Even today – perhaps especially today – we do not like to look too closely at the irrational forces in the human psyche, and the averagely rational man, as he reads the account in his morning paper, perhaps comforts himself that there are always a few abnormal people in society. But the columns of the popular papers, those great hornbooks of the appetites, are proof enough of the universality of man’s obsessive interest in violence, and of his equally obsessive interest in sex. Man has other appetites indeed, but they are controllable. He does not surround his appetite for food with the same prohibitions and taboos that surround his cravings for cruelty and lust, nor does he daily purchase printed accounts of the food consumed by others. With his conscious mind he builds an ideal of co-operation and restraint, and on this shining picture he concentrates his attention, secretly aware that if he pays any heed to the evil shapes which mutter behind him, he may become so fascinated that they will enslave him.
The history of civilization is the history of a long warfare between the dangerous and powerful forces of the id, and the various systems of taboos and inhibitions which man has erected to control them. Sometimes man has attempted to cap the volcano, but the molten matter has then forced its way out through fissures in the rock, and the damage done has been as great as if he had made no such attempt. Sometimes he has managed to control and render harmless the prisoned energy by providing adequate institutions for its expression. Rarely has he managed to harness it to do creative work. The purpose of this book is to survey these various attempts to control the irrational as they have been developed in western Europe and particularly in England during the Christian era. Or rather its purpose is to survey the treatment men have accorded to the sexual drive – but from this subject the study of violence cannot be wholly divorced. In the language of Freud, man has two inborn capacities, and each may manifest in a nobler or a baser form. There is Eros, which is love and creativity, but also lust; and there is Thanatos, which is hate and destruction, but may also become the power to control and manipulate for useful purposes. Often these two drives become fused: love can make a divine marriage with mastery, just as lust can make a diabolic marriage with pain. Sadomasochism is the reverse side of a coin whose obverse is creative achievement.
A century ago, duped and doped by a false analogy between evolutionary progress, which is progress in complexity, and a progress in the social, moral and aesthetic spheres, men could believe that it needed but time and effort to pass irrevocably from barbarism to civilized restraint. Today, we are beginning to realize that civilization is only to be maintained by a continuous struggle against the forces of destruction which beset it, just as the life of the body is maintained only by continuous expenditure of energy from disruption by the force of decay. And while history has demonstrated how easily the destructive forces can break out to create an Auschwitz or a Buchenwald – those same forces which also make a lynching or a scuffle outside prison gates – Freud has forced us to the painful realization that those forces are present within every one of us, as potentialities for good as well as ill.