality-principle under the influence of external environment; if a man thinks himself happy if he has merely escaped unhappiness or weathered trouble; if in general the task of avoiding pain forces that of obtaining pleasure into the background.

Reflection shows that there are very different ways of attempting to perform this task; and all these ways have been recommended by the various schools of wisdom in the art of life and put into practice by men.

– Voluntary loneliness, isolation from others, is the readiest safeguard against the unhappiness that may arise out of human relations. We know what this means: the happiness found along this path is that of peace. Against the dreaded outer world one can defend oneself only by turning away in some other direction, if the difficulty is to be solved single-handed. [But to be sure, isolation can have ill effects across the board.]

There is indeed another and better way: that of combining with the rest of the human community and taking up the attack on nature, thus forcing it to obey human will, under the guidance of science. One is working, then, with all for the good of all.

But the most interesting methods for averting pain are those which aim in influencing the organism itself. In the last analysis, all pain is but sensation; it only exists in so far as we feel it, and we feel it only in consequence of certain characteristics of our organism.

The crudest of these methods of influencing the body, but also the most effective, is the chemical one: that of intoxication. I do not think anyone entirely understands their operation, but it is a fact that there are certain substances foreign to the body which, when present in the blood or tissues, directly cause us pleasurable sensations, but also so change the conditions of our perceptivity that we become insensible of disagreeable sensations.

– It is not merely the immediate gain in pleasure which one owes to [intoxicating substances], but also a measure of that independence of the outer world which is so sorely craved. Men know that with the help they can get from “drowning their cares” they can at any time slip away from the oppression of reality and find a refuge in a world of their own where painful feelings do not enter.

We are aware that it is just this property which constitutes the danger and injuriousness of intoxicating substances. In certain circumstances they are to blame when valuable energies which could have been used to improve the lot of humanity are uselessly wasted.

The gratification of instincts is happiness, but when the outer world lets us starve, refuses us satisfaction of our needs, they become the cause of very great suffering.

So the hope is born that by influencing these impulses one may escape some measure of suffering. This type of defence against pain no longer relates to the sensory apparatus; it seeks to control the internal sources of our needs themselves.

– When only control of the instincts is sought…the higher mental systems which recognize the reality-principle have the upper hand. The aim of gratification is by no means abandoned in this case; a certain degree of protection against suffering is secured, in that lack of satisfaction causes less pain when the instincts are kept in check than when they are unbridled.

On the other hand, this brings with it an undeniable reduction in the degree of enjoyment obtainable. The feeling of happiness produced by indulgence of a wild, untamed craving is incomparably more intense than is the satisfying of a curbed desire. The irresistibility of perverted impulses, perhaps the charm of forbidden things generally, may in this way be explained economically.

– Another method of guarding against pain is by using the libido-displacements that our mental equipment allows of, by which it gains so greatly in flexibility.

The task is then one of transferring the instinctual aims into such directions that they cannot be frustrated by the outer world…

Sublimation of the instincts lends an aid in this. Its success is greatest when a man knows how to heighten sufficiently his capacity for obtaining pleasure from mental and intellectual work. Fate has little power against him then.

This kind of satisfaction, such as the artist’s joy in creation, in embodying his phantasies, or the scientist’s in solving problems or discovering truth, has a special quality which we shall certainly one day be able to define metapsychologically.

The weak point of this method, however, is that it is not generally applicable; it is only available to the few. It presupposes special gifts and dispositions which are not very commonly found in a sufficient degree. And even to these few it does not secure complete protection against suffering; it gives no invulnerable armour against the arrows of fate, and it usually fails when a man’s own body becomes a source of suffering to him.

– At the head of these phantasy-pleasures stands the enjoyment of works of art which through the agency of the artist is opened to those who cannot themselves create. [In today’s terms, entertainment (especially in television, film, media [including social media]) is the substitute for art as means of pleasure-by-fantasy.]

Yet art [and entertainment] affects us but as a mild narcotic and can provide no more than a temporary refuge for us from the hardships of life; its influence is not strong enough to make us forget real misery.

– The hermit turns his back on this world; he will have nothing to do with it…

But one can do more than that; one can try to re-create it, try to build up another instead, from which the most unbearable features are eliminated and replaced by others corresponding to one’s own wishes.

He who in his despair and defiance sets out on this path will not as a rule get very far; reality will be too strong for him. He becomes a madman and usually finds no one to help him in carrying through his delusion.

– How would it be possible to forget this way of all others of practising the art of life! It is conspicuous for its remarkable capacity to combine characteristic features. Needless to say, it, too, strives to bring about independence of fate—as we may best call it—and with this object it looks for satisfaction within the mind, and uses the capacity for displacing libido which we mentioned before, but it does not turn away from the outer world; on the contrary, it takes a firm hold of its objects and obtains happiness from an emotional relation to them. Nor is it content to strive for avoidance of pain—that goal of weary resignation; rather it passes that by heedlessly and holds fast to the deep-rooted, passionate striving for a positive fulfilment of happiness. …

Perhaps it really comes nearer to this goal than any other method…

I am speaking, of course, of that way of life which makes love the centre of all things and anticipates all happiness from loving and being loved.

– One of the forms in which love manifests itself, sexual love, gives us our most intense experience of an overwhelming pleasurable sensation and so furnishes a prototype for our strivings after happiness.

What is more natural than that we should persist in seeking happiness along the path by which we first encountered it?

The weak side of this way of living is clearly evident; and were it not for this, no human being would ever have thought of abandoning this path to happiness in favour of any other. We are never so defenceless against suffering as when we love, never so forlornly unhappy as when we have lost our love-object or its love. But this does not complete the story of that way of life which bases happiness on love; there is much more to be said about it.

– We may here go on to consider the interesting case in which happiness in life is sought first and foremost in the enjoyment of beauty, wherever it is to be found by our senses and our judgment, the beauty of human forms and movements, of natural objects, of landscapes, of artistic and even scientific creations. As a goal in life, this aesthetic attitude offers little protection against the menace of suffering, but it is able to compensate for a great deal.

There is no very evident use in beauty; the necessity of it for cultural purposes is not apparent, and yet civilization could not do without it. … Beauty and attraction are first of all the attributes of a sexual object.

The goal towards which the pleasure-principle impels us — of becoming happy — is not attainable; yet we may not — nay, cannot—give up the effort to come nearer to realization of it by some means or other.

Very different paths may be taken towards [happiness]: some pursue the positive aspect of the aim, attainment of pleasure; others the negative, avoidance of pain. By none of these ways can we achieve all that we desire.

[Freud is basically saying we can’t have it all: we have biological and cultural limits, and thus we will never experience full pleasure and zero pain for any extended period of time – yet this does not mean we shouldn’t try to be happy.]

There is no sovereign recipe [for becoming happy] which suits all; each one must find out for himself by which particular means he may achieve felicity.

All kinds of different factors will operate to influence his choice. It depends on how much real gratification he is likely to obtain in the external world, and how far he will find it necessary to make himself independent of it; finally, too, on the belief he has in himself of his power to alter it in accordance with his wishes [self-efficacy]. Even at this stage the mental constitution of the individual will play a decisive part, aside from any external considerations.

– When any choice [in pursuing happiness] is pursued to an extreme, it penalizes itself, in that it exposes the individual to the dangers accompanying any one exclusive life-interest which may always prove inadequate.

Just as a cautious businessman avoids investing all his capital in one concern, so wisdom would probably admonish us also not to anticipate all our happiness from one quarter alone.

Success is never certain; it depends on the co-operation of many factors, perhaps on none more than the capacity of the mental constitution to adapt itself to the outer world and then utilize this last for obtaining pleasure.

– One last possibility of dealing with life remains to such people and it offers them at least substitute-gratifications; it takes the form of the flight into neurotic illness, and they mostly adopt it while they are still young. Those whose efforts to obtain happiness come to nought in later years still find consolation in the pleasure of chronic intoxication, or else they embark upon that despairing attempt at revolt—psychosis.

– Religion circumscribes these measures of choice and adaptation by urging upon everyone alike its single way of achieving happiness and guarding against pain. Its method consists in decrying the value of life and promulgating a view of the real world that is distorted like a delusion, and both of these imply a preliminary intimidating influence upon intelligence.

At such a cost — by the forcible imposition of mental infantilism and inducing a mass-delusion — religion succeeds in saving many people from individual neuroses. But little more.

When the faithful find themselves reduced in the end to speaking of God’s inscrutable decree, they thereby avow that all that is left to them in their sufferings is unconditional submission as a last-remaining consolation and source of happiness. And if a man is willing to come to this, he could probably have arrived there by a shorter road.

There are, as we have said, many paths by which the happiness attainable for man can be reached, but none which is certain to take him to it.

– If we cannot abolish all suffering, yet a great deal of it we can, and can mitigate more; the experience of several thousand years has convinced us of this.

– We come across a point of view which is so amazing that we will pause over it. According to it, our so-called civilization itself is to blame for a great part of our misery, and we should be much happier if we were to give it up and go back to primitive conditions. I call this amazing because—however one may define culture—it is undeniable that every means by which we try to guard ourselves against menaces from the several sources of human distress is a part of this same culture.

How has it come about that so many people have adopted this strange attitude of hostility to civilization? In my opinion, it arose from a background of profound long-standing discontent with the existing state of civilization, which finally crystallized into this judgment as a result of certain historical happenings.

– As a result of voyages of discovery, men came into contact with primitive peoples and races. To the Europeans, who failed to observe them carefully and misunderstood what they saw, these people seemed to lead simple, happy lives —wanting for nothing — such as the travellers who visited them, with all their superior culture, were unable to achieve.

Later experience has corrected this opinion on many points; in several instances the ease of life was due to the bounty of nature and the possibilities of ready satisfaction for the great human needs, but it was erroneously attributed to the absence of the complicated conditions of civilization.

– It was found that [people] become neurotic because they cannot tolerate the degree of privation that society imposes on them in virtue of its cultural ideals, and it was supposed that a return to greater possibilities of happiness would ensue if these standards were abolished or greatly relaxed.

– [In favor of civilization, denouncing the argument for embracing primitive nature] Is it not then a positive pleasure, an unequivocal gain in happiness, to be able to hear, whenever I like, the voice of a child living hundreds of miles away, or to know directly a friend of mine arrives at his destination that he has come well and safely through the long and troublesome voyage? And is it nothing that medical science has succeeded in enormously reducing the mortality of young children, the dangers of infection for women in childbirth, indeed, in very considerably prolonging the average length of human life?

– Future ages will produce further great advances in this realm of culture, probably inconceivable now, and will increase man’s likeness to a god still more. But with the aim of our study in mind, we will not forget, all the same, that the human being of today is not happy with all his likeness to a god.

– The benefits of order are incontestable: it enables us to use space and time to the best advantage, while saving expenditure of mental energy.

– Beauty is an instance which plainly shows that culture is not simply utilitarian in its aims, for the lack of beauty is a thing we cannot tolerate in civilization.

– The first requisite of culture, therefore, is justice—that is, the assurance that a law once made will not be broken in favour of any individual.

– Sublimation of instinct is an especially conspicuous feature of cultural evolution; this it is that makes it possible for the higher mental operations, scientific, artistic, ideological activities, to play such an important part in civilized life.

– This [point] seems most important of all…

it is impossible to ignore the extent to which civilization is built up on renunciation of instinctual gratifications, the degree to which the existence of civilization presupposes the non-gratification (suppression, repression, or something else?) of powerful instinctual urgencies. This cultural privation dominates the whole field of social relations between human beings; we know already that it is the cause of the antagonism against which all civilization has to fight.

It is not easy to understand how it can become possible to withhold satisfaction from an instinct. Nor is it by any means without risk to do so; if the deprivation is not made good economically, one may be certain of producing serious disorders.

– [On cultural evolution] The life of human beings in common therefore had a twofold foundation, i.e., the compulsion to work, created by external necessity, and the power of love, causing the male to wish to keep his sexual object, the female, near him, and the female to keep near her that part of herself which has become detached from her, her child.

From one ethical standpoint, the deeper motivation of which will later become clear to us, this inclination towards an all-embracing love of others and of the world at large is regarded as the highest state of mind of which man is capable.

I will not withhold the two principal objections we have to raise against this view. A love that does not discriminate seems to us to lose some of its own value, since it does an injustice to its object. And secondly, not all men are worthy of love.

The love that instituted the family still retains its power; in its original form it does not stop short of direct sexual satisfaction, and in its modified form, as aim-inhibited friendliness, it influences our civilization. In both these forms it carries on its task of binding men and women to one another, and it does this with greater intensity than can be achieved through the interest of work in common.

– We have seen that culture obeys the laws of psychological economic necessity in making the restrictions, for it obtains a great part of the mental energy it needs by subtracting it from sexuality.

– A bit of truth… — one so eagerly denied — is that men are not gentle, friendly creatures wishing for love, who simply defend themselves if they are attacked, but that a powerful measure of desire for aggression has to be reckoned as part of their instinctual endowment.

– The existence of this tendency to aggression which we can detect in ourselves and rightly presume to be present in others is the factor that disturbs our relations with our neighbours and makes it necessary for culture to institute its high demands.

Civilized society is perpetually menaced with disintegration through this primary hostility of men towards one another. Their interests in their common work would not hold them together; the passions of instinct are stronger than reasoned interests. Culture has to call up every possible reinforcement in order to erect barriers against the aggressive instincts of men and hold their manifestations in check by reaction-formations in men’s minds.

– I have no concern with any economic criticisms of the communistic system; I cannot enquire into whether the abolition of private property is advantageous and expedient. But I am able to recognize that psychologically it is founded on an untenable illusion. … To be sure, if an attempt is made to base this fight upon an abstract demand for equality for all in the name of justice, there is a very obvious objection to be made, namely, that nature began the injustice by the highly unequal way in which she endows individuals physically and mentally, for which there is no help.

– If civilization requires such sacrifices, not only of sexuality but also of the aggressive tendencies in mankind, we can better understand why it should be so hard for men to feel happy in it.

In actual fact, primitive man was better off in this respect, for he knew nothing of any restrictions on his instincts. As a set-off against this, his prospects of enjoying his happiness for any length of time were very slight.

– Civilized man has exchanged some part of his chances of happiness for a measure of security. We will not forget, however, that in the primal family only the head of it enjoyed this instinctual freedom; the other members lived in slavish thraldom. The antithesis between a minority enjoying cultural advantages and a majority who are robbed of them was therefore most extreme in that primeval period of culture.

With regard to the primitive human types living at the present time, careful investigation has revealed that their instinctual life is by no means to be envied on account of its freedom; it is subject to restrictions of a different kind but perhaps even more rigorous than is that of modern civilized man.

– In rightly finding fault, as we thus do, with our present state of civilization for so inadequately providing us with what we require to make us happy in life, and for the amount of suffering of a probably avoidable nature it lays us open to — in doing our utmost to lay bare the roots of its deficiencies by our unsparing criticisms, we are undoubtedly exercising our just rights and not showing ourselves enemies of culture.

– In all that follows, I take up the standpoint that the tendency to aggression is an innate, independent, instinctual disposition in man, and I come back now to the statement that it constitutes the most powerful obstacle to culture.

The natural instinct of aggressiveness in man, the hostility of each one against all and of all against each one, opposes this program of civilization. This instinct of aggression is the derivative and main representative of the death instinct we have found alongside of Eros (the life instinct), sharing his rule over the earth.

And now, it seems to me, the meaning of the evolution of culture is no longer a riddle to us. It must present to us the struggle between Eros and death, between the instincts of life and the instincts of destruction, as it works itself out in the human species.

This struggle is what all life essentially consists of and so the evolution of civilization may be simply described as the struggle of the human species for existence.

– What happens in [individuals] to render [their] craving for aggression innocuous? Something very curious, that we should never have guessed and that yet seems simple enough. The aggressiveness is introjected, internalized; in fact, it is sent back where it came from, i.e., directed against the ego…

It is there taken over by a part of the ego that distinguishes itself from the rest as a super-ego, and now, in the form of conscience, exercises the same propensity to harsh aggressiveness against the ego that the ego would have liked to enjoy against others. The tension between the strict superego and the subordinate ego we call the sense of guilt; it manifests itself as the need for punishment.

Civilization, therefore, obtains the mastery over the dangerous love of aggression in individuals by enfeebling and disarming it and setting up an institution within their minds to keep watch over it, like a garrison in a conquered city.

– (On a sense of guilt) An extraneous influence is evidently at work; it is this that decides what is to be called good and bad. Since their own feelings would not have led men along the same path, they must have had a motive for obeying this extraneous influence.

It is easy to discover this motive in man’s helplessness and dependence upon others; it can best be designated the dread of losing love. If he loses the love of others on whom he is dependent, he will forfeit also their protection against many dangers, and above all he runs the risk that this stronger person will show his superiority in the form of punishing him.

What is bad is, therefore, to begin with, whatever causes one to be threatened with a loss of love; because of the dread of this loss, one must desist from it.

We call this state of mind (in the earliest stage of guilt) a bad conscience but actually it does not deserve this name, for at this stage the sense of guilt is obviously only the dread of losing love, social anxiety. …

In a little child it can never be anything else, but in many adults too it has only changed in so far as the larger human community takes the place of the father or of both parents. Consequently, such people habitually permit themselves to do any bad deed that procures them something they want, if only they are sure that no authority will discover it or make them suffer for it; their anxiety relates only to the possibility of detection.1 Present-day society has to take into account the prevalence of this state of mind. A great change takes place as soon as the authority has been internalized by the development of a super-ego.

– As long as things go well with a man, his conscience is lenient and lets the ego do all kinds of things; when some calamity befalls, he holds an inquisition within, discovers his sin, heightens the standards of his conscience, imposes abstinences on himself and punishes himself with penances.

Fate is felt to be a substitute for the agency of the parents: adversity means that one is no longer loved by this highest power of all, and, threatened by this loss of love, one humbles oneself again before the representative of the parents in the super-ego which in happier days one had tried to disregard.

– Hence we know of two sources for feelings of guilt: that arising from the dread of authority and the later one from the dread of the super-ego. …

The first one compels us to renounce instinctual gratification; the other presses over and above this towards punishment, since the persistence of forbidden wishes cannot be concealed from the super-ego.

– The chronological sequence would thus be as follows: first, instinct-renunciation due to dread of an aggression by external authority—this is, of course, tantamount to the dread of loss of love, for love is a protection against these punitive aggressions. Then follows the erection of an internal authority, and instinctual renunciation due to dread of it — that is, dread of conscience.

– It comes to this, that the formation of the super-ego and the development of conscience are determined in part by innate constitutional factors and in part by the influence of the actual environment; and that is in no way surprising — on the contrary, it is the invariable aetiological condition of all such processes.

– Guilt is the expression of the conflict of ambivalence, the eternal struggle between Eros and the destructive or death instinct. This conflict is engendered as soon as man is confronted with the task of living with his fellows; as long as he knows no other form of life in common but that of the family, it must express itself in the Oedipus complex, cause the development of conscience, and create the first feelings of guilt.

When mankind tries to institute wider forms of communal life, the same conflict continues to arise — in forms derived from the past—and intensified so that a further reinforcement of the sense of guilt results. Since culture obeys an inner erotic impulse which bids it bind mankind into a closely-knit mass, it can achieve this aim only by means of its vigilance in fomenting an ever-increasing sense of guilt. That which began in relation to the father ends in relation to the community.

[My intention of writing at length about the sense of guilt] is to represent the sense of guilt as the most important problem in the evolution of culture, and to convey that the price of progress in civilization is paid in forfeiting happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt.

In most types and forms of neurosis guilt remains completely unconscious, without its effect being any less great, however. …

Here perhaps is the place to remark that at bottom the sense of guilt is nothing but a topographical variety of anxiety, and that in its later phases it coincides completely with the dread of the super-ego.

The relation of anxiety to consciousness, moreover, is characterized by the same extraordinary variations. Somewhere or other there is always anxiety hidden behind all symptoms; at one moment, however, it sweeps into consciousness, drowning everything else with its clamour, and at the next it secretes itself so completely that we are forced to speak of unconscious anxiety — or if we want to have a cleaner conscience psychologically, since anxiety is after all only a perception — of possibilities of anxiety.

Consequently it is very likely that the sense of guilt produced by culture is not perceived as such and remains to a great extent unconscious, or comes to expression as a sort of uneasiness or discontent for which other motivations are sought.

– We indeed have drawn our conclusions, from the way in which in Christianity this salvation is won — the sacrificial death of one who therewith takes the whole of the common guilt of all upon himself — about the occasion on which this primal sense of guilt was first acquired, that is, the occasion which was also the inception of culture.

So then it is, after all, only the aggression which is changed into guilt, by being suppressed and made over to the super-ego.

– The symptoms of neurosis, as we have learned, are essentially substitutive gratifications for unfulfilled sexual wishes. In the course of our analytic work we have found to our surprise that perhaps every neurosis masks a certain amount of unconscious sense of guilt, which in its turn reinforces the symptoms by exploiting them as punishment.

One is now inclined to suggest the following statement as a possible formulation: when an instinctual trend undergoes repression, its libidinal elements are transformed into symptoms and its aggressive components into a sense of guilt. Even if this statement is only accurate as an approximation, it merits our interest.

– The development of the individual is ordered according to the program laid down by the pleasure-principle, namely, the attainment of happiness, and to this main objective it holds firmly; the incorporation of the individual as a member of a community, or his adaptation to it, seems like an almost unavoidable condition which has to be filled before he can attain this objective of happiness.

If he could achieve it without fulfilling this condition, it would perhaps be better. To express it differently, we may say: Individual development seems to us a product of the interplay of two trends, the striving for happiness, generally called egoistic, and the impulse towards merging with others in the community, which we call altruistic.

So in every individual the two trends, one towards personal happiness and the other towards unity with the rest of humanity, must contend with each other; so must the two processes of individual and of cultural development oppose each other and dispute the ground against each other.

– The super-ego of any given epoch of civilization originates in the same way as that of an individual; it is based on the impression left behind them by great leading personalities, [people] of outstanding force of mind, or [people] in whom some one human tendency has developed in unusual strength and purity, often for that reason very disproportionately.

The cultural superego, just like that of an individual, sets up high ideals and standards, and that failure to fulfill them is punished by both with anxiety of conscience.

– Ethics does in fact deal predominantly with the point which is easily seen to be the sorest of all in any scheme of civilization.

Ethics must be regarded, therefore, as a therapeutic effort: as an endeavor to achieve something through the standards imposed by the super-ego which had not been attained by the work of civilization in other ways.

In our investigations and our therapy of the neuroses we cannot avoid finding fault with the super-ego of the individual on two counts: in commanding and prohibiting with such severity it troubles too little about the happiness of the ego, and it fails to take into account sufficiently the difficulties in the way of obeying it — the strength of instinctual cravings in the id and the hardships of external environments.

Consequently, in our therapy we often find ourselves obliged to do battle with the super-ego and work to moderate its demands.

Exactly the same objections can be made against the cultural super-ego. It, too, does not trouble enough about the mental constitution of human beings; it enjoins a command and never asks whether or not it is possible to obey it. It presumes, on the contrary, that a man’s ego is psychologically capable of anything that is required of it — that his ego has unlimited power over his id. This is an error; even in so-called normal people the power of controlling the id cannot be increased beyond certain limits. If one asks more of them, one produces revolt or neuroses in individuals of makes them unhappy.

The command to love our neighbors as ourselves is the strongest defence there is against human aggressiveness and it is a superlative example of the unpsychological attitude of the cultural super-ego. The command is impossible to fulfill; such an enormous inflation of love can only lower its value and not remedy the evil. …

Civilization pays no heed to all this; it merely prates that the harder it is to obey the more laudable the obedience. The fact remains that anyone who follows such preaching in the present state of civilization only puts himself at a disadvantage beside all those who set it at naught. What an overwhelming obstacle to civilization aggression must be if the defence against it can cause as much misery as aggression itself!

– I should imagine that as long as virtue is not rewarded in this life ethics will preach in vain.

The strictness of [ethical] standards would not do much harm if education were to say: “This is how men ought to be in order to be happy and make others happy, but you have to reckon with their not being so.” Instead of this the young are made to believe that everyone else conforms to the standard of ethics, i.e., that everyone else is good. And then on this is based the demand that the young shall be so too.

For various reasons, it is very far from my intention to express any opinion concerning the value of human civilization.

My impartiality is all the easier to me since I know very little about these things and am sure only of one thing, that the judgments of value made by mankind are immediately determined by their desires for happiness: in other words, that those judgments are attempts to prop up their illusions with arguments.

– The fateful question of the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent the cultural process developed in it will succeed in mastering the derangements of communal life caused by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction.




Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Dover Publications, Inc, 2015 (originally published by Hogarth Press, 1930). Kindle Edition.