Why is human history littered with so much senseless bloodshed?
Why are self-destructive behaviors so common?
In popular media, characters seeking to extend their lives are almost always the archvillains–not for harming innocents, but for wanting something that in no way harms anyone else.
Life extension is more than an economic necessity or a humanitarian endeavor, it will be the cornerstone of civilizational maturity.
Yet the longing for life has become the last taboo. What keeps it forbidden is a rarely discussed psychological concept.
First proposed by Sabina Spielrein, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud dubbed it Thanatos. It has since found other names and interpretations: mortido, the nirvana principle, and, most prosaically, the death drive.
They all refer to a process by which living things attempt to eliminate internal tensions and return to blissful oblivion. Yet to suggest all organic beings do this seems absurd when talking about simple animals, and dubious when examining complex ones.
Moreover, to suggest any organism has a drive towards its own dissolution clashes with a (naive) understanding of Darwin; the drawback of self-awareness is knowing that we will die.
And yet we, the most intelligent animals on earth, do things that actively harm us and, what’s more, we know they harm us: junk food, drugs, alcohol, dysfunctional relationships, bad sleep habits, and more. Again, these all have more immediate causes, but they crop up most often when a person feels helpless.
And this may be the root of mortido.
Humanity’s baser instincts were laid bare by the First World War. Freud, having lost two sons in the trenches, found himself reevaluating his theories. Eros, the constructive impulse that formed the bedrock of his earlier theories, could not adequately explain what had happened.
The death drive does not only manifest in individuals.
It afflicts families, cities, and countries. Our whole world, fascinated by apocalyptic media, seems to be in its clutches. Warfare is mortido writ large, the senseless slaying of millions for reasons that remain obscure is an expression of an irrational drive.
For Freud the mind’s antipodes were wild, frightening, and maladaptive–festering with secret shames, forbidden fantasies, and unacceptable emotions. This stands in sharp contrast to the more neutral picture we now have of the unconscious.
While his work is foundational, it is limited and limiting.
Instead of accepting Thanatos as an unchangeable component of our psyches, it may be worth wondering how these tensions arise and why there is an urge to curtail them. Persistent anxieties and unslaked desires are part of the human condition, but there are no permanent setbacks so long as there is time.
According to Merriam-Webster, time is the most common word in the English language, and yet there is something elusive and perturbing about it, despite how acutely we feel its presence. On some level we are always aware of its passage. It is one of the few resources in our universe that cannot be retrieved, recycled, or manufactured.
It is hard to imagine how this is not a continuous source of unconscious agony for us all. When it is allowed to surface, when chronic illness or death confront us, the options are generally rage or despair. Equanimity is admirable but rare in the face of death.
This knowledge is too painful to experience in waking consciousness; to do so regularly would render us paralyzed by despair or rage. So it remains unintegrated, buried in our shadows.
Jung’s conception of a collective unconscious may be mystical, but it is applicable to something with which all cultures and all people have had to contend.
Integration of our collective shadow will come from a profound shift in human consciousness (good luck with that) or through the availability of effective interventions to prolong our earthly existence.
This collective sense of futility harms our planet, and it is harming future generations. This will continue to go on until our shadows have been integrated.
There’s no need to delve deeply into psychoanalytical theory: people who know their days are numbered care less about the planet than those who have a lifetime ahead of them.
Fortunately, longevity technologies could be the antidote. Extending healthy lifespan may be exactly what is needed to exorcize our demons.
Beyond the Pleasure Principle is a dark and profound piece. Yet outside of select circles, it’s hardly discussed; even within these circles it is tragically eclipsed by Freud’s earlier work.
Maybe this is because it doesn’t deal with an immediately understandable controversy: sex, incestuous Theban kings, railings against treasured institutions like religion, or the differences between the sexes. Its central point is disturbing, abstract, and difficult to reject, which may be why relatively little energy has been spent trying to debunk it.
Its contents were self-evident when it was published in 1920, when Europe was still reeling from the horrors of trench warfare.
Even if military conflicts are largely the result of avarice or a ruling class’s lust for power, it does not readily explain why so many ordinary people are eager to participate.
Human nature is a thorny issue. Merely mentioning it sounds alarm bells, and for good reason.
Ideas about it have had devastating consequences for us all. Whether it is Original Sin, the perfectibility of man, the material dialectic, or the superiority of one group over another, painting with a broad brush elicits justified suspicion.
Until recently, doing anything about aging seemed impossible.
While religion is one way to justify mortality, there are a sundry of secular (and even less compelling) objections to longevity research. This is because, regardless of one’s beliefs, compromise formations are normal parts of the human psyche.
A compromise formation is the conscious manifestation of a repressed wish. For example, let’s say you have an irritating neighbor.
You can’t physically assault them (the law and a functioning superego do not permit this), but you can engage in a myriad of passive-aggressive acts like sarcastic remarks, back-handed compliments, or allowing your pets to relieve themselves on their lawn.
It is harder to strike a bargain with death. Medicine has made massive strides forward, yet the infirmities of old age, which rob us of the decades we should find most enjoyable, remain with us.
Compromise formations can arise when our desires clash with social norms.
Yes, a wish may be stillborn for this reason, but it’s more likely to be unachievable–at odds with the dictates of biology or physics: an elderly person, naturally, wants to reside in a younger body. A middle-aged person, for that matter, usually wants the same.
Because whether a wish is at odds with societal norms or reality itself, it becomes perverted. Its thwarting causes frustration that must find an outlet.
Could mortido be an exceptionally malignant compromise formation?
Death is often personified as indestructible; a force too ancient and fundamental for anyone to topple–to briefly cheat, but never to decisively defeat.
Much of our frustration with the world comes from the fact that it is fundamentally unjust: that we can do everything right and still lose. Even if we have yet to experience any especially grievous injustices, we see it all around us: the 24 year old yoga instructor with terminal cancer, or the crossfitter diagnosed with chronic hypertension.
Yet some gurus promote the belief that diet and exercise can prevent or cure all ills, including the aging process!
This is delusional, of course. Many people are just dealt a bad hand and, ultimately, we’ve all been dealt bad hands–we are prisoners with unknown execution dates, facing death or, before dying, fates worse than death.
Lasting rejuvenation will come from technologies like gene therapy, not broccoli or marathon treadmill sessions. Fitness fanaticism, its documented benefits notwithstanding, can stem from a compromise formation, one that gives the illusion of control over something that is ultimately unmanageable through these avenues.
While being proactive is preferable to giving up, neither is as psychologically healthy as true integration.
Although life is unfair, human ingenuity can make it better. Once it is made better, our psychological constitutions improve. To borrow a bit of blather from pop psychology, Freud had a fixed mindset.
It could be argued that mortido stems as much or more from a fear of living as a lust for the grand finale. A flight from life is surely more maladaptive, on an individual and societal level, than an aversion to rotting in the ground.
Most justifications for short lifespans, or death itself, are vague appeals to a natural order that has overhauled itself again and again over countless millennia. The earth of five hundred millions years ago was not the one we know today; the same is true for just half a century ago.
Contrived as it is to say, change is the only constant in our universe.
Death has been a constant, but so has famine, sickness, and violence. Nevertheless, we’ve continuously combated these other threats because we could and, more importantly, we had no other choice.
Life is short.
Most would say it is too short.
Once we are no longer running from the specter of our own mortality, the shadow’s need to harbor it diminishes.
As we extend our healthy lifespans, we also dilute the power it holds over us. Each step in this direction will take us closer to civilizational maturity, where our drives towards expansion and creation overtake the wish for dissolution.
It bears repeating: life extension is more than an economic necessity or a humanitarian endeavor, it will be the cornerstone of civilizational maturity.
Authored by Adam Alonzi
References and Suggested Reading
Conger, John P. Jung and Reich: The body as shadow. North Atlantic Books, 2005.
Gay, Peter. Freud: A life for our time. WW Norton & Company, 1998.
Freud, Sigmund. “Beyond the pleasure principle.” Psychoanalysis and History 17.2 (2015): 151–204. Link
Jung, Carl Gustav. Jung on evil. Princeton University Press, 1995.
Kierkegaard, Soren, and Edward F. Mooney. Repetition and philosophical crumbs. OUP Oxford, 2009.
Laub, Dori, and Susanna Lee. “Thanatos and massive psychic trauma: The impact of the death instinct on knowing, remembering, and forgetting.” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 51.2 (2003): 433–464.
Lind, Lis. “Thanatos: The drive without a name: The development of the concept of the death drive in Freud’s writings.” The Scandinavian psychoanalytic review 14.1 (1991): 60–80.
Spielrein, Sabina, Bettina Mathes, and Pamela Cooper-White. “Destruction as the Cause of Becoming.” Sabina Spielrein and the Beginnings of Psychoanalysis. Routledge, 2019. 209–253. Link
Welman, Mark. “THANATOS AND EXISTENCE.” Pathways Into the Jungian World: Phenomenology and Analytical Psychology (1999): 123.