Freud’s Civilization and Discontents


In the article Civilization and its discontents Sigmund Freud compares savage and civilized human lives to get a general meaning of civilization. He generalizes psycho-social theories and mainly deals with the cruel and violent nature of humanity. Moreover, he believes that human beings are mainly driven by the desire for destruction. He also includes aspects of religion in demonstrating the influence of civilization on an individual. The aim of this paper is to discuss the relationship between individuals and the society demonstrated by Freud. Thereafter, it will contrast his view with the views of Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mills.

Freud’s Point of View

Freud begins by trying to understand the so called “oceanic feeling” phenomenon. According to him this is the sense of oneness and boundlessness felt between the outside world and ones ego. He believes that this feeling is not an act of faith, but a purely subjective feeling. Freud subscribes to Darwinian theory and believes in the progressive nature of human-beings, even if they are prone to violence and regression. He alleges that civilization has reached a deadlock because it has already conquered the world with mechanical and technological force. He believes that one should be able to adapt to the environment to survive. In addition, he believes that human beings are not prepared to deal with the civilized life (Freud 1).

Freud considers culture and society to have originated from ancient Rome, just as it is believed in Western civilization. Additionally, he asserts that human beings inherit the standard of greatness and notion of authority from strong personalities or past leaders like Roman emperors. He also considers religion to be infantile and delusional. Freud disagrees that the purpose of life is to prepare for redemption in afterlife. Rather, he alleges that people would live with utmost happiness (Freud 2). He also believes that beauty can provide temporary pleasure and ease misery.

He asserts that a person can become neurotic because of pressure and frustration imposed by the society. According to him, civilization is the cause of human misery. Individuals organize themselves to fit in the civilized society only to take decisions. He disputes the idea that advancement in technology automatically improves human life. In fact, he argues that civilized societies concentrate too much on the rule of law and overlook individual instincts. Communal life originates from power of love and compulsion to work. He speculates that sexual desires encourage formation of human relationships. Even if a civilization is meant to bind people with love, the two instincts still conflict. For instance, families prevent individuals from maturing on their own because of the love they share in a family. As such, civilization diverts sexual energies into cultural endeavors. Furthermore, it restricts human life by means of taboos, laws, and customs (Freud 11).

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Freud notes that the antagonism of civilization towards sexuality comes from the need to build communal bonds that are based on friendship. If there were no restrictions on sexual activities, it would destroy the importance of monogamous family that society believes to be the most stable. Although the Bible teaches to love neighbors, Freud argues that the society does not obey this commandment. Civilization has made people more aggressive rather than more loving. Referring to history, Freud affirms that human beings exploit, abuse, torture, cause pain, and kill one another. This has been experience for a long time, for example, during the First World War. Continued aggression threatens to disintegrate civilization (Freud 11). More energy is invested in restraining aggression. For instance, the law has tried to regulate aggression, but failed.

 Freud is also opposed communism and argues that it is based on false assumptions. It cannot alter the way human nature operates. He asserts that human beings are driven by greed. Aggression has been helpful to communities throughout history. For instance, the Jews were able to protect their land from the Christians with the help of aggression (Freud 12). To him, aggression has helped to instill some form of nationalism that helps to fight against foreigners. Therefore, he concludes that civilized men have substituted happiness with security. However, the most dangerous society, according to Freud, is the one where the leader is dignified at the expense of other members of the society. He gives an example of America as one of the societies where there is this danger.

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Freud concurs with Schiller about the notion that love and hunger are the two factors that move the world. Moreover, he finds the existence of aggression undeniable. He alleges that it is an original instinct in a man and the greatest obstacle to civilization. While the purpose of civilization is to bring people closer, aggression complicates the process. Freud alleges that one of the main functions of the society is to restrain the aggressive impulses of human beings. This is achieved by installing some kind of inspector in an individual, the ‘super-ego’, to learn the human desire for aggression (Freud 24). He speculates that when an individual is restricted from expressing his desires externally, he suppresses the excess aggression by directing it into his ego.

According to Freud, guilt arises from attempting to do or doing something bad. The intentions of actions are irrelevant. He also disagrees with the idea that there is a natural capacity to differentiate between bad and good actions. He argues that actions that are considered to be bad are sometimes good for the ego. In his opinion, the only bad thing is loss of love. For example, children are afraid of losing their parents and vice versa. Freud alleges that there are only two sources of guilt; the fear of super-ego and fear of authority (Freud 26). By extension, civilization regulates guilt to accommodate the growing number of relationships, so as to maintain stability in the society. However, in time human beings find it difficult to tolerate.

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In Freud’s view, civilization takes a toll on individuals’ happiness. For instance, guilt is noisily heard within the conscience. However, it operates in surreptitious ways. In fact, he classifies guilt as a form of anxiety. In his view, anxiety can be found in both conscious and unconscious symptoms. He affirms that although there has been an increase in the level of anxiety in a civilization, it is largely undiagnosed. Furthermore, it manifests itself as a vague and widespread malaise that people attach various causes.

Contrast with Thomas Jefferson

Although the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson was about the justification of the separation from Britain, he was also philosophical about the role of a government in the society, human nature, and the meaning of human liberty. In some parts Jefferson’s ideas contrast with Freud’s. To begin with, Jefferson supports the idea of a civilization. He alleges that a human being should be able to advance from subordination to be independent and supported by the laws of nature (Jefferson 1760). This contradicts with Freud’s idea that a civilization concentrates on the rule of law to an extent that it forgets human instincts. Ideally, Jefferson believes that as much as human beings should fight for their independence, they should respect the rule of law, the idea that Freud objects to. In addition, Jefferson believes that individuals should be able to declare causes of their change. This would ensure that they follow the law while making a change.

Unlike Freud, Jefferson finds religion a very important factor in a civilization. He asserts that the truth should be sacred and undeniable. Additionally, he believes that all men were created equally and independent. This gives individuals the right to preserve life, pursue happiness, and liberty. However, to achieve it the government should be instituted to ensure that everyone obeys the law. This contradicts Freud’s statement that religion is delusional. However, the two agree that happiness is very important to humanity. The only difference is in how the happiness is achieved. For instance, Jefferson suggests that human beings have the power to alter the way a government is run if it becomes destructive (Jefferson 1765). If a government does not use its power in the right manner, it will affect the happiness and safety of the people. Therefore, they have the power to overthrow such a government and to form a new one to secure their future. Jefferson gives people the power to shape their future instead of waiting for the elite in the society to do it.

Therefore, he disagrees with Freud’s idea that relationships in the society could cause problems for individuals. As a matter of fact, he believes that social groupings are very important for protecting the society from oppression of leadership. However, he cautions that governments should not be overthrown because of trivial reasons. There should be specific and genuine reasons for overthrowing a government. For instance, he gives examples of possible situations, such as public requests are not answered by a government. In addition, the British government did not respect the colonialists’ right to fair judicial system and self-governance. He accuses the King of colluding with the parliament to adopt laws that affected colonies, yet colonialists were never involved in this process. Some of the legislations called for levied high taxes, prevented free trade, and abolished the right to trial by a competent jury. In general, King George III was guilty of 27 abuses concerning the public (Jefferson 1769).

Unlike Freud, Jefferson supports investment of resources to shape the future. Freud laments that too much time and resources are being use to stop aggression in order to promote civilization. However, to Jefferson, this is the right step because human beings need to pursue happiness (Jefferson 1771). In his opinion, aggression is not a bad idea because with it they can liberate themselves from poor governance. Therefore, all laws that promote liberty, life, and happiness are just, while those that act contrary to them are unjust. Taking into consideration this point of view, Jefferson agrees that there are natural aspects that differentiate between good and bad; Freud disagrees with this statement.

According to Jefferson, human beings should not continue to suffer because of the fear of changes. They have the right to make a change. This contradicts Freud’s perception that the fear for the authority amounts to guilt (Jefferson 1771). Moreover, Jefferson believes that the decisions taken by a government should base on the needs of the people. All people in the society should be equal and, therefore there is no need to fear a government. That is why, it is just an institution which has to serve people and support their rights.

Contrast with John Stuart Mill

According to Mill, a government is not an issue of social contrast or natural rights as it is in other forms of liberalism. The manner in which a country is run should mainly depend on the interests of the future lives of human beings. Mill asserts that governments should be instituted in such a way that every citizen is able to find the best way to achieve his or her happiness (Mill 224).  This view contradicts Freud’s notion that everyone should adapt to the environment if he or she has to survive. Freud alleges that the people have no choice but to obey the laws that a government implements. According to Mill, a government should take into consideration the interest of citizens so that the laws introduced are based on principles that would make people happier. As much as this would be an end to every individual, it could also be a means for the community to improve and make life better for everyone.

Mill believes that liberty is a very important human right and the only reason why an individual should interfere into another person’s liberty is to protect himself (Mill 223). He argues that this would guarantee individual freedom. In particular, he suggests that every citizen should have the freedom of discussion, provided he does not interfere into other people’s freedoms.

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Mill calls for a discussion of issues before labeling them good or bad. He suggests that the beliefs of human beings should base on a critical assessment of a fact and should be discussed in a debate. Therefore, he is against Freud’s idea that human beings are driven by greed and aggression, and it helps the society to fight against enemies. The most important issue should not be aggression but a debate on the right way forward. Drawing a hasty conclusion could cause more problems that produce a solution to the problem.

According to Mill, the best person is the one who is responsible for his or her action. He is the one who thinks before he or she acts and does not do something just because of the respect for the authority or customs. This view is different from Freud’s; the last holds the authority in high esteem and bases the morality of actions on laws and authority. On the contrary, Mill believes the best actions should base on critical assessments; individuality is the best source of human happiness (Mill 224). Therefore, it is important to form institutions that promote the sense of individuality and a debate.

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Additionally, Mill suggests that representation and democracy in a government contribute to an individual development by means of respect for freedom of speech and expression. Instead of depending on love to judge the best actions, Mill believes that critical thinking should be the main concern in decision making.

However, Mill alleges that suppressing individual differences could be very detrimental to democracy. People should be allowed to air their views even if they are different from the leaders’. Imposing a set of inflexible values on the community could impoverish it. Although it might be successful at fostering common moral standards, it could also lead to dictatorship (Mill 233).  While Freud claims that human beings are driven by greed and opposes communalism, Mill calls for equal sharing of resources so that every member can benefit. Communalism is one way of promoting proportional representation.


As it has been demonstrated, Freud alleges that it is the instinct of human beings to act aggressively in order to benefit from the society. Additionally, the head of the society in primitive communities was not questionable. However, the rule of law in the modern world had restrained human aggression to ensure maximum security. On the other hand, Jefferson argues that human beings should not be passive because of the respect for the authority. They should be able to stand up and defend their rights. He even affirms that the public has the right to overthrow a poor government. However, this should not be done for selfish needs, but for the interest of the public in general. The most important aspects of humanity are liberty, life, and the greatest amount of happiness. Mill also disagrees with Freud and calls for critical thinking rather than blind following of the laws. He calls for a debate to establish the facts before actions could be termed as good or evil.



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