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Death Instinct (Thanatos)


The death instinct or death drive is the force that makes living creatures strive for an inorganic state. It does not appear in isolation; its effect becomes apparent, in particular through the repetition compulsions, when a part of it is connected with Eros. Its tendency to return living creatures to the earlier inorganic state is a component of all the drives. In this combined form, its main impetus is toward dissolution, unbinding, and dissociation. In its pure form, silent within the psychic apparatus, it is subjugated by the libido to some extent and thus deflected to the outside world through the musculature in the drive for destruction and mastery or the will to power: this is sadism proper; the part that remains "inside" is primary erogenous masochism.

Having put forward, particularly in "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes" (1915c), a dualism in which the sexual drives conflict with the ego drives, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g), Freud introduced the concept of the death drive as a negative term in opposition to the life drive: "The opposition between the ego or death instincts and the sexual or life instincts would then cease to hold and the compulsion to repeat would no longer possess the importance we have ascribed to it" (p. 44).

The death instinct was Freud's attempt to explain this repetition compulsion that overrides the pleasure principle, whether in post-traumatic dreams, certain compulsive children's games (such as the "fort-da" game), or indeed in analysands' resistances to the treatment (the transference). He observed that "the aim of all life is death," "inanimate things existed before living ones " and that "everything living dies for internal reasons" (p. 38). Drawing on August Weismann's differentiation of soma from germ-plasma, Freud went on to draw "a sharp distinction between ego-instincts, which we equated with death instincts, and sexual instincts, which we equated with life instincts" (pp. 52-53). He thus continued to adhere to the dualistic concept of the drives: "even more definitely dualistic than beforenow that we describe the opposition as being not between ego instincts and sexual instincts but between life instincts and death instincts" (p. 53).

Freud found support for his arguments in Fechner's stability principle: "The dominating tendency of mental life . . . is the effort the reduce, to keep constant or to remove internal tension due to stimuli . . . a tendency which finds expression in the pleasure principle; and our recognition of this fact is one of our strongest reasons for believing in the existence of death instincts" (p. 55-56).

In 1924, Freud drew a clear distinction between three principles: "The Nirvana principle [Barbara Low's term], belonging as it does to the death instinct, has undergone a modification in living organisms through which it has become the pleasure principle ... the pleasure principle represents the demands of the libido; and the modification of the latter principle, the reality principle, represents the influence of the external world" (1924c, p. 160). Although Freud recognized the speculative nature of his final drive theory, he continued to adhere to it throughout the rest of his work.

The source of the death drive lies in the cathexis of bodily zones that can generate afferent excitations for the psyche then; this certainly involves tension in the musculature determined by a biological urge. Its locus is in the id, then later under the influence of the ego, as well as in the superego, where it functions to restrict libidinization. In melancholia, "a pure culture of the death instinct" (1923b, p. 53) governs the superego, such that the ego can impel the subject towards death.

The energy of this urge is fairly resistant to shaping, diversion, or displacement and it manifests in subtle but powerful ways. The operation of this almost invisible energy has been described as a "work of the negative" (André Green). Its object is the implementing organthe musculaturethat enables the aim to be fulfilled. Paradoxically, the libido, subject to restraint by the destrudo (Edoardo Weiss's term), and leading to primary masochism and sadism, is the object of the death drive here. According to Freud's descriptions, its goal is dissociation, regression, or even dissolution. While leading organic life back to an inorganic state is the final stage, "the purpose of the death drive is to fulfil as far as is possible a disobjectalising function by means of unbinding" (Green, p. 85). It is therefore an entropic process in the strict sense.

After explaining the notion of the death instinct in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud returned to it a number of times in his later works. He mentioned it in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921c) as the source of aggression and hostility between people and in "The Libido Theory" (1923a), and then developed the theory in The Ego and the Id (1923b), especially in the chapters on "the two classes of instincts" and "the dependent relationships of the ego." In this work, he connected his new drive theory with the structural theory that he had just expounded.

Then, following a dispute with Fritz Wittels, who jumped to a hasty conclusion concerning a connection between the death of Freud's daughter Sophie (January 1920) and the emergence of the concept of the death drive (a claim that is still being debated todaycf. Grubrich-Simitis), Freud returned to this concept in "The Economic Problem of Masochism" (1924c), in which he posited primary masochism both as evidence and as a vestige of the conjunction between the death drive and Eros. He thus elucidated the negative therapeutic reaction and the concept of unconscious guilt and indicated that "moral masochism becomes a classical piece of evidence for the existence of fusion of instinct. Its danger lies in the fact that it originates from the death instinct and corresponds to the part of that instinct which has escaped being turned outwards as an instinct of destruction" (p. 170).

In his short article on "Negation" (1925h), Freud explained: "Affirmationas a substitute for unitingbelongs to Eros; negationthe successor to expulsionbelongs to the instinct of destruction" (p. 239). He returned to this subject in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930a [1929]), in his letter to Albert Einstein (1933b [1932]) and finally in the thirty-second of the New Introductory Lectures (1933a [1932]), in which he discussed anxiety in connection with the life of the drives.

For Melanie Klein, a firm advocate of the existence of the death drive, psychic conflict is never a conflict between the ego and the drives but always between the life drive and the death drive. Anxiety is the immediate response to the endopsychic perception of the death drive. For Jacques Lacan, the death drive as something beyond the pleasure principle forms the best starting-point for introducing his concept of the "Real," in connection with the Imaginary and the Symbolic. He links to this the lethal dimension inherent in desire and jouissance and makes the death drive "the necessary condition for the natural phenomenon of the instinct in entropy to be taken up at the level of the person, so that it may take on the value of an oriented instinct and is significant for the system insofar as the latter as a whole is situated in an ethical dimension" (1959-1960/1992, p. 204).

Toward the end of his life, Freud recognized that "the dualistic theory according to which an instinct of death or of destruction or aggression claims equal rights as a partner with Eros as manifested in the libido, has found little sympathy and has not really been accepted even among psychoanalysts" (1937, p. 244). Its detractors include authors such as Michel Fain (1971), who regard the concept of the death drive as the result of Freud's speculations on matters that could for the most part be explained without itfor example by the mechanism of "reversal into its opposite" (1915c, p. 126). Others have objected to the theory of the death drive either because this would mean that psychic conflict, the cornerstone of psychoanalysis, could no longer be the expression of lived experience alone, since the death drive is "evidently innate, intrapsychic from the outset, and not secondarily internalized" (Nacht), or because "this drive restricts the field in which conflicts can be elaborated both internally and externally; it introduces a fatalism into the gradual progression of the treatment and brings out the negative therapeutic reaction instead of a relational problem between analyst and analysand" (Nicolaidis). Yet others have taken more interest in Freud's methodology and are surprised at the "quality of a foreign bodywithin psychoanalytic theorythat characterizes the conflict between Eros and the death drive [which] emerges here from the use of dialectical procedures in which Freud is not well versed" (Denis).

By contrast, other authors, such as Melanie Klein, Jacques Lacan, and André Green, consider this concept of the death drive as further evidence of Freud's scientific rigor, as he demonstrates his willingness to rework his previous drive theory to take account of clinical facts and hypotheses that do not accord with it. Furthermore, studies based on the treatment of psychotic subjects, particularly by post-Kleinians, seem to have reinforced the theory of the prevalence of the death drive in the psychic apparatus of these patients, as something that constantly tears at the fabric of their representations and undermines their attempts to establish an apparatus for thinking thoughts (Wilfred Bion).

Pierre Delion

See also: Alienation; Anxiety; Drive/instinct; Ego and the Id, The ; Envy; Envy and Gratitude; Eros; Freud: Living and Dying ; Life instinct (Eros); Masochism; Narcissistic neurosis; Negative, work of the; Negative therapeutic reaction; Negative transference; Nirvana; Orgasm; Phobic neurosis; Pictogram; Projective identification; Racism, antisemitism, and psychoanalysis; Repetition compulsion; Sadism; Self-hatred; Trauma; "Why War?"


Denis, Paul. (1997). Emprise et satisfaction, les deux formants de la pulsion. Paris: Presses universitaires de France.

Fain, Michel. (1971). Préludeà la vie fantasmatique. Revue Française de Psychanalyse, 35, 2-3, 291-364.

Freud, Sigmund. (1915c). Instincts and their vicissitudes. SE, 14, 109-140.

. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE,18,1-64.

. (1921c). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. SE, 18, 65-143.

. (1923a). The libido theory. SE, 18, 255-259.

. (1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19, 1-66.

. (1924c). The economic problem of masochism. SE, 19, 155-170.

. (1925h). Negation. SE, 19, 233-239.

. (1930a [1929]). Civilization and its discontents. SE, 21, 57-145.

. (1933a [1932]). New introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 22, 1-182.

. (1933b [1932]). Why war? (Einstein and Freud). SE, 22, 195-215.

. (1937c). Analysis terminable and interminable. SE, 23, 209-253.

Green, André. (1999). The death drive, negative narcissism and the disobjectalising function. In The work of the negative (pp. 81-88) (A. Weller, Trans.). London: Free Association Books.

Grubrich-Simitis, Ilse. (1996). Back to Freud's texts. Making silent documents speak (Philip Slotkin, Trans.). New Haven: Yale University Press. (Original work published 1993)

Lacan, Jacques. (1992). The seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book VII. The ethics of psychoanalysis (J.-A. Miller, Ed., and D. Porter, Trans.). London: Routledge. (Original work published 1959-1960)

Nacht, Sacha. (1938). Le Masochisme,Étude historique, clinique, psychogénique et thérapeutique. Paris: Denoël.

Nicolaïdis, Nicos. (1993). La Force perceptive de la représentation de la pulsion. Paris: Presses universitaires de France.

Further Reading

Eissler, Kurt R. (1971) Death drive, ambivalence, and narcissism. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 26, 25-78.

Feldman, Michael. (2000). Some views on the manifestation of death instinct in clinical. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 81, 53-66.

Grotstein, James. (2000). Some considerations of hate & reconsideration of death instinct. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 20, 462-480.

Segal, Hanna. (1993). On the clinical usefulness of the concept of death instinct. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 74, 55-62.

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"Death Instinct (Thanatos)." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . 27 May. 2017 <>.

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Death Instinct

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 interestseven 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 masochisticseekers 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 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 togetherthey 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 rewardingor 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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Thanatos in Greek mythology, the god of Death, brother of Hypnos (Sleep); in Freudian theory, Thanatos is used for the death instinct (often contrasted with Eros).

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