On the Vital Importance of Aggression

Our relationship to our own capacity for aggression is a vital consideration when assessing our physical, mental, and emotional health. Is anger a natural expression to be celebrated or a pathology to be remedied (or something somewhere between these two poles)?

Wilhelm Reich has written extensively on human aggression and his treatment of this seminal issue highlights its relevance to questions of health, ethics, and politics. Initially a student of Sigmund Freud’s, Reich parted ways with his teacher on the question of human aggression. Reich rejected Freud’s claim that there is a biological drive towards self-destruction and instead attributed all sadistic behaviour to the frustration of desire. Although he refused to naturalize human violence, he was also wary of pathologizing it. He took care to distinguish between destructive violence and goal-directed aggression and defended the latter as a necessary quality of vitality.

According to Reich:

Aggression, in the strict sense of the word, has to do neither with sadism nor with destruction. The word means “approach.” Every positive manifestation of life is aggressive, the act of sexual pleasure as well as the act of destructive hate, the sadistic act as well as the act of procuring food. Aggression is the life expression of the musculature, of the system of movement. . . Aggression is always an attempt to provide the means for gratification of a vital need. Thus, aggression is not an instinct in the strict sense of the word; rather it is the indispensable means of gratifying every instinctual impulse. The latter is inherently aggressive because the tension demands gratification. Hence, there is a destructive, a sadistic, a locomotor, and a sexual aggressiveness (Reich, Function of the Orgasm 156).

Reich viewed aggression fundamentally as an organism’s capacity to move in the world in order to acquire its objects of desire. It is only when the pleasurable goal is eliminated (i.e. made unconscious or imbued with anxiety) that aggression becomes a tension-releasing action in itself. Only when aggression becomes pleasurable as an end in itself, Reich argues, does it give rise to sadism. In these cases, aggression gains expression only as destructiveness and as such usually becomes stifled under self-censorship. What was once little more than a way of increasing pleasure, aggression is converted into something that has to be kept in check by pity, politeness, false modesty, etc. Reich argued that this conversion and resultant censorship inadvertently paralyze every rational reaction, every living, active impulse in the person. He lamented that the denial of natural aggression stripped people of the capacity to act, to be decisive, and to take a definite stand, even when dire situations compelled them to do so:

I marvelled at the crowd’s clemency. There were enough people to tear the policemen to shreds and still they were peaceable and complaisant. The police passed unmolested among them even though people in the immediate vicinity were being shot down like rabbits. I could not understand this. How could the crowd look on and do nothing, absolutely nothing at all, to prevent the bloodshed? “Sadism of the masses”? (Reich, People in Trouble, 25-6).

Reich observed on a personal and political level the problematic implications that arise when aggression is denied its primary expression in the pursuit of pleasure. Accordingly, he felt a fervent need to restore individuals’ capacity for aggression, despite the obvious (and not-so-obvious) therapeutic challenges that this approach faces.

You can learn more about Reich’s treatment of human aggression vis-a-vis Freud online: