In Christianity, Thanatos is the fourth and final Apocalyptic horseman in the Book of Revelations. Riding a pale horse, he is the only horseman given an explicit name (Death in English translations) and is the only rider who arrives without carrying a weapon.
The Romans took Thanatos from Greece and named him Mors, which remains the root English words such as mortal, mortification, and morbid. Thanatos remains in English in terms like thanatophobia, the fear of things related to death, and thanatology, the study of human death. Sigmund Freud used the name Thanatos to refer to the death instinct, which he psychoanalytically defined as the drive toward death and self-destruction.
On the flip side, the Greeks personified love as Eros, a primordial god involved in creating the cosmos with Tartarus, Gaia, and Chaos. Accounts of the Eros’s origins vary, but it remains clear that Eros primarily represented carnal love in the forms of lust, desire, and sex. Eros remains in the English language in erotic and all other associated words. Freud included Eros in his theory of life and death drives as a counterpart to Thanatos, and he associated the god of love with life and survival instincts like sexuality, procreation, and species preservation.
As interesting as Freud’s theory of life and death drives may be, Thanatos and Eros remain fundamentally spiritual “problems” requiring spiritual solutions, solutions Freud’s theories barely acknowledge, let alone address, which helps explain why his theory is virtually useless when applied to the current and ongoing collapse of the West where Eros has joined Thanatos by becoming a death drive.
Put another way, Freud’s theory of life and death instincts has become inapplicable to the West because the West is severely in the grips of a death instinct spiral in which Eros no longer counterbalances or thwarts Thanatos but serves instead to exacerbate the relentless drive to self-destruction.
Freud believed that both Thanatos and Eros were bound to life, with Thanatos being an internal force in an organism desiring the abolition of the organism’s unity to return to an inorganic state and Eros being an external force that motivated an organism to form higher unities and, in turn, become a higher unity within itself. Freud actively sought to avoid falling upon vitalist and religious explanations and supported his theory by referring to the behavior of cells. Many refer to Freud’s theory of life and death drives as the pleasure and pain principle, but it is worth remembering that Freud believed that the fulfillment of the pleasure principle is death.
As interesting as Freud’s musings on Thanatos and Eros are, they are of little help today. His dynamics of Eros and Thanatos can be summarized in the following way: Each living being has an innate capacity and tendency for self-destruction and the dissolution of its own unity. Yet libidinal (erotic) energy is injected into all living beings externally.
Once the level of this erotic energy reaches a certain level, it activates the pleasure principle, motivating the being to transfer its libido to the outside world via another living being, which it uses as its object. This process then neutralizes the object’s tendency towards self-destruction.
As noted above, I don’t believe Eros neutralizes the object’s tendency toward self-destruction. On the contrary, I suspect Eros now does little more than exacerbate an object’s tendency toward self-destruction. This “breakdown” in Freud’s theory seems to lie in his subject/object conceptualizations and the supposed transferring of energy between subject and object. I also question the notion of Eros being a primarily external force.
Thanatos and Eros are fundamentally spiritual “problems” requiring spiritual solutions; solutions each of us must strive to discover, learn, and apply as best as we can in this era of dominant death drives. It is interesting to note that Freud’s theory of life and death drives rests upon relationships. In this sense, I believe he is looking somewhat in the right direction, but his exclusion of the spiritual/religious critically limits the depth of his theorizing.
The “solution” to Thanatos and Eros lies in relationships. That much is clear; however, our assumptions about the fundamental reality and nature of these relationships ultimately determine whether we are moving toward the solution.
The current death spiral of the West suggests that we are moving away from the “solution” rather than toward it, which should prompt us to deeply re-examine our assumptions about Beings and their relationships.