The Freudian conception of Eros and Thanatos and the subject known as Thanatology
Although we now know that Eros (or Cupid) represents the irrational love, we cannot fail to mention that his name and his myth have been taken by Sigmund Freud (again using the Greek myths) in his theory concerning life and death instincts, sometimes referred to as drives, in the human psyche.
1) Eros Vs Thanatos – According To Freud Concept
In fact, Eros represents the most primitive instincts to satisfy our libidinous desires, hunger and thirst, that is to say, the life impulses; while Thanatos encompasses the wishes to satisfy our impulses of destruction and aggressiveness, ergo, the impulses of death. Both, Eros and Thanatos, are marked by Freud’s concept of Id, one of the instances of the so-called structural model of the psyche. The other instances are Ego and Superego.
The nature of Eros and his mission in the lives of men is to inspire the ardor of love and to mitigate their libidinous desires with the sexual act. In addition, the satiety of such impulses results in fertility and in the birth of a new life, which Freud noticed and thus named Eros as a carrier of the impulses of life. On the other hand, Thanatos was the god of death, second only to the mighty Hades, and, therefore, he represents the impulses of death.
2) The Story Of Eros
But back to the matter at hand, let us say that there was once a dispute between Eros and Thanatos, fostered by the innocent nymph Ninfea. The Nymphs were demigods that followed Artemis, the goddess of chastity. As expected, Artemis is fearful of Ero’s lust and lack of modesty, as he ran about naked, his sexual desires expressed in his body f1or everyone to see. That is why she tried to keep him away from her and her virgin nymphs by shooting arrows and spears.
Eros, whimsical as a child, would not surrender to the threats and also, on one occasion when he was tired of Artemis’ antics, wanted to take revenge on the goddess thinking: “You can’t hit the target and you think you’re an important goddess, but my arrow will pierce you and you shall fall in love on the spot.” Then, he aimed at the goddess and shot an arrow. The goddess, quick in her movements, dodged the arrow, which ends up hitting Ninfea’s body.
The nymph drops in pain, as she feels as though her body was burning with lust and experiencing the unusual arousal. On one side, she was consumed by ardent love and, on the other, she was doomed to a chaste existence, thus she curses her fate and throws herself into the waters, seeking to end her life and the suffering brought upon her by such a dichotomy. Eros is shaken by what has happened and does not understand the nymph’s reaction. He tries to help her, but Thanatos, god of death, appears and his strength does not allow Eros to help her.
Thanatos prevents Eros from helping Ninfea. The confrontation of the two gods is interpreted by Freud as death and life instincts.
Artemis immediately goes to Ninfea’s aid, but she arrives too late and the nymph drowns but, knowing she is stil pure, she dies with a smile on her face. Crying inconsolably, the goddess transforms her body into a flower and stilled the waters so that the nymph would not drown a second time, but float perennially in the waters. In his honor, the flower was named water lily and is kept alive in the serene waters.
3) Having learned the story of Ninfea and Eros, we now need to learn who Thanatos was
Thanatos was a god who always looked young and represented non-violent death. He was the elder brother of Hypnos, the god of sleep, who imitated his brother on certain occasions, but while Thanatos caused death, Hypnos made his victims remain asleep for a certain period of time, until he got tired and walked away from them. Incidentally, we now know the etymology of the words hypnosis and hypnotize.
As we alluded before, Thanatos has greatly influenced the scientific community, and not only Freud, since he inspired the integral focus of a subject called, not by chance, Thanatology.
Thanatology studies the phenomenon of death in humans and animals, trying to find answers, whether through medicine, religion, and even Law. The subject motto is to provide essential care for the terminally ill, so that they find dignity in death, but also fulfilling their oath not to prolong life unnecessarily. This aims at preventing both physical pain and psychological damage to the patient, as it is illustrated by Thanatos allowing Ninfea to take her own life.
4) Eros And Thanatos In Greek Mythology
Who is Eros and why he is used by psychoanalysis to represent the impulse of life? Eros is the god of love and sexuality in Greek mythology. The most widely accepted tradition is that he is the son of Aphrodite (the goddess of beauty) and Hermes (the messenger of the gods). However, there are other versions about his origins, including one in which he is Aphrodite and Ares’ son, and another that implies he was there from the beginning, along with Gaia and Chaos. For the psychoanalysis, however, his origin as proposed by Plato in “The Banquet” is more relevant.
Aphrodite’s birth was celebrated by the gods with a feast. Porus, the god of abundance, was at the feast and, drunk, went to the garden of Zeus and fell asleep. Penia, the goddess of poverty, arrives to beg during the celebration and finds Porus asleep. “Driven by her lack of resources,” according to the text, Penia plans to bear Porus a son. She lies down beside him and conceives Eros.
In this version, Eros is the god of love because he was conceived during a banquet to honor Aphrodite, but he inherits his parents’ characteristics. Plato describes that he is “[…] always poor and a companion of indigence due to having his mother’s nature. But, on the other hand, due to his father’s nature, he is handsome and good. On the same day, he sometimes blooms and thrives in in abundance, while in others he dies but regains life again thanks to his father’s nature.
Thanatos, on the other hand, is the god of death (be careful not to confuse him with Hades, the god of the underworld). He is the son of Erebus, the god who personifies darkness, and Nyx, the goddess of the night, daughter of Chaos. He is brother to Hypnos, the god of sleep. Unlike the Keres, the goddesses of violent death, Thanatos represents a quiet and subtle death, something like falling asleep, ergo the link between Thanatos and Hypnos. Following the orders of the Moirae, the personification of fate, and had the task of guiding humans to the underworld
5) Psychoanalytic Eros
Eros, god of love, was chosen as the inspiration for the name of the drive that shares many characteristics with the Greek god. The impulse of life tends to integrate and unify, to build bonds; it is that part within us that seeks to have closer, more intimate relationships. The desire to “become one with the other,” to be closer to our loved ones and to live in an integrated society are all manifestations of Eros.
Eros encompasses sexual impulses and the instinct of self-preservation. The first, as its name indicates, is related to bodily desires that allow an individual to live, like hunger for example. Unlike animals, whose hunger is instinctive and not impulsive, people also see satiating their hunger (for food) as a moment of conviviality, and is capable of refusing to eat, as in the case with anorexic people. There are so many conceptions of hunger and food as there are people, because the impulse requires more intricate needs than the mere fulfillment of an organic matter.
The instinctive impulses are related to the principle of reality, this means that they are governed by what is happening in reality and are linked with social and cultural norms – think of it as a police force that is incorporated into our psyche to regulate impulses on the basis of social norms and customs, such health and hygiene issues, and rules for a peaceful coexistence, for example.
What complements Eros is our sexual impulse, related to the principle of pleasure. When discussing sexuality, we are referring to something much broader than the sexual act itself, or the genitals. We could define it as love and, in fact, the love expressed toward people who are not our sexual partner is a meta-object impulse. It is also the sublime (with a change from the sexual to non-sexual) derived from culturally accepted creations, such as art or science.
Eros, as an impulse, does not only represent love, but as the Greek god it also represents something else: the poverty inherited from Penia. The impulse can continue to insist, you can still search for and develop bonds with other people, you can continue studying and finding new passions, because you are never fully satisfied. Eros is always dissatisfied, he is always missing something. The impulse is related to poverty because he never has everything he craves: he always wants more, more, and more.
6) Psychoanalytic Thanatos
In 1920, in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”, Freud introduces a new interdependent dualism: Eros and the death drive. This point of psychoanalytic theory has been a source of discussion and modification, and even rejection, among various psychoanalysis theorists.
Many of us, if not all of us, believe that our tendency is to seek our own well-being and that, if we remove the obstacles along the way, we will be able to achieve fulfillment. These obstacles are usually experienced as something alien, of which we cannot get rid of. What would happen if these barriers, which cause us conflict and suffering, were part of our own psyche?
The death drive has a tendency toward destruction, separation, annihilation. In short, it satisfies itself by destroying and by take as an object of satisfaction the person themselves, like a kind of self-destruct button. It is that part of us that goes against the emotional balance and health.
Thanatos, as the Greek god, is not manifested scandalously, but in subtle and quiet gestures on a daily basis. For example, a diabetic person who secretly eats fresh bread every day, knowing well enough that it is not good for them. Driving at excessive speed or not wearing a seat belt when one is not able to control their car. Wasting time and not finishing a project for school, or work, when you know you have a deadline.
Of course, we may think of the most extreme examples, such as people who commit suicide, or are severely tormented by an addiction or harmful conduct. For the vast majority, however, it is nothing more than small, quiet moments on a certain day or week, when they do something that goes against their own understanding of what is good for them.
7) Eros And Thanatos: Interdependence
Let us not be afraid of the concept of Thanatos for it is a component of our psyche and learn how it affects us allows us to free ourselves from the anguish it causes. In addition, this tendency for destruction has also a positive value: If Eros urges us to find some sort of merge and, there is something to stop it, the merger would eventually annihilate us. Being close to our partners is important, of course, but moments of separation, independence and disagreement are necessary to prevent feeling suffocated.
While it is impossible to eradicate these impulses, Eros and Thanatos, it is possible to find a new significance to their presence in our lives.