Life is full of polarities that give our existence meaning. We know pleasure because we have felt pain. We revel in beauty because we have witnessed destruction. We experience happiness only because we have known despair. The emotional energies that fuel our lives spring out of this grand dichotomy that separate the light from the dark, the constructive from the destructive.
Sigmund Freud plucked this phenomenon up and out of the great undercurrent of the human experience and awarded these opposing forces mythological labels: Eros was established as the “life instinct” (alluding to the Greek god of love) and, later, Thanatos for the “death instinct” (alluding to the Greek force of death). Freud articulated these two instincts as being hopelessly locked in a state of eternal battle.
Eros encapsulates the will to survival and the desire to create. What blooms out of this instinct are the potent forces of love and ambition that both draw civilization and color it, so to speak. Allegorically, Eros can be expressed as Renaissance art — creations that prioritized elegance, the exquisiteness of the human form, and classical notions of man’s nobility. Eros is both the impulse to sustain (to attain basic necessities of life) as well as the impulse to thrive (to carve higher ideals). Eros is nurturing and stimulating, infused with the precepts of humanism. It seeks to rise out of the muck of chaos and to fashion order. It endeavors to surface above messy animalistic impulses and put something more palatable and more attractive in its place.
Eros is life and love, vigor and purpose, cooperation and civilization. But indeed, all of these ideals are defined by their opposites. The very conceptualization of Eros and Thanatos is based on the necessity of the one to provide meaning for the other. Without Thanatos staring back at us in the mirror, Eros has nothing to push against, nothing to strive for, nothing to sculpt meaning out of. Absent of its shadow, Eros can feel peculiarly antiseptic, plagued by a hollow, soulless quality.
Thanatos, then, can be conceptualized as the grinning skull of death. It is the drive towards obliteration; it is aggression manifest. It is the heady lure of destruction, the greedy pursuit of confrontation with our own mortality. It is flirtation with death; it is a testing of our human ability to destroy that which we have patiently labored to create. It is hatred that once applied, calcifies the world and crumbles it — reducing it to primordial dust. It is the human hunger for gross power, for subversive exploitation. It is decay immortalized. It is tearing down the curtains, stripping off the wallpaper, knifing a gash through the window. It is the drive to return to the dust, the desire to snuff out life — to kill humanity, to kill civilization, sometimes even, to kill the self. Dissolution is the objective of Thanatos — the temptation to revert back to — in Freud’s terms — an inanimate, motionless state.
Eros is the intrepid pushing of new growth through the soil; Thanatos is the snapping of the stem, the crushing of life under the heel, the brutish ripping out of the plant.
Freud is often criticized for his speculative theories that erred on the primitive side of man — that treated individuals as ruled by forces they could neither really see nor wrest control over. He was apt to believe, for example, that the so-called “death wish” wasn’t something that could be transcended. The primeval desire for annihilation could never be blotted out, he thought. His original introduction of this heavy duality came on the heels of his debut of the “pleasure principle” which is famously known as the idea that we humans are wired for instant gratification.
This particular theory maintained that humans were so magnetized to pleasure mostly because such a state was defined by the absence of tension. Tension had to be eradicated in order to experience this elusive pleasure. (Of course, this is technically rather difficult in life and necessitates a constant chase.) Freud mulled over the notion that the “death wish” was so appealing in part because it contained the heady promise of a tensionless state. A truly tensionless state, after all, is only achievable in death.
But such a formulation of the death instinct feels almost too superficial, too forgiving. I think it’s just as true that the drive to annihilate is motivated by a feverish desire to find out just what we humans are capable of. In an urge towards wanting to grasp concrete certainty — that is, to discover in glaring, raw detail the intimate knowledge of our own nature — it could be said that the dark side of human nature is secretly pining to hit rock-bottom — to test the full strength of our own powers, to collapse or kill our way to the very bottom.
It is a goal to strive towards, after all. It promises something in the way of sure knowledge. It promises something in the way of victory. Both of these things are human vices; both are enticing in ways that we cannot fully understand.
We are also, I suspect, wary of our eviler, base impulses. Society suppresses these destructive impulses, effectively pushing them into darkened corners. (Which is exactly what it’s supposed to do and thank God it does.) But because it binds this destructiveness, it also blinds by providing us with only a fuzzy awareness of our destructive drive and attendant capabilities. This, in turn, makes us skittish and curious and in the event that our external world devolves into Thanatos (such as in the case of war) we can fall prey to this skittishness, we can indulge in this morbid curiosity.
War, and this may be obvious, is one of the clearest examples of Thanatos in action. It is the stage upon which the drama of the human fascination with the death wish is enacted in fierce, macabre detail. In war, the strictures that hold society taut in peaceful times snap. Civilized reason yields to the heat of tribal violence. The economics of cooperation are upended, replaced by the careless sparking of mayhem with the enemy.
In war, architecture that bears the mark of human ingenuity and persistence is razed to the ground. Bullets and bombs devastate the physical and the human landscape, ripping holes through the cultural tapestry, destroying that which has been built up over time. The race to the bottom can feel exhilarating to those ensnared in the clutches of Thanatos. To level the world, to reduce it to rubble, to break loose from the bonds of society and to take up that speck of savagery hidden inside the human heart — these things can powerfully grip a people.
In this way, war, for some, can be a letting-loose. It is the blasting away of the societal pact to preserve and to patiently cultivate. Individuals can be sickened by the atrocity of war, by its grisly aspects, by its rejection of Eros. The contrast can be profoundly disorienting. Combat is nauseating for most of those involved, but the environment of war itself has a perverse attraction. War is not an empty, aimless endeavor, contrary to what some might think. It is charged with energy — the drive to destroy, specifically — and is marked not by moral neutrality but by moral perversity.
We as humans are rightly invigorated by the idea that we can test our mettle at reaching our full potential — indisputably a function of Eros. But could it not also be true that we’re unconsciously drawn with dark fascination to our Thanatos potential? Could it be that the two are equally alluring? The brutalities of war represent the ancient vice of human destructiveness being invited to come out to play. The lawlessness can have an enticing quality. War is the devil’s playground — vicious, vaguely apocalyptic and morally toxic.
War, after all, is not always logical. It is fueled by rational motives less than we’d like to admit. It is performed in a manner less neat and orderly than we’d prefer to believe. We mistakenly conceive of war as a callous, businesslike affair but this is not necessarily true. War is wildly infused with emotion. It can trace its origins and escalation all too often to the ravenousness of hate, love, fear, anger — to the swell of emotional intensity. History has never been able to expunge battle from its pages for precisely this reason.
Diverging from war as mankind’s Thanatos instinct writ large, there’s a more existential dimension to the tug-of-war between Eros and Thanatos. What separates humans from animals? It is largely the magnitude of our consciousness. We possess not only the cognitive prowess necessary to comprehend the harsh face of our own mortality but the ability to be keenly aware of our participation in either good or evil. Isn’t this what the legendary story of Adam and Eve’s Fall was all about? Attaining consciousness which shattered innocence. Feeling shame and grasping wrongdoing. Becoming disquietingly aware of human potential that runs in two directions — up and down.
We are motivated to discover what is upstream, to push towards love and human flourishing, accomplishment and virtue. But so too can we be motivated to discover what lies downstream — motivated if only out of a kind of ghoulish curiosity. We do not want to admit that creation and destruction can be equally riveting.
As children, we took pride in building towers, hungrily stacking them higher and higher. But guess what? We derived some kind of glee out of destroying them too — giving them a kick, watching them topple helplessly to the ground.
So too do we flirt with our own annihilation. We cannot help but be imaginatively gruesome in entertaining the different ways we could die, for example. In the words of Stephen King, “Everyone who looks off the edge of a tall building has felt a faint, morbid urge to jump.” We cannot help but experience a delicious shiver of excitement from a brush with danger.
So too do mental illnesses such as depression smack of the death wish. Depression can be painted as the self-destruction of the self, the regression of self-actualization. The sword of aggression is stabbed inwards, sometimes performing a fatal twist and resulting in the literal elimination of the individual — in the finality of suicidal death.
Thanatos is spellbinding. Its counterpart, Eros, can be equally captivating. But we are always in danger of forgetting this basic nature of ours. We must always be on the lookout, humbling ourselves before the truths that we do not want to own about ourselves.
The business of killing and destroying and wreaking havoc has scarcely let up over the course of history. And this should be telling. The leaps and bounds of human progress were never able to bleed Thanatos of its power. This is because Eros and Thanatos occupy separate poles which humans are ineluctably strung between. Naturally, Eros has never been successful in eclipsing Thanatos. And herein lies the truth: They are both acutely, undeniably legitimate forces that have always been with us and that will never leave us.
The human heart and mind are destined to a grim dance between Eros and Thanatos that will stretch for all of earthly eternity. Being able to gaze forthrightly into the dimensions of both directions and become sharply conscious of our own inescapable nature will lead us to the ultimate acceptance and knowledge of what it truly means to be human.