Sigmund Freud begins his long essay, Civilization and Its Discontents, by describing his inability to understand what he calls “religious feeling.” Freud is not religious himself, though he has good friends who are. Freud believes that religion is central to how societies function – even societies that no longer consist of orthodox believers. Freud attempts, in his essay, to understand how people relate to their societies, how societies are formed, and how individual psychic forces interact with larger, group-level forces. Freud isolates the individual’s ego, superego, and id – the self, the regulating self, and deep, base desires – as the three forces inherent on the personal level. He wonders how these forces are manifest on the social level.
Freud’s essay moves organically – that is, not in a strict order, but by association of related ideas. Freud wonders how religions function in society, and sees in religion a kind of generous, selfless love – at least, this love as an ideal. Freud wonders whether societies are held together by this selfless love, and by its related religious feeling, but states that these instances of generosity alone cannot constitute a society.
Freud then addresses how human beings come to join themselves to others. They do so, Freud argues, by means of sexual love within family groups. Men and women couple and produce children, and these children have “interrupted” sexual relationships with their parents, which cannot be consummated. These relationships depend both on the love-drive (eros) and the death-drive (thanatos) – a combination of deep, powerful sexual attraction, and a desire, too, to destroy that which is closest and most important to us.
Freud believes that, because societies are groups consisting of smaller groups, the family unit, that societies themselves must behave according to the love- and death-drives. This means that societies are held together both by selfish desires for liberty, on the individual level, and selfless desires for protection and group stability, on the broader social level. Freud believes that other methods of explaining social organization, like the Christian Golden Rule, only explain part of the problem – the group part. Freud’s model accounts also for the individual liberties of society’s members – who wish to both be free to live as they choose, and also desire the help, protection, and love of others.
At the end of the essay, Freud relates his work, indirectly, to the political conditions of the time of its writing. In Europe in the 1930s, the oncoming threat of Communism and Fascism – of different forms of “collective” society – cause Freud to wonder whether civilization is in fact in decline. Freud concludes the essay with an open question: whether societies, like people, can be “neurotic,” or overcome by an excess of anxiety regarding their base impulses to love and destruction.
Schlegel, Chris. "Civilization and Its Discontents Plot Summary." LitCharts. LitCharts LLC, 2 Dec 2015. Web. 13 Mar 2018.
Schlegel, Chris. "Civilization and Its Discontents Plot Summary." LitCharts LLC, December 2, 2015. Retrieved March 13, 2018. http://www.litcharts.com/lit/civilization-and-its-discontents/summary.
Bettelheim, Bruno. Freud and Man’s Soul. New York: Vintage, 1984. Bettelheim argues that the erroneous translation of Freud’s most important concepts has led us to view his work as primarily scientific. In fact, Freud is always deeply personal in his appeals to humanity, and he writes not of what has been mistakenly translated as “mind” or “intellect” but of the soul (die Seele).
Clark, Ronald W. Freud: The Man and the Cause, a Biography. New York: Random House, 1980. This is a very readable biography, which is especially good in its treatment of Sigmund Freud’s private life.
Frankland, Graham. Freud’s Literary Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A study that argues for the influence of literary themes on the development of Freud’s thinking.
Fromm, Erich. Greatness and Limitations of Freud’s Thought. New York: Harper and Row, 1980. This is a critique of Freud by a dissenting psychoanalyst. Fromm believed that Freud exaggerated the role of sex in determining human behavior and that Freud’s concept of love was narrow and self-serving.
Gay, Peter. Freud: A Life for Our Time. New York: Norton, 1988. In this important biography, Gay discusses in exhaustive detail the entire span of...