Talking about Freud and Freudian psychoanalysis usually involves talking about libido and sex drive at some point. And this is because the father of psychoanalysis considered that psychic life was mainly linked to this type of drive, being the libido the core of psychic life and vital energy.
However, this drive, also called the life drive or Eros (in reference to the Greek god), is not the only one important for the author. Throughout his work and as he progressed in formulating his theory, Freud considered the existence of another type of drive contrary to the first which explains that part of the human psyche Eros fails to close. We are talking about the death drive or Thanatos, Which we will talk about throughout this article.
Thanatos as drive: definition of the death drive
The death drive or Thanatos is a concept developed by Sigmund Freud, Which is born in contrast with the life drive or Eros and which is defined as the unconscious impulse and generator of organic excitation (that is to say an impulse) which appears as the quest for being to return to the absolute rest from non-existence. It could be seen as the impetus that death and demise itself seeks.
while Eros seeks to unite and preserve life, as well as satisfy libido, Thanatos seeks to satisfy aggressive and destructive impulses, aiming at the disunity of matter and the return to the inorganic state. This impulse often appears in the form of aggression towards others or towards oneself, whether given directly or indirectly. Also, while Eros is a force that generates dynamism, Thanatos is characterized by generating retirement and seeking rest unless it is associated with eroticism.
Thanatos is not guided by the pleasure principle, like Eros, but by the principle of Nirvana: he seeks the dissolution, reduction and elimination of excitement not to find pleasure in conflict resolution that allows survival and conflict resolution. But for find it in dissolution and return to nothingness.
This concept has the particularity of being something not directly visible: while Eros or libidinous vital energy facilitates union and action, Thanatos tends to manifest itself indirectly by projection, by aggression or by non-action or attachment to the world. An example of this is the emission of unhealthy behaviors or the resignation and passive acceptance of some kind of aversive event.
Eros and Thanatos do not remain separate readers but interact all the time, although they are opposing forces: Eros is a force of union and Thanatos of disunity.
Although part of the death drive remains disunited, which generates a gradual drift towards death, the fusion of this with Eros has the consequence that a large part of the death drive manifests itself by projecting itself towards outside, generating aggression.
Death drive, not always negative
According to the father of psychoanalysis, both the life drive and the death drive are essential because human beings are presented in an ongoing conflict which in many ways is beneficial for human beings.
If the idea of the death drive is controversial and may seem aversive, the truth is that for Freud it is a kind of impetus necessary for survival.
At the psychic level, the existence of the death drive allows us to separate ourselves from objects, which in turn allows us not to identify ourselves and to merge psychically with them, preserve individuality. There would also be a link with the Oedipus complex, with aspects both libidinous and aggressive towards the parents.
In addition to this evolutionarily the aggressiveness resulting from the fusion of the two types of training is advantageous in certain situations, allow the struggle for survival and self-defense.
Likewise, the conflict between the life drive and the death drive is also associated with orgasm, with Eros seeking sexual and erotic satisfaction but linking his own sex and the moment of climax to a discharge, linked to the idea. resting and back to basal and contains some aggressive component.
In fact, authors like Lacan would identify the death drive with the idea of jouissance, of satisfaction with what should generally cause him dissatisfaction. This partly explains the satisfaction it can cause much like revenge, sadism, or even suffering to yourself or someone else.
The death drive can be positive, but it can also be reflected in aspects less conducive to human beings.
Freud would come to consider that the concept of guilt is linked to the death drive, As well as the persistence of unhealthy behaviors or even the compulsion to repeat unpleasant acts, such as self-harm or different types of compulsive behaviors. Also the emergence of vital resignation, despair and abulia can be linked to Thanatos, as well as rumination and claudicamiento. Likewise, taken to the extreme, this drive can lead to masochistic attitudes or to autolytic ideas or attempts.
And not only on the psychopathological level: the emission of responses of anger, denial and rejection or even resignation in the presence of difficulties, such as suffering from chronic diseases, would also be linked to Thanatos. Or an example of this would be doing something we know is against our health (For example, a diabetic who eats something he shouldn’t, or who smokes in a person with pulmonary emphysema).
Eros and Thanatos: from mythology to Freud
Freud called the life and death drives Eros and Thanatos respectively, with clear reference to Greek mythology. This is why to conclude the article, it can be interesting to analyze the divinity who symbolizes them.
Eros is one of the best known deities in the Greek pantheon, being the god of love, vitality and loving passion. In most versions of the Greek myth he is the son of the goddess of love Aphrodite and the god of war Ares although in others, as Plato explains in “The Banquet”, he is the son. of the goddesses of poverty Penia and the god of abundance Porus designed to celebrate Aphrodite’s birthday (which could be linked to different types of romantic relationships).
Thanatos, meanwhile, is the god of non-violent death, son of the night goddess Nix and that of darkness, Ereb. This god, twin of Hypnos, the god of sleep, acted with a certain kindness, being his soft touch and being responsible for carrying out the will of the moiras regarding the fate of mortals when the time came for them. Despite this, he was a feared being and a force of disunity with life, also linked to resignation to death.
This description can show us some of the main attributes of the life and death instincts. But mythology allows us to see not only that the attributes associated with these gods are antagonistic but also there are myths about the conflict between them. One of them is linked to the death of the nymph Ninfea.
The myth tells us that Eros, god of love and in some versions of eroticism and passion, tended to approach and incite the goddess Artemis (goddess of the hunt as well as virginity) and nymphs (also virgins).), To which the goddess responded by moving with her dates. Tired of this, Eros decided to shoot one of his love arrows at the goddess in order to make her fall in love, but after being the arrow dodged by Artemis, she went to strike one of the nymphs.
The nymph began to experience a high level of uncontrollable sexual desire and arousal, and a strong conflict arose between this desire and her own chastity. This conflict caused him such anguish that he decided to seek liberation in death, throwing himself into the waters of a lake to drown himself. At this point, Eros will try to save her, but was stopped by the god of non-violent death, Thanatos. Because of that Ninfae drowned, later transformed by Artemis into the first water lily and receive the gift of reducing passion.
This myth (which has different versions), accounts for the interaction and conflict between vital and destructive energy that is part of our psyche, according to Freudian theory.
- Corsi, P. (2002). Preliminary approach to Freud’s concept of the death instinct. Chilean Journal of Neuropsychiatry, 40: 361-70.
- Freud, S. (1976). Beyond the Pleasure Principle OC XVIII 1920; 1-62.