From the time Cane killed Able in the Garden of Eden, aggression became a part of the human psyche.
Freud found the Biblical commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself to be a shallow and false premise. He contended that man is naturally aggressive, and, therefore, to love one’s neighbor is a behavior that would be in direct conflict with man’s natural instinct.
Historically, human beings have been known to be “creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness” (Freud, 1961, p. 68). So, rather than loving one’s neighbor, the human dilemma, according to Freud, is that man is hostile towards his neighbor: “to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him” (p. 69).
Today, neuroscientists tell us that the laws of natural selection have completely discredited the idea of the noble savage.
“But it is the doctrine of the Noble Savage that has been most mercilessly debunked by the new evolutionary thinking. A thoroughly noble anything is an unlikely product of natural selection, because in the competition among genes for representation is the next generation, noble guys tend to finish last. Conflicts of interest are ubiquitous among living things, since two animals cannot both eat the same fish or monopolize the same mate. To the extent that social motives are adaptations that maximize copies of the genes that produce them, they should be designed to prevail in such conflict; one way to prevail is to neutralize the competition. As William James put it, just a bit too flamboyantly: “We, the lineal representatives of the successful enactors of one scene of slaughter after another, must, whatever more specific virtues we may also possess, still carry about with us, ready at any moment to burst into flame, the smoldering and sinister traits of character by means of which they lived through so many massacres, harming others, but themselves unharmed.”[RLB1] (Pinker, 2002, pp. 55-56)
Freud labeled man homo homini lupus. Translated, this means, “man is a wolf to man.”
Freud warned us that man has the innate capacity to destroy himself and he cited “the invasion of the Huns, or… the people known as Mongols under Jenghiz Khan and Tamerlane, or… the capture of Jerusalem by the pious Crusaders, or even, indeed, the horrors of the recent World War,” as examples of man’s violent nature (1961, p. 69).
Hence, according to Freud, human beings create cultural rules and laws to inhibit and suppress this natural instinct for aggression. Nevertheless, Freud noted that society is unable to completely contain or limit man’s natural “inclination to aggression” (p. 69).
Our Innate Aggressive Nature
Due to neurobiologist MacLean’s model of the triune brain, we now know that aggression resides in the reptilian brain – the instinctive brain which holds our innate, primitive instincts and drives (Angel, 2008, p. 33). Angel explained that, “It is the origin of the brain whose structures generate instinctual drives” (p. 34).
Science today has proven what Freud suggested, which is that aggression is innate in the human animal. It is this aggressive nature, Freud suggested, that is responsible for one’s difficulties in inter-relationships, whether on a personal or political level. It is this factor that causes a large investment of energy to be expressed in an effort to control man’s baser instincts of violence.
Thus, even mutual interests are not strong enough to restrain man’s aggression towards one another. Freud (1961) stated that “instinctual passions are stronger than reasonable interests” (p. 69). Society, as a result, has developed social restrictions and norms to deter violence.
Psychical reaction-formations are methods used in society to create a stable environment for coexistence, and they encourage humans to identify with one another. It is through such identification that man develops a cohesiveness that raises self-esteem, security, and psychological equanimity; these social structures define human beings. This cultural connection to one another also helps man to assuage his fear of death.
The taboos and regulations available are not only for social interaction, but also love and sexual behavior. Thus society, in an effort to develop and sustain a community of relationships, reflects an animosity towards sexuality. For example, an unbridled sexuality within the culture would disrupt the construct of monogamy – a sexual state endorsed by Western society.
Even our political rules and laws, organized to regulate aggression, use aggression to enforce the law. The death penalty, which takes the life of one who has taken the life of another, serves as an example of this.
Angel, J. (2008) Exploring the mind-brain connection. Bloomington, IL: Xlibris.
Freud, S. (1962, c1961). Civilization and its discontents. (J. Strachey, Trans.). (1st American ed.). New York : W.W. Norton.
Pinker, S. (2002) The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. New York: Penguin.
Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (2000). Pride and prejudice: Fear of death and social behavior. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9, 200-204.