The Malaise in Culture

The malaise of culture is one of Freud’s most philosophical works dealing with the antagonism between the instinctual needs of the human being and the restrictions that culture imposes on them.


Freud was a great follower of Nietzsche and his theory that man in a pure state is one who follows the precepts of the Dionysian; the one who lets himself be carried away by his most primal instincts. The strongest drives of man, according to psychoanalysis, are the sexual drive (eros) and the death drive (thanatos).

Freud picks up the Nietzschean conception of the Dionysian man and builds his most philosophical work in 1930, The malaise in the culture. This work was conceived in difficult and convulsive times; three years later it would be the end of the Weimar Republic and Hitler would rise to power. Without a doubt, these were not times for optimism.

The malaise in culture

The main theme of Discomfort in Culture is the antagonism between the instinctual needs of the human being and the restrictions that culture imposes on them.

The contradiction between culture and drives is that culture tries to establish peaceful societies by restricting the satisfaction of sexual and aggressive impulses. Precisely because of these restrictions, these impulses would end up transforming into feelings of guilt.

“… the feeling of guilt is the most important problem of cultural development, and show that the price of cultural progress must be paid with the deficit caused by the increased feeling of guilt.”

-The malaise in the culture. Chapter VIII. P. 130-

The man mutilated by culture

For Freud, culture can only be fulfilled when it suffocates the most primal instincts of man. Culture lives in perpetual malaise because the only way it exists is for man to repress himself; that mutilates that animal part that would make him that free and ferocious beast that Nietzsche admired.

The Nietzschean Dionisism is tied by the rules that marks the culture, rules that serve so that we can coexist in supposed “harmony”.

The cultural human being is neurotic

The consequence of all these repressions that the culture imposes are psychologically serious: the human being enters a state of neurosis, sick of pure repression.

The feeling of guilt not only represses the instincts, but punishes them from within and turns the man into a pusillanimous and malleable.

The drives against the Cartesian cogito

For Sigmund Freud, the Cartesian cogito made reason has given as fruit a bourgeois society that represses the instincts / drives of man, turning him into a sick person. Man can not develop fully, he can not feel full, free and vital.

The gray life of culture, the routine marked by a world in which there is an eternal truce between the drives of one and the other would relegate us to a gray life. If the freed men kill each other, it is logical that it seems necessary to impose a culture so that they can live together in peace. This is how culture generates sick human beings.

Love and hate in the discomfort of culture

Freud admits that it is difficult to accept that man has this instinctive predisposition to vitality while having that drive for death and destruction, but the suppression of this instinct would be the real cause of the need for restrictions in society. Life and civilization are born and developed from the struggle between these two interpersonal forces of love and hate.

The human being needs to submit to civilization and try to get rid of his instincts in exchange for a bit of security, as Hobbes had already explained years before.

In Discontent in Culture and in Moses and Monotheistic Religion, Freud explains the natural tendency to evil and cruelty that comes from primal hatred and has disastrous social consequences. Man fulfills his aspirations by avoiding laws and human rights. Exploits by humiliating, tormenting, killing and appropriating the property of others; but as it must renounce to fully satisfy this aggressiveness in society, it regains a certain sense of control in tribal or national conflicts.

“Man tries to satisfy his need for aggression at the expense of his neighbor.” (It is necessary anyway to give a sense to the words). To exploit his work without compensation, to use it sexually without his consent, to appropriate his assets, to humiliate him, to inflict suffering, to torture him and to kill him”.

-The malaise in culture-