What To Do With Aggression?

Still from the the film Lord of the Flies.

I’m used to Nietzsche’s provocations. Or so I thought. Recently, having taught the Genealogy of Morals to a class of college sophomores—rereading the text through their fresh eyes—I was struck yet again by Nietzsche’s audacity, his willingness to celebrate dark, even heinous, urges—e.g., “the voluptuous pleasure in doing evil for the pleasure of doing evil, the enjoyment of violation.”[1]


In my youth, such exclamations felt like a recognition of sorts, a philosophical expression to sides of myself I had been taught to feel ashamed of. Even if it wasn’t evil per se that I was craving, it was evil insofar as we define it, as Nietzsche seems to define, as violation for sake of violation. It was the pleasure of transgression—transgression of social norms—that I fancied. When I read Nietzsche, I was left with an ethical, even political question: What should I do with my ingrained aggression towards social expectations (even if—and perhaps because—I was very mostly obedient)?


Not long after Nietzsche’s death, Sigmund Freud claimed a disturbing discovery, one that explained some of the former’s provocations: we are all afflicted by a death instinct, thanatos, which drives us to undo the structures and regulations that civilization, especially our modern civilization, imposes on us. While civilization does its best to suppress aggressions, its success is limited, or rather: it causes these aggressions to burst out in immense spectacles of violence. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud appeals to the horrors of the First World War as an example, and had he not died in September 1939, he could surely add a few more atrocities to his list.


Freud’s diagnosis of modern Western civilization—not unlike Nietzsche’s—was bleak. To the extent that it can master thanatos, the price is growing misery since it bars modern subjects from playing out in-born instincts. I believe, however, that his theory gives rise to an ethically productive question: Can we fashion our lives, as both individuals and members of social institutions, in a way that offers our aggressions non-destructive outlets?


The idea that we have inclinations at odds with rational and socially constructive conduct is an old one. In a dominant strand of ethical thought, the imperative is to tame, or—to use Freudian parlance—suppress such inclinations. Immanuel Kant, for example, portrayed moral conduct as a constant struggle between rational duty (expressed by the Categorical Imperative) and our bodily inclinations. Reason must constantly guard against such rebellious forces. It is with this in mind, perhaps, that Nietzsche jabs at Kant: “The categorical imperative smells of cruelty.”[2]


Hegel, Kant’s most famous successor, also likes to jab at the apparent Kantian hostility towards the living body, fraught as it is with urges and instincts. “There is nothing degrading about being alive,” he says in the Philosophy of Right, “and we do not have the alternative of existing in a higher spirituality.”[3] I’d like to suggest that Hegel offers both an interesting construal of our seemingly antisocial aggressions—one that prefigures some of Freud’s insights—and a constructive ethical proposal for accommodating them.


Hegel characterizes desire [Begehren] as inherently aggressive; it subjugates the desired object to the demands of the desiring subject and thereby asserts the subject’s freedom vis-à-vis the objective world. When I desire an apple, I see it as nothing but a potential meal; when I consume it, I turn it into my meal; I make this formerly independent object a part of my subjectivity.


Importantly, this drama of desire has a rational purpose; it is a necessary aspect of attaining individual freedom. Unlike Rousseau, Hegel thinks that man is born unfree. We are thoroughly dependent on the world; we need it. Desire is a step away from dependency, a step towards freedom. It is not a passive need but the active satisfaction of need; moreover, it gives a specific shape to our needs. Feeling hungry, I may need food, but I desire an apple—thereby actively shaping my relationship with the world, asserting a degree (even if limited) of independence.


Furthermore, it is our desirous nature that explains, according to Hegel, why we sometimes even destroy what satisfies our needs. In a curious discussion of child development in his Anthropology, Hegel makes a passing comment: “the most rational thing that children can do with their toys is to break them.”[4] While he doesn’t quite explain this claim, his notion of desire could fill in the lacuna. Toys satisfy a toddler’s need at a certain developmental phase, helping him build various skills. But, he must show himself and others that he is not dependent on them; in breaking his toys he attains greater independence.


It is not only objects that satisfy our desire. In fact, desiring subjects can be all the more satisfying, insofar as they are able to acknowledge our superiority; we can read in their eyes their recognition of us as free, or rather—as more free than them.


Think, for example, about the fictional character of Don Juan, the womanizer for whom seduction is a never-ending task, a repetitive assertion of his masculine power.


Such behavior may strike us as unfortunate, and not for moralistic or anti libertine reasons. It hardly seems like a recipe for a good life. After all, the seducer—even the successful one—seems to be a slave of his own desire, perhaps like a toddler reliant on his toys. Hegel would agree. For him, this basic mode of desire—which treats the world, even people, as nothing but an object for proving one’s superiority—must be transcended if we are to attain more enduring and satisfying freedom.


However, I think Hegel’s originality lies in the realization that this mode of aggressive desire is not only a developmental stage, one we can ideally do away with. We need a sphere in which we can assert our superiority over others, a sphere which serves as an outlet for our inherently aggressive desire. This outlet is the peculiarly modern sphere of civil society, the sphere of the market economy.


In the market economy, the individual is concerned with his self-interest only, “and all else means nothing to him.”[5] He struggles for his subsistence and well-being and accumulates personal property, often by competing with others, outwitting and using them in promoting his own ends. Hegel talks about the modern economic sphere in almost animalistic terms, where “particularity indulges itself in all directions as it satisfies its needs, contingent arbitrariness, and subjective caprice.”[6]


This might seem demeaning, as if human society is no better than a jungle. After all, much of ethical thought is concerned with taking us beyond animalistic urges and behaviors. But Hegel’s point is that such transcendence is impossible, it denies essential aspects of who we are as rational animals. Rather than suppress our animality, we are to offer it a socially constructive playground. This stands to benefit society as a whole, insofar as it increases both personal and social wealth and conduces to innovation and progress.


It appears, however, that the market economy requires precisely what Freud associated with modern civilization, namely, strict obedience to a set of shared norms. How can it afford, then, an outlet for antisocial aggressions? I think that a Hegelian answer could appeal to an alleged similarity between the economy and a collective game. On the one hand, a game requires us to recognize the other participants as peers; we all follow the same rules. In this respect, we must go beyond aggression as a developmental phase, namely, we must recognize others as equals, rather than only as potential satisfaction for our desires. On the other hand, by acknowledging others as peers, we are given a space in which we can assert our superiority over them. Only one (or some) of the players can win the game. One aggression, then, is converted into another, socially constructive one.


It was Marx, Hegel’s most influential critic, who gave us reasons to doubt the idea that civil society—or, specifically, the market economy—is a site of individual freedom. It is not, however, because the market economy is a “jungle” (to use a metaphor many critics of capitalism favor), but because Hegel was still blind to the ways in which the capitalist economy was a site of unprecedented control. For very most of its participants, it is hardly a game—let alone a fair game—in which they can assert their individuality. Nevertheless, even if Hegel’s ethical remedy to our cravings for transgression is a poor one, the problematic that he responded to still calls for attention: What to do with aggression?


[1] Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, Essay 2, §5.

[2] Ibid., § 6.

[3] Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, §123.

[4] Hegel, Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, Addition to §396.

[5] Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, §182, Addition.

[6] Ibid., §185.


Gal Katz is a PhD candidate at the Department of Philosophy at Columbia University. His dissertation explores the relationship between individual freedom and modern skepticism in Hegel’s philosophy.