Civilization and its Discontents HTML version

Civilization and Its Discontents
THE impression forces itself upon one that men measure by false standards, that everyone seeks power,
success, riches for himself and admires others who attain them, while undervaluing the truly precious things
in life. And yet, in making any general judgment of this kind, one is in danger of forgetting the manifold
variety of humanity and its mental life. There are certain men from whom their contemporaries do not
withhold veneration, although their greatness rests on attributes and achievements which are completely
foreign to the aims and ideals of the multitude. One might well be inclined to suppose that after all it is only
a minority who appreciate these great men, while the majority cares nothing for them. But the discrepancy
between men’s opinions and their behaviour is so wide and their desires so many-sided that things are
probably not so simple.
One of these exceptional men calls himself my friend in his letters to me. I had sent him my little book which
treats of religion as an illusion and he answered that he agreed entirely with my views on religion, but that
he was sorry I had not properly appreciated the ultimate source of religious sentiments. This consists in a
peculiar feeling, which never leaves him personally, which he finds shared by many others, and which he
may suppose millions more also experience. It is a feeling which he would like to call a sensation of eternity,
a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded, something “oceanic.“ It is, he says, a purely subjective
experience, not an article of belief; it implies no assurance of personal immortality, but it is the source of the
religious spirit and is taken hold of by the various Churches and religious systems, directed by them into
definite channels, and also, no doubt, used up in them. One may rightly call oneself religious on the ground
of this oceanic feeling alone, even though one reject all beliefs and all illusions. These views, expressed by
my friend whom I so greatly honour and who himself once in poetry described the magic of illusion, put
me in a difficult position. I cannot discover this “oceanic” feeling in myself. It is not easy to deal scientifically
with feelings. One may attempt to describe their physiological signs.
Where that is impossible—I am afraid the oceanic feeling, too, will defy this kind of classification—nothing
remains but to turn to the ideational content which most readily associates itself with the feeling. If I have
understood my friend aright, he means the same thing as that consolation offered by an original and
somewhat unconventional writer to his hero, contemplating suicide: “Out of this world we cannot fall. “ 1
So it is a feeling of indissoluble connection, of belonging inseparably to the external world as a whole. To
me, personally, I may remark, this seems something more in the nature of an intellectual judgment, not. it
is true, without any accompanying feeling-tone, but with one of a kind which characterizes other equally
far-reaching reflections as well. I could not in my own person convince myself of the primary nature of such
a feeling. But I cannot on that account deny that it in fact occurs in other people. One can only wonder
whether it has been correctly interpreted and whether it is entitled to be acknowledged as the fans et origo
2 of the whole need for religion.
1 Christian Grabbe, Hannibal: “Ja, aus der Welt werden wir nicht fallen. Wir sind einmal darin. “
2 Source and origin.
I have nothing to suggest which could effectively settle the solution of this problem. The idea that man
should receive intimation of his connection with the surrounding world by a direct feeling which aims from
the outset at serving this purpose sounds so strange and is so incongruous with the structure of our
psychology that one is justified in attempting a psycho-analytic, that is, genetic explanation of such a feeling.
Whereupon the following lines of thought present themselves. Normally there is nothing we are more
certain of than the feeling of our self, our own ego. It seems to us an independent unitary thing, sharply
outlined against everything else. That this is a deceptive appearance, and that on the contrary the ego
extends inwards without any sharp delimitation, into an unconsc ious menta l ent i ty whi ch we ca l l the id and
to which it forms a facade, was first discovered by psycho-analytic research, and the latter still has much to
tell us about the relations of the ego to the id. But towards the outer world, at any rate, the ego seems to keep
itself clearly and sharply outlined and delimited. There is only one state of mind in which it fails to do
this—an unusual state, it is true, but not one that can be judged as pathological. At its height, the state of