Why war?

In 1932 a rather poignant exchange of correspondence took place between Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. This was never intended as private correspondence, but was published in a very limited edition a year later, after Hitler’s rise to power. Even if this had been a mere private exchange, both Freud and Einstein were so famous at this time that their every word carries the heavy hand of posterity.

There is a certain sad irony about these two Jewish men solemnly discussing the problems of the world of 1932 as if it were in their power to solve them. They both understand that something very bad is brewing but not that they and their people are going to be victims of it. There’s something very touching about this attempt to understand the intractable problem of collective human violence, and something very sad and futile.

I’m not going to give you a blow-by-blow summary of this pamphlet, which is freely available online (pdf) and, indeed, shows up in my Facebook or Twitter feed every now and then, but in a nutshell, Einstein asks Dr. Freud: “Is it possible to control human mental evolution to that people can resist the psychoses of hate and destructiveness?”, which Freud answers with a long exegesis that basically comes down to “Probably not”.

I personally share Freud’s pessimism; humans have been violent towards each other since before we were humans, and there’s no reason to believe that’s going to change any time soon. Freud goes as far to say:

Why do we…protest so vehemently against war, instead of accepting is as one of life’s odious importunities?

I wonder the same thing sometimes myself – no one goes around asking “Why are ducks so horrible to each other?”, it’s just the way ducks are and there’s nothing to be done about it. Similarly, you can look at human history and think “Well, they really seem to like killing each other,” and wash your hands of the whole affair.

But Freud goes on to say:

The answer to my query may run as follows: because every people has a right over their own lives and war destroys lives that were full of promise; it forces the individual into situations that shame humanity, obliging them to murder fellow human beings against their will; it ravages material amenities, the fruits of human toil, and much besides.

Or in other words, as well as a need to destroy and hurt, humans have a need and a capacity to value and care for each other, and that is a place from which anti-war action can come.

Freud argues that “All that produces ties of sentiment between man and man must serve us as war’s antidote”, which can hardly be argued with. A rather less palatable idea is his suggestion that a class of intellectuals and thinkers be developed “to guide the masses dependent on their lead”, another sadly ironic statement to come from a Jewish man in 1932. (Incidentally, this is also the position of the Raelian movement and a plot point in the classic Doctor Who episode “Robot”, so clearly it’s an idea with legs. A terrible idea, but one that persists.)

Freud closes his letter:

How long have we to wait before the remainder of humanity turns pacifist? Impossible to say, and yet perhaps our hope that these two factors—people’s cultural disposition and a well-founded dread of the form that future wars will take—may serve to put an end to war in the near future, is not chimerical. But by what ways or by-ways this will come about, we cannot guess. Meanwhile we may rest on the assurance that whatever makes for cultural development is working also against war.

There may be something in the assertion that “a well-founded dread of the form that future wars will take” can prevent war. After all, we are now, what, 69 years into the age of the nuclear bomb and have successfully avoided global nuclear war – well done, humanity! But I don’t know about Freud’s idea of cultural development as anti-war. I have any number of intelligent, educated, cultured relatives in the US who were eager cheerleaders and are constant defenders of the Iraq war. I think the entirety of humanity will become pacifist around the same time it becomes vegetarian: that is, never.

But you know, maybe I’m wrong. At least I hope I am.


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