Civilization and Its Discontents: Understanding Human Aggression and War

Journal of Psychiatry Reform vol. 11 #1, January 2024

Author Information

Alan Eppel MB, FRCPC 


The author has no conflicts of interest.

The year 2024 begins in a perilous atmosphere. Across the globe regional wars are raging and the human species is once again grappling with the consciousness of its own precarious existence. There is a risk of wider conflict involving major powers and the danger of nuclear conflagration. This gives rise broadly to feelings of anxiety and pessimism about the future of our world.

During a previous time of war, the First World War, Sigmund Freud expressed a pessimistic view about the nature of humankind:

“Men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness…Homo homini lupus [man is wolf to man]. Who, in the face of all his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion?”

― Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents [1]

Instinctual Drives

Freud believed that the propensity for human aggression and conflict arises from our instinctual inheritance. Civilization is an attempt to contain these aggressive and homicidal drives by means of imposing societal rules for peaceful coexistence. These norms and rules are transmitted via the family environment through the course of human development [1].

This view has not been shared by all early psychoanalytic theorists. There is a major division of opinion within psychoanalytic schools of thought about whether or not there is an innate and primarily hostile and destructive drive. The alternative view is that hostile and destructive qualities only emerge in response to frustration and conflict. This arises when human goals and adaptive actions are thwarted [2].

Predation and Cruelty

Victor Nell, formerly professor of psychology at the University of South Africa, goes much further than Freud. Nell describes our human ancestors lived in small bands of hunter-gatherers. These bands hunted together. They were cooperative with each other and suspicious of outsiders [3,4]. The hunting and killing instincts are “hard wired” in the limbic areas of the brain and when enacted are  associated with the feelings of pleasure.

Nell defines cruelty as the “deliberate infliction of physical or psychological pain on a living creature”. Nell postulates that cruelty is a component of the aggressive drive and is associated with subjective feelings of “delight” [3, 4]

Cruelty is ever present in warfare and massacres and in the activities of interrogators who use torture. The societal attraction to violent and blood thirsty media representations, in cinema and in sport, may be based on the same neurobiological inheritance [3,4].

Group versus Individually-based Aggression

Intergroup violence and aggression may have rational/purposeful motivations but are facilitated by mobilization of humans’ evolutionary inheritance.

“Rational violence” is that which is employed by a national, social, ethnic or other identifiable groups and which has a specific purpose. These conflicts are driven by instrumental needs or desires for resources, territory and wealth. These conflicts may also be motivated by hatred of other groups, by the content of religious rivalries or more directly by fear of those who are different. This is the origin of racism and colonialism.

This can be illustrated by reference to British Colonialism because its impact continues to affect us today [5].  In Canada, it involved  the cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples, the effects of which persist with resulting extensive social and psychiatric impacts. Colonialism is motivated by the desire for resources, land, oil, precious metals, food, and slave labour. Many of the current tensions in the world derive from the colonization of these areas by the British Empire. These conflicts include that between India Pakistan, Northern and Southern Ireland, Israel and the Palestinian lands and multiple Arab countries, persisting unrest in Iran, and Afghanistan. Current conflicts can be traced back to the First World War. At that time, Britain and France gained control of many of the territories that were part of the Ottoman Empire. Britain assumed rule over Iraq and Palestine while France gained Syria and Lebanon. Of relevance to the current war in the Middle East, Palestine was subsequently divided into Israel and Transjordan.

Racism and “divide and conquer” have been employed as methods by colonial rulers with tragic results in our own times. Racism has been employed by those who seek to dominate another group. It involves the dehumanization and delegitimization of the oppressed group. It is facilitated by the fear of differences and the oppression of “the other”[5]


Neurobiology of Aggression

Jaak Panksepp, the founder of Affective Neuroscience is definitive:

“…our brains have genetically-based, ancestral emotional processes shared by all mammals which show considerable individual variability, at the same time these processes are filtered through unique corticocognitive processes and cultural factors that vary enormously” [2].

Panksepp has elucidated seven core emotional systems common to all mammals including humans [6]. These arise primarily in the subcortical areas of the brain but project onto the neocortical areas. Panksepp designates these emotional systems with capitalized names to distinguish them from the everyday usage of these words.

In relation to aggression and anger, Panksepp describes two of these emotional systems: the SEEKING and the RAGE systems [6].

Predatory aggression involves the SEEKING system and comes into play when the animal desires or needs something. In carnivorous animals and humans this manifests in hunting behaviours.

The RAGE system is mobilized in response to frustration or threat. RAGE is brought into action in the face of an attacker when encountering an obstacle. During this process, the sympathetic system is aroused, blood pressure rises, muscles are energized, attention is focused, and visceral anger is experienced. In humans, this anger can be suppressed and overridden by the neocortex.

Can Humans Change?

Panksepp poses the question that because…

“Many everyday human cruelties emerge from failures of empathy, so common in the midst of social strife. Can we diminish cultural atrocities through yet unrealized social policies that seek to distribute social rewards and the bounty of mother earth more equitably, and thereby diminish culture wars?”  [2]

Freud places civilization and human aggression as counterpoints [1]. Can reforms within our societies and between nation states lead to sustained peace? Up until now, war is the normative state not peace.

Social harmony depends on economic security, effective education, and the elimination of racism. It requires the expansion of democracy and the elimination of authoritarianism and fascism. It requires radical reform to our international organizations such as the United Nations.

Can our civilization overcome the dominance of instinctual aggression and the recurrence of war?  Can the human qualities of attachment, affiliation, community, respect for human rights and dignity prevail?

Freud concludes with a question reflective of the uncertain mood of his times, and perhaps our own:

“The fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction” [1].

Can human society evolve to better understand and redirect  the disposition to keep fighting with all its dreaded consequences?  If not the alternative is clear: self-destruction and extinction.


  1. Freud S. Civilization and Its Discontents: Strachey J & Gay P. (Eds). Norton, New York; 1961.
  2. Panksepp J, Zellner M. Towards a neurobiologically based unified theory of aggression. International Review of Social Psychology. 2004; 17(2):37-61.
  3. Nell V. Cruelty’s rewards: The gratifications of perpetrators and spectators. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 2006; 29:211–257.
  4. Eppel A. Sweet Sorrow, Love, Loss and Attachment in Human Life. Karnac, London 2009.
  5. Porter B.The Lion’s Share, A History of British Imperialism. 5th ed. Pearson; Education Limited 2012.
  6. Panksepp J.. Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. Oxford University Press, New York; 1998.













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