Death and Civilisation


“Nature rises up against us, majestic, cruel and inexorable.”

—Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion

Freud’s The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and its Discontents form a duology which show an embittered Freud during the final phase of his career. By mainly relying on these two works, our aim is to show the relation between nature, civilisation, and death. According to Freud, we became civilised to escape the brutality of nature, but civilisation causes us much uneasiness; consequently, sometimes we wish to return to the state of nature to avoid the uneasiness imposed on us by civilisation. It seems we cannot make up our minds about nature and civilisation, and we are constantly being torn apart between these two poles. After having explained the relation between nature, civilisation, and death, we will briefly show how religion was embraced as a way out of the nature-civilisation dilemma.

From Nature to Civilisation

In Civilization and its Discontents Freud proposes that civilisation is the source of uneasiness [Unbehagen] while in The Future of an Illusion, Freud defends civilisation. The important question that reading these two books side by side poses is, If civilisation is the source of our discontents, why does Freud defend civilisation? This double perspective that civilisation is both the source of human prosperity and uneasiness arises from man’s super-ego, for a certain duality is an inherent part of the super-ego: on the one hand, the super-ego causes frustration by regulating our instincts, and on the other hand, without it, one cannot “become a moral and social being” (Freud, 1962, p. 7). The effects of this duality is felt by every person since “every child presents this process of transformation” (Freud, 1962, p. 7) regardless of the culture in which they are brought up; thus, despite the psychological problems that the super-ego causes, “a strengthening of the super-ego is a most precious cultural asset” (Freud, 1962, p. 7). (Incidentally, Freud sees no distinction between civilisation and culture (Freud, 1962, p. 2).)

In both Civilization and its Discontents and The Future of an Illusion, people and their relations to one another are thought to be at the root of the problem. Strangely enough, “our relations to other men” (Freud, 1961b, p. 26) is something that is both the answer to our uneasiness in culture and the cause of our sufferings.

It is easy to imagine why our relation to other people might be regarded as our salvation: we are social beings and we need other people. Furthermore, according to Freud, perhaps the most effective defence mechanism against uneasiness is love. But our relation to other men can have a much darker side, because people are inherently destructive: “Among these instinctual wishes are those of incest, cannibalism and lust for killing” (Freud, 1962, p. 6), or in other words, sex and violence.

“If one imagines its prohibitions lifted—if, then, one may take any woman one pleases as a sexual object, if one may without hesitation kill one’s rival for her love or anyone else who stands in one’s way, if, too, one can carry off any of the other man’s belongings without asking leave—how splendid, what a string of satisfactions one’s life would be” (Freud, 1962, p. 11)!

In the above passage we see a faint association between sex, violence, and death. Perhaps this is the reason why death has sometimes been eroticised in arts and culture. But artistic creation, such as paintings in the style of Der Tod und das Mädchen, is not the only means by which death can be eroticised; the relation between sex and death seems to be much stronger:

“In sadism and masochism we have always seen before us manifestations of the destructive instinct (directed outwards and inwards), strongly alloyed with erotism” (Freud, 1961b, p. 79).

Freud tells us that this sort of destructive (or aggressive) behaviour is a portion of the death instinct which seeps out (Freud, 1961b, p. 78).

It may be the case that in the state of nature, our instincts would not be restricted, and we may be free to do as we please, but it seems that the instinct for self-preservation is reason enough not to dismantle civilisation, for even if one managed to become a tyrant by imposing oneself on everyone else, there would be no escaping nature herself: “she destroys us” (Freud, 1962, p. 11). Accordingly, fear of death and destruction are what push us to form civilisations:

“It was precisely because of these dangers with which nature threatens us that we came together and created civilization. […] For the principal task of civilization, its actual raison d’être, is to defend us against nature” (Freud, 1962, p. 11).

It is nature herself that we seek to “to escape through the work of civilization” (Freud, 1962, p. 12).

In both works (Civilization and its Discontents and The Future of an Illusion), Freud mentions that it is other men that are a great source of sufferings for the individual; yet we form societies and put up with this kind of suffering, for human cruelty is preferable to the cruelty of nature. Moreover, compared to living in the state of nature, we are less likely to be violently harmed by other individuals in a civilised society.

Religion as Escapism

Men form civilisations to escape nature, and then they wish to return to a state of nature to escape the discontents of civilisation. It seems that men view both nature and civilisation as threatening: this is the motivation behind forming religion as a way of psychological protection “against the dangers of nature and Fate, and against the injuries that threaten him from human society itself” (Freud, 1962, p. 14).

Not only does our fear of death explain why we form civilisations, but it also explains the means we develop to keep civilisations in place: it explains how religions come to be by humanising nature.

“Impersonal forces and destinies cannot be approached; they remain eternally remote. But if the elements have passions that rage as they do in our own souls, if death itself is not something spontaneous but the violent act of an evil Will, if everywhere in nature there are Beings around us of a kind that we know in our own society, then we can breathe freely, can feel at home in the uncanny and can deal by psychical means with our senseless anxiety” (Freud, 1962, pp. 12-13).

By humanising nature and its forces, man “gives them the character of a father” (Freud, 1962, p. 13), and just as every child eventually learns to rebel against his/her father, so do we learn to rebel against our heavenly fathers. Consequently, a doctor is not just a healer in society; a doctor is a warrior who rebels against Death, for “it is in fact natural to man to personify everything that he wants to understand in order later to control it” (Freud, 1962, p. 18).

The relationship between death and religion is vaguely touched upon in the first chapter of Civilization and its Discontents where Freud likens the “oceanic feeling” evoked by religion to

“the consolation offered by an original and somewhat eccentric dramatist to his hero who is facing a self-inflicted death. ‘We cannot fall out of this world.’ That is to say, it is a feeling of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world as a whole” (Freud, 1961b, pp. 11-12).

Prior to writing Civilization and its Discontents and The Future of an Illusion, Freud’s embitterment had already started to get hold of him when he wrote Beyond the Pleasure Principle. As we are told in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, there is a death drive in us; so, we could say that it is the function of religion to make us come into terms with becoming “inorganic once again” (Freud, 1961a, p. 32) Religion achieves this by making us falsely believe

“death itself is not extinction, […] but the beginning of a new kind of existence which lies on the path of development to something higher.” (Freud, 1962, p. 15)

Although Freud does not explicitly entertain the possibility, we can argue that this latter goal of religion was truly realised by the forerunner of Christianity, Platonism. It was the promise of this higher “something” that made Socrates welcome Death. Prior to Socrates, rebelling against Death was all that one could do; let’s not forget that Orpheus literally descended to Hades to bring Eurydice back—what could be more defiant and rebellious than that? Nevertheless, it is psychologically exhausting to remain rebellious throughout one’s whole life; therefore, thanks to religion, we ultimately learned how to welcome Death.


Freud sees religion as something harmful, but assuming “civilization runs a greater risk if we maintain our present attitude to religion than if we give it up” (Freud, 1962, p. 31), should we conclude Freud is asking us to return to being torn apart between civilisation and nature? Remember, according to Freud, religion came into being to protect us from these two antipodes in the first place. Does rejecting religion mean embracing the misery caused by being pulled apart by these two poles? I don’t think so; I can’t help but think that Freud sees science as a substitute for religion. Science is the only cultural asset that is widely praised in The Future of an Illusion—we can assume this because just like religion, “the scientific spirit brings about a particular attitude towards worldly matters” (Freud, 1962, p. 34). But most importantly, the following passage tells us we can be sure that Freud considered science as a qualified candidate for replacing religion:

“Civilization has little to fear from educated people and brain-workers. In them the replacement of religious motives for civilized behaviour by other, secular motives would proceed unobtrusively” (Freud, 1962, p. 35).

Nonetheless, we must bear in mind that we should not turn science into another ideology, for “power over nature is not the only precondition of human happiness” (Freud, 1961b, p. 39).

Freud is very careful about how much emphasis one should put on science. An overemphasis on science could contribute to our miseries to such an extent that we might welcome death, the very thing we sought to avoid by forming civilisations; regarding this point, Freud rhetorically asks,

“What good to us is a long life if it is difficult and barren of joys, and if it is so full of misery that we can only welcome death as a deliverer?” (Freud, 1961b, pp. 40-41)


Freud, S. (1961a). Beyond the Pleasure Principle. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Freud, S. (1961b). Civilization and Its Discontents. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Freud, S. (1962). The Future of an Illusion. The Hogarth Press.


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