Sigmund Freud
Civilization and Its Discontents

Translated by James Strachey

Excerpts from Digitized Original at the Internet Archive.

(NB. Paragraph numbers apply to this excerpt, not the original source. This English translation was published in 1961.)

{1}[In considering] the problem of why it is so hard for men to be happy, [we see that one source of unhappiness is] the inadequacy of the regulations which adjust the mutual relationships of human beings in the family, the state and society. . . . [When we think about this,] we come upon a contention which is so astonishing that we must dwell upon it. This contention holds that what we call our civilization is largely responsible for our misery. . . . The word "civilization" describes the whole sum of the achievements and the regulations which distinguish our lives from those of our animal ancestors and which serve two purposes - - namely to protect men against nature and to adjust their mutual relations. . . .

{2} Sublimation of instinct is an especially conspicuous feature of cultural development. . . , [and] it is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built upon a renunciation of instinct, how much it presupposes precisely the non-satisfaction (by suppression, repression or some other means?) of powerful instincts. . . .

{3} The [heterosexual] love which founded the family continues to operate in civilization both in its original form, in which it does not renounce direct sexual satisfaction, and in its modified form [as platonic affection]. . . . In each, it continues to carry on its function of binding together considerable numbers of people, and it does so in a more intensive fashion than can be effected through the interest of work in common. . . .

{4} Sexual love is a relationship between two individuals in which a third can only be superfluous or disturbing, whereas civilization depends on relationships between a considerable number of individuals.  When a love-relationship is at its height there is no room left for any interest in the environment; a pair of lovers are sufficient to themselves, and do not even need the child they have in common to make them happy.  In no other case does Eros so clearly betray the core of his being, his purpose of making one out of more than one; but when he has achieved this in the proverbial way through the love of two human beings, he refuses to go further.

{5} So far, we can quite well imagine a cultural community consisting of double individuals like this, who, libidinally satisfied in themselves, are connected with one another through the bonds of common work and common interests.  If this were so, civilization would not have to withdraw any energy from sexuality.  But this desirable state of things does not, and never did, exist.  Reality shows us that civilization is not content with the ties we have so far allowed it.  It aims at binding the members of the community together in a libidinal way as well and employs every means to that end.  It favours every path by which strong identifications can be established between the members of the community, and it summons up aim-inhibited libido on the largest scale so as to strengthen the communal bond by relations of friendship.  In order for these aims to be fulfilled, a restriction upon sexual life is unavoidable.  But we are unable to understand what the necessity is which forces civilization along this path and which causes its antagonism to sexuality.  There must be some disturbing factor which we have not yet discovered.

{6} The clue may be supplied by one of the ideal demands, as we have called them, of civilized society.  It runs:  ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’  It is known throughout the world and is undoubtedly older than Christianity, which puts it forward as its proudest claim.  Yet it is certainly not very old; even in historical times it was still strange to mankind.  Let us adopt a naïve attitude towards it, as though we were hearing it for the first time; we shall be unable then to suppress a feeling of surprise and bewilderment.  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.  (I leave out of account the use he may be to me, and also his possible significance for me as a sexual object, for neither of these two kinds of relationship comes into question where the precept to love my neighbour is concerned.)  He deserves it if he is so like me in important ways that I can love myself in him; and he deserves it if he is so much more perfect than myself that I can love my ideal of my own self in him.  Again, I have to love him if he is my friend’s son, since the pain my friend would feel if any harm came to him would be my pain too—I should have to share it.  But if he is a stranger to me and if he cannot attract me by any worth of his own or any significance that he may already have acquired for my emotional life, it will be hard for me to love him.  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 stranger on a par with them.  But if I am to love him (with this universal love) merely because he, too, is an inhabitant of this earth, like an insect, an earth-worm or a grass-snake, then I fear that only a small modicum of my love will fall to his share—not by any possibility as much as, by the judgement of my reason, I am entitled to retain for myself.  What is the point of a precept enunciated with so much solemnity if its fulfillment cannot be recommended as reasonable?

{7} On closer inspection, I find still further difficulties.  Not merely is this stranger in general unworthy of my love; I must honestly confess that he has more claim to my hostility and even my hatred.  He seems not to have the least trace of love for me and shows me not the slightest consideration.  If it will do him any good he has no hesitation in injuring me, nor does he ask himself whether the amount of advantage he gains bears any proportion to the extent of the harm he does to me.  Indeed, he need not even obtain an advantage; if he can satisfy any sort of desire by it, he thinks nothing of jeering at me, insulting me, slandering me and showing his superior power; and the more secure he feels and the more helpless I am, the more certainly I can expect him to behave like this to me.  If he behaves differently, if he shows me consideration and forbearance as a stranger, I am ready to treat him in the same way, in any case and quite apart from any precept.  Indeed, if this grandiose commandment had run ‘Love thy neighbor as thy neighbor loves thee’, I should not take exception to it.  And there is a second commandment, which seems to me even more incomprehensible and arouses still stronger opposition in me.  It is ‘Love thine enemies’.  If I think it over, however, I see that I am wrong in treating it as a greater imposition.  At bottom it is the same thing.

{8} I think I can now hear a dignified voice admonishing me:  ‘It is precisely because your neighbor is not worthy of love, and is on the contrary your enemy, that you should love him as yourself.’  I then understand that the case is one like that of Credo quia absurdum.

{9} 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.  I hope he will not have the same objective grounds for doing so, but he will have the same idea as I have.  Even so, the behavior of human beings shows differences, which ethics, disregarding the fact that such differences are determined, classifies as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’  So long as these undeniable differences have not been removed, obedience to high ethical demands entails damage to the aims of civilization, for it puts a positive premium on being bad.  One is irresistibly reminded of an incident in the French Chamber when capital punishment was being debated.  A member had been passionately supporting its abolition and his speech was being received with tumultuous applause, when a voice from the hall called out:  ‘Que messieurs les assassins commencent!’

{10} 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.  Homo homini lupus.  Who, in the face of all his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion?  As a rule this cruel aggressiveness waits for some provocation or puts itself at the service of some other purpose, whose goal might also have been reached by milder measures.  In circumstances that are favourable to it, 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.  Anyone who calls to mind the atrocities committed during the racial migrations or the invasions of the Huns, or by the people known as Mongols under Jenghis Khan and Tamerlane, or at the capture of Jerusalem by the pious Crusaders, or even, indeed, the horrors of the recent World War—anyone who calls these things to mind will have to bow humbly before the truth of this view.

{11} 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 [of energy].  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 manifestation of them in check by psychical reaction-formations.  Hence, therefore, the use of methods intended to incite people into identifications and aim-inhibited relationships of love, hence the restriction sexual life, and hence too the ideal’s commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself—a commandment which is really justified by the fact that nothing else runs so strongly counter to the original nature of man.  In spite of every effort, these endeavours of civilization have not so far achieved very much .  It hopes to prevent the crudest excesses of brutal violence by itself assuming the right to use violence against criminals, but the law is not able to lay hold of the more cautious and refined manifestations of human aggressiveness.  The time comes when each one of us has to give up as illusions the expectations which, in his youth, he pinned upon his fellowmen, and when he may learn how much difficulty and pain has been added to his life by their ill-will.  At the same time, it would be unfair to reproach civilization with trying to eliminate strife and competition from human activity. These things are undoubtedly indispensable.  But opposition is not necessarily enmity; it is merely misused and made an occasion for enmity. 

{12} The communists believe that they have found the path to deliverance from our evils.  According to them, man is wholly good and is well-disposed to his neighbor; but the institution of private property has corrupted his nature.  The ownership of private wealth gives the individual power, and with it the temptation to ill-treat his neighbor; while the man who is excluded from possession is bound to rebel in hostility against his oppressor.  If private property were abolished, all wealth held in common, and everyone allowed share in the enjoyment of it, ill-will and hostility would disappear among men.  Since everyone’s needs would be satisfied, no one would have any reason to regard another as his enemy; all would willingly undertake the work that was necessary.  I have no concern with any economic criticisms of the communist system; I cannot enquire into whether the abolition of private property is expedient or advantageous.  But I am able to recognize that the psychological premises on which the system is based are an untenable illusion.  In abolishing private property we deprive the human love of one of its instruments, certainly a strong one, though certainly not the strongest; but we have in no way altered the differences in power and influence which are misused by aggressiveness, nor have we altered anything in its nature.  Aggressiveness was not created by property.  It reigned almost without-limit in primitive times, when property was still very scanty, and it already shows itself in the nursery almost before property has given up its primal, anal form; it forms the basis of every relation of affection and love among people (with the single exception, perhaps, of the mother’s relation to her male child).  If we do away with personal rights over material wealth, there still remains prerogative in the field of sexual relationships, which is bound to become the source of the strongest dislike and the most violent hostility among men who in other respects are on an equal footing.  If we were to remove this factor, too, by allowing complete freedom of sexual life and thus abolishing the family, the germ-cell of civilization, we cannot, it is true, easily foresee what new paths the development of civilization could take; but one thing we can expect and that is that this indestructible feature of human nature will follow it there.

{13} It is clearly not easy for men to give up the satisfaction of this inclination to aggression.  They do not feel comfortable without it.  The advantage which a comparatively small cultural group offers of allowing this instinct an outlet in the form of hostility against intruders is not to be despised.  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.  I once discussed the phenomenon that it is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and in ridiculing each other—like the Spaniards and Portuguese, for instance, the North Germans and South Germans, the English and Scotch, and so on.  I gave this phenomenon the name of ‘the narcissism of minor differences’, a name which does not do much to explain it.  We can now see that it is a convenient and relatively harmless satisfaction of the inclination to aggression, by means of which cohesion between the members of the community is made easier.  In this respect the Jewish people, scattered everywhere, have rendered most useful services to the civilizations of the countries that have been their hosts; but unfortunately all the massacres of the Jews in the Middle Ages did not suffice to make that period more peaceful and secure for their Christian fellows.  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.  To the Romans, who had not founded their communal life as a State upon love, religious intolerance was something foreign, although with them religion was a concern of the State and the State was permeated by religion.  Neither was it an unaccountable chance that the dream of a Germanic world-dominion called for anti-semitism as its complement; and it is intelligible that the attempt to establish a new, communist civilization in Russia should find its psychological support in the persecution of the bourgeois.  One only wonders, with concern, what the Soviets will do after they have wiped out their bourgeois.

{14} 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.  In fact, primitive man was better off in knowing no restrictions of instinct.  To counterbalance this, his prospects of enjoying this happiness for any length of time were very slender.  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.  In that primal period of civilization, the contrast between a minority who enjoyed the advantages of civilization and a majority who were robbed of those advantages was, therefore, carried to extremes. 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.  It is subject to restrictions of a different kind but perhaps of greater severity than those attaching to modern civilized man.

{15} When we justly find fault with the present state of our civilization for so inadequately fulfilling our demands for a plan of life that shall make us happy; and for allowing the existence of so much suffering which could probably be avoided—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.  We may expect gradually to carry through such alterations in our civilization as will better satisfy our needs and will escape our criticisms. But perhaps we may also familiarize ourselves with the idea that there are difficulties attaching to the nature of civilization which will not yield to any attempt at reform. 

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