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Civilization and Its Discontents Essay

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Updated: Apr 11th, 2019

In 1927, Sigmund Freud wrote the book, Civilization and Its Discontents. It is among the most famous works of Freud and has been in circulation in all parts of the world. Civilization and its Discontents talks about Freud’s views on the primary tension that exist between human beings and civilization.

In this book he states that the instinctive will of individuals such as the desire to commit a crime are controlled by the setting of laws (that prohibit such vices) by civilization. In 1955, Herbert Marcuse wrote the book, Eros and civilization, which is a social critic of Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents.

In this book, he attempts to combine the theories of Freud to the ones of Max. Between 1976 and 1984, the French philosopher Michael Foucault wrote the book, The History of Sexuality. This book touches on Freud’s views on civilization and provides a different angle to the same as opposed to Marcuse’s opinion. The main aim of writing this paper is to outline the concepts laid out by Freud in Civilization and its Discontents and then use the works of Marcuse and Foucault to critique the same.

In his book, Freud generally defines the id as an accumulation of feelings. His implication is that there is no boundary between self and the environment. Human beings can act in accordance to their feelings without considering effects of the same on the external environment. The same is true for the environment against an individual. The actions of people and that of their external environment may disagree with the laws and standards of the society. Freud continues to say that the only thing that intermediate between the environment and an individual is the ego.

The ego has a responsibility of controlling requirements of natural instincts and deciding which one to satisfy against others.[1] On top of that, the ego decides on the particular time that an instinct demanded by self is satisfied. The id gives rise to the ego via the principles of pleasure and reality. Fraud defines the pleasure principle as pain out, pleasure in. This implies that it is the natural instinct of humans to acquire maximum pleasure while with a minimum amount of discomfort.

The desires to have fun and become comfortable dominate within the desires of self. As soon as ego is developed, an individual discovers the importance of external environment and tries to match their actions to conform to the boundaries that the society lays. On top of that, the individual realizes that pleasure is not always achieved and thus the need to adjust in order to fit.

According to Freud, the ego does not only try to create a state of equilibrium between self and the realities of the society, but also between the id and the super ego. Freud defines the super ego as that which eventually forms within the individual as they grow older (become parents) or the society in future.

Some refer to this super ego as the conscious. It has the responsibility of threatening and judging the ego. In reality, an individual in such a scenario reflects on the consequences of conforming to their desires. The super ego thus develops the principle of reality and makes it embedded within an individual.

Freud relates all instincts of an individual to their sexual instincts (libido) and the instincts of being aggressive. According to him, the two work hand in hand against one another. They define the actions of individuals and are thus crucial in life. The amount of aggression during sex can make an individual to engage in criminal activities such as murder and rape.

Freud states that the society comes up with laws and regulations (super ego) whose functions are to control the capabilities of the libido. It is therefore only natural that there exists constant conflict between an individual and the society. Due to this, civilization deprives individuals of their liberty by making them to work.

Freud said that civilization repress the instincts that make an individual have the desire for pleasure while diverting instinctual energy to hard work. According to him, this repression was created by external necessity. Man has to work in order to survive and stay alive.

Marcuse agrees that much as natural scarcity compels people to work, repression is not all natural. He (Marcuse) argues that there exists social repression. The availability of technology created a desire to produce a surplus in the society. People are forced to work so that a surplus is generated.

People work to create more than is necessary so that eventually toil becomes instinct.[2] Marcuse adds that natural repression brought about by scarcity has been conquered and the desire for abundance taken effect. A world of pleasure has been created by the use of automation which has reduced unnecessary toil. According to Marcuse, the repression that currently exists is imposed by the society rather than nature.

Freud discovered the instrument of socio-political organization. This instrument is the instinct and the desire to satisfy the self. The concern of “One-dimensional man” is how this discovery has been implemented by the ruling class. Marcuse said that the ruling class intentionally came up with the “One-dimensional man” to use Freud’s views to control the working class.

He argues that advancement in technology has not only created a non-repressive society of surplus, but also initiated a way of manipulating the people into being contented with the current system. Workers have not just been made to acknowledge capitalism, but their biological nature has been alienated to necessitate it.

Foucault neither solely dwell on psycho-analytic concept of Freud nor the social model of Marcuse but employs the concept of sado-masochism. Sado-masochism stem from two words, sadism and masochism which means pleasure in creating pain and pleasure in receiving pain respectively.

He repeatedly discussed repression in a way that distinguishes his concept from that of Marcuse and Freud. Foucault said that Marcuse exaggerated a lot on repression. That repression was taken by Freud and Marcuse to be negative. He added that the positive aspect of repression should be considered in the society. According to him, repression signified power. Foucault gave an example that a lot of institutions were successful as a result of repression.

In the light of the work of Marcuse, it is hard to say that the character of power and repression in individuals is simply realized after viewing them positively. Foucault realized that it is crucial to transform the views of people on repression and power in a positive perspective.[3] Power give rise to pleasure and pleasure relates to sexual desires. Power should be controlled in the society to make it productive. Controlling sexuality of the society would effectively lead to the stability of its economy.

The major difference between Foucault and Marcuse is that Marcuse wants to reduce the notion of pleasure and sex to be negligible while Foucault wants to remove it completely. Both Marcuse and Foucault agree that the character of an individual’s life is crucial within the society.


  1. Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. London: Penguin, 2002.
  2. Marcuse, Herbert. Eros and Civilization, 2nd edition. London: Routledge, 1987
  3. Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality Vol. 1: The Will to Knowledge. London: Penguin, 1990.
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