Our Instincts Are Who We Are: Finding Our Way in the Mess of Civilization
Recently I reread Fernando Pessoa’s “The Book of Disquiet.” (If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.) In a later chapter, the narrator said something that struck me. To paraphrase, he stated that every emotion we have has an instinctual basis. This seems obvious on its surface. For example, if I feel angry, it could be that my body is telling me that I’m hungry or that I am being threatened.
But as I’ve contemplated this passage over the last few days, that statement has wider implications for me. For much of my youth, I subscribed to a liberal, romantic view of life. I believed in elevated emotions like truth and love and compassion. I believed as MLK once said, that the arc of the universe bent toward justice. Underneath this all, I believed that there was a sense of order in life, that things happened for a reason, that our lives were storybooks that were neatly unfolding to make sense.
My views have changed as I’ve gotten older, and have recently crystallized. I don’t discuss it much because I think many may be anathema to it. Humans are animals with bodies. Our bodies are designed for two things: survival and procreation. All our bodily functions and emotions are geared to those two things. Or to bluntly, sex and survival are what keep us going.
I realize there is nothing particularly revolutionary about this statement. Freud shocked the world with his emphasis on sex and the violent side of humanity. He saw aggression as an essential part of who we are. Freud got a lot wrong, but as a general overview, he was very much right. We are aggressive animals seeking sex, food, and safety. And if someone threatens our safety, our emotions react and we often act out with violent words or actions. Quoting Freud from his book “Civilization and its Discontents,”
…men are not gentle creatures, who want to be loved, who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him…