by Arturo Hermann

As is known, the notion of a “death instinct” belongs to the Freud’s second theory of instincts (or drives), which appraises existence as a perpetual struggle, in a “Faustian” spirit, between two irreducible tendencies: those linked to life, which seek to achieve ever larger aggregations, and those linked to death, which tend to disaggregate and destroy everything in order to reach a state of perennial stillness.

This theory, formulated in the text Beyond the Pleasure Principle of 1920, replaces the first instincts theory, based on the sexual instincts (broadly corresponding to libido) and ego-instincts (broadly corresponding to self-preservative instincts).

From then on, the second instincts theory remained ─ despite numerous criticisms and a certain underlying discontent and skepticism on its adequacy ─ the dominant theory within the Freudian paradigm.

Yet Freud’s first theory of drives seems very valid. In this regard, it would have been sufficient to insert aggressiveness (as a vital function that can be distorted and expanded by neurotic factors) to render it complete. Freud came very close to it when he observed that the hatred “as an expression of the reaction of unpleasure provoked by objects, I know that ego drives and sexual drives readily form an opposition replicating that between hate and love.”, S.Freud, “The Unconscious” London: Penguin, 2005: 30; original edition 1915).

However, he did not reach the goal of integrating aggressiveness into the theory of instincts, probably (i) because of the pessimism caused by the WWI, his aging and health problems; (ii) from difficulty in recognizing the neurotic aggressiveness deriving from his Oedipus complex. In this regard, it can be interesting to note that Freud put forward ─ when he still adhered to his first theory of instincts – interesting remarks* on how the Oedipus complex can reinforce neurotic aggressiveness.

In addition to these subjective factors, there are objective elements of weakness in this theory:

(I) The unconscious motivation that can lie at the basis of the formulation of the death instinct theory (which also explains its persistence over time) seems to be a defense/resistance/difficulty to analyze neurotic aggressiveness. In this way, such aggressiveness is “explained away” ─ in a sort of resigned pessimism about the characteristics of “human nature” ─ through a truly metaphysical entity. Indeed, it is difficult to trace any biological or psychological foundation for this theory. Undoubtedly, living beings are born and then die, and therefore, one might say, because they are programmed to die, they possess a death instinct. This idea, however, is not well founded, because it reverses the order of things. If, for example, the life cycle of a dog is 15 years and of a butterfly a few days, it is not because their “death instinct” has decided so, but because their physical structure cannot go beyond that time. Throughout the life cycle, however, living beings will do everything they can to live. If, in the case of human beings, there are cases in which they harm or destroy life, this depends not on the death instinct but on aggressiveness connected to neurotic conflicts.

(II) In the theory of death instinct it is assumed an antithesis between life/sexuality and stillness/death: but the reason why the state of quiet (the Freudian principle of nirvana) should be equated to death is utterly unclear: if one lies under a palm tree to enjoy the fresh, he/she can be lazy but alive and well. The animal world teaches this, the animals “work” for the necessary, and then they stay quiet. Even if we look at children, there is no trace of death instinct, when a person dies for them “has flown away”.
Linking this search for stillness to destructive aggression is even less realistic. In fact, it should be the opposite: if one wants to be quiet, it makes little sense to start killing people!

(III) The theory of death instinct tends to make us forget that a reduction in neurotic conflicts would imply a parallel decrease in neurotic aggressiveness connected to them.
Such aggressiveness may also include the desire for death, but this, rather than an “instinct”, can originate ─ in addition to the neurotic conflicts and the attempt to discharge the tension connected to them ─ from the attempt to avoid the fear of death through a sort of “identification with the aggressor”. Moreover, the desire of death is virtually always accompanied by fantasies of a more rewarding afterlife. On that account, the psychoanalysis of neurotic aggressiveness can help to better understand the fears and conflicts associated with the inevitability of death.

In conclusion, even when Freud conceives of existence as an irreducible struggle between life instinct and death instinct ─ or between good and evil in a “Faustian” spirit, even though he was never completely convinced of this theory ─ he did not assume neither that such “instincts” are distributed among people in immutable proportions, nor that there is a systematic prevalence of one or the other. There is therefore little determinism in his theory which, on the contrary, pinpoints the complexity of factors in orienting human behavior and the role of psychoanalysis in promoting “vital” trends. In this regard, Freud believes that psychoanalysis, in collaboration with other social sciences, can play a relevant role in promoting social change. As he notes, in a colorful discussion with an imaginary interlocutor,

“[Psychoanalysis]….as a ‘depth-psychology’, a theory of the mental unconscious, it can become indispensable to all the sciences which are concerned with the evolution of human civilization and its major institutions such as art, religion and the social order. It has already, in my opinion, afforded these sciences considerable help in solving their problems. But these are only small contributions compared with what might be achieved if historians of civilization, psychologists of religion, philologists, and so on would agree themselves to handle the new instrument of research which is at their service. The use of analysis for the treatment of neuroses is only one of its applications; the future will perhaps show that it is not the most important one…..Then let me advise you that psycho-analysis has yet another sphere of application….Its application, I mean, to the bringing-up of children. If a child begins to show signs of an undesirable development, if it grows moody, refractory, and inattentive, the paediatrician and even the school doctor can do nothing for it, even if the child produces clear neurotic symptoms, such as nervousness, loss of appetite, vomiting, or insomnia….Our recognition of the importance of these inconspicuous neuroses of children as laying down the disposition for serious illnesses in later life points to these child analyses as an excellent method of prophylaxis….Moreover, to return to our question of the analytic treatment of adult neurotics, even there we have not yet exhausted every line of approach. Our civilization imposes an almost intolerable pressure on us and it calls for a corrective. Is it too fantastic to expect that psycho-analysis in spite of its difficulties may be destined to the task of preparing mankind for such a corrective?”, S.Freud, The Question of Lay Analysis, The Standard Edition, New York, Norton, 1990, pp.83, 84, 85; original edition 1926).


* Interesting remarks on these aspects, which also illuminate the role of psychoanalysis in promoting a more neurotic-free society, can be found in Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis. We can quote some passages,

“Mother-incest was one of the crimes of the Oedipus, parricide was the other. It may be remarked in passing that they are also the two great crimes proscribed by totemism, the first socio-religious institution of mankind….We can easily see, too, that hatred of the father is reinforced by a number of factors arising from later times and circumstances and that the sexual desires towards the mother are cast into forms which must have been alien as yet to a child….From this time [of infancy] onwards, the human individual has to devote himself to the great task of detaching himself from his parents, and not until that task is achieved can he cease to be a child and become a member of the social community. For the son this task consists in detaching his libidinal wishes from his mother and employing them for the choice of a real love-object, and in reconciling himself with his father if he has remained in opposition to him, or in freeing himself from his pressure if, as a reaction to his infantile rebelliousness, he has become subservient to him. These tasks are set to everyone; and it is remarkable how seldom they are dealt with in an ideal manner─that is, one which is correct both psychologically and socially. By neurotics, however, no solution at all is arrived at: the son remains all his life bowed beneath his father’s authority and he is unable to transfer the libido to an outside sexual object. With the relationship changed round, the same fate can await the daughter. In this sense, the Oedipus complex may justly be regarded as the nucleus of the neuroses.”, S.Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, The Standard Edition, New York, Norton, 1966, pp.417, 418-419; original edition 1917).