Whitehead and Freud’s Theory of Eros (Love) & Thanatos (Death) – March 2010

Question: In the later more sociological Freud, there is a great emphasis on Love (or Eros) which, as a newcomer to Process thought and theology, I cannot help but think of as a vision of the process God. Freud, however, found it necessary to balance Love with Death (aggression), and he describes the universe as the arena in which the battle of Love and Death takes place. I am reluctant to follow Freud in affirming this second power, but at the same time I find it difficult not to feel it is needed. In particular, I find it hard to understand why God’s (Love’s) persuasive power would not be more effective were there not this countering power. In fact, I find it difficult to understand why persuasion toward the good would not be completely effective minus some countering contrary power.

Publication Month: March 2010

Of course, the categories that arise in one system are not likely to be identical with those that arise in another. But all systems must account for both coming into being and ceasing to be, both life and death, both construction and destruction. In Whitehead the pair of terms might be creativity and perpetual perishing.

The way these pairs are related differs according to the worldview. One model that seems to fit some of the things Freud said is to think of them as two parallel forces quite distinct from each other. Whitehead’s model sees them as more integrated. Creativity requires the coming into being of something new, and this requires that what has happened has perished. The past perishes as it gives birth to the present. Yet in another sense the past lives on in the present. The present is largely constituted by its inclusion of much of the past and its synthesizing of its various elements.

The necessity of perishing does not remove negativity from it. Whitehead calls it the “ultimate” evil. It may not be the worst evil, but it is the one that is wholly beyond any ability of creatures to ameliorate. It constitutes a spiritual problem for those who realize how it takes away all human achievement. This realization can lead to the questioning of the value of such achievements and of the meaningfulness of life. The coming into being of values seems good, but if there is no escape from perishing, the
value itself seems undercut.

Since it is the nature of actual entities to occur and then cease to exist, there is no need to bring in death as a distinct force. What needs explanation is how there come to be things that endure through time. These, for Whitehead, are not individual actual entities but rather complex societies of these entities. These include animals of all kinds among which include human beings. These societies are composed of a vast number of entities that come into being and perish momentarily. But as societies they are born and grow and decay over long periods of time before they die. To some, quite limited, extent, later entities in the society keep earlier ones alive in their memories, but we have seen that this does not solve the existential problem of perpetual perishing. It does not remove the sting of death.

There is a practical need for death. Along the way most animals propagate. Relations to parents and children contribute greatly to the value of the lives of both. But there would soon be no room for offspring if older generations did not die. So here, too, although less directly, the coming into being of the new requires the perishing of the old. Death is as much friend as enemy. But the perishing of the complex organism adds greatly to the sense of the inescapable evil of perpetual perishing.

So serious, for Whitehead, is this existential problem that he meditates about how it may be overcome in God. In the world what happens lives on in its inclusion in other things. But that afterlife is itself partial and temporary. For a brief time, a human experience lives on in its successors with its value largely intact, but that does not last. However, what quickly obscures the richness of that experience in the subsequent events, does not apply to God. In God it may live on forever.

If we identify perpetual perishing with the negative reality that Freud calls Thanatos or death, we can relate God to it in a double way. First, God creates the entities that perish or at least makes possible their coming into being through creativity. God calls them to realize the greatest possible value in their brief moment of existence. God calls successor occasions to preserve what they can from this achievement. And, second, God preserves in the ongoing divine life the fullness of that achievement.

God does not work against perpetual perishing. For this reason one should not think of perpetual perishing as a force opposed to God. It is given for God as much as for us. It is the background against which God loves the creatures. That love is undeterred in its quest for the realization of value in the world in and through the creatures. And it is undeterred in its empathic inclusion of the creatures in God’s own life.

In Freud there is a strong sense that human action may be governed either by Eros or Thanatos. That kind of dualism is not present in Whitehead’s analysis. In Adventures of Ideas Whitehead identifies Eros with what, in Process and Reality, he called the Primordial Nature of God. This Eros works in and through each creature for the achievement of value. But instead of a comparable death instinct or drive toward death, we have already noted that Whitehead affirms perpetual perishing as metaphysically given. Each momentary event strives to realize some value in itself and to contribute some value to future occasions. There is no analogous drive to perish or to kill. Why then do creatures do so much damage to one another?

One answer that Whitehead gives is that life is robbery. To live requires the breaking down of complex structures of other societies into their simpler parts. This is true even at the bacterial level. At the level of animals, it involves the destruction of plants and of other animals. The system as a whole has gradually produced higher levels of organization, such as brains, that support values that cannot be realized otherwise. But this does not mean that the loss of complex societies and of living things is not a real loss.

The whole system of predation involves much suffering, but overall in the nonhuman world it has worked over hundreds of thousands of years for the increase of value. It can be explained in terms of Eros without introducing Thanatos as a comparable drive. Both prey and predator seek to live. The drive to kill is largely a requirement of living.

Destructive violence is prominent in the animal world also in the competition of males for mates. This competition, however, is explained by Eros and not Thanatos. The males are not driven toward Death but toward mating. The fact that Eros (as the drive to live, to live well, and to live better)is primary does not exclude the infliction of suffering, and even death, on competitors.

It is with human beings that the simple subordination of Thanatos to Eros is less clear. Humans commit so much evil that is not necessary, or even helpful for their survival! They do seem driven at times toward death, their own and that of others. So prominent is this unnecessary destructiveness that Freud’s positing of Thanatos is readily recognizable as his substitute for demons and evil spirits generally, or more exactly for “the Devil.” In the Abrahamic faiths the devil is always subordinated to God, but other religious traditions, such as the Zoroastrian and Manichean, have attributed to the devil a status more analogous to that of God.

Whiteheadians do not support this dualistic thinking. We do not see any drive toward death as analogous to the drive toward life. At the same time we do not minimize the enormous evidence of our mutual destruction. Each example of human viciousness ultimately requires separate attention, and we need the help of clinical psychology. However, I can offer some sweeping generalizations that suggest ways in which the pursuit of Eros leads to death and destruction.

Consider the way in which tribalism functions. Members of the tribe find their lives within it. Their drive to life is also a drive to support the collective life of the tribe. They will fight to support that collective life as readily as their individual lives – sometimes more readily. But this is not the service of Thanatos. It is Eros that evokes the willingness to die for the community and to kill those who threaten it.

The expression of Eros is guided in part by ideas. Most human thinking has led to idolatry, that is, devotion to that which is less than God. When that happens the noblest expressions of Eros are still likely to be destructive. Today the intellectual world encourages individualism. Economic theory is based on such individualism. People are assured that if they act purely for their own self-interest they will contribute to the good of all. This thinking leads Eros to express itself in truly terrible deeds.  

Another source of great evil in the world comes from the power of legalism and the reaction against it. There is a strong tendency to spell out in some detail the “dos” and “don’ts” of good living. Much of what we call religion consists of this, combined with sanctions. These are intended to prevent people from following natural urges and desires that those who propound the rules believe to be damaging to them or to the community. Some such moral teaching is needed in most, if not all, societies. But the natural urges and desires are not thereby silenced. Paul thought that they were intensified by being forbidden. If psychic energy is expended in blocking these aspects of human nature, this is psychologically costly and to some degree self-destructive. If people react against this teaching in an antinomian way, that can lead to behavior that is both self-destructive and other-destructive.

Once again, a Whiteheadian judges that this destructiveness, which can include killing others and oneself, is not in the service of Thanatos. It is Eros that leads to the formulation of rules supposed to guide life in a positive way. It is Eros that leads to the attempt to obey them even when they require suppression of natural feelings. It is Eros that leads to revolts against them.

There are also the horrible situations in which the infant and growing child experiences primarily indifference or contempt and is treated as a thing to be exploited by others. Eros may then express itself in striking out against the world that works against it. It may even be replaced by hatred of both self and others. We could call this hatred Thanatos in something like Freud’s sense. But for a Whiteheadian it is still not a force parallel to Eros. It is a result of the social blockage and distortion of Eros.

Of course, Whiteheadians believe that there are better options and that the deepest sensitivity to Eros as the divine lure leads toward these. Indeed, we think that many people, even most people, avoid the worst forms of denying their own psychological needs without wholesale rebellion against all norms. In many families and communities love is stronger than legalism and makes space for the freedom of children to find their own ways. Still it is not surprising that complete openness to the call of Eros is rare. The situation of each human occasion that responds in some way to that call is also informed by all sorts of factors that are often louder or more attractive.

There are accounts of self-destruction and of the desire to destroy others that give real currency to the claim that within human nature there is an aim at death as well as an aim at life. What is written above is only intended to show that much destructiveness can be explained without a dualistic hypothesis. Even if instances are cited that seem to call more forcefully for a Thanatos drive, Whiteheadians will try to understand what happens as a derivative of the power of Eros. But questions of this kind must always be left open for further testing.