Basic Instincts Sex and Aggression

What was the basic source of psychic ener gy? Freud believed that there were strong innate forces that provided all the energy in the psychic system. He called these forces instincts. Freud's original theory of instincts was profoundly influenced by Darwin s theory of evolution. Darwin had published his book on evolution just a few years after Freud was born. In Freud' s initial formulation, there were two fundamental categories of instincts: self-preservation instincts and sexual instincts. Curiously , these corresponded exactly to two major components of Darwin' s theory of natural selection: selection by survival and selection by reproduction. Thus, Freud' s initial classifica tion of instincts could have been borrowed from Darwin' s two forms of evolution by selection (Ritvo, 1990).

In his later formulations, however , Freud collapsed the self-preservation and sexual instincts into one, which he called the life instinct. And, due in part to his witnessing the horrors of World War I, he developed the idea of a death instinct. Freud postulated that humans had a fundamental instinct toward destruction and that this instinct was often manifest in aggression toward others. The two instincts were usually referred to as libido for the life instinct and thanatos for the death instinct. Although the libido was generally considered sexual, Freud also used this term to refer to any need-satisfying, life-sustaining, or pleasure-oriented ur ge. Similarly, thanatos was considered to be the death instinct, but Freud used this term in a broad sense to refer to any urge to destroy, harm, or aggress against others or oneself. Freud wrote more about the libido early in his career , when this issue was perhaps relevant to his own life. Later in his career , Freud wrote more about thanatos, when he faced his own impending death.

Although Freud initially believed that the life and death instincts worked to oppose one another , he later ar gued that they could combine in various ways. Consider the act of eating. Eating obviously serves the life instinct, entailing the consumption of nutrients necessary for survival. At the same time, eating also involves acts of tearing, biting, and chewing, which Freud thought could be seen as aggressive manifestations of thanatos. As another example, Freud viewed rape as an expression of extreme death instinct, directed toward another person in a manner that is fused with sexual ener gy. The combination of erotic and aggressive instincts into a single motive is a particularly volatile mixture.

Because each person possesses a fixed amount of psychic ene gy, according to Freud, the ener gy used to direct one type of behavior is not available to drive other types of behaviors. The person who directs his or her death instinct into a socially acceptable channel, such as competitive sports, has less ener gy to expend toward more destructive manifestations of this instinct. Because psychic ener gy exists in a fixed an limited amount within each person, it can be directed and redirected in various ways.

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