Death Instinct

The pioneering Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud was a person with few illusions about human nature and civilization. In fact, he had been relentlessly exposing what he saw as the hidden strivings and conflicts beneath the mask of civilization. Even Freud, though, had not expected such a catastrophic violation of the values of civilization. Entering the sixth decade of his life, Freud had observed too much self-destructive behavior both from his psychoanalytic patients and society at large. He had grown dissatisfied with some of his own theories and felt the need to address more decisively the human propensity for self-destruction. His version of the question of the times became: Why do humans so often act against their own best interests—even the desire to survive?

It was in 1920 that Freud offered his death instinct theory. This was an uncertain time both in Freud's own life and in European culture. World War I, "The War to End All Wars" (unfortunately, misnamed), had finally concluded. Both the victorious and the defeated had experienced grievous loss. Parents had been bereaved, wives widowed, and children orphaned. Many of the survivors of combat would never be the same again, physically or mentally. In Austria and Germany the devastation of war and the terms of the surrender had produced not only economic hardship but also a debilitating sense of hopelessness and frustration.

Thoughtful people found even more to worry about. World War I seemed to be much more than a tragic ordeal for all involved. In the minds of many observers, this protracted period of violence and upheaval had shattered the foundations of Western culture. Western civilization with its centuries-old traditions appeared to have been dealt a deathblow. Classical concepts of honor, beauty, glory, truth, and justice had been mutilated in the killing trenches and the casual brutalities of war. The visual, musical, and performing arts were contributing to the unease with disturbing new forms of expression. Science was increasingly seen as a threat to humanity through such routes as dehumanizing workplaces and ever-more lethal weaponry. The life sciences, through the theories of Charles Darwin, the nineteenth-century English naturalist, had already sounded one of the most troubling notes: Homo sapiens can be regarded as part of the animal kingdom. Humans were primates with superior language and tool skills. Where was the essence of humankind's moral being and the immortal soul? The physical and spiritual devastation of World War I seemed to have confirmed the gradually building anxieties about the future of humankind.

Freud introduced his new theory in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920). Most philosophers and psychologists had assumed that people are motivated by the desire to experience pleasure and avoid pain. This was not, however, always the case. Some of Freud's patients, for example, were masochistic—seekers of physical or emotional pain. The more he thought about it, the more connections Freud perceived between masochism, suicide, war, and the inability to love. Was there something in the very nature of humans that prompted them to override the self-preservation instinct and bring about harm both to themselves and others?

Life and Death: Eros and Thanatos

Freud came to the conclusion that humans have not one but two primary instincts. He called the life-favoring instinct Eros, one of the Greek words

Sigmund Freud claimed each human had a death instinct, called Thanatos, the Greek word for "death." This Greek relief sculpture shows Thanatos positioned between Aphrodite and Persephone, who are thought to be competing for the soul of Adonis. BURSTEIN COLLECTION/CORBIS
Sigmund Freud claimed each human had a death instinct, called Thanatos, the Greek word for "death." This Greek relief sculpture shows Thanatos positioned between Aphrodite and Persephone, who are thought to be competing for the soul of Adonis.
for "love," and the death instinct Thanatos, the Greek word for "death." It was characteristic of Freud to invoke Greek literature and mythology, but it was also characteristic of him to ground his ideas in the biomedical and physical sciences. He suggested that all living creatures have an instinct, drive, or impulse to return to the inorganic state from which they emerged. This todtriebe (drive toward death) is active not only in every creature, great or small, but also in every cell of every organism. He pointed out that the metabolic processes active in all cells have both constructive (anabolic) and destructive (catabolic) functions. Life goes on because these processes work together—they are opposing but not adversarial.

Similarly, Eros and Thanatos function in a complementary manner in the personal and interpersonal lives of humans. People seek out new experiences, reach out to others, and expend energy in pursuit of their goals. Eros smiles over ventures such as these. There are times, though, when humans need to act aggressively on the world, protect their interests, or withdraw from overstimulation and exertion and seek quietude. Thanatos presides over both these aggressive and risky ventures and the longing for "down time." Humans function and feel at their best when these two drives are in harmony. Sexual love, for example, may include both tenderness and thrill-seeking.

Effects on Children

Unfortunately, though, these drives are often out of balance. Children may be punished or shamed for their exploratory and aggressive, even destructive, actions (e.g., pulling a caterpillar apart to see what is inside). A particular problem in Freud's generation was strong parental disapproval of exploratory sexual expression in children. As a consequence, the child might grow into an adult who is aggressive and destructive where affection and sharing would be more rewarding—or into a person with such thwarted and convoluted sex/death impulses that making love and making war are dangerously linked.

Suicide and Homicide

Suicide and homicide often have roots in a confused and unbalanced relationship between the life and the death instincts. The destructive impulses may be turned against one's own self (suicide) or projected against an external target (homicide). Wars erupt when society at large (or its leaders) have displaced their own neurotic conflicts to the public scene.

Later Views of the Theory

Death instinct theory has not fared well. In his influential 1938 book Man against Himself, American psychiatrist Karl Menninger stated that he found this theory helpful in understanding suicide and other self-destructive behaviors. Critics have dominated, however, both within the circle of psychoanalysis and the larger professional and academic community. Two of the criticisms are especially powerful: that the theory relies on vague and outdated scientific knowledge, and that it is seldom very useful when applied to specific individuals and situations. For the most part, counselors, therapists, researchers, and educators have found that they could get along just as well without making use of the death instinct theory.

Nevertheless, there is still vitality in this failed theory. Evidence of confused connections between sexuality and destructiveness remains plentiful, as do instances in which people seem to be operating against the principle of self-preservation of self or others. Furthermore, within the correspondence between Freud and the German-born American physicist and philosopher Albert Einstein, included in the 1932 book Why War?, was an ancient remedy that has yet to be given its full opportunity. Einstein had independently reached the same conclusion as Freud: "Man has in him the need to hate and to destroy." Freud replied with the emphasis on Eros: "Psychoanalysis need not be ashamed when it speaks of love, because religion says the same: 'Love thy neighbor as thyself.'"

See also: Freud, Sigmund ; Homicide, Definitions AND Classifications OF ; Suicide


Brown, Norman O. Life against Death. New York: Viking, 1959.

Einstein, Albert, and Sigmund Freud. Why War? Chicago: Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis, 1932.

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. New York: Norton, 1960.

Kastenbaum, Robert. The Psychology of Death, 3rd edition. New York: Springer, 2000.

Menninger, Karl. Man against Himself. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1938.


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