Humankind strives for happiness, but according to Sigmund Freud, the creation of civilization as a means to further this goal has instead generated unhappiness. In his book Civilization and its Discontents, Freud asserts the happiness of the individual is often sublimated to the need for civilization to establish law and order. People have an instinctual desire for absolute freedom which includes a need to be sexually promiscuous as well as to be violent. To repress these naturally occurring human instincts and create an orderly society, humans have turned to civilization. But in doing so, humans have also created the source of their unhappiness; they are no longer allowed to act in a manner that is instinctually natural. By repressing their natural urges, humans are civilized, but live in a continual state of discontent.
In his analysis of civilization and why so many of its members are unhappy, Freud begins with what many consider a feeling of happiness, what he calls the "oceanic" feeling many associate with religious faith. While fully accepting that such feeling exist within individuals, he attributes them to a person's ego interacting with the outside world. Most of the time the ego, or the rational and intellectual part of the mind, maintains a clear line between the individual and the outside world. This line must be maintained in order to protect the individual from the pain and suffering associated with the world in general. However, at certain times, particularly during moments of religious fervor, this line between the ego and the outside world blurs, and Freud asserts that this is the source of the sense of "eternity, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded, something 'oceanic'." (Freud 2)
Freud next explains that the creation of the ego is synonymous with the creation of a line of separation between the ego and the outside world. As an individual's ego develops, they also develop an aversion to the pain of the world outside. But if this separation developed, then there must have been a time when there was no separation, early in the individual's development. At this time, when a person was infantile, they relied completely on a sense of paternal protection; a feeling that continues into adult life. Strangely, Freud then retracts his earlier comments on the "oceanic" feeling being a blurring of the line created between the ego and the outside world, and instead maintains that it is a desire to "reinstate limitless narcissism…," associated with a childhood state of development. (Freud 5)
Once Freud identifies the "oceanic" feeling of happiness with the individual's desire to be in a state of protection by an all powerful father figure, he then turns his attention toward religion. Freud makes no effort to hide his disdain for organized religion, what he asserts is "patently infantile, [and] incongruous with reality…." (Freud 5) He claims that, while seeming to hold the answers to the meaning of life, religion does not contribute to human happiness. When it comes to happiness, it is the "pleasure-principle" which regulates an individual's happiness; the satisfaction of needs brings pleasure, which in turn brings happiness. Alternatively, suffering brings unhappiness, and can come from three sources: our own body, the outer world, and our relations with other human beings. As an individual's body becomes injured, sick, or just less active with age, comes anxiety and pain. The outside world contains all sorts of dangers and destructive possibilities that just existing in the world can be a source of pain and suffering. And finally, interactions between people can be the greatest source of pain and misery ranging from the pain associated with the love of an individual to the wars affecting entire populations.
Civilization, therefore, is the source of humankind's suffering and misery, and Freud asserts that there are three historic events that have produced discontent with civilization. First was the establishment of Christianity over paganism and the focus Christianity places on the afterlife instead of earthly life. Second came the European discovery and conquest of primitive peoples around the globe who seemed to be living in happiness due to their closeness to nature. And finally, the scientific breakthroughs which have identified the mechanism of neuroses caused by social demands. (Freud 13) This would seem to indicate that people are more happy when living in primitive, uncivilized society that are more in tune with nature and the natural world. The modern world's technological advances also seem to worsen the situation that humans find themselves in. Technology is created to ease the suffering of humankind, but it also creates a false sense of security that people can be protected against the pain of the outside world.
Civilization, besides creating technology aimed at easing human suffering, also creates order in the relations between its members. But his requires individuals to sublimate their personal desires to the needs of the community in general. In other words, civilization restricts people from doing what they have a natural inclination to do. Much like the libidinal development of humans, Freud finds civilization also has three stages of development: character formation, sublimation, and renunciation of instincts. Societies must first develop an identity, then there must be a focusing of individual energy into the betterment of society, and finally individuals must conceal their natural instincts in favor of order imposed by the rule of law.
But when individuals submit to the authority of society there is a conflict between the desires of the individual and the needs of society. This conflict manifests itself primarily in the resentment people have over the restrictions placed upon their sexual activities. People have a natural tendency to engage in unrestricted sexual activity, but civilization places restrictions upon those activities; mostly in the form of monogamous relationships. Society also places restriction upon the individual's ability to express their natural aggression. Instead of allowing people to exist in a less developed state of natural inclinations, civilization has imposed unnatural restrictions upon the natural behavior of humans in exchange for a sense of security from the dangers of the world. This squelching of people's natural inclinations is the source of the discontent that plagues the individual and limits their ability to find true happiness.
Since mankind's natural inclination is toward violence and aggression, the development of civilization has been a trade-off between human aggression and their willingness to conform to societal law and order. In fact, human aggression is the greatest threat to civilization and as Freud stated, "Homo homini lupus," meaning "man is a wolf to mankind." (Freud 24) Freud's statement is meant to describe how man's aggressive tendencies are the most dangerous threat to man's continued existence. In order to control the more dangerous tendencies, man has developed what Freud calls the "super-ego," or in common speech, the conscience. The super-ego has developed so that the actions of the ego can be regulated by the person through a sense of guilt. But there are two sources of guilt: the fear of authority and the fear of the super-ego. Authority is what controls society and it uses the super-ego to help individuals develop a sense of self-control. And this brings the readers back to Freud's original discussion about religion and its ability to discard the overwhelming sense of guilt and create an "oceanic" feeling of oneness with the universe. Religion has become a path by many to reduce the guilty feelings created by attempting to conform to society's view of human behavior instead of living a natural life. Human beings' attempt to repress their natural tendencies toward sexual gratification, aggression, and destruction creates a feeling of guilt that needs to be relieved, and religion is a way in which many seek refuge.
Freud's Civilization and its Discontents is his attempt to use his theory of psychoanalysis to assess the individual's position within society. Freud developed his theory of psychoanalysis in order to better understand individual human behavior, but it seems that he felt it could be expanded to explain human behavior in terms of civilization as a whole. Being written in 1929, it was highly influenced by the intense loss and misery of the First World War; in fact, it can be assumed that Freud's view of humanity comes out of his experience living through the war. The aggression and destruction inflicted by humanity upon humanity may be the source of his belief that human aggression is the greatest threat to human civilization. Many claim that Freud's book is somewhat pessimistic towards humanity and its ability to live in peace, while others claim that it is simply an attempt to explain the discontentment that human civilization has brought to individuals within that civilization.
Ironically, just a few years after its publication, Adolph Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany and many of the assertions made by Freud seemed to be proved correct. The Nazis and their absolute destruction of the Jews, their brutal conquest and occupation of most of Europe, and their eventual downfall all appear to have be explained…