Eros and Civilization

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Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud
Eros and Civilization, 1955 edition.jpg
Cover of the first edition
Author Herbert Marcuse
Country United States
Language English
Subject Sigmund Freud
Genre Philosophy
Published 1955 (Beacon Press)
Media type Print (hardcover and paperback)
Pages 277 (Beacon Press paperback edition)
ISBN 0-8070-1555-5

Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud is a 1955 book by the German philosopher and social critic Herbert Marcuse, in which he proposes a non-repressive society and attempts a synthesis of the theories of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. One of Marcuse's best known works, its title alludes to Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). Eros and Civilization has been compared to Norman O. Brown's Life Against Death (1959); it has been suggested that the work reveals the influence of Martin Heidegger as well as that of Marx and Freud. A new edition, with an added "political preface", was published in 1966.[1]


Marcuse discusses the social meaning of biology - history seen not as a class struggle, but a fight against repression of our instincts. He argues that "advanced industrial society" (modern capitalism) is preventing us from reaching a non-repressive society "based on a fundamentally different experience of being, a fundamentally different relation between man and nature, and fundamentally different existential relations".[2] He contends that Freud's argument that repression is needed by civilization to persist is mistaken, as Eros is liberating and constructive.

Marcuse starts with the conflict described by Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents - the struggle between human instincts and the conscience of repression (superego), which is self-repressing trying to follow the society's mores and norms.[3] Freud claimed that a clash between Eros and civilization results in the history of humanity being one of his repression: 'Our civilization is, generally speaking, founded on the suppression of instincts.'[3] Sex produces the energy, and it is repressed so the energy can be channeled into progress - but the price of progress is the prevalence of guilt instead of happiness.[3] "Progress", for Marcuse, is a concept that provides the explanation and excuse of why the system has to continue; it is the reason the happiness of people is sacrificed (see also pleasure principle).

Marcuse argues that 'the irreconcilable conflict is not between work (reality principle - life without leisure) and Eros (pleasure principle - leisure and pleasure), but between alienated labour (performance principle - economic stratification) and Eros.'[3] Sex is allowed for 'the betters' (capitalists...), and for workers only when not disturbing performance. Marcuse believes that a socialist society could be a society without needing the performance of the 'poor' and without as strong a suppression of our sexual drives: it could replace 'alienated labor' with "non-alienated libidinal work" resulting in "a non-repressive civilization based on 'non-repressive sublimation'".[3]

Marcuse's argument depends on the assumption that instincts can be shaped by historical phenomena such as repression.[3] Marcuse concludes that our society's troubles result not from biological repression itself but from its increase due to "surplus repression" which is the result of contemporary society.[3]


Marxist writer Paul Mattick reviewed Eros and Civilization in Western Socialist, writing that it "renews the endeavor to read Marx into Freud", following the unsuccessful attempts of Wilhelm Reich.[4] Brown, a classicist, paid homage to the work in Life Against Death, calling it "the first book, after Wilhelm Reich's ill-fated adventures, to reopen the possibility of the abolition of repression."[5] Robert Young, in a 1969 New Statesman review, called Marcuse's philosophy a merger of Freud and Marx, and wrote that it provided an "eroticized Marx."[3]

Others took a more negative view of the work.[6][7] Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm criticized Eros and Civilization as an incompetent distortion of Freud.[6] Literary critic Frederick Crews argued that Marcuse's proposed liberation of instinct was not a real challenge to the status quo, since by taking the position that such a liberation could only be attempted "after culture has done its work and created the mankind and the world that could be free", Marcuse was accommodating society's institutions. Crews found Marcuse to be guilty of sentimentalism.[7]

Philosopher Jeffrey Abramson compares Eros and Civilization to works such as Brown's Life Against Death (1959), Philip Rieff's Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959), Paul Ricœur's Freud and Philosophy (1965), and Jürgen Habermas's Knowledge and Human Interests (1968), arguing that they jointly placed Freud at the center of moral and philosophical inquiry.[8] Philosopher Seyla Benhabib writes that Marcuse interprets "the sources of disobedience and revolt as rooted in collective memory", and that this theme is present in Marcuse's earlier work Hegel's Ontology and the Theory of Historicity, an interpretation of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel influenced by Heidegger.[9]

Psychoanalyst Joel Kovel, who notes that Marcuse studied with Heidegger but later broke with him for political reasons, believes that Marcuse's Heideggerian side, which had been in eclipse during Marcuse's most active period with the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, reemerged, displaced onto Freud, in Eros and Civilization.[10]

Economist Richard Posner writes that Eros and Civilization contains "political and economic absurdities", but adds that these "should not be allowed to obscure the many interesting things that Marcuse has to say about sex and about art."[11] Philosopher Todd Dufresne compares Eros and Civilization to Brown's Life Against Death (1959) and anarchist Paul Goodman's Growing Up Absurd (1960).[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Marcuse, Herbert. Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. Boston: Beacon Press. p. xi. ISBN 0-8070-1555-5. 
  2. ^ Marcuse, Herbert. Eros and Civilization, 2nd edition. London: Routledge, 1987.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Young, Robert M. (1969).THE NAKED MARX: Review of Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud, New Statesman, vol. 78, 7 November 1969, pp. 666-67
  4. ^ Mattick, Paul (1956). "Marx and Freud". Western Socialist. 
  5. ^ Brown, Norman O. (1985). Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press. p. xx. ISBN 0-8195-6144-4. 
  6. ^ a b Funk, Rainer (2000). Erich Fromm: His Life and Ideas. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 101. ISBN 0-8264-1224-6. 
  7. ^ a b Crews, Frederick (1975). Out of My System: Psychoanalysis, Ideology, and Critical Method. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 22. ISBN 0-19-501947-4. 
  8. ^ Abramson, Jeffrey B. (1986). Liberation and Its Limits: The Moral and Political Thought of Freud. Boston: Beacon Press. p. ix. ISBN 0-8070-2913-0. 
  9. ^ Benhabib, Seyla; Marcuse, Herbert (1987). Hegel's Ontology and the Theory of Historicity. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. pp. xxx,xxxiii. ISBN 0-262-13221-4. 
  10. ^ Kovel, Joel (1991). History and Spirit: An Inquiry into the Philosophy of Liberation. Boston: Beacon Press. p. 244. ISBN 0-8070-2916-5. 
  11. ^ Posner, Richard (1992). Sex and Reason. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. pp. 22–23. ISBN 0-674-80279-9. 
  12. ^ Dufresne, Todd (2000). Tales from the Freudian Crypt: The Death Drive in Text and Context. Stanford: Stanford University Press. p. 111. ISBN 0-8047-3885-8. 

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