Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents is the father of psychoanalysis’ most broadly philosophical work. Over the course of Freud’s extended essay, he asks why human beings agree to give up some of their liberties in the service of civilization. Freud comes to the conclusion that there is a utilitarian reason for doing so: to maximize pleasure and to minimize pain. Fear is at the root of the need for civilization: fear of natural and man-made disasters and the fear of harm from other human beings. However, as a result of the process of organizing into a civilization, citizens are forced to put aside some of their personal desires and instincts in the service of the community. Although Freud was well aware of the potential psychological negatives of suppressing personal desires, ultimately he argued that reigning in the libido was vitally necessary to preserve the whole of humanity.

Just like the ‘macro’ experience of civilization, every individual within his or her own life goes through the process of conceding certain liberties, in exchange for the safety of relationships. The young child begins as a complete egotist, and believes the world revolves around him or herself. At first, the child desires the mother, but when the child realizes that he or she cannot ‘have’ the mother (in line with the boy’s Oedipus Complex) or that the mother has ‘deprived’ her of a penis (as in the case of a girl’s penis envy or Electra Complex) he or she must conform his or her immediate desires to more socially acceptable dictates. The boy tries to be like the father, and marry a replica of the mother in the form of another woman; the girl tries to resemble her mother to ‘have’ the authority of the penis in the form of a replica of her father as a husband. Within a civilization, individuals sacrifice the impulses of their ids to accommodate the desires of others, and are governed by their super egos (what might colloquially be called a conscience). When the individual child or the collective understands that it cannot have all that it wants and totally satisfy its personal pleasure principle, it must take into consideration the need to avoid pain (such as the pain of displeasing a parent or solitude). Accommodation to the will of others may be necessary to reduce the likelihood of pain, or to obtain other, more lasting pleasures. The pleasure of satisfying every sexual desire is sacrificed for the pleasures of being safe and protected by a government and enjoying the moderate pleasures of marriage.

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Civilization thus provides us with some pleasure, but it also provides us with pain, when it limits the exercise of our desires. This fact has been concealed by the force of religion, which suggests a moral rationale for obedience, rather than the truth of the pleasure principle. Civilization instills certain necessary checks to contain sexual and aggressive impulses, like feelings of guilt. The original, Oedipal anger of the boy against the father is turned inward, against himself, given that he is taught that it is ‘wrong’ to want to hurt his father and desire his mother.

Civilization and its Discontents is partially an argument against utopian philosophies like Marxism. Freud’s concept is that society is inherently masochistic in nature, dependent upon feelings of guilt and sacrifice to function. A utopia is impossible. The innate impulses of desire and aggressiveness of the individual will always be in conflict with other individuals and the collective. To be truly ‘happy’ in an ecstatic sense would mean destroying the rights of others. If everyone lived by the law of the id, then only the strongest would survive. Society aims for moderation: a moderate satisfaction of the desires of all people through some sense of guilt and limitation through the power of the super ego. If there was no law and no sense of guilt, then some people would suffer in extreme pain, subject to the will of others.

The fundamental problem with communism, according to Freud, is that economic acquisition is not the root of all evil: desire for others and the primitive aggressive impulse also causes conflict. Economic disparities are one of many types of latent sources of anger — consider how neighboring peoples, Freud says, are constantly at war with one another, as if warlike behavior is stimulated by the presence of others, and needs no other justification. Scarce resources is put individuals and collectives at odds for land, food, and love.

Reformers, whether communists, feminists, or those who would make a claim for sexual liberation may be right in finding fault with the injustices of society but they must acknowledge what must be overcome when creating a . Unneeded suffering may be unwelcome, but civilization, through the process of creating its necessary structures, inevitably causes some unnecessary as well as necessary sacrifices and pain for some individuals. Conflict and pain are unavoidable, and acceptance of these facts is essential to obtain some measure of psychological health.

Critics would say that Freud is a pessimist; others would say he is a realist about the scarcity of resources and the inevitable opportunity costs to the individual due to the process of civilization. But it could be argued that Freud was too accepting of the limits placed upon members of his society, such as women, the members of the working classes, and different ethnic and racial groups. Even if perfection is not possible, this does not mean that all social laws must be accepted without question and change is impossible.