Civilization and Its Discontents Themes

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Instinct vs Civilization

Freud spends a good deal of the book discussing man's natural instincts and how they affect and are affected by civilization. He concludes that the two forces are opposed to one another in an almost paradoxical way because instinct is what leads to civilization forming in the first place, then that civilization seeks to control or inhibit instinct.

There are two types of instinct as Freud describes them—those directed inwardly and those directed outwardly. He uses the Greek metaphors of Eros and Ananke to represent these kinds of instinct. Eros represents the "love" instincts, which include sexual desire but also the desire to procreate and join with other humans. Ananke is the "necessity" drive, which rules over the instinct to stay alive.

Civilization arises partly because Eros drives humans to gather together; however their natural instinct of aggression works against civilization. For civilization to survive, the aggression of its members must be inhibited. The same is true of their sexual desire, as Freud lays out his theory. This constant effort of civilization to control its members' instincts is, on the surface, the cause of man's seeming perpetual unhappiness within civilized society.

Freud delves deeper into the question, however, in two other themes that arise in the book. The first is guilt, which is the primary method by which civilizations inhibit instincts. The second is the struggle within every individual between his instincts toward life and love and his instinct toward death and destruction.


Since human instincts will tear a civilization apart if they go unchecked, a civilization must have a way to inhibit these counterproductive instincts. In Freud's theory, this method is guilt. Guilt is used to make people believe that some behaviors are bad even if they would make a person happier.

Freud seeks to discover the origin of guilt and builds a theory based on his previous work in psychoanalysis. He concludes that a part of an individual's ego, or his sense of self, is turned inward back toward the ego. He calls this the "super-ego." This super ego takes the place of external authority figures, who might punish bad behavior and acts as an internal authority that holds the ego in check by making it feel bad for even thinking about performing "bad" acts. This is the point at which an individual can be said to have a "conscience," Freud states.

Freud develops the theme of guilt over the course of the book, proposing one theory of its origin and then changing the theory slightly and redefining some of its features. He finally separates "remorse" from guilt in order to bring his theory in line with his previous work. Remorse is felt after an individual actually performs a bad act. It is different from guilt, which is inflicted by the super-ego for even thinking about behaving badly.

Since guilt is the method by which man is made unhappy by civilization, Freud points to it as a root problem and the prime cause of unhappiness or discontent in civilized man. But guilt is something that arises in an individual and is not innate. The third major theme in the work is an investigation along psychoanalytical grounds for the origin of guilt.

Love and the Death Instinct

In explanation for the origin of conscience and the sense of guilt, Freud develops a theme based on his earlier work that applies to his theory of civilization. This theme is that in addition to Eros, the instinct to create and join together with other humans, there is a counteracting death instinct that seeks to destroy these bonds. This death instinct takes the form of aggressiveness.

The two counteracting forces are always present at the same time in varying degrees. The practice of sexual sadism is an example of the two instincts mixed together. This destructive force can also be directed inwards, as in the case of sexual masochism.

Unlike Eros, the death instinct is difficult to discern. It is also a problematic concept to accept. Freud himself admits that he was reluctant to believe that such an instinct existed but adds that it explains much within psychoanalytic theory. There are still those who hesitate to believe in it, however. This is possibly because people are reluctant to believe that human nature has such a destructive nature at heart.

Freud connects this struggle between love and death in the individual to the development of a conscience, for it is the death instinct pointed inward when the super-ego seeks to punish the ego for "bad" thoughts. This, in turn, results in a sense of guilt, which is the tool by which men are made unhappy in civilization. Thus Freud has tied the three main themes of the book together by providing an explanation of how they are inextricably linked. Guilt is unavoidable, for it arises directly from instinct.

This section contains 812 words
(approx. 3 pages at 400 words per page)
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