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.

quality of life

Many of us have responded very emotionally to the unfortunate public spectacle of Terri Schiavo and her divided family.

I’m too far removed from the situation to speculate about who’s right, the husband or the parents. How should I know whether Ms. Schiavo would have wanted her feeding tube disconnected, or whether she was still responsive to her loved ones despite her condition? It isn’t possible to make such judgments based on media reports.

My personal contribution to the subject is to offer just one thought: Ms. Schiavo’s life had value and meaning, despite her intellectual impairment.

For six years, I worked in a residence for developmentally challenged individuals who required total care: we bathed them, fed them, diapered them, and carried or wheeled them from place to place. Just like Terri Schiavo’s caregivers did for her.

One of the people I cared for was unable to swallow food. Instead, he had a j-tube: that is, a tube inserted directly into his intestine (the jejunum, hence “j-tube”) via which we fed him a liquid diet. Just like Terri Schiavo had to be fed through a tube.

As far as I could tell, the folks we cared for were happy to be alive. We certainly would have known it if they were miserable: they were able to express anger or sorrow quite effectively without words.

The only difference is, they were born in that condition, whereas Terri Schiavo was a “normal” adult before her heart stopped for ten minutes. Her situation is undeniably tragic, painfully so from the perspective of those who knew her before she suffered brain damage.

Still, her life had value and meaning even in her diminished condition: as much value and meaning as any human life possesses. That is my conviction, based on my experience with the folks I used to care for.

A couple of those folks have died just recently, and I believe the human family is a little poorer without them.

The same sentiment applies with respect to Terri Schiavo — even if her husband was right, and she would have wanted to die.

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