Quotes from Civilization and Its Discontents, by Sigmund Freud


- ‘The ego is continued inwards, without any sharp delimitation, into an unconscious mental entity which we designate as the id and for which it serves as a kind of façade… But towards the outside, at any rate, the ego seems to maintain clear and sharp lines of demarcation. There is only one state – admittedly an unusual state, but not one that can be stigmatized as pathological – in which it does not do this. At the height of being in love the boundary between ego and object threatens to melt away.’ (13)
- ‘In order to fend off certain unpleasurable excitations arising from within, the ego can use no other methods than those which it uses against unpleasure coming from without, and this is the starting-point of important pathological disturbances.’ (15)
- ‘Originally the ego includes everything, later it separates off an external world from itself. Our present ego-feeling is, therefore, only a shrunken residue of a much more inclusive – indeed an all-embracing feeling which correspond [sic] to a more intimate bond between the ego and the world about it… The ideational contents appropriate to it would be precisely those of limitlessness and of a bond with the universe.’ (15)
- ‘It is rather the rule than the exception for the past to be preserved in mental life.’ (19)
- ‘The derivation of religious needs from the infant’s helplessness and the longing for the father aroused by it seems to me incontrovertible.’ (19)
- ‘In my Future of an Illusion I was concerned much less with the deepest sources of the religious feeling than with what the common man understands by his religion – with the system of doctrines and promises which on the one hand explains to him the riddles of this world with enviable completeness, and, on the other, assures him that a careful Providence will watch over his life and will compensate him in a future existence for any frustrations that he suffers here. The common man cannot imagine this Providence otherwise than in the figure of an enormously exalted father. Only such a being can understand the needs of the children of man and be softened by their prayers and placated by the signs of their remorse. The whole thing is so potently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life. It is still more humiliating to discover how large a number of people living to-day, who cannot but see that this religion is not tenable, nevertheless try to defend it piece by piece by a pitiful series of rearguard actions.’ (21)
- ‘Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many paints, disappointments, and impossible tasks. In order to bear it we cannot dispense with palliative measures. ‘We cannot do without auxiliary constructions,’ as Theodor Fontane tells us. There are perhaps three such measures: powerful deflections, which cause us to make light of our misery; substitute satisfactions, which diminish it; and intoxicating substances, which make us insensitive to it.’ (22)
- ‘What [do] men themselves show by their behavior to be the purpose and intention of their lives What do they demand of life and wish to achieve in it? The answer to this can hardly be in doubt. They strive after happiness.’ (23)
- ‘There is no possibility at all of its being carried through; all the regulations of the universe now run counter to it. One feels inclined to say that the intention that man should be ‘happy’ is not included in the plan of ‘Creation’. What we call happiness in the strictest sense comes from the (preferably sudden) satisfaction of needs which have been dammed up to a high degree, and it is from its nature only possible as an episodic phenomenon. When any situation that is desired by the pleasure principle is prolonged, it only produces a feeling of mild contentment. We are so made that we can derive intense enjoyment only from a contrast and very little from a state of things. Thus our possibilities of happiness are already restricted by our constitution. Unhappiness is much less difficult to experience. We are threatened with suffering from three directions: from our own body, which is doomed to decay and dissolution and which cannot even do without pain and anxiety as warning signals; from the external world, which may rage against us with overwhelming and merciless forces of destruction; and finally from our relations to other men.’ (23-24)
- ‘Under the pressure of these possibilities of the suffering, men are accustomed to moderate their claims to happiness… if a man thinks himself happy merely to have escaped unhappiness or to have survived his suffering.’ (24)
- ‘We owe to such [intoxicating] media not merely the immediate yield of pleasure, but also a greatly desired degree of independence from the external cares. For one knows that, with the help of this ‘drowner of cares’ one can at any time withdraw from the pressures of reality and find refuge in a world of one’s own with better conditions of sensibility. As is well known, it is precisely this property of intoxicants which also determines their danger and their injuriousness. They are responsible, in certain circumstances, for the useless waste of a large quota of energy which might have been employed for the improvement of the human lot.’ (25)
- ‘One may therefore hope to be freed from a part of one’s sufferings by influencing the instinctual impulses. This type of defense against suffering is no longer brought to bear on the sensory apparatus; it seeks to master the internal sources of our needs. The extreme form of this is brought about by killing off the instincts, as is prescribed by the worldly wisdom of the East and practiced by Yoga. If it succeeds, then the subject has, if it is true, given up all other activities as well – he has sacrificed his life; and, by another path, he has oncec more only achieved the happiness of quietness. We follow the same path when our aims are less extreme and we merely attempt to control our instinctual life. In that case, the controlling elements are the higher psychological agencies, which have subjected themselves to the reality principle. Here the aim of satisfaction is not by any means relinquished; but a certain amount of protection against suffering is secured, in that non-satisfaction is not so painfully felt in the case of instincts kept in dependence as in the case of uninhibited ones. As against this there is an undeniable diminution in the potentialities of enjoyment. The feeling of happiness derived from the satisfaction of a wild instinctual impulse untamed by the ego is incomparably more intense than that derived from sating an instinct that has been tamed. The irresistibility of perverse instincts, and perhaps the attraction in general of forbidden things finds an economic explanation here. Another technique for fending off suffering is the employment of the displacements of libido which our mental apparatus permits of and through which its function gains so much in flexibility. The task here is that of shifting the instinctual aims in such a way that they cannot come up against frustration from the external world. In this, sublimation of the instincts lends its assistance. One gains the most if one can sufficiently heighten the yield of pleasure from the sources of psychical and intellectual work. When that is so, fate can do little against one. A satisfaction of this kind, such as an artist’s joy in creating, in giving his fantasies body, or a scientist’s in solving problems or discovering truths, has a special quality which we shall certainly one day be able to characterize in metaphysical terms. At present we can only say figuratively that such satisfactions seem ‘finer and higher’. But their intensity is mild as compared with that derived from the sating of crude and primary instinctual impulses; it does not convulse our physical being. And the weak point of this method is that it is not applicable generally: it is accessible only to a few people. It presupposes the possession of special dispositions and gifts which are far from being common to any practical degree.’ (26)
- ‘No other technique for the conduct of life attaches the individual so firmly to reality as laying emphasis on work… And yet, as a path to happiness, work is not highly prized by men. They do not strive after it as they do after other possibilities of satisfaction. The great majority of people only work under the stress of necessity, and this natural human aversion to work raises most difficult social problems.’ (27)
- ‘Each one of us behaves in some one respect like a paranoic, corrects some aspects of the world which is unbearable to him by the construction of a wish and introduces this delusion into reality. A special importance attaches to the case in which this attempt to procure a certainty of happiness and a protection against suffering through a delusional remolding of reality is made by a considerable number of people in common. The religions of mankind must be classes among the mass-delusions of this kind. No one, needless to say, who shares a delusion ever recognizes it as such.’ (28)
- ‘Nor is it content to aim at an avoidance of unpleasure – a goal, as we might call it, or weary resignation; it passes this by without heed and holds fast to the original, passionate striving for a positive fulfillment of happiness. And perhaps it does in fact come nearer to this goal than any other method. I am, of course, speaking of the way of life which makes love the center of everything, which looks for all satisfaction in loving and being loved. A psychical attitude of this sort comes naturally enough to all of us; one of the forms in which love manifests itself – sexual love – has given us our most intense experience of an overwhelming sensation of pleasure and has thus furnished us with a pattern for our search for happiness. What is more natural than that we should in looking for happiness along the path on which we first encountered it? The weak side of this technique of living is easy to see; otherwise no human being would have thought of abandoning this path to happiness for any other. It is that we are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love, never so helplessly unhappy as when we have lost our loved object or its love.’ (29)
- ‘Psychoanalysis, unfortunately, has scarcely anything to say about beauty either. All that seems certain is its derivation from the field of sexual feeling.’ (30)
- ‘It is worth remarking that the genitals themselves, the sight of which is always exciting, are nevertheless hardly ever judged to be beautiful; the quality of beauty seems, instead, to attach to certain secondary sexual characters.’ (30)
- ‘The program of being happy, which the pleasure principle imposes on us, cannot be fulfilled; yet we must not – indeed, we cannot – give up our efforts to bring it nearer to fulfillment by some means or another.’ (30)
- ‘There is no golden rule which applies to everyone: every man must find out for himself in what particular fashion he can be saved.’ (30)
- ‘The man who is predominantly erotic will give first preference to his emotional relationships to other people; the narcissistic man, who inclines to be self-sufficient, will seek his manifestations in his internal mental processes; the man of action will never give up the external world on which he can try out his strength.’ (30-31)
- ‘Just as a cautious business-man avoids tying up all his capital in one concern, so, perhaps, worldly wisdom will advise us not to look for the whole of our satisfaction from a single aspiration.’ (31)
- ‘Religion restricts this play of choice and adaptation, since it imposes equally on everyone its own path to the acquisition of happiness and protection from suffering. Its technique consists in depressing the value of life and distorting the picture of the real work in a delusional manner – which presupposes an intimidation of the intelligence. At this price, by forcibly fixing them in a state of psychical infantilism and by drawing them into a mass-delusion, religion succeeds in sparing many people an individual neurosis. But hardly anything more. There are, as we have said, many paths which may lead to such happiness as is attainable by men, but there is none which does so for certain.’ (31-32)
- ‘What we call our civilization is largely responsible for our misery, and that we should be much happier if we gave it up and returned to primitive conditions. I call this contention astonishing because, in whatever way we may define the concept of civilization, it is a certain fact that all the things with which we seek to protect ourselves against the threats that emanate from the sources of suffering are part of that very civilization.’ (33)
- ‘They seem to have observed that this newly-won power over space and time, this subjugation of the forces of nature, which is the fulfillment of a longing that goes back thousands of years, has not increased the amount of pleasurable satisfaction which they may expect from life and has not made them feel happier… Does it mean nothing that medicine has succeeded in enormously reducing infant mortality and the danger of infection for women in childbirth, and, indeed, in considerably lengthening the average of a civilized man? And there is a long list that might be added to benefits of this kind which we owe to the much-despised era of scientific and technical advances. But here the voice of pessimistic criticism makes itself heard and warns us… finally, what good to us is a long life if it is difficult and barren of joys, and if it is so full of misery that we can only welcome death as a deliverer?’ (34)
- ‘If we assume quite generally that the motive force of all human activities is a striving towards the two confluent goals of unity and a yield of pleasure, we must suppose that this is also true of the manifestations of civilization which we have been discussing here, although this is easily visible only in scientific and aesthetic activities. But it cannot be doubted that the other activities, too, correspond to strong needs in men – perhaps to needs which are only developed in a minority.’ (41)
- ‘Human life in common is only made possible when a majority comes together which is stronger than any separate individual and which remains united against all separate individuals. The power of this community is then set up as ‘right’ in opposition to the power of the individual, which is condemned as ‘brute force’.’ (42)
- ‘The liberty of the individual is no gift of civilization. It was greatest before there was any civilization, though then, it is true, it had for the most part no value, since the individual was scarcely in a position to defend it.’ (42)
- ‘A good part of the struggles of mankind center round the single task of finding an expedient accommodation – one, that is, that will bring happiness – between this claim of the individual and the cultural claims of this group; and one of the problems that touches the fate of humanity is whether such an accommodation can be reached by means of some particular form of civilization or whether this conflict is irreconcilable.’ (43)
- ‘But it is true that so far we have discovered noting that is not universally known.’ (43)
- ‘Sublimation of an instinct is an especially conspicuous feature of cultural development; it is what makes it possible for higher psychical activities, scientific, artistic, or ideological, to play such an important part in civilized life.’ (44)
- ‘Man’s discovery that sexual (genital) love afforded him the strongest experiences of satisfaction, and in fact provided him with the prototype of all happiness, must have suggested to him that he should continue to seek the satisfaction of happiness in his life along the path of sexual relations and that he should make general eroticism the central point of his life.’ (48)
- ‘A small minority are enabled by their constitution to find happiness, in spite of everything, along the path of love. But far-reaching mental changes in the function of love are necessary before this can happen. These people make themselves independent of their object’s acquiescence by displacing what they mainly value from being loved on to loving; they protect themselves against the loss of the object by directing their love, not to single objects but to all men alike; and they avoid the uncertainties and disappointments of genital love by turning away from its sexual aims and transforming the instinct into an impulse with an inhibited aim. What they bring about in themselves in this way is a state of evenly suspended, steadfast, affectionate feeling, which has little external resemblance any more to the stormy agitations of genital love, from which it is nevertheless derived. Perhaps St. Francis of Assisi went furthest in thus exploiting love for the benefit of an inner feeling of happiness.’ (48-49)
- ‘According to one ethical view, whose deeper motivation will become clear to us presently, this readiness for a universal love of mankind and the world represents the highest standpoint which man can reach. Even at this early stage of the discussion, I should like to bring forward my two main objections to this view. A love that does not discriminate seems to me to forfeit a part of its own value, by doing an injustice to its object; and secondly, not all men are worthy of love.’ (49)
- ‘One of the main endeavors of civilization is to bring people together into large unities.’ (50)
- ‘Detaching himself from his family becomes a task that faces every young person, and society often helps him in the solution of it by means of puberty and initiations rites.’ (50)
- ‘Women represent the interests of the family and of sexual life. The work of civilization has become increasingly the business of men; it confronts them with ever more difficult tasks and compels them to carry out instinctual sublimations of which women are little capable. Since a man does not have unlimited quantities of psychical energy at his disposal, he has to accomplish his tasks by making an expedient distribution of his libido. What he employs for cultural aims he to a great extent withdraws from women and sexual life. His constant association with men, and his dependence on his relations with them, even estrange him from his duties as a husband and father. Thus the woman finds herself forced into the background by the claims of civilization and she adopts a hostile attitude towards it.’ (50-51)
- ‘[Civilization’s] first, totemic phase already brings with it the prohibition against an incestuous choice of object, and this is perhaps the most drastic mutilation which man’s erotic life has in all time experienced.’ (51)
- ‘As regards the sexually mature individual, the choice of an object is restricted to the opposite sex, and most extra-genital satisfactions are forbidden as perversions. The requirement, demonstrated in these prohibitions, that there be a single kind of sexual life for everyone, disregards the dissimilarities, whether innate or acquired, in the sexual constitution of human beings; it cuts off a fair number of the from sexual enjoyment, and so becomes the source of serious injustice.’ (51)
- ‘Present-day civilization makes it plain that it will only permit sexual relationships on the basis of a solitary, indissoluble bond between one man and one woman, and that it does not like sexuality as a source of pleasure in its own right ad is only prepared to tolerate it because there is so far no substitute for it as a means of propagating the human race.’ (52)
- ‘Man is an animal organism with (like others) an unmistakably bisexual disposition.’ (52)
- ‘For psychology the contrast between the sexes fades away into one between activity and passivity, in which we far too readily identify activity with maleness and passivity with femaleness, a view which is by no means universally confirmed in the animal kingdom.’ (53)
- ‘Another difficulty arises from the circumstance that there is so often associated with the erotic relationship, over and above its own sadistic components, a plain inclination to aggression. The love-object will not always view these complications with the degree of understanding and tolerance shown by the peasant woman who complained that her husband did not love her any more, since he had not beaten her for a week.’ (53)
- ‘Psycho-analytic work has shown us that it is precisely these frustrations of sexual life which people known as neurotics cannot tolerate.’ (55)
- ‘ ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’… Why should we do it? What good will it do us? But, above all, how shall we achieve it? How can it be possible? My love is something valuable to me which I ought not to throw away without reflection. It imposes duties on me for whose fulfillment I must be ready to make sacrifices. If I love someone, he must deserve it in some way… Indeed, I should be wrong to do so, for my love is valued by all my own people as a sign of my preferring them, and it is an injustice to them, if I put a par with them… What is the point of a precept enunciated with so much solemnity if its fulfillment cannot be recommended as reasonable?’ (56)
- ‘If this grandiose commandment had run ‘Love thy neighbor as thy neighbor loves thee,’ I should take no exception to it.’ (57)
- ‘Now it is very probable that my neighbor, when he is enjoined to love me as himself, will answer exactly as I have done and will repel me for the same reasons.’ (58)
- ‘The element of truth behind all this, which people are so ready to disavow, is that men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him… Who, in the face of all his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion?’ (58)
- ‘When the mental counter-forces which ordinarily inhibit it are out of action, it also manifests itself spontaneously and reveals man as a savage beast to whom consideration towards his own kind is something alien.’ (59)
- ‘The existence of this inclination to aggression, which we can detect in ourselves and justly assume to be present in others, is the factor which disturbs our relations with our neighbor and which forces civilization into such a high expenditure. In consequence of this primary mutual hostility of human beings, civilized society is perpetually threatened with disintegration. The interest of work in common would not hold it together; instinctual passions are stronger than reasonable interests. Civilization has to use its utmost efforts in order to set limits to man’s aggressive instincts and to hold the manifestations of them in check by psychical reaction-formations.’ (59)
- ‘The time comes when each one of us has to give up as illusions the expectations which, in his youth, he pinned upon his fellow-men, and when he may learn how much difficulty and pain has been added to his life by their ill-will.’ (59)
- ‘It is clearly not easy for men to give up the satisfaction of this inclination to aggression. They do not feel comfortable without it.’ (61)
- ‘It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness.’ (61)
- ‘When once the Apostle Paul had posited universal love between men as the foundation of his Christian community, extreme intolerance on the part of Christendom towards those who remained outside it became the inevitable consequence.’ (61)
- ‘If civilization imposes such great sacrifices not only on man’s sexuality but on his aggressivity, we can understand better why it is hard for him to be happy in that civilization.’ (62)
- ‘Civilized man has exchanged a portion of his possibilities of happiness for a portion of security. We must not forget, however, that in the primal family only the head of it enjoyed this instinctual freedom; the rest lived in slavish suppression.’ (62)
- ‘As regards the primitive peoples who exist today, careful researches have shown that their instinctual life is by no means to be envied for its freedom.’ (62)
- ‘When, with unsparing criticism, we try to uncover the roots of its imperfection, we are undoubtedly exercising a proper right and are not showing ourselves enemies of civilization.’ (62)
- ‘Hunger and love are what moves [sic] the world.’ Schiller (64)
- ‘As well as Eros there was an instinct of death. The phenomena of life could be explained from the concurrent or mutually opposing action of these two instincts.’ (66)
- ‘The two kinds of instinct seldom – perhaps never – appear in isolation from each other, but are alloyed with each other in varying and very different proportions and so become unrecognizable to our judgment. In sadism, long since known to us as a component instinct of sexuality, we should have before us a particularly strong alloy of this kind between trends of love and the destructive instinct.’ (66)
- ‘But even where it emerges without any sexual purpose, in the blindest fury of destructiveness, we cannot fail to recognize that the satisfaction of the instinct is accompanied by an extraordinarily high degree of narcissistic enjoyment, owing to its presenting the ego with a fulfillment of the latter’s old wishes for omnipotence.’ (68)
- ‘What happens in him to render his desire for aggression innocuous? Something very remarkable, which we should never have guessed and which is nevertheless quite obvious. His aggressiveness is introjected, internalized; it is, in point of fact, sent back to where it came from – that is, it is directed towards his own ego. There it is taken over by a portion of the ego, which sets itself against the rest of the ego as super-ego, and which now, in the form of ‘conscience’, is ready to put into action the same harsh aggressiveness that the ego would have liked to satisfy upon other, extraneous individuals. The tension between the harsh super-ego and the ego that is subjected to it, it called by us the sense of guilt; it expresses itself as a need for punishment.’ (70)
- ‘We may reject the existence of an original, as it were natural, capacity to distinguish good from bad… At the beginning, therefore, what is bad is whatever causes one to be threatened with loss of love.’ (71)
- ‘In many adults, too, it has only changed to the extent that the place of the father or the two parents is taken by the larger human community. Consequently, such people habitually allow themselves to do any bad things which promises them enjoyment, so long as they are sure that the authority will not know anything about it or cannot blame them for it.’ (72)
- ‘… external frustration – so greatly enhances the power of the conscience in the super-ego. As long as things go well with a man, his conscience is lenient and lets the ego do all sorts of things; but when misfortune befalls him, he searches his soul, acknowledges his sinfulness, heightens the demands of his conscience, imposes abstinences on himself and punishes himself with penances.’ (73)
- ‘Fate is regarded as a substitute for the parental agency.’ (73)
- ‘It is remarkable how differently a primitive man behaves. If he has met with a misfortune, he does not throw the blame on himself but on his fetish, which has obviously not done its duty, and he gives it a thrashing instead of punishing himself.’ (74)
- ‘Conscience (or more correctly, the anxiety which later becomes conscience) is indeed the cause of instinctual renunciation to begin with, but that later the relationship is reversed. Every renunciation of instinct now becomes a dynamic source of conscience and every fresh renunciation increases the latter’s severity and intolerance.’ (75)
- ‘The effect of instinctual renunciation on the conscience is that every piece of aggression whose satisfaction the subject gives up is taken over by the super-ego and increases the latter’s aggressiveness (against the ego).’ (76)
- ‘The original severity of the super-ego does not – or does not so much – represent the severity which one has experienced from it, or which one attributes to it; it represents rather one’s own aggressiveness towards it.’ (76-77)
- ‘And we may well heave a sigh of relief at the thought that it is nevertheless vouchsafed to a few to salvage without effort from the whirlpool of their own feelings the deepest truths, towards which the rest of us have to find our way through tormenting uncertainty and with restless groping.’ Freud on Goethe (80)
- ‘My intention to represent the sense of guilt as the most important problem in the development of civilization and to show that the price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt.’ (81)
- ‘That the education of young people at the present day conceals from them the part which sexuality will play in their lives is not that only reproach which we are obliged to make against it. Its other sin is that it does not prepare them for the aggressiveness of which they are destined to become the objects.’ (81)
- ‘Consequently, it is very conceivable that the sense of guilt produced by civilization is not perceived as such either, and remains to a large extent unconscious, or appears as a sort of malaise, a dissatisfaction, for which people seek other motivations. Religions, at any rate, have never overlooked the part played in civilization by a sense of guilt. Furthermore – a point which I failed to appreciate elsewhere – they claim to redeem mankind from this sense of guilt, which is called sin.’ (82-83)
- ‘For a wide variety of reasons, it is very far from my intention to express an opinion about the value of civilization.’ (91)

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