Civilization and Its Discontents


The fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance in their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction. It may be that in this respect precisely the present time deserves a special interest. Men have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent that with their help they would have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man.

Sigmund Freud, 1930

Curator's Comments

How can people be happy in society if they have to give up fundamental satisfactions? How can society avoid self-destruction if it only exists by denying basic desires? Freud did not propose answers to these questions but thought that by asking them we might better protect ourselves from our most dangerous impulses.


Freud had begun emphasizing the "human instinct of aggression and self-destruction" in the wake of World War I. He called this instinct the "Death Drive" or Thanatos.

Back to top