Opinion philosophy

Eros and Thanatos (Week 24 of Wisdom)

Freud and his predecessors proposed that there is both a Dionysian and Apollonian side to each individual. You contain both Eros and Thanatos, construction and destruction, honesty and deception, organization and atrophy.

This bipolar nature defines your behavior. When trying to accomplish something important, for example, you will be led astray by changing circumstances. But this change occurs in a subtle way, because your mind is sneaky, it will convince you to do something hard enough (that will make you feel better) but not as hard as what you are supposed to do. And each time you allow yourself to be fooled, you will reinforce this behavior, and you lose the internal battle (between Eros and Thanatos).

The victor is the side that is reinforced the most often. If your deceptive side is accompanied with sufficient dopaminergic kicks, it will grow too powerful to be defeated. You will move towards Thanatos.

Your best bet is to build a robust inhibitory system, while depleting support to your deceptive side, but you should know that such a system can be disrupted by stress, and this will cause you to go back to old habits. That is why, when stressors are absent, you should work to strengthen your inhibitory system. Otherwise, you will do things that contradict what you want to become.

Like Schopenhauer, Freud thought the “goal of life is death,” and the preservation instinct is itself an aspect of the death instinct, because it protects against accidental, externally caused death, so that the individual may die from internal causes.

Eros is more than sexual instinct, it exists in every living cell and drives the living substance to constitute larger beings, it postpones death in this way. The death instinct is the tendency for the living substance to return to a state of inanimate matter. The two instincts are inseparable, and life is a compromise between Eros and Thanatos until the latter prevails. Freud hoped the biology would confirm these speculations in scientific terms.

For years, Freud proclaimed the primacy of the libido, and rejected Adler’s idea of an autonomous aggressive drive. But with his new theories, he had to admit that there was a primary masochism that was not merely sadism turned inward, and in his later writings would give more importance to the role of aggressive and destructive instincts.

The idea of the death instinct had its precursors. Von Schubert was among the Romantics who expressed it clearly – mainly as a wish in the latter part of life, to die. Novalis said that “life is for the sake of death.” Novalis thought that the antithesis to death was the instinct of organization (culture, language, philosophy).

A part of the death instinct is diverted towards the external world and exists as destructiveness. There is internal destruction that occurs more slowly, but the aggression that is projected outwards comes at the expense of self-destruction. Therefore, limiting external destruction will result in self-destruction.

Thus, when you sabotage your own plans, you are using the energy left over from Thanatos that has not been directed at the world. Sadism is love with aggression directed outward while masochism is love or erotism with aggression directed inwards. When aggression is directed inwards, it is unnoticed unless it is merged with erotism.

People usually doubt the existence of the death instinct and this is not surprising. Even children protest at the idea. It is difficult to grasp the death instinct, we have to imagine it lurking in the background behind Eros. Sadism can fulfill the death instinct without Eros and be accompanied with narcissistic enjoyment, fulfilling the ego’s wish for omnipotence. When the instinct of destruction is directed towards objects, it satisfies the ego, and gives it a feeling of control over nature.

The inclination towards aggression is an instinct and is the greatest impediment to civilization. Civilization serves Eros, which tries to create more people, and man’s natural aggression opposes this program. We don’t know why Eros exists, it simply does. The struggle between Eros and Thanatos characterizes the eternal battle in life, it is the battle of the giants.

What happens when someone tries to get rid of aggression? His aggression is internalized, it never goes away. It is directed towards his own ego and is then taken over by the part of his ego that relates to his superego. And the tension between the harsh ego and the superego creates a sense of guilt – this is expressed as the need for punishment. Civilization achieves its goal by weakening the individual’s ego – it makes people feel guilty when they do something they know is bad – even the intention alone can cause feelings of guilt.

This presents us with a dilemma, in that excessive self-restraint and passivity which we exercise for the benefit of society, has a detrimental effect on our psychology.

We cannot say that we naturally know what is bad. What is bad is sometimes desirable to the ego, and not injurious to it. Man’s helplessness and dependence on others will make him succumb to what is good because he is afraid of punishment. What is bad is whatever threatens loss of love, and this also explains why there is no distinction in the amount of guilt one feels when he either manifests a bad action or merely thinks about doing so.

It is the fear of loss of love, and it is social anxiety that results from being caught in the act. In children, it is fear of losing parental love, and in adults, it is the loss of social love that is dreaded.

Sometimes, it is better to do what is bad for the benefit of the ego, for its own protection against the superego.

The superego is the internal manifestation of the social authority. It creates anxiety within – the most virtuous people are the ones who have the most potent and violent superego.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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