Freud proposed the idea of a ‘death instinct’ (thanatos) which arises alongside the libidinal instinct (eros) for which he is more widely known. In Civilization and its Discontents, where he mentions but does not develop this idea beyond a very limited extent, it serves as perhaps the strongest single force opposing and undermining civilization as a creative process.
May we not recognize a not-so-distant cousin of this death-instinct in the habit of abstracting our attention from objects? This introverting tendency consists, at bottom, in the withdrawal of psychic energy (libido) from outer objects. This robs them of the power and vitality they would otherwise acquire from our steady payments of animating, reality-conferring attention. (These payments may be consciously made, or they can be ‘automatic bank-draft payments’ that we do not have to consciously attend to.)
In keeping with the generally biological and extraverted biases of his theoretical standpoint, Freud characterizes this death instinct in terms of aggressivity, brutal destructiveness, cruelty, sadism, and masochism (when intermingled with eros)—and even with evil and ‘Satan.’ From a less literalistic, less behavioral, and more purely psychological perspective, the whole problem can be shifted onto a subtler plane, however. In this way Genghis Khan and Tamerlane are replaced by blissfully detached Indian yogis and serenely indifferent Taoist sages. Brutish outer destructiveness and barbaric cruelty are ‘sublimated’ or ‘spiritualized’ into a state of inner detachment that allows for a measure of conscious control over the direction and use of one’s instinctual energy. From ‘discharge’ to ‘take charge!’ From ‘acting out’ to ‘acting in.’
What Freud conceives as the struggle between these ‘opposed’ instincts—eros and thanatos—may just as legitimately be viewed as the continual array of transformations occasioned by the interplay of, say, ‘yin’ and ‘yang,’ or the positive and negative poles necessary for the generation of an energy field. By conceiving the interplay between the two as a war between a life-affirming and a pessimistic, life-denying morality (in Nietzsche’s philosophy, roughly speaking, this is ‘master morality’ and ‘slave morality,’ respectively), Freud runs into difficulties that I believe are subtly sidestepped (or perhaps leapt over) by Jung, the Taoists, and much of Indian philosophy. Metaphysical materialism seems to be implicit in Nietzsche’s as well as Freud’s ground assumptions, whereas Jung and the others maintain a discreet silence about matters that are deemed beyond the reach of human reason. Accordingly, this philosophical modesty on Jung’s part (or his dearth of philosophical arrogance and hypostatizing presumption) ultimately consigns his speculations about ‘final things’ to the realm of myth rather than to that of rational philosophy, but this very open-endedness sharply distinguishes his psychology from the deterministic (and generally mechanistic-reductive) psychologies in which the materialists (Nietzsche and Freud) risk becoming entangled by virtue of their own need to nail things down, or to reduce them to some ultimate set of axiomatic principles (infantile sexuality, the pleasure principle, the reality principle, the Oedipus complex, will-to-power, eternal recurrence of the same, etc.)
These principles function like ultimate explanatory principles for Nietzsche and Freud, despite their unconvincing attempts to suggest otherwise. Jung’s key concepts and paradigms are heuristic—sophisticated but provisional rules of thumb—and not ultimate explanatory principles into which all can be analyzed and resolved. Jung is, therefore, more of a storyteller and myth-maker than a scientist or philosopher in the traditional or strict sense. He is more of an artist, visionary, and (non-dogmatic) religious thinker, to my mind, than a resolver of human problems into irreducible terms or elements, as Freud and Nietzsche attempt to be—but fail to pull off in a convincing manner.
Life is change—and change necessarily involves the ceaseless death and transcendence of the status quo. Living conditions (and the contexts within which the events of life make any coherent sense) are continually undergoing subtle and sometimes momentous transformations—both inside and out. So far as we can tell, no dogmatic theology and no rational explanatory scheme can ever fully account for, or adequately represent, that protean mystery we call ‘life.’ Life can be experienced—if only through a glass darkly, and in non-lethal doses—but it can never be firmly grasped or explained by our feeble philosophies and by the imperfect lights of our minds. Our most eloquent and grave statements about life are no more than stabs by pocket knives into the thick folds of ever-metamorphosing flesh which enclose this elusive motherfather that has spawned our mind-body complexes. Such grandiose statements are impressive only to the foolish and virginal minds of persons who believe that these petty little pin-pricks penetrate the thick layers of opacity, reaching down to the bones and to the heart of life itself. I have certainly counted myself among such fools, but having persisted in my folly, I have gradually begun more frankly to perceive my folly for what it is. And how can I not here speak ‘in praise of folly’ when I know that wisdom which believes in itself with conviction immediately pulls the ‘wise man’ back to the start of the line, where he is forced to re-begin his steep ascents (and deep descents) behind more knowing ‘fools.’ But then, to know is to know that one knows not. Truly spoken words sound paradoxical. Flat statements fall flat on their asses.