Freud, Sigmund


In recent generations the human race has made extraordinary advances in the natural sciences and their technical application, and it has increased its control over nature in a way that would previously have been unimaginable. The details of these advances are generally known and need not be enumerated. Human beings are proud of these achievements, and rightly so. Yet they believe they have observed that this newly won mastery over space and time, this subjugation of the forces of nature — the fulfillment of an age-old longing — has not increased the amount of pleasure they can expect from life or made them feel any happier. We ought to be content to infer from this observation that power over nature is not the sole condition of human happiness, just as it is not the sole aim of cultural endeavours, rather than to conclude that technical progress is of no value in the economy of our happiness. By way of objection it might be asked whether it is not a positive addition to my pleasure, an unequivocal increment of my happiness, if I can hear, as often as I wish, the voice of the child who lives hundreds of miles away, or if a friend can inform me, shortly after reaching land, that he has survived his long and arduous voyage…. [however] most of these satisfactions follow the pattern of the ‘cheap pleasure’ recommended in a certain joke, a pleasure that one can enjoy by sticking a bare leg out from under the covers on a cold winter’s night, then pulling it back in. If there were no railway to overcome distances, my child would never have left his home town, and I should not need the telephone in order to hear his voice. If there were no sea travel, my friend would not have embarked on his voyage, and I should not need the telegraph service in order to allay my anxiety about him.

– Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents [1930]. David McLintock, trans. New York: Penguin, 2002, pp. 31-32.

Order is a kind of compulsion to repeat, which, once a pattern is established, determines when, where and how something is to be done, so that there is no hesitation or vacillation in identical cases. The benefits of order are undeniable; it enables people to make the best use of space and time, while sparing their mental forces.

– Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents [1930]. David McLintock, trans. New York: Penguin, 2002, p. 38.

… we welcome it as a sign of civilization if people devote care to things that have no practical value whatever — for instance, when the urban parks that are needed as playgrounds and reservoirs of fresh air also contain flowerbeds…. we demand that civilized man should revere beauty where he comes across it in nature and create it, if he can, through the work of his hands.

– Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents [1930]. David McLintock, trans. New York: Penguin, 2002, p. 37.

With all his tools man improves on his own organs, both motor and sensory, or clears away barriers to their functioning. Engines place gigantic forces at his disposal, which he can direct, like his muscles, wherever he chooses; the ship and the aeroplane ensure that neither water nor air can hinder his movements. By means of spectacles he can correct the defect of his ocular lens; with the telescope he can see far into the distance; and with the microscope he can overcome the limits of visibility imposed by the structure of the retina. In the camera he has created an instrument that captures evanescent visual impressions, while the gramaphone record does the same for equally fleeting auditory impressions; both are essentially materializations of his innate faculty of recall, of his memory. With the help of the telephone he can hear sounds from distances that even the fairy tale would respect as inaccessible. Writing is in origin the language of the absent, the house a substitute for the womb — one’s first dwelling place, probably still longed for, where one was safe and felt so comfortable.

What man, through his science and technology has produced in this world, where he first appeared as a frail animal organism and where every individual of his species must still make his entry as a helpless babe — ‘oh inch of nature!’ — all this not only sounds like a fairy tale, but actually fulfils all — no, most — fairy-tale wishes. All these assets he can claim as cultural acquisitions. Long ago he formed an ideal conception of omnipotence and omniscience, which he embodied in his gods, attributing to them whatever seemed beyond the reach of his desires — or what was forbidden him. We may say, then, that these gods were cultural ideals. Man has now come close to reaching these ideals and almost become a god himself. Admittedly only in the way ideals are usually reached, according to the general judgement of humanity — not completely, in some respects not at all, in others only partly. Man has become so to speak, a god with artificial limbs. He is quite impressive when he dons all his auxiliary organs, but they have not become a part of him and still give a great deal of trouble on occasion. However, he is entitled to console himself with the fact that this development will not have come to an end in AD 1930. Distant ages will bring new and probably unimaginable advances in this field of civilization and so enhance his god-like nature. But in the interest of our investigation let us also remember that modern man does not feel happy with his god-like nature.

– Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents [1930]. David McLintock, trans. New York: Penguin, 2002, pp. 35-37.

The fateful question for the human race seems to be whether, and to
what extent, the development of its civilization will manage to
overcome the disturbance of communal life caused by the human drive
for aggression and self-destruction. Perhaps in this context the
present age is worthy of special interest. Human beings made such
strides controlling the forces of nature that, with the help of these
forces, they will have no difficulty in exterminating one another,
down to the last man.

Excerpt from Sigmund Freud’s conclusion to Civilization and Its Discontents (1930)