In this short chapter, Freud discusses the existence of two different drives in the human libido, or economy of energies within the self. The first is the love-drive, Eros, in which an ego desires to join itself to an object (a thing outside itself, like another person or group of persons), or to itself (in the case of narcissism, when a person falls in love with himself or herself). The second is the death-drive, or Thanatos—a desire to break down the bonds between people, to destroy the world around the self, or even to destroy the self. Freud sees both the love-drive and the death-drive at work in interactions between persons and within societies.
The division between the love- and death-drives is an essential one for the purposes of this text. The love-drive seems reasonable enough to common sense – for as stated earlier, Freud believes that humans are hardwired to seek a certain kind of pleasure, however they might conceive of that feeling. But the death-drive, which Freud also views as essential to human life, is more troubling: a belief that humans also wish to court a proximity to destruction.
Specifically, Freud understands the love-drive to be, within a society, the desire between humans to establish bonds, to create sustaining relationships, and to create community. Eros, for Freud, is therefore the glue that holds a society together. Meanwhile, Thanatos, the death-drive, is the force tearing a society apart. It is the force that leads to aggressiveness between persons, and to the impulse toward destruction. Freud believes that the death-drive is prior to the love-drive in most humans, and that Eros must constantly battle Thanatos as societies develop in order to ensure the continued existence of those societies.
Just as humans receive a certain amount of stimulation and excitement—if not pleasure per se—from the death-drive, so too do societies, in their collective death-drive, have an impulse to destroy themselves permanently. This idea has a historical context, as Freud felt that European civilization was doing exactly this—and indeed, World War II was soon to begin. Freud’s essay might be viewed, then, as an attempt to reconcile the heights of European refinement and culture with its barbarism and violence, as born out in war.