Stephanie Metcalfe : Man is Wolf to Man; Understanding the Subject of Sadism

In the Three Essays on Sexuality of 1905 Freud posits a primary sadism, representing a component instinct (drive) in all subjects. This drive is subject to vicissitudes that will depend on constitutional and environmental factors with different outcomes for each individual[1]. It does not surprise us then to see Freud cite the following quote ‘homo homini lupus’[2] or ‘man is wolf to man’ in Civilisation and its Discontents of 1930. Within this text it seems we can find the explanation for an important happening in society today. The ever-increasing demand for rights and recognition within certain social sectors which displays a combative attitude finds a psychological explanation in the following statement:

“ may…spring from the remains of their original personality, which is still untamed by civilisation and may thus become the basis in them of hostility to civilisation. The urge for freedom, therefore, is directed against particular forms and demands of civilisation or against civilisation altogether. ”[3]

The starting point for this paper is the question, from a Freudian perspective, of where the aggression in society originates from, leading to an examination of the psychoanalytic theory of sadism. I must acknowledge the fact that there is a complex development of Freud’s thought in relation to aggression and the aggressive instinct and therefore, this essay is limited to dealing concretely with the sadistic instinct/ drive.



What is Sadism?

In ‘Civilisation and its Discontents’ Freud highlights that in terms of the theory of the instincts one theory stood out from the rest – the sadistic instincts. He states: “sadism was clearly a part of sexual life, in the activities of which affection could be replaced by cruelty”[4] In his first essay of the Three Essays entitled ‘The Sexual Aberrations’ he states about sadism and masochism that they are ‘the most common and most significant of the perversions’[5]. Freud reminds us that it was Krafft-Ebing who first defined these terms and that there is another term ‘algolagnia’ preferred by other writers. Algolagnia highlights the pleasure in pain whereas sadism and masochism emphasise the pleasure in any form of humiliation or suffering. This fact is worth remembering as we move through the vicissitudes of this drive. So, what do we mean when we say sadism? In the Three Essays Freud explains it as an aggressive component of the sexual instinct that has become independent and exaggerated and has taken over the leading position.[6] He goes on to say that it may mean a violent attitude to the sexual object and may also mean that satisfaction is conditional on the humiliation and maltreatment of the object.[7]  Freud is interested in the fact that we see both  activity and passivity in the same individual – in other words a subject who enjoys inflicting pain can also gain pleasure from any pain which they experience themselves.[8] Regarding the roots of sadism, he outlines three: Firstly, traditionally - males who cannot rely on wooing women into submission for sex need to use other means i.e. force and subjugation. Secondly when a child witnesses intercourse, they have a violent perception of what is taking place, they are unable to understand what is happening and perceive it as some kind of ill treatment affecting how their own sexual position and enjoyment plays out. Thirdly, Freud outlines a physiological factor – a connection between sexual activity and romping and this is among the determinants of direction taken by the sexual instinct.[9] In the Three Essays we are directed towards his outline of the pre-genital phases of development – i.e., the oral and the anal[10]. These pre-genital stages are auto-erotic, in other words, they do not depend on an object yet for satisfaction but rather the organ/ the subject’s own body is the source of pleasure. And what happens at this stage will be a determining factor regarding how the subject relates to the object at a later stage. Of note is the fact that the phrase ‘sadistic-anal’ has become such a common reference, so, let us keep in mind the question: what is so sadistic about the anal phase?


Libidinal Stages and Neurosis

At this stage of development, the child, when requested by his parent or guardian to defecate may refuse to do so, getting a subsidiary pleasure from this withholding. In ‘Character and Anal Erotism’ of 1908 Freud states that a fixation at the anal-sadistic phase leads to character traits such as obstinacy, defiance, rage and revengefulness. He affirms:

“From these indications we infer that such people are born with a sexual constitution in which the eroto-genicity of the anal zone is exceptionally strong.”[11]

 He also addressed this issue in Transformations of the Instinct from 1917:

“Anal erotism finds a narcissistic application in the production of defiance, which constitutes an important reaction on the part of the ego against demands made by other people.”[12]

Lest we think we are off the hook in relation to these difficult issues (and, of course, we know we never are) as we attend this Study Day in a quest for knowledge, and specifically for psychoanalytic knowledge (which is perhaps always questionable) a reminder from Freud that:

“…we often gain an impression that the instinct for knowledge can actually take the place of sadism in the mechanism of obsessional neurosis. Indeed, it is at bottom a sublimated off-shoot of the instinct for mastery exalted in something intellectual…”[13]

Our drive to know, our intellectual endeavours are perhaps traceable to our desire for mastery and our individual sadistic tendencies.  What Freud teaches us in his wonderful early texts is that the symptoms that his patients suffer and endure, their presenting illness can and must be traced back to their early sexual life, to fixations at these libidinal stages. He affirms: “Thus our dispositions are inhibitions in development[14] Everything we know about the theory of psychoanalysis is drawn from Freud’s painstaking tracing of the symptom back to their origin. This work is only too evident in the case studies that he left for us. He states in the Three Essays

“the assumption of the existence of a pre-gential organisation of sexual life is based on the analysis of the neuroses, and without a knowledge of them can scarcely be appreciated”[15]

So, Freud has learned and teaches us that a fixation at the anal-sadistic stage will lead to a pre-disposition to obsessional neurosis, outlining in his Introductory Lectures:

“Of the many symptomatic pictures in which obsessional neurosis appears, the most important turn out to be those provoked by the pressure of excessively strong sadistic sexual impulses (perverse, therefore in their aim).”[16]

We are obliged to examine further the vicissitudes that the drive undergoes in other words the way we try to defend ourselves from the sadistic drive (and others) in order for us not to have it carried through in an unmodified form (and, importantly, this is Freud’s own definition of the vicissitudes) [17].



Instinctual Vicissitudes

Given the modification and defence involved in the drive – pertinent questions come to mind - when we act, do we know where we act from? when we speak, do we know who we are really speaking to? If we are defending ourselves from drives such as the sadistic drive, we have to assume that our true, unbridled motives remain hidden from us. This concept does not seem to carry much weight in a world where so much is taken at face value and not examined or questioned more deeply. But for those of us with an interest let us follow our investigation and remind ourselves that Freud stated, and perhaps we can take it as a warning: “Psychoanalysis stands or falls with the recognition of the sexual component instincts,’”[18] The sadistic drive can teach us about the characteristics of the drive in general as it one that Freud talks about in detail. In Instincts and their Vicissitudes Freud famously outlines that the drive: “Appears on the frontier between the mental and somatic.”[19] And its features include – an aim, a source, pressure, and an object. Importantly, the object is what is most variable, it is not originally connected to the drive but becomes assigned to it…[20] The instinctual stimuli originate from within the person and operate on the mind – the stimulus does not comefrom the external world but from within ourselves. They operate as a constant force – they are not momentary and no flight can avail against the drive. In this paper we get a sense of how we must be constantly influencing our external reality when he states: “Instinctual impulses from within us are being applied to the outside world”.[21]


In terms of the vicissitudes or defences available to the subject, Freud specifically deals with firstly  reversal into its opposite and secondly turning around on the subject’s own self – leaving repression and sublimation for another day[22]. Fortunately, in this paper he deals with sadism in order to exemplify his discoveries. When speaking about reversal into its opposite he refers to the transformation of activity to passivity and also a reversal of content. So, we see an example of reversal into its opposite in sadism-masochism – an active aim is replaced by a passive aim. Regarding a reversal of content – he simply states this refers to the transformation of love into hate. We will return to this point.

When he looks at turning around on the subject’s self he outlines that masochism is simply sadism turned around on the subject’s own self. So, this refers to a change of object whereas reversal into its opposite relates to a change of aim. There is a convergence in relation to these two processes so it can be hard to extricate them from each other in a sense – when there is a change of aim from activity to passivity (sadism-masochism) there is also a change of object. A closer look at the stages of sadism-masochism may help us:

In the first instance we have sadism against another person. Secondly, the object is given up and replaced by the subject himself, a move from activity to passivity and thirdly an extraneous object is sought to inflict pain on the subject – the masochistic stage.[23]

In recognising the complicated nature of all of this, the case of the Rat Man may help us bring the theory to life. According to Freud the obsessional gets as far as the second stage where the object is given up and the desire to torture becomes a desire for self-torture. The Rat Man experienced a suicidal impulse to cut his throat with a razor. This is revealed to be a punitive command for the real, hidden sadistic impulse which he felt towards his lady’s grandmother. For it was her fault that his lady was absent from him at a time when he wanted her close.[24]  Behind a compulsion for self-torture lay a sadistic wish. We are all too aware of the prevalence of self-harm in contemporary society, but do we ever stop to question who the aggression is really aimed at and whether the object has been, as Freud puts it, reversed or changed? We are all familiar with term ‘passive-aggressive’ but do we ever question the psycho-sexual origin? Or the way we defend ourselves from our sadistic drives that lead to this position?



Love and Hate

When looking at the reversal of content more closely Freud outlines three opposites of loving:

  1. Loving – Hating
  2. Loving – Being Loved
  3. Loving and hating together[25]

The vicissitudes mean that we oscillate, taking up different positions. We can feel love and hate with equal fervour – the Rat Man and Little Hans best demonstrate this in their strong evident love for their father behind which lay an unconscious but equally strong hatred. What emerges are troubling and debilitating symptoms of anxiety that paralyse the patient living a normal life. Despite their protestations of love for those closest to them there is something much more complex at play. Freud tells us that love and hate have completely different origins[26] and cannot be properly distinguished until the genital stage. For example, at the sadistic-anal stage there is a drive to master the object, injury or pain inflicted is not a consideration for the subject and at this stage we could say that love and hate are both at play – what is essential is the urge for mastery. Prior to the stage where the object is implicated Freud tells us that:

“love is derived from the capacity of the ego to satisfy some of its instinctual impulses auto-erotically by obtaining organ-pleasure. It is originally narcissistic, then passes on to objects…”[27]

In relation to hate he informs us that it is older than love and that it relates to the subject’s repudiation of the external world with its outpouring of stimuli[28]. So, how the subject interacts with the world around them, undoubtedly, has deeply complex origins.

Love Thy Neighbour

In ‘Civilisation and its Discontents’ Freud questions the ideal that we love our neighbour when, in fact, he states our neighbour has more claim to our hostility hypothesising that:

“‘men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness.”[29]

The development of our civilisation sets up the power of community over the power of the individual as a right and is a decisive step in civilisation. Freud says that the subject will “always defend his claim to individual liberty against the will of the group”. But we must all sacrifice instinctual satisfaction (including satisfying our sadistic drive) in order to comply with a rule of law. Freud reminds us that sometimes this rule of law must be challenged and this can represent an important step towards the progress of civilisation. We can all think of important examples of how challenging the status quo for recognition of equal rights has necessitated change for the better. Interestingly, in a footnote in the text Freud informs that the German word ‘Recht’ means both ‘right’ and ‘law’[30].  [31] How do we tell the difference between a genuine need and subsequent desire to progress civilisation for the greater good and a demand that bears the hallmark of untamed sadism and aggression? Lacan claims an aggression in idealists and reformers:

“…we place no trust in altruistic feeling, we who lay bare the aggressivity that underlies the activity of the philanthropist, the idealist, the pedagogue, and even the reformer.”[32]

This prompts the following question: In the ever-increasing demand for rights, equality, liberty and the subsequent request that laws be changed, are we dealing with progress or are we dealing, in some instances, with the sadistic/ aggressive drive being exercised on the external world?





Would the true sense of a ‘woke’ culture[33] not involve us taking on our individual responsibility re: our sadistic/ masochistic tendencies? Is this not what Lacan meant when he asked us to wake up to the reality of our life? This means that when we implore love for each other we understand that there is an inherent ambivalence in this emotion and hate is never too far behind. As always this is less palatable, less appealing and involves more pain but what is the alternative? It remains hidden and unconscious but drives people to act in ways that they are unaware of. The woke culture has given rise to a cancel culture – could the aggression be any more obvious than this attempt to cancel or annihilate the existence of another subject? Lacan’s first seminar deals with the all-important mirror stage and the simultaneous unifying effect of comparing our likeness in the mirror to that of an Other. However, this recognition also sparks a feeling of alienation, and he states that this is:

“the most fundamental structure of the human being on the imaginary plane – to destroy the person who is the site of alienation”[34]

For those involved in the regulation of the oft-quoted hate crime a look at the psychoanalytic theory of the sadistic drive may assist in dealing with the roots of these transgressions and lead to an understanding that these tendencies inhere in us all. As Rob Doyle states in the Irish Times:

“only when I read Sigmund Freud did I find an honest theoretical acknowledgement of the unbridled aggression, depravity and lust for annihilation that constitute the dirtiest secret of the individual in society.”[35]

Finally, as we know, the debate regarding what can and can’t be said, how we can and can act and interact with each other rages on – with little or no understanding of the component drives. But we do see the aggression being named by well-known authors such as 

Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie who states that in todays’ world:

“What matters is not goodness but the appearance of goodness. We are no longer human beings. We are now angels jostling to out-angel one another. God help us. It is obscene.”[36]

The Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality elaborates how the human beings grapple with sexuality and its effect on the psyche and the assumption of subjectivity. But have we been able to accept Freud’s revolutionary findings? Or do we deny their importance? And is this denial a rejection of a significant part of what it is to be human?  

[1] Freud, S. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905) Standard Edition VII, London, Hogarth Press, discussed in the summary p.235-243.

[2] Freud, S. Civilisation and its Discontents (1930) Standard Edition XXI, London, Hogarth Press, p.111

[3] Ibid., p.96

[4] Ibid., p.117

[5] Freud, S. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905) Standard Edition VII, London, Hogarth Press, p.157.

[6] Ibid., p.158

[7] Ibid. p.158

[8] Ibid.,.159

[9] Ibid., p.158 and 203.

[10] Ibid., p. 197-198

[11] Freud, S. Character and Anal Erotism (1908) Standard Edition IX, London, Hogarth Press, p.170  

[12] Freud, S. Transformations of the Instinct (1917) Standard Edition XVII, London, Hogarth Press, p.132

[13] Freud, S. The Disposition to Obsessional Neurosis (1913) Standard Edition XII, London, Hogarth Press, p.324

[14] Ibid., p.318

[15] Op.cit., p.199

[16] Freud, S. Introductory Lectures, ‘The Sexual Life of Human Beings’, Lecture XX (1916-1917) Standard Edition XVI, London, Hogarth Press, p.309

[17] Freud, S. Instincts and their Vicissitudes (1915) Standard Edition XIV, London, Hogarth Press

[18] Freud, S. The Disposition to Obsessional Neurosis (1913) Standard Edition XII, London, Hogarth Press,


[19] Freud, S. Instincts and their Vicissitudes (1915) Standard Edition XIV, London, Hogarth Press, p.122

[20] Ibid.,122

[21] Ibid.,p.118

[22] Ibid.,p.127

[23] Ibid., p.127

[24] Freud, S. Notes Upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis (1909) Standard Edition X, London, Hogarth Press, p.187

[25] Freud, S. Instincts and their Vicissitudes (1915) Standard Edition XIV, London, Hogarth Press, p.133

[26] Ibid.,p.138

[27] Ibid.,p.138

[28] Ibid.,p.139

[29] Freud, S. Civilisation and its Discontents (1930) Standard Edition XXI, London, Hogarth Press, p.111

[29] Ibid., p.111

[30] Ibid., p.101

[31] Ibid., p.96

[32] Lacan, J. ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience’ in Ecrits: a selection Translated by Alan Sheridan, 1966, London and New York, Routledge Classics, p.8.

[33]Woke is a term originating in the United States that originally meant to be alert to racial prejudice and discrimination. Beginning in the 2010s, it came to encompass a broader awareness of social inequalities such as sexism, and has also been used as shorthand for left-wing ideas involving identity politics and social justice, such as the notion of white privilege and slavery reparations for African Americans

[34] Lacan, J. Book 1 Freud’s Papers on Technique 1953-1954 Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller and Trans. By John Forrester, New York and London, Norton and Company, p.172.