Civilization and its Discontents by Sigmund Freud [Book Thoughts]

A bit complex as an introduction to Freud but Civilization and its Discontents is a great look into his theories.



You can’t really go too deeply into psychology without running into Sigmund Freud. While he’s commonly known to first year Psych students as ‘that perverted old man’, Freud is one of the most influential figures in psychology in the last 100 years, having founded psychoanalysis. Civilization and its Discontents is one of his later works, coming 30 years after his The Interpretation of Dreams introduced his theory of the unconscious mind. Civilization is an 8-part, 105 page essay in which Freud talks about what he believes to be the psychological origins of civilization as well its costs and benefits.

Freud’s theories in Civilization are underlined by his theory of the unconscious mind i.e. that human behaviour is driven largely by subconscious desires rather than by active thought. These desires manifest in the form of ‘drives’ such as the drive to eat and drink as well as for other forms of self-gratification. Freud believes that civilization (i.e. people living together in large communal groups) acts largely to restrict many of the drives which, in turn, has adverse consequences on the psych. For instance with males, the ‘animalistic’ part of our nature may want to procreate with everything in sight but civilization restricts sexual behaviour to committed relationships between two people by looking down on those that indulge their desires freely.

Freud also suggests that humans may have an innate ‘destruction’ drive, a need to destroy, which manifests itself in the form of aggression. Again, since civilization restricts outward displays of aggression, Freud believes that this aggression manifests itself in other ways. Depending on one’s upbringing it can manifest outwardly as anger towards one’s parents or inwardly as a self-punishing conscious when we break society’s laws.

The above two examples are just a few of the key points that Freud touches on in his essay. He also veers off into discussions about religion, sexuality, and the relationship between the super-ego and the conscience. While the book does take a bit of time to get into, it rewards with the depths of Freud’s insights. However, I do feel that I would have appreciated it more had I had more background to Freud’s work and his theories.

While the writing is fairly understandable provided you have some grounding, there may be some stylistic issues that may be off-putting to some people. Freud can be condescending and derogatory in his language; in fact his view seems to be that the entirety of humanity are little more than overly sophisticated apes. He’s also a frequent basher of religion in case you take offense to that kind of thing. As for myself, I suppose I found him relating so many things to sexuality quite bizarre. But beneath the surface level issues I found that I quite enjoyed reading the ideas of a very intelligent man even if I didn’t agree with them all.

In closing, I found many of his insights quite striking and the eight parts of Civilization have plenty to offer. While I think I’ve had my fill of psychology for the present, Freud is someone I’ll look at in the future.

A bit complex as an introduction to Freud but Civilization and its Discontents is a great look into his theories.

See you next week


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