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In Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud defines civilization as follows:

"The word 'civilization' [Kultur] describes the whole sum of the achievements and 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."[1]

In The Future of an Illusion Freud provided a more extended definition of civilization:

"Human civilization, by which I mean all those respects in which human life has raised itself above its animal status and differs from the life of the beasts—and I scorn to distinguish between culture and civilization—presents, as we know, two aspects to the observer. It includes, on the one hand, all the knowledge and capacity that men have acquired in order to control the forces of nature and extract its wealth for the satisfaction of human needs and, on the other hand, all the regulations necessary in order to adjust the relations of men to one another and especially the distribution of the available wealth."[2]

These definitions, however, leave out many aspects of the concept of civilization that Freud had mentioned in other works, including "Civilized Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness" (1908d).

These themes include the relationship of civilization to the superego and to sublimation, its consequences for neurosis, the origin of civilization, and the different attitudes of individuals toward civilization, especially as a function of their sex.

Freud's conflation of civilization and culture here is surprising, especially when we consider that the distinction is clearly present when he discusses the force deployed by civilization (Kultur), on the one hand, and the "spiritual heritage of culture" used to "reconcile mankind" with that civilization, on the other, namely, the "spiritual heritage of culture" (1927c).

Le Rider (1993) has pointed out that this opposition between culture and civilization had behind it a philosophical tradition of which Freud was a part.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) saw civilization as a ceremonial aspect of culture, and saw culture as achieved by means of a sustained effort (Bildung) and as culminating in the great achievements of art and thought.

In a more radical perspective, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) saw civilization as subjugation and saw culture, in contrast, as the artistic and intellectual flowering of intact natures.

The period between 1920 and 1939 saw the rise and spread of the idea of popular culture and the notion that culture is a means of fulfilling human life (Le Rider, 1993).

It is also arguable that Freud rejected this tradition and deliberately ignored the distinction between culture and civilization because of his theory of the birth of civilization and its link with sexuality.

His theory might be considered an example of the cunning of civilization, in the dialectical sense in which G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) speaks of the "cunning of Reason" (Mijolla-Mellor, 1992).

The cunning lies in the fact that humanity creates civilization by transforming and sublimating individuals' instinctual aims and objects and sublimation simultaneously enables individuals to realize those aims and attain those objects in another form.

Yet in doing this, humanity consolidates a cultural edifice that weighs upon individuals and imposes restrictions on them by dint of suppression.

"There will be brought home to you with irresistible forces the many developments, repressions, sublimations, and reaction-formations by means of which a child with a quite other innate endowment grows into what we call a normal man, the bearer, and in part the victim, of the civilization that has been so painfully acquired."[3]

Freud thus found himself once more in thrall to his concept of sublimation, whose shortcomings led him to confuse the coercion of institutionalized education with the process of individual learning (Bildung), a creative force and source of pleasure (intellectual pleasure) for the subject.

The dialectic in which the sublimation of one group can become the source of suppression for another group that does not participate in the process of self-education without doubt constitutes a cunning of civilization, whereby a devitalized culture dons the mantle of civilizing norms.

Civilization appears as an entity in and of itself, a given for the subject on whom it is imposed:

"The development of civilization appears to us as a peculiar process which mankind undergoes, and in which several things strike us as familiar. We may characterize this process with reference to the changes which it brings about in the familiar instinctual dispositions of human beings, to satisfy which is, after all, the economic task of our lives."[4]

As Freud pointed out in "Civilized Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness" (1908d), civilization, by imposing sexual frustration, has a direct effect on the genesis of neuroses.

Freud repeatedly claimed that sublimation should not be a norm, since it is possible only for some people:

"Mastering it by sublimation, by deflecting the sexual instinctual forces away from their sexual aim to higher cultural aims, can be achieved by a minority and then only intermittently, and least easily during the period of ardent and vigorous youth."[5]

For the others, submission, especially to sexual morality, has negative consequences ranging from neurosis to a degradation of sexual objects (1908d).

Of those who sublimate, some are heroes, like Prometheus, whom Freud analyzes in "The Acquisition and Control of Fire" (1932a), or Hercules, about whom he writes:

"The prevention of erotic satisfaction calls up a piece of aggressiveness against the person who has interfered with the satisfaction, and that this aggressiveness has itself to be suppressed in turn. But if this is so, it is after all only the aggressiveness which is transformed into a sense of guilt, by being suppressed and made over to the superego."[6]

The process of civilizing is divided among ideals: coercion from the superego, cultural creation, and the resulting admiration from the ego ideal.

"The satisfaction which the ideal offers to the participants in the culture is thus of a narcissistic nature; it rests on their pride in what has already been successfully achieved."[7]

Here too the civilizing process reveals its unstable nature, for by reinforcing nationalism, the "narcissism of minor differences," and the cultural ideals of a people, it can become a pretext for a return to the most savage form of struggle: war.

Civilization appears as a separate entity, albeit one produced by humankind. It is necessary, though it is always excessive in its demands and premature in its anticipation:

"It is an ineradicable and innate defect of our and every other civilization, that it imposes on children, who are driven by instinct and weak in intellect, decisions which only the mature intelligence of adults can vindicate."[8]

Alongside the writings in which Freud directly addresses the question of civilization, there are a number of anthropological texts in which, starting from the primitive horde and the murder of the father, he retraces the genesis of the matriarchy, the band of brothers, and the return to patriarchy.

Yet these two perspectives are relatively dissociated in Freud's work to the extent that his ideas on civilization, with a few digressions to discuss ancient Rome or Louis XIV, the Sun King, in France, are for the most part related to the twentieth century.

Abram Kardiner (1977) and Ruth Benedict (1935), writers on culture and psychoanalysis, would later make use of Freud's interest in anthropology. Freud's views on the genesis of matriarchy, however, are totally dissociated from his writings about women.

Women, Freud wrote, "come into opposition to civilization and display their retarding and restraining influence" (1930a, p. 103).

Here too the cunning of civilization is on display: Women form the basis of civilization, "represent[ing] the interests of the family and sexual life."

They are betrayed, however, by the fact that men sublimate to their detriment.

"The woman," Freud concludes, "finds herself forced into the background by the claims of civilization, and she adopts a hostile attitude toward it."[9]

See Also


  1. 1930a, p. 89
  2. 1927c, p. 5-6
  3. Freud, 1910a, p. 36
  4. Freud, 1930a, p. 96
  5. 1908d, p. 192
  6. 1930a, p. 138
  7. Freud, 1927c, p. 13
  8. Freud, 1927c, p. 51-52
  9. 1930a, p. 104
  1. Freud, Sigmund. (1908d). Civilized sexual morality and modern nervous illness. SE, 9: 181-204.
  2. ——. (1910a). Five lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 11: 7-55.
  3. ——. (1927c). The future of an illusion. SE, 21: 5-56.
  4. ——. (1930a). Civilization and its discontents. SE, 21: 64-145.
  5. ——. (1932a). The acquisition and control of fire. SE, 22: 183-193.