'The Future of an Illusion' by Sigmund Freud (1927)

A selection from The Future of an Illusion by Sigmund Freud, 1927. 

[Work in Progress]


When one has lived for quite a long time in a particular civilization and has often tried to discover what its origins were and along what path it has developed, one sometimes also feels tempted to take a glance in the other direction and to ask what further fate lies before it and what transformations it is destined to undergo. [...] But the less a man knows about the past and the present the more insecure must prove to be his judgement of the future. [...] Finally, the curious fact makes itself felt that in general people experience their present na├»vely, as it were, without being able to form an estimate of its contents; they have first to put themselves at a distance from it— the present, that is to say, must have become the past—before it can yield points of vantage from which to judge the future. 

Human civilization, by which I mean all those respects in which human life has raised itself above its animal status and differs from the life of beasts..., presents, as we know, two aspects to the observer. It includes on the one hand all the knowledge and capacity that men have acquired in order to control the forces of nature and extract its wealth for the satisfaction of human needs, and, on the other hand, all the regulations necessary in order to adjust the relations of men to one another... . [...] ...every individual is virtually an enemy of civilization, though civilization is supposed to be an object of universal human interest. It is remarkable that, little as men are able to exist in isolation, they should nevertheless feel as a heavy burden the sacrifices which civilization expects of them in order to make a communal life possible. Thus civilization has to be defended against the individual, and its regulations, institutions and commands are directed to that task.

While mankind has made continual advances in its control over nature and may expect to make still greater ones, it is not possible to establish with certainty that a similar advance has been made in the management of human affairs... . [...] It seems rather that every civilization must be built up on coercion and renunciation of instinct; it does not even seem certain that if coercion were to cease the majority of human beings would be prepared to undertake to perform the work necessary for acquiring new wealth.

It is just as impossible to do without control of the mass [Germ. masse] by a minority as it is to dispense with coercion in the work of civilization. For masses are lazy and unintelligent; they have no love for instinctual renunciation, and they are not to be convinced by argument of its inevitability... . [...] To put it briefly, there are two widespread
human characteristics which are responsible for the fact that the regulations of civilization can only be maintained by a certain degree of coercion— namely, that men are not spontaneously fond of work and that arguments are of no avail against their passions.

One may question whether, and in what degree, it would be possible for a different cultural environment to do away with the two characteristics of human masses which make the guidance of human affairs so difficult. The experiment has not yet been made.


...with the prohibitions that established them, civilization—who knows how many thousands of years ago?—began to detach man from his primordial animal condition. We have found to our surprise that these privations are still operative and still form the kernel of hostility to civilization. The instinctual wishes that suffer under them are born afresh with every child; there is a class of people, the neurotics, who already react to these frustrations with asocial behaviour. Among these instinctual wishes are those of incest, cannibalism and lust for killing.

It is in keeping with the course of human development that external coercion gradually becomes internalized; for a special mental agency, man's super-ego, takes it over and includes it among its commandments. Every child presents this process of transformation to us; only by that means does it become a moral and social being. Such a strengthening of the super-ego is a most precious cultural asset in the psychological field. Those in whom it has taken place are turned from being opponents of civilization into being its vehicles. The greater their number is in a cultural unit the more secure is its culture and the more it can dispense with external measures of coercion.

Are we not all at fault, in basing our judgments on periods of time that are too short? We should make the geologists our pattern.