Instinct of Violence

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The word violence derives from an Indo-European root that refers to life. The natural instinct of violence is thus not a destructive instinct, much less a death instinct, but a natural life and survival instinct that corresponds to the instinct of self-preservation in Sigmund Freud's first theory of the instincts.

It involves what Freud saw as a sort of natural "imaginary cruelty" in 1897 and described in "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes" (1915c) as being common to humans and animals. This instinct's goal is above all to protect life and the narcissistic integrity of the subject. This holds regardless of the potential effects caused secondarily to an object that as yet has only a narcissistic status in the subject's imagination. Instinctual violence has nothing to do with aggressiveness, sadism, or hatred, whose libidinal components Freud showed to be aimed at an object that had otherwise attained an oedipal genital status.

In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), Freud very clearly showed that this brutal instinct can attract to itself a part of the sexual instincts, producing aggressive components. In 1915 he attributed a narcissistic and phallic character to violent dynamism and advanced the hypothesis of a logically necessary anaclisis of the sexual instincts on the brutal self-preservation instincts, so as to reinforce the energy of the sexual instincts in the direction of love and creativity.

The role of the instinct of violence was gradually specified in European and American psychoanalytic studies that since 1960 have focused on a veritable metapsychology of narcissism. In La Violence fondamentale (Fundamental violence; 1984) Jean Bergeret, based on such studies and Freud's first hypotheses, proposed an attempted synthesis, forming a theory of instinctual violence. He gave special emphasis to the difficulties Freud encountered in trying to account for the stage of primitive violence within the totality of the Oedipus myth. The first acts of the drama (the oracle of Apollo and the episode of Mount Cithaeron in particular) bear witness to human beings' deep intuitive awareness of their fundamental instinct of brutality in the service of self-preservation.

Freud was never satisfied with his successive theories about the instincts. Rather, he decided to focus on the synchronic aspect of a conflict arising between tendencies within the same psychogenetic generation. His theory of instinctual anaclisis, however, would have enabled him to conceptualize a diachronic conflict pitting the violent pregenital tendencies against the sexual tendencies, with all the possible configurations linked to fusion, defusion, and the different modes of articulation of these two fundamental groups of instincts. His choice of a synchronic model of conflict prevented Freud from better integrating into his psychodynamic and economic conception this brutal instinct of violence and defense, which he had nevertheless clearly described.


See also: Aggressiveness/aggression; Catastrophic change; Combined parent figure; Criminology and psychoanalysis; Cruelty; Envy and Gratitude; Fort-Da; Mastery, instinct for; Phobias in children; Primal scene; Sadism; Stammering; Transgression. Bibliography

   * Bergeret, Jean. (1984). La violence fondamentale. Paris: Dunod.
   * ——. (1994). La violence et la vie. Paris: Payot.
   * Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.
   * ——. (1915c). Instincts and their vicissitudes. SE, 14: 109-140.