Freud’s “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”

Freud began edging away from his theory of sexual instincts dominating all neuroses when he witnessed the traumas of World War I, traumas involving no physical causes or lesions, no obvious childhood context. He had already begun to extend the concept of sexual instincts into larger creative or life-giving forces, Eros, as he shifted from individual case work to larger theories not involving clinical practice. Freud called this phase one of “speculation, often far-fetched speculation,” but it was one of fruitful meta-psychology.

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), the decided shift begins. Rather than viewing the pleasure principle as rooted in sexual instinct, Freud is describing this principle somewhat like the Epicurean — not a debauchery or licentiousness but a natural ebb and flow, where the principle involves not the search for pleasure but the search for lowering of tension and excitation. It is the avoidance of pleasure, not the production of pleasure, that governs the self. “Unpleasure corresponds to an increase in the quantity of excitation and pleasure to a diminution.” [emphasis his] This was an important step in understanding the self.

Freud also speculated that our tendency towards pleasure is never absolute or dominant. We naturally seek not pleasure but constancy, meaning self-preservation. In the external world, self-preservation replaces the pleasure principle with what Freud called the reality principle. And the reality principle is nothing more than the instinct to postpone satisfaction in favor of self-preservation. We intellectualize this reality principle by formulating goals. We put off satisfaction in some things for a larger goal. Ultimately, as Freud says, Western culture was to formulate this principle into the core of its religion: we postpone satisfaction in this life for pleasure in the afterlife. Thus an intellectualized extrapolation of the reality principle.

But the reality principle can be overridden by stronger impulses, namely the sexual instincts, which in fact are always working to override the reality principle. A core such perversion is narcissism, of which he wrote during this period. Yet Freud was already identifying these libidinal and egoistic instincts with creative and live-giving instincts. The self uses a number of ways of adapting the libidinal instincts to creative and life-giving work. (Indeed, Jung used Freud’s term “libidinal” in this larger sense of creativity, with Freud nearly coming round to accepting the revision for himself).

Freud cites the compulsion to repeat as one life-preserving mechanism. This compulsion to repeat is witnessed in children, unconsciously in adults whose lives seem to repeat the same themes, failures, or tragedies, but also in larger society with ritual and memory. Another mechanism is transference, wherein instincts and feelings are displaced onto other people or cultures to dissipate what is threatening one’s own self or group. But ultimately, “all the organic instincts are conservative, are acquired historically and tend towards the restoration of an earlier state of things.” We must monitor these tendencies in our own lives in order to fully understand our personal goals, fears, behaviors, and zones of comfort.

Perhaps the most interesting speculation in Beyond the Pleasure Principle addresses the primitive organism and the germ-cell, as Freud called it. These basic living beings, completely dependent on external stimuli, are consistently attempting to return to a conservative state. In such a primitive cell, however, the next level of conservation is to become inorganic again. Every cell, of every complexity, likewise seeks to preserve itself absolutely as it came into being, to avoid external stimuli altogether. One cannot posit a pleasure principle here. At this level, all is reality principle. Reality is stasis, no change, no growth. And, Freud says, no life. Self-preservation intends not life but death, or rather, the organism intends death in its own manner and not in the manner of outside stimuli.

Despite evolution and the development of higher faculties in human beings, we see no instinct in operation towards perfection or growth or development so strong as that which is self-preserving, avoiding stimuli, and desiring balance, equanimity, constancy, stasis, and what Freud describes as wanting to die in one’s own fashion and not as dictated from outside the self. Thus is the posited death instinct, which, when perverted into a dynamic (a dynamic urge for satisfaction) becomes the aggressive instinct.

The aggressive instinct is the opposite of the libidinal instinct. The aggressive instinct overthrows the trajectory of life towards a reconciliation and quiet death (so to speak). The aggressive instinct overthrows the reality principle, perverts the creative energy of the sexual instincts into destructive energy, and becomes a parody of the pleasure principle.

And yet, with the evolution of civilization, we have seen the means of expression of the aggressive instinct grow in leaps and bounds, overtaking Eros as the death instinct. The aggressive instinct infects the very lifeline of the self. We are inured to it and accept its inevitability. We struggle in vain to reconcile it with morality, accept it as a necessary evil, give it a place in our society and politics. The aggressive instinct dominates our social and cultural lives. Society, like Saturn, consumes its children, its creative efforts. From this sense of the tension in the world and the tension other people inherit from society and culture, is born a deep sense of eremitism, a deep sense of solitude as a way of understanding (that is, preserving the understanding of) how things are.