by Arturo Hermann

In this section we will address other relevant aspects of this issue. In the first part we noted how the theory of death instinct is a good device for overlooking the role of neurotic aggressiveness. However, and as incredible it may appear, Sigmund Freud was well aware of the role played by such aggressiveness in the formation of neurotic symptoms. In discussing the relations between aggressive instincts and sense of guilt he notes that,

“In the most recent analytical literature* a predilection is shown for the idea that any kind of frustration, any thwarted instinctual satisfaction, results, or may result, in a heightening sense of guilt. A great theoretical simplification will, I think, be achieved if we regard this as applying only to aggressive instincts, and little will be found to contradict this assumption. For how are we to account, on dynamic and economic grounds, for an increase in the sense of guilt appearing in place of an unfulfilled erotic demand? This only seems possible in a round-about way─if we suppose, that is, that the prevention of an erotic satisfaction calls up a piece of aggressiveness against the person who has interfered with the satisfaction, and that this aggressiveness has in itself to be suppressed in turn. But if it is so, it is after all only the aggressiveness which is transformed into a sense of a guilt, by being suppressed and over to the super-ego….in the course of our analytic work we have discovered to our surprise that perhaps every neurosis conceals a quota of unconscious sense of guilt, which in turn fortifies the symptoms by making use of them as a punishment.”, S.Freud (1930), Cvilization and Its Discontents, The Standard Edition, New York, Norton, 1989: 102-103.

[* This view is taken in particular by Ernest Jones, Susan Isaacs and Melanie Klein; and also, I understand, by Reik and Alexander (S.Freud’s footnote)].

This passage is one of the few where Freud explicitly highlights the role of neurotic conflicts in reinforcing neurotic aggressiveness, and in this way, the sense of guilt as expressed in neurotic symptoms. One can wonder why Freud, although being aware of these dynamics, adhered most of the time to the notion of death instinct. One reason for this, as already noted, lies in the difficulty of acknowledging his own neurotic aggressiveness. This aspect can also be related to his view of sexuality, that seems to assume a “hedonistic” and antisocial character. For this reason, sexuality tends to be considered as antithetic to the needs of social behavior. This appears, for instance, in the following passage,

“In the development process of the individual, the programme of the pleasure principle [related to the various stages of sexuality], which consists in finding the satisfaction of happiness, is retained as the main aim….to put in other words, the development of the individual seems the product of two urges, the urge towards happiness, which we usually call ‘egoistic’, and the urge towards union with others in community, which we call ‘altruistic’.”, S.Freud, ibidem, [1989 (1930)]: 105.

This view, however, disregards the complexity of human needs and seems inconsistent with the stress put by him, although in a rather implicit and oscillating way, on the need of the child to be loved. As a matter of fact, it seems quite unrealistic to regard sexuality, especially in childhood, as inherently egoistic. This for the simple reason that, as the little child has not yet formed a clear perception of itself and the external world, it can be neither egoist nor altruist. Only through the growth process can the child learn to better identify itself and its parents (or caretakers), and, on this basis, to establish a sound interpersonal relation with its first “social context”. In this respect, he will look for the mother’s breast not only for satisfying the pleasure principle but also for giving and receiving** love.

For these reasons, considering sexuality as an inherently amoral and antisocial phenomenon can well constitute an adultomorphic projection of neurotic conflicts. In fact, if it can be true that a couple of lovers may prefer to be alone at times, it is unlikely that, in reasonably “normal” mental states, such couple would permanently shield itself from social life. In this sense, sexuality ─ which can be likened in a broader meaning to eros ─ is strictly linked to the emotional sphere and the social life. And to the need, also underscored by Freud in his discussion of life instinct, to realize ever larger aggregations. In this sense, a partial sublimation of eros constitutes also a normal and essential expression of personality.

Hence, if the child seems to behave only out of its instinct-based needs, this does not happen because it neurotically refuses to adapt to the principle of reality but because it does not know enough about the requirements of the external world. In fact, for the effective working of the principle of reality, the child needs to grow and develop its cognitive and intellectual faculties. In this respect, education (at least a sound one) plays not only the role of showing the limits of individual behaviour but also that of helping the child to learn how to bring out its potential. These concepts are closely related. Indeed, for a child learning the needs of other people is not only a necessary limitation of its behaviour but, more importantly, may concur, by helping it establish adequate relations with them, to a better expression of its personality. Furthermore, as highlighted by Freud and many others, intellectual faculties play a critical role from the very beginning of individual life. These findings have been elaborated in particular by the contributions of object-relations and interpersonal psychoanalysis.

In this respect, the role of society is much more complex than simply “repressing instincts”: society also represents the irreplaceable setting for the development and expression of the complex and conflicting aspects of human personality. In fact, as we have just noted, human instincts constitute a manifold entity where the affective, intellectual and biological aspects combine to make up the individual personality. Since these aspects cannot unfold in isolation, a society needs to be built in order to afford their expression, with, of course, all the complexities, conflicts and feed-back effects associated with such evolutionary patterns.

Therefore, the repression of instincts — intended as the whole set of familiar and social limitations not conducive to the full expression of individual feelings and abilities — is not only unnecessary for the existence of society but may also be a cause of its destabilization. In fact, the repression of instincts can trigger more neurotic conflicts which, by entailing further neurotic aggressiveness, can be regarded as one of the main causes of the impairment of the social fabric. And history is full of such examples. In this regard, the more damaging expressions of the neurotic-driven aggressiveness, like nuclear wars and mass-destruction, do not take place out of bursts of “instinctual behaviour”, apart from and in opposition to social life, but are deeply ingrained in social structures that can even be supposed to act as a repressing instance for the “instinctual behaviour” of the person. Hence, a better individual and collective self-understanding of these conflicts, by helping reduce neurotic aggressiveness, can make headways towards a more fair and sustainable society.

** A pioneering contribution was carried out by R.Spitz (1945), who pointed out in a field-based enquiry that children brought up in foundling hospitals tend to be affected by severe neurotic disturbances, even when their biological needs have been fully satisfied.

Spitz, R. (1945), “Hospitalism: An Inquiry into the Genesis of Psychiatric Condition in Early Childhood”, Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, vol.1. p.53-74.