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Civilization and its Discontents

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Sigmund Freud is one of the greatest scholars of the time who has contributed to the development and understanding of human beings.  He is renowned for his work on the personality theories and other works. He has contributed to the field of philosophy and psychology in special way. This paper is going to review one of his works on the discontents of civilization where he tried to exemplify the relationship between the society and civilization. The paper will try to look in details on Freud’s view of civilization and why it has worked for the society.

Civilization according to Freud

In his work that was published in 1930 on civilization and its discontents, Freud tried to explain various issues that came with civilization. Civilization can be defined as the advancement of human being in life. It can be illustrated as the steps that human being had taken in their life to arrive at the present life. Civilization is marked by change in the way things are done which in turn transforms the life of man. For example, compared to the earlier inhabitants, the modern live in houses instead of caves, they wear fashionable clothes instead of skins, they attend school, and other perspectives of life that clearly sets the modern man from his ancestors.

Science is very important in civilization.  Throughout history, we learn that development in technology was the driving force behind the modern civilization. This is because technology changed the way things were done. Advancement in technology in all spears of life from medicine, industry, agriculture, education, and others helped to develop civilization and pass it on to the next generation.

But according to Freud, civilization can be defined in terms of convergence of the world. Freud sees civilization as aimed at not benefiting the man morally but bringing the world together which has been achieved in any way. According to Freud, civilization is like trying to control the society in the name of bringing it together. Therefore his main work was based on understanding how man relates to the society and the struggle that has been there for man to find the freedom within the society. (Sigmund, 1961)

Though civilization was supposed to bring about happiness in the life of the society, Freud examines that it brings about discontents. Civilization brought about organization of the society that ensured that some have more control on others. This was instituted as a form of power or authority to govern the society.  Therefore, the society loses its freedom. Though this doesn’t come out strongly in Freud’s explanation of a society, it is one of results that bring about discontents in civilization.

Freud’s explanation of a society was more psychological than philosophical.  This is because he tried to explain the process of civilization based on personal analysis. Following the postulation of his personality theory, Freud stresses that civilization is build on egoism. He explains that all humans are driven by egos to pleasure which he tries to relate closely with the process of civilization. After all, civilization is as a result of struggle by man to live a more comfortable life. We can therefore say that Freud looked at the way man uses his desire for pleasure in the process of civilization. Once man achieve this, Freud explains that we think that we are now civilized.  Freud showed that like in his personality theories, sex drives have been one of the most influential factors that led to the spirit of civilization. He asserts the drive for sexual needs was the driving force behind the formation of the early societies as man faced dangers from the environment, animals and other men. Hence it was a form of close association which mostly took the dimension of men and women. Freud asserts that the conflict between the sexual drives and needs and the morals of the society is the source of current problems in the society of dissatisfaction, aggression and hostility which all ends up in violence.

Therefore what Freud tried to explain here was that the origin on civilization is individual. This means that it is based on egoism. Born in a threatening and a hostile world human being try to ban with other humans to form civilization, which in the modern world has been regarded as cultures or ways of living among closely connected people. Hence according to Freud, civilization is the way in which human bans wit human to satisfy their egos and not for the benefit of the society. (Sigmund, 1961)

Civilization and the society

If we have to analyses the effects of civilization in the society, we have to look closely at what is happening in the society in order to come to term with Freud’s understanding of the discontents that are there in the society which have resulted from civilization.

The first thing that we see in the modern society is violence that may be directly attributed to the effects of civilization.  Once we all agree that there is a lot of violence in the society then it will be easy for us to analyze the root cause of this violence.  Almost all the sectors in society there is a kind of conflicts. In economic sector, there is conflict of imbalance in trade and the issue of free trade and access to resources.  There is the issue of exploitation of resources and the notion of neo-colonialism. In the religious world, perhaps the one which should be guiding the world, conflicts have become the order of the day. Muslims are against Catholics and many other religious wars. In the philosophical world, the same is happening. Capitalism and socialism ideologies still haunt the world. Terrorism activities which have claimed millions of life have partly being traced to ideological and religious differences between the two opposing sides.

These are just but few examples of the world those human beings have created for themselves.  It is the world that they seem to enjoy living in. but all this must be coming from somewhere. There must be a root cause of the problems that the society is facing. Let us look closely at some examples of the conflicts and violence in the society and try to analyze their causes. From this we will be able to understand if Freud postulations were correct or not. (Sigmund, 1961)

One of the conflicts that have rocked the world is religious conflicts. This has pitied Muslim against Christians and vice versa. According to interpretation of religion by Freud, he sees religion and the issue of worship as a “projection of human need for a father”.  This means that religion is a projection of human mind which is seen as a form of comfort which he compared to the instincts of needs of smaller childe.  There are a number of issues that we can relate to religion as asserted by Freud. First religion is meant to harmonize the life of man but instead it has brought conflicts, violence and deaths in the society.  This has been caused by strict beliefs and importance that man attachés to their religion.  They take their religion superior to others.  This shows that there is some kind of instinct of egoism in religious beliefs and the search of comfort here is on the feeling of a kind of superiority over others.  Apparently, religion was one of the factors that led to early civilization as it brought people together. But history of most religions will prove that it was spread through wars or other coercive means. For example, Islam was mainly spread through conquest and wars while Christianity was spread through colonialism. According to Freud, religion was not found necessary to maintain order and morality and he asserts that there was no evidence to show that people religious people were happier than atheists.

The world of science and technology can be another interesting field that we can relate to Freud postulation. According to Freud, science was meant to make the life of man more bearable in the sense that they had to acquire a form of self satisfaction and hence gain comfort.  Freud sees science as having resulted from many years of religious beliefs which did not give solution of the man’s desire for a comfortable life. This can be evidenced by the breakdown of religious beliefs in most societies and the increasing number of atheists who do not believe in anything that can not be probed. Science is a practical approach that can be used to prove things empirically.  Though Freud was an atheist himself, his work on the comparison of forces of science and religion in modern society is an important piece of work that can be used to find interpretation to the modern evils in our society. The modern conflicts have been shaped in a great way by science and technology that has taken place in the world.

The nuclear conflicts are some but a few of what we can see. The past world wars were led by nothing but the desire of man to show his superiority owing to the great development in science. As a result these wars have continued to eat the same society that they are expected to bring peace and understanding. And Freud seems to take a lean on the way science has changed the moral perception of man. If he wrote his book in our modern time, he could have expressed the concern over the role that television has played in changing moral beliefs. For example, the violence that we see daily on our television influences individual perception of the aspects of life and death.  Many of us tend to anesthetize the true value of human life depending on the way we watch it being disparaged in the television all in the name of entertainment. Thus televisions play an important role on the issue of violence in the society. Freud explanation shows that the roots of violence and conflicts are deep rooted within the physical and psychological make up of man and that the environment which includes religion and science plays a great role to influence personal instincts for violence. (Sigmund, 1961)

These are the issues that Freud advances in support of his postulation of civilization and its discontents. We have tried to integrate them in our analysis to show how they have protruded in our modern life and how they have affected the life of man. Though Freud wrote his book when the society had not undergone complete change due to the aspect of globalization, what is happening just works to seal his postulation. The modern conflicts and the breakdown in moral and religious beliefs are just but few that affirms his work.


What we can understand from his work is that the causes of modern conflict in the civilized society are hatred, anger and aggression which are all rooted in self-preservation. Therefore we can see the source of these conflicts from the perspective of uninhibited instinct and in practices of our culture. I can support the claim by Freud on the sense that unless man becomes conscious of his morality, there cannot be full civilization.  There must be a way in which man will find gratification of the impulses in order to attain harmony in his life with others. Individuals must rise from the state of having opinions which are controlled by opinions of other people towards them. This means that behavior which is controlled by social conventions looks more primitive and individual must move to control their own behaviors. However, Freud didn’t give man any solution that can be used to gratify their instinct neither did he show how man can integrate forces of religion and science for the betterment of the society. But his work is worth in giving an interpretation of the relationship between civilization and society.


Sigmund, F (James Starchey, Trans.) (1961). Civilization and its discontents. New York: Norton

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