Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Éros people and thanatos people

In my profile, I’ve identified “éros” as one of my interests. This may come as a surprise if you’ve read my other postings, since my intellectual / analytical side dominates when I write. But, despite appearances to the contrary, éros is one of my core values – one of the values that defines me.

Here’s an insight I’ve adapted from Robertson Davies, a Canadian novelist. (More on him below.) Every person with whom you interact falls somewhere on a continuum, with thanatos people at one extreme and éros people at the other.

Thanatos people

Θανατος (thanatos) is a Greek word meaning “death”. Thanatos people radiate negative energy: they complain a lot; they find fault with others; they are controlling; they are prone to negative emotions like anger or self-pity.

Beware: thanatos people will deplete your psychic energy. They will make you tired and depressed. If you are under their influence too much of the time and you continue in that state for too many months or years, ultimately they will destroy you. I do not believe this is an exaggeration: I mean it quite literally.

Éros people

But éros people give life. Έρος is usually translated “love”: more specifically, it connotes sexual love (hence English words like erotic and eroticize). But Davies, interpreting Freud and Jung for the masses, suggests that éros has a broader meaning. It denotes the life force.

Éros people radiate positive energy: they are content; they see the good in others; they are interested in you as an individual; and they tend toward positive emotions like joy and compassion.

Éros people will refresh your spirit. Basking in their positive energy is equivalent to making a deposit in your psychic bank account. You will have new resources to draw from, for the sake of your own well-being but also to enable you to support others.

One qualification: no one is 100% éros, and no one is 100% thanatos. (I don't want to be simplistic here, as in "There are two kinds of people in the world..."). Most of us are somewhere toward the middle of the continuum, although some people occupy one extreme or the other. The key is to evaluate the people with whom you interact on a routine basis. Who is éros to you, and who is thanatos to you? More on this below.


But first, two questions present themselves to my mind.

(1) Does éros necessarily have a sexual component? As I've already explained, éros is broader than sexuality. But, in my limited experience, thanatos people tend to be repressed sexually; whereas éros people tend to be confident in their sexuality. Still, I am not sure I would make an absolute rule of this. There may be important exceptions to it. (Feedback, anyone?)

(2) Is it possible to be éros to one person but thanatos to another? Can thanatos sometimes be reduced to a clash of incompatible personalities? I’ve been aware of this possibility for a long time, but I haven’t been able to sort it out to my satisfaction. Please weigh in – I’d love to hear your opinion!

Practical significance

So here’s the practical significance of the éros / thanatos distinction. You may want to monitor yourself, to determine how much of your time you devote to éros people, and how much to thanatos people. If the scales tip in one direction, you will thrive; if they tip in the other direction, you will slowly lose vitality until you have nothing left to give.

Do-gooders, in particular, must be wary. We often unwittingly surround ourselves with thanatos people. We make the mistake of seeing them as genuinely needy, and our impulse is to support them. Thanatos people are canny: they will thrive at your expense.

We do-gooders must be more discerning. We must begin to distinguish between genuinely needy people and thanatos people. Help others, but create a climate in which you, too, can thrive.

Ask yourself, who is éros to me? Then make sure there’s room for those people in your life: room enough to offset the impact of any unavoidable thanatos folk.


Re the late Robertson Davies
As a story-teller, Davies was a bit ham-fisted. But he had a brilliant intellect and an insatiable curiosity. His books are riddled with interesting observations about the human psyche, classical literature, the arts, university life, etc. Of special note, Davies was an iconoclast who utilized an irreverent sense of humour to pop people’s bubbles.
The éros / thanatos distinction is utilized to good effect in Davies’ A Mixture of Frailties. As one might expect from Davies, the characters of upstanding social repute are cast in the role of thanatos people, while the disreputable characters are the repositories of éros.


At 1:33 PM, April 07, 2005, Blogger Journeywoman said...

I've long enjoyed Robertson Davies, and I particularly like this classification of people. (Did it originate with him, I wonder?) While I view myself as on the eros end of the spectrum, there are certain thanatos strands in me, too. With this scheme as the identifying principle, it's easier to find and route out those deadly bits of oneself.

Can on be thanatos with one and eros with another? I don't think so. I think what you are remains consistant. However, it's undeniably true that different people do respond differently to the same person. Interesting question.

At 5:14 PM, April 10, 2005, Blogger ixia said...

hi, I like your blog too!
english is my second language, so unfortunately I don´t understand everything you write on your blogger.

At 7:24 AM, April 22, 2005, Blogger Kay aka Kirsten said...

Can one be thanatos with one and eros with another?

Maybe to a degree. What I have noticed is that someone who is thanatos can be more extreme in some company: I know two women who I would say both fall more on the thanatos side of the divide, but individually they are okay to be around. When they are together though, it's like they bring out the worst in each other - but not in the sense that they don't get along. More that they get along too well and encourage each other's negativity.

At 11:36 AM, April 29, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Hi, Kay, I'm not sure when you posted this comment. (Blogger gives me a time, but not a date. Not very informative, really.)

The description of your two friends puts a new twist on the subject, something I hadn't considered before: that two thanatos people can reinforce each other's worst traits. Now that you call it to my attention, I've seen that dynamic at work any number of times!

I suppose two éros people can encourage and support one another in a similar way. Thank goodness!

At 10:29 PM, May 01, 2005, Blogger snaars said...

Eros --> thumos --> thanatos. (Just a little joke.)

Most people think that they want to be around eros people all the time. I like to nurture both sides of my personality because they are both vital.

I don't believe in 'negative energy' but I do agree that some people are emotionally draining to be around. I sure hope I'm not one of those people. I'd like to ask my friends but they don't seem to come around anymore ...

Eros people are fun at a party, but if you want a realist, find a thumos guy.

The previous statement is argumentative and prejudicial, but then so is the whole eros/thumos distinction.

Why should I think of myself as eros or thanatos? Why can't I be both, or neither?

I don't like to put people in boxes. For one thing, they're likely to complain about it: "Why have you put me in this box?"; "It's cramped in here!"; "I'm hungry!" Stupid thumos people, always putting up a fuss.

Oops, look. This post is full of negative coomments. Does that mean I am thanatos? But I made some light-hearted comments, so I'm eros. But my lighthearted comments undoubtedly failed abysmally, which proves I'm definitely thanatos.

Aw, shucks.

You're a good writer, Q. I enjoy reading your blog, even if I am thanatos. (Big, booming voice) I AM THANATOS! CHOOSE YOUR DOOM, MORTAL!

At 9:27 AM, May 04, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

I think your bark is worse than your bite, doomsayer. Judging from your sense of humour, I'd put you in the éros camp.

I'm still chuckling over the movie reference on your blog:
Ever seen the Princess Bride? "All right Westley, good job, good night, I'll most likely kill you in the morning ...".
Occasionally I uttered remarks along those lines to the folks I cared for in the group home, when they had tested my patience to its limits.

More seriously, to divide the whole world into two camps is ridiculous, I know: the éros/thanatos distinction is too blunt an instrument. I think that's the point you're making when you say you're éros in certain respects and thanatos in others.

But experience is, some people drain my vitality while other people restore it. Thus the éros/thanatos distinction has a certain utility, as I tried to explain: "You may want to monitor yourself, to determine how much of your time you devote to éros people, and how much to thanatos people."

The distinction is indefensible but useful. How foolish is that?! But sometimes insights, like people, can't be put into tidy little boxes (rationally consistent formulations, gift wrapped and sealed with a bow).


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