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What I learned from Sigmund Freud’s “Civilization and its discontents”

I have always wondered: Even after having so much available to us, why is it that we are unsatisfied? Why are we always seeking something? Why are we always looking toward future to gain something better than what we already have? To become something more than what we are?

I picked up this book by Sigmund Freud, ‘Civilization and its discontents’, a book that explores the psychology of our suffering and the conflict that always surrounds us. I have attempted to extract various ideas that I found useful or worth reflecting upon deeply. It was very difficult to extract ideas from this book because there were no clear examples. So this is going to be more of an interpretation of the book. But yet, to remain grounded with the core ideas, I have quoted Freud’s own words from the book in most cases.

This book was written in 1929. We are a long way from there, but still there are a lot of interesting thoughts that are raised in the book. Here we go:

1.) Why is it so difficult to be happy?

“The three sources of suffering: The superior power of nature, the frailty of our bodies, and inadequacy of the institutions that regulate people’s relations with one another in the family, the state and the society”

We are naturally driven by the pleasure principle. If we don’t become aware of our behavior, it will naturally take us to where pleasure comes easily and effortlessly. But you see, nature is always superior. Our very life is a constant fight with nature. We are dependent for our each breath on the nature. Every bit of food we take is taken away from someone’s mouth or some poor animal needs to be killed to feed us. Our quest is to conquer the nature and become god-like. And yet, death is a reminder of our mortality.

Even though we try to conquer nature at every step, we haven’t become happier.

Even with the god-like nature, man does not feel happy.

Even if we bend to nature and make peace with our mortality, we have created a system where it is hard to live with others. To live with others, relate with others is a very complex problem that we don’t know how to approach. There are always conflicts in families, states, nations because there is no simple answer on how to relate with each-other.

So naturally in our life, there are more reasons for discontent and unhappiness for humans than there are for happiness.

2.) Civilization controls ‘love’

“We derive the opposition between civilization and sexuality from the fact that sexual love is a relationship between two people, in which a third party can only be superfluous or troublesome, whereas civilization rests on relation between quite a large number of people. When a love relationship is at its height, the lovers no longer have any interest in the world around them, they are self-sufficient as a pair, and in order to be happy they do not even need the child they have in common”

Next thing, we are made to suppress our drives, especially the drives of love and sexual desires. It is nicely said that when two people are in love, they are complete in themselves and they become useless to the society. Therefore, the society wants to control love. They accept love and sexuality (generally to one human) only under a ‘contract’ of marriage, therefore attempting to suppress natural drives of humans.

This suppression of drives usually leads to frustration and therefore neurosis. Freud also talks about social neurosis where a mass of people are affected due to this sexual frustration. But because it is a mass, it is hard to acknowledge that it is an illness. When everyone is crazy, no-one seems crazy.

3.) The death drive

Just as we have survival instinct, Freud coins that there is also a death drive or destructive drive in us. Together they both explain the phenomenon of life.

“I reached the conclusion that, in addition to the drive to preserve the living substance and bring it together in ever larger units, there must be another, opposed to it, which sought to break down these units and restore them to their primordial inorganic state. Besides Eros, then, there was a death drive, and the interaction and counteraction of these two could explain the phenomenon of life.”

This was a new concept for me to reflect upon. This death drive generally manifests itself as aggression or hatred. You may have noticed that you are generally nice to your family and people you know. But there is always some sort of aversion towards ‘others’. The ‘other’ always seems like an enemy or someone who is a threat to us. I don’t know if you know what I am talking about…

Sadism is an example of the destructive drive. It is still driven by the pleasure principle but at a cost of harm to others. But society can’t allow this death drive to be freely expressed in the individuals, so what should be done? Now they introduce a ‘conscience’ or ‘ethics’ or moral principles. They lead us to the last point which I want to mention.

4.) Sense of guilt

Conscience drives this agression or death drive back to the individual, where it originated from. Introduce the evil and make people believe that they have done evil, and they will want to punish themselves. Thus the destructive drive is turned back on oneself.

“The aggression is introjected, internalized, actually sent back to where it came from, in other words, it is directed against the individual’s own ego.There it is taken over by a portion of the ego that sets itself up as the super-ego, in opposition to the rest, and is now prepared, as conscience, to exercise the same severe aggression against the ego that latter would have liked to direct towards other individuals. The tension between the stern super-ego and the ego that is subject to it is what we call a ‘sense of guilt’, this manifests itself as a need for punishment.”

“In this way civilization overcomes the dangerous agressivity of the individual, by weakening him, disarming him and setting up an internal authority to watch over him, like a garrison in a conquered town.”

‘I have done wrong, how could I do this to someone? How could I be so evil?’ The whole aggression is now turned to yourself. This guilt is sometimes very intense and at most times unconscious, hidden simply presents itself as anxiety which we don’t understand.

Even if we have a thought that doesn’t fit the superego or conscience, we start getting that anxiety. This process begins right from the childhood. Your parents set the rules no matter how absurd and stupid. Now having grown up, you can remember endless things that your parents didn’t let you do freely, even now you don’t know why! But still, as a child when you don’t follow those rules, you feel guilty of having done something evil. And if you follow those rules, it means that you suppress your drives which came naturally to you. Either way there generates an internal force within which is destructive. This goes deep at an unconscious level and remains even in your adult life.

I will give a fresh example from my own life. Quite recently I have been living in this dilemma. I was doing a job that I didn’t like. I did it for 4 years even though I didn’t initially want to do it. I did it to respect my parent’s choice. But all the time during those 4 years, I was suppressing my desire to be free from that job and do something that I really loved. I kept on doing it and the internal frustration kept on increasing. One day I decided that it was enough and then I decided to quit the job.

I still feel like my decision was correct. Even though I quit a well paying job, by myself I am very happy. But now there is a sense of guilt of not satisfying the parent’s wishes. Somehow, this need to fulfil the parent’s wishes is programmed since our childhood. Rarely ever we go against their wishes, but when we do, we feel guilty. In either case, there is an anxiety or frustration about the situation.

And I think this programming is the worst thing that happens to us. How do you become free from that? This way there is frustration, that way there is a guilt. What to do about it?


Thus you see that the society is not made to be a place where you can remain happy naturally for long. A lot of details I didn’t talk about. And even many other things such as our tendency for comparison, envy, jealousy…all those things rule out even a slight possibility of lasting happiness in civilization.

Then I imagine how could the civilization be better or a happier place? If there are no rules, people will become like savages. On the other hand, rules create frustration and social neurosis. A better civilization is a puzzle you can try to think of in your free time. But it doesn’t seem to be happening anytime soon!

Thank you for reading this post! I will be back soon with something new. In case you found this book interesting, here is the link for it…

Civilizations and its Discontents by Sigmund Freud

Also adding a related post that you might like…

The sickness of society that no-one cares about

Understanding relationships: An insight to Love, freedom and Aloneness by Osho

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