A brooding book that sounds the death knell for optimistic views on humanity's progress through civilization, Civilization and its Discontents begins with a recapitulation of Freud's disdainful views on religion as a psychological salve and then goes on to challenge enduring platitudes about human society: that civilization has emerged as a simple marker of progress of mankind over nature, protects us against suffering, and guards our liberties and happinesses. Comparing the development of civilization to the development of individual psychologies, he sees in both an essential conflict between eros and thanatos, between the desire to be with other people and the violence committed (or wished upon) other people.

Given that civilization is a process of negotiating and structuring communities, it must also be a way of controlling and repressing both violent and libidinous instincts; it does so not only through its laws but by infiltrating our own psychologies, which Freud discusses through the filter of his structural theory (where the instinctual, unconscious drives of the id are reined in by the ego under the fierce supervision of the inwardly aggressive superego). Freud's psychological perspective is to try to make sense of individual guilt, conscience, and remorse in the broadest social context as the products of this compromise between eros and thanatos, between the individual and the group, and between satisfying one's own instinctual drives and a broader community's needs. While some of his views are redolent of turn-of-the-century anthropology, his focus on guilt, aggression, and the murderous instincts towards extermination are very much prescient, charting the next decade and a half's fall into civilization's darkest hour.


This is a book that ends without a "consolation" (111). Rarely has human society itself been so scathingly assessed, and Freud's insistent but calm attacks on social, moral, and religious platitudes remain compelling. The notion that "civilization" affects and is affected by human psychologies opens up the pleasures of cultural and social achievements to the same psychological critique that Freud directs towards religion: these are not autonomous entities whose beauty (or moral truth) exist independent of our desires and our own private psychic constitutions, which, he continues to assert, are produced by the dramas of the family. While Freud repeatedly concedes the limitations of this approach, the notion that civilization itself has drives towards aggression is described with remarkable predictive accuracy: after discussing how a society develops persecutory scapegoats to balance its ideals, as seen in "the dream of a Germanic world-dominion [that] called for antisemitism [sic] as its complement", he points out how the aggression itself is not bound to any particular object, coolly wondering "with concern, what the Soviets will do after they have wiped out their bourgeois" (73).


First published as Das Unbehagen in Der Kultur in 1930 (Vienna: Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag)

Primary Source

The Standard Edition


W.W. Norton and Company

Place Published

New York




James Strachey

Page Count