The publication of "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" in 1920 marked a crucial turning point in Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theory. Up until then Freud infamously held that all human action is based on the sexual drives (the libido or Eros) and the pleasure principle of perusing pleasure while avoiding pain. In "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" Freud suggested that man is also governed by a competing instinctual drive: the death drive (or Thanatos, the Greek god of death).
It was the horrors of World War 1 which led Freud to hold that inside all of us lies a force which is aggressive, violent and (also self-) destructive. Life and death, Freud realized, are two sides of the same coin and therefore their mutual interaction is at the very core of human existence.
Freud moves from clinical evidence to support his theory to speculation. in sections 1-3 of "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" Freud asks if we can find examples of incidents in which human action moves "beyond the Pleasure Principle", that is not abiding by it. He identifies four such cases: children's games, recurring dreams, self harming and the underlying principle of repetition compulsion (enacting unpleasant events over and over again). Freud could not account for repetition compulsion under the premise of the pleasure principle and he therefore concluded that it must be separate from it.
In sections 4-7 of "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" Freud speculates that repetition compulsion is a form or relieving pressure originating in trauma, granting relief to self destructive forces. He added the example of masochism which he claims precedes sadism, and not the other way around.
The most inspiring point in Freud's "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" is the suggestion that to the same extent we want live and love we also want to die and destroy. The dual nature of man was now brought to the forefront of psychoanalysis.
Other articles and summaries about Freud:
Books of interest: