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Sigmund Freud : The Purpose of Human Life

Dernière mise à jour : 17 mai 2023

Extract from :

Sigmund Freud

Civilization and Its Discontents


"The question of the purpose of human life has been posed innumerable times; it has not yet received a satisfactory answer and perhaps does not admit of one. (...) We will therefore turn now to the more modest question of what human beings themselves reveal, through their behaviour, about the aim and purpose of their lives, what they demand of life and wish to achieve in it. The answer can scarcely be in doubt: they strive for happiness, they want to become happy and remain so.

This striving has two goals, one negative and one positive: on the one hand it aims at an absence of pain and unpleasurable experiences, on the other at strong feelings of pleasure. ‘Happiness’, in the strict sense of the word, relates only to the latter. In conformity with this dichotomy in its aims, human activity develops in two directions, according to whether it seeks to realize – mainly or even exclusively – the one or the other of these aims.

As we see, it is simply the programme of the pleasure principle that determines the purpose of life. This principle governs the functioning of our mental apparatus from the start; there can be no doubt about its efficacy, and yet its programme is at odds with the whole world – with the macrocosm as much as with the microcosm. It is quite incapable of being realized; all the institutions of the universe are opposed to it; one is inclined to say that the intention that man should be ‘happy’ has no part in the plan of ‘creation’.

What we call happiness, in the strictest sense of the word, arises from the fairly sudden satisfaction of pent-up needs. By its very nature it can be no more than an episodic phenomenon. Any prolongation of a situation desired by the pleasure principle produces only a feeling of lukewarm comfort; we are so constituted that we can gain intense pleasure only from the contrast, and only very little from the condition itself. Hence, our prospects of happiness are already restricted by our constitution.

Unhappiness is much less difficult to experience. Suffering threatens us from three sides: from our own body, which, being doomed to decay and dissolution, cannot dispense with pain and anxiety as warning signals; from the external world, which can unleash overwhelming, implacable, destructive forces against us; and finally from our relations with others. The suffering that arises from this last source perhaps causes us more pain than any other; we are inclined to regard it as a somewhat superfluous extra, though it is probably no less ineluctable than suffering that originates elsewhere.

It is no wonder that, under the pressure of these possibilities of suffering, people are used to tempering their claim to happiness, just as the pleasure principle itself has been transformed, under the influence of the external world, into the more modest ‘reality principle’; that one counts oneself lucky to have escaped unhappiness and survived suffering; and that in general the task of avoiding suffering pushes that of obtaining pleasure into the background.

Reflection teaches us that we can try to perform this task by following very different paths; all these paths have been recommended by various schools of worldly wisdom and trodden by human beings.

Unrestricted satisfaction of all our needs presents itself as the most enticing way to conduct one’s life, but it means putting enjoyment before caution, and that soon brings its own punishment. The other methods, which aim chiefly at the avoidance of unpleasurable experience, differ according to which source of such experience is accorded most attention. Some of them are extreme and others moderate; some are one-sided, and some tackle the problem at several points simultaneously.

Deliberate isolation, keeping others at arm’s length, affords the most obvious protection against any suffering arising from interpersonal relations. One sees that the happiness that can be attained in this way is the happiness that comes from peace and quiet. Against the dreaded external world one can defend oneself only by somehow turning away from it, if one wants to solve the problem unaided.

There is of course another, better path: as a member of the human community one can go on the attack against nature with the help of applied science, and subject her to the human will. One is then working with everyone for the happiness of all. The most interesting methods of preventing suffering are those that seek to influence one’s own constitution. Ultimately, all suffering is merely feeling; it exists only in so far as we feel it, and we feel it only because our constitution is regulated in certain ways.

The crudest, but also the most effective method of influencing our constitution is the chemical one – intoxication. No one, I think, fully understands how it works, but it is a fact that there are exogenous substances whose presence in the blood and tissues causes us direct feelings of pleasure, but also alters the determinants of our sensibility in such a way that we are no longer susceptible to unpleasurable sensations. Both effects not only occur simultaneously: they also seem closely linked.

However, there must also be substances in the chemistry of our bodies that act in a similar way, for we know of at least one morbid condition – mania – in which a condition similar to intoxication occurs, without the introduction of any intoxicant. Moreover, in our normal mental life there are oscillations between fairly easy releases of pleasure and others that are harder to come by, and these run parallel to a lesser or a greater susceptibility to unpleasurable feelings.

It is much to be regretted that this toxic aspect of mental processes has so far escaped scientific investigation. The effect of intoxicants in the struggle for happiness and in keeping misery at a distance is seen as so great a boon that not only individuals, but whole nations, have accorded them a firm place in the economy of the libido. We owe to them not only a direct yield of pleasure, but a fervently desired degree of independence from the external world.

We know, after all, that by ‘drowning our sorrows’ we can escape at any time from the pressure of reality and find refuge in a world of our own that affords us better conditions for our sensibility. It is well known that precisely this property of intoxicants makes them dangerous and harmful. In some circumstances they are responsible for the futile loss of large amounts of energy that might have been used to improve the lot of mankind.


Another technique for avoiding suffering makes use of the displacements of the libido that are permitted by our psychical apparatus and lend its functioning so much flexibility. Here the task is to displace the aims of the drives in such a way that they cannot be frustrated by the external world. Sublimation of the drives plays a part in this. We achieve most if we can sufficiently heighten the pleasure derived from mental and intellectual work. Fate can then do little to harm us.

This kind of satisfaction – the artist’s joy in creating, in fashioning forth the products of his imagination, or the scientist’s in solving problems and discovering truths – has a special quality that it will undoubtedly be possible, one day, to describe in metapsychological terms. At present we can only say, figuratively, that they seem to us ‘finer and higher’, but their intensity is restrained when compared with that which results from the sating of crude, primary drives: they do not convulse our physical constitution.

The weakness of this method, however, lies in the fact that it cannot be employed universally, as it is accessible only to the few. It presupposes special aptitudes and gifts that are not exactly common, not common enough to be effective. And even to the few it cannot afford complete protection against suffering; it does not supply them with an armour that is proof against the slings and arrows of fortune, and it habitually fails when one’s own body becomes the source of the suffering.

It is already clear, in the case of this last method, that the purpose is to make oneself independent of the external world by seeking satisfaction in internal, psychical processes, but in the next one the same features are brought out even more strongly. Here the link with reality is loosened still further; satisfaction is derived from illusions, which one recognizes as such without letting their deviation from reality interfere with one’s enjoyment. The sphere in which these illusions originate is the life of the imagination, which at one time, when the sense of reality developed, was expressly exempted from the requirements of the reality test and remained destined to fulfil desires that were hard to realize.

Foremost among the satisfactions we owe to the imagination is the enjoyment of works of art; this is made accessible, even to those who are not themselves creative, through the mediation of the artist. It is impossible for anyone who is receptive to the influence of art to rate it too highly as a source of pleasure and consolation in life."

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