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Life and Death Drives


Disciplines > Psychoanalysis > Concepts > Life and Death Drives

Description | Discussion | See also



Freud identified ‘instincts’ or ‘drives’  (Triebe) that he viewed as innate, universal and constantly felt.

An instinct differs from a stimulus in that it arises from sources of stimulation within the body, operates as a constant force and is such that the subject cannot escape from it by flight as he can from an external stimulus. An instinct may be described as having a source, an object and an aim. The source is a state of excitation within the body and its aim is to remove that excitation. (Freud, 1938)

Life is hence seen as largely about dealing with these conflicts, seeking to maximize gratification whilst minimizing guilt and punishment.


Eros (the life drive/instinct, libido) is concerned with the preservation of life and the preservation of the species, It thus appears as basic needs for health, safety and sustenance and through sexual drives. It seeks both to preserve life and to create life.

Eros is associated with positive emotions of love, and hence pro-social behavior, cooperation, collaboration and other behaviors that support harmonious societies.


Thanatos (the death drive/instinct, mortido, aggression) appears in opposition and balance to Eros and pushes a person towards extinction and an 'inanimate state'.

Freud saw drives as moving towards earlier states, including non-existence.

‘The aim of all life is death...inanimate things existed before living ones’ (Freud 1920)

Thanatos is associated with negative emotions such as fear, hate and anger, which lead to anti-social acts from bullying to murder (perhaps as projection of the death drive).


Freud also noted that we have a strong drive to repeat things, even to the point where is is harmful to us. This is at the root of several disorders, in particular Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

Rocking helps a baby sleep and traumatized adults will return to foetal position and rock frenetically. 

Fixation is a particular effect that leads to repetition where the person is unable to remove their attention from something or someone.


In defining these drives, Freud is using a dualist approach, whereby the identification of Eros automatically defines an opposite. Eros and Thanatos both help define one another, in that one is 'not the other'.

Eros and Thanatos interact and one can turn into the other, such a flipping of love and hate, crying and laughter. Eating preserves life but destroys that which is eaten.

Perhaps repetition is due to drives that are only partially satisfied. It is important in early activities such as suckling and crying for attention. Perhaps also it is an attempt to completely fulfil all needs. Or maybe when an action fails to fully satisfy, the resulting frustration and indignity increases tension to the point where we seek the nearest potential gratification, which is to attempt the act again.

Freud's drives are often misunderstood. Eros is seen as simple sexuality and hence as morally perverse, casting the human as base and primitive. The death drive is also unacceptable as it opposes the idea of the sanctity of life and can be seen as excusing or even encouraging suicide.

Melanie Klein disagreed with Freud in that she believed that we are born with a fragile, brittle, weak and unintegrated Ego, and that the most basic human fear is that of disintegration and death.

See also

Freud, Death

Freud, S. (1920), Beyond the Pleasure Principle, London: International Psycho-Analytical Press

Freud, S. (1962). The ego and the id. New York: W.W. Norton

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