1 : emotional or psychic energy that in psychoanalytic theory is derived from primitive biological urges and that is usually goal-directed
2 : sexual drive
Thanatos, also called the Death Instinct: an innate and unconscious tendency toward self-destruction postulated in psychoanalytic theory to explain aggressive and destructive behavior not satisfactorily explained by the pleasure principle.
Sigmund Freud spent the early, most productive part of his career writing about libido. His famous, and still controversial Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality remain classics to be fruitfully reread to this day. His theories of the sexual drives have been incorporated, often in corrupted ways, into our everyday discourse. Most American and European cognoscenti know all about the Oedipus Complex and have some vague sense of the different psycho-sexual stages of the developing child. Freud wrote of the libidinal instinct as a way to understand our (ultimately) biological urge to create and procreate. Most of this is, again, quite familiar to any adequately read college student.
In 1920, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud introduced the concept of Thanatos. In part, he was struggling to understand the problem of masochism, how it is that someone can derive pleasure fr0m pain, but he was almost certainly influenced by the recent "war to end all wars" that had devastated Europe in an orgy of seemingly endless and senseless bloodshed. It must have seemed like a particularly poignant question: is there something within each of us that threatens to destroy the human race. Freud quickly found himself stymied in his investigations and eventually Thanatos disappeared from his writing. The questions he was trying to understand have persisted.
Much of the rest of the 20th Century would do nothing to help resolve this conundrum. Perhaps 50 million people died in World War II, more than 6 million of them by the hand of a modern industrial state, using the full measure of its might to attempt to exterminate a small minority of their citizens. Once the blood-letting finally ended in the nuclear fires of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world soon settled into the slow death of the cold war. The new left thought they had waged a successful battle against Thanatos by defeating the United States in Viet Nam (although it would perhaps be more accurate to say that they destroyed the South Vietnamese ability to defend themselves when we not only abandoned them militarily but then cut off all military supplies to the South Vietnamese armed forces.) The communists of North Vietnam managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by killing upwards of another 500,000 in the name of their false utopia. On our shores, and in Europe, the United States seemed (and was) diminished. The world was safer; Thanatos was banished.
For 45 years the fate of the world was balanced between two antagonistic superpowers, one of which was militarily expansionistic and imperialistic, the other weakened and unsure of itself. While many may disagree with this characterization, how one couches the discussion is essentially irrelevant; the fact is that the left thought of themselves as the children of light and life battling the death dealing evil of the military-industrial establishment.
Ronald Reagan believed that the Soviet Union was an evil empire (and most of the people of Eastern Europe would agree); he embarked on a campaign to stress the USSR to the breaking point and he succeeded. Tyranny, which always looks so strong and stable, crumbled quickly.
The 1990's were truly a vacation from history. For the first time, a generation could believe they were growing up in a world that had minimized Thanatos. We could watch the stock market expand our portfolios (well, those of you who had portfolios could do so) and not worry too much about what was happening in the world. Those who looked could see that a new evil was growing in power and ambition, but we were concerned about more important matters. People worried about their 401K's, not obscure groups of radical Muslims whose ineptness was in direct proportion to their aspirations.
9/11 got our attention. Afghanistan and Iraq got their attention. Democracy seems to be on the move, and what is democracy if not the ultimate flowering of libido? Democratic nations allow for the full flowering of their citizens creativity. Iraq's economy is already starting to boom. The Eastern European nations, formerly under the thumb of the Soviets, are among the most dynamic economies in Europe. One could start to feel just a tiny bit of relief and optimism; perhaps now we are finally starting to vanquish Thanatos...so why do I worry?
History and human nature have a way of asserting themselves. Freud might refer to this as the "return of the repressed." What we forget has a habit of coming back to haunt us. In both the large and the small, the evidence of Thanatos maintaining and even increasing its power is evident.
More to follow...