Between 1931 and 1933, Albert Einstein engaged Sigmund Freud in a discussion that addressed the question, “Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?” Their exchange was subsequently published as a pamphlet that is available for free on line by clicking HERE.
In today’s From Insults to Respect post, we’ll take a look at the main points that both men made back then, and then I’ll try to apply their ideas to the current state of world affairs.
Einstein’s Views On Promoting World Peace
Einstein addressed a letter in 1931, or possibly 1932, to Freud, concerning an organization of intellectual leaders that would work toward world peace. It reads in part:
I greatly admire your passion to ascertain the truth–a passion that has come to dominate all else in your thinking. You have shown with irresistible lucidity how inseparably the aggressive and destructive instincts are bound up in the human psyche with those of love and the lust for life. At the same time, your convincing arguments make manifest your deep devotion to the great goal of the internal and external liberation of man from the evils of war. This was the profound hope of all those who have been revered as moral and spiritual leaders beyond the limits of their own time and country, from Jesus to Goethe and Kant. Is it not significant that such men have been universally recognized as leaders, even though their desire to affect the course of human affairs was quite ineffective?….
Do you not share the feeling that a change could be brought about by a free association of men whose previous work and achievements offer a guarantee of their ability and integrity? Such a group of international scope, whose members would have to keep contact with each other through constant interchange of opinions, might gain a significant and wholesome moral influence on the solution of political problems if its own attitudes, backed by the signatures of its concurring members, were made public through the press. Such an association would, of course, suffer from all the defects that have so often led to degeneration in learned societies; the danger that such a degeneration may develop is, unfortunately, ever present in view of the imperfections of human nature. However, and despite those dangers, should we not make at least an attempt to form such an association in spite of all dangers? It seems to me nothing less than an imperative duty!
Once such an association of intellectuals–men of real stature–has come into being, it might then make an energetic effort to enlist religious groups in the fight against war. The association would give moral power for action to many personalities whose good intentions are today paralyzed by an attitude of painful resignation.
After receiving Einstein’s letter, Freud agreed to participate in a public exchange of letters. Einstein’s first open letter to Freud said, in part,
As one immune from nationalist bias, I personally see a simple way of dealing with the superficial (i.e., administrative) aspect of the problem: the setting up, by international consent, of a legislative and judicial body to settle every conflict arising between nations. Each nation would undertake to abide by the orders issued by this legislative body, to invoke its decision in every dispute, to accept its judgments unreservedly and to carry out every measure the tribunal deems necessary for the execution of its decrees…. Thus I am led to my first axiom: The quest of international security involves the unconditional surrender by every nation, in a certain measure, of its liberty of action–its sovereignty that is to say–and it is clear beyond all doubt that no other road can lead to such security….
Einstein, being a fairly intelligent fellow, well recognized the resistance against any group seeking to create such a tribunal. Thus, he stated in his letter:
The craving for power which characterizes the governing class in every nation is hostile to any limitation of the national sovereignty. This political power hunger is often supported by the activities of another group, whose aspirations are on purely mercenary, economic lines. I have especially in mind that small but determined group, active in every nation, composed of individuals who, indifferent to social considerations and restraints, regard warfare, the manufacture and sale of arms, simply as an occasion to advance their personal interests and enlarge their personal authority….
Not having a ready solution to how to deal with this resistance, Einstein concluded his letter to Freud with the following words:
…[I]t would be of the greatest service to us all were you to present the problem of world peace in the light of your most recent discoveries, for such a presentation well might blaze the trail for new and fruitful modes of action.
Yours very sincerely,
Freud’s Views On Promoting World Peace
Freud soon responded to Einstein.
….[Y]ou have stated the gist of the matter in your letter–and taken the wind out of my sails! Still, I will gladly follow in your wake and content myself with endorsing your conclusions, which, however, I propose to amplify to the best of my knowledge….
Freud then uses his theory of the blending of the love instinct and the destructive instinct to develop further the reasons for the resistance to the war prevention tribunal that Einstein envisioned. But then he notes that he realizes that Einstein is not so much interested in a lot of theorizing, but rather, in concrete steps that may be taken to promote lasting world peace. The answer, he says, perhaps lies in trying to figure out why he, Einstein, and some others developed into human beings who are so much less likely than others to heed the drums of war. Perhaps if we understand this, we can create the conditions for others to reach a similar level of development. Thus, Freud wrote,
Why do we, you and I and many another, protest so vehemently against war, instead of just accepting it as another of life’s odious importunities? For it seems a natural thing enough, biologically sound and practically unavoidable. I trust you will not be shocked by my raising such a question. For the better conduct of an inquiry it may be well to don a mask of feigned aloofness. The answer to my query may run as follows: Because every man has a right over his own life and war destroys lives that were full of promise; it forces the individual into situations that shame his manhood, obliging him to murder fellow men, against his will; it ravages material amenities, the fruits of human toil, and much besides. Moreover, wars, as now conducted, afford no scope for acts of heroism according to the old ideals and, given the high perfection of modern arms, war today would mean the sheer extermination of one of the combatants, if not of both. This is so true, so obvious, that we can but wonder why the conduct of war is not banned by general consent….
Here is the way in which I see it. The cultural development of mankind (some, I know, prefer to call it civilization) has been in progress since immemorial antiquity. To this process we owe all that is best in our composition, but also much that makes for human suffering….The psychic changes which accompany this process of cultural change are striking, and not to be gainsaid. They consist in the progressive rejection of instinctive ends and a scaling down of instinctive reactions. Sensations which delighted our forefathers have become neutral or unbearable to us; and, if our ethical and aesthetic ideals have undergone a change, the causes of this are ultimately organic. On the psychological side two of the most important phenomena of culture are, firstly, a strengthening of the intellect, which tends to master our instinctive life, and, secondly, an introversion of the aggressive impulse, with all its consequent benefits and perils. Now war runs most emphatically counter to the psychic disposition imposed on us by the growth of culture; we are therefore bound to resent war, to find it utterly intolerable. With pacifists like us it is not merely an intellectual and affective revulsion, but a constitutional intolerance, an idiosyncrasy in its most drastic form. And it would seem that the aesthetic ignominies of warfare play almost as large a part in this repugnance as war’s atrocities.
How long have we to wait before the rest of men turn pacifist? Impossible to say, and yet perhaps our hope that these two factors–man’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 byways 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.
With kindest regards and, should this expose prove a disappointment to you, my sincere regrets,
At the time that these letters were exchanged, both men had every reason to be discouraged. They had lived through the devastation of World War I. Only twelve years had gone by since its peace treaty had been signed, and now Hitler had risen to power. Clear signs were everywhere that Europe was on the brink of World War II. Nevertheless, both took the time to try to do something that they thought might have at least some chance to be helpful.
Today’s media, with its motto, “If it bleeds it leads,” brings virtually 24 hours a day news about war, violent crimes, and terrorism. Thus many are led to falsely believe we are living in the most violent times in all of history. But actually solid research evidence, brilliantly summarized by Steven Pinker in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, indicates that over the course of human history we have been finding less and less violent ways to resolve our differences. Human beings who take the time to make vivid the negatives of war, rather than glorifying it, do make a difference. Those who point the way toward alternatives to violent interactions, can, in time, perhaps way too slowly than we would like, effect change. As Pinker says in the conclusion of his book, “the data we have seen in this book show it is a goal on which progress can be made–progress that is halting and incomplete, but unmistakable nonetheless.” It is my sincere hope that Einstein’s and Freud’s efforts so many years ago will serve as an enduring inspiration to all of us to keep up the struggle toward bringing about a more peaceful world.
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional and social intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.