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Is War Inevitable?

Jeffrey Gordon rereads a correspondence on war between Einstein and Freud.

In 1932 the greatest genius of the Twentieth Century wrote an urgent letter to the century’s most influential psychologist. In that letter, Albert Einstein asked Sigmund Freud, “Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?” It was the same year that the German electorate made the Nazis the strongest political party in Germany, only one year before Adolf Hitler’s remarkable rise to power.

Freud’s long and elaborate reply was greeted by Einstein with unrestrained enthusiasm. He called Freud’s letter “truly classic… something altogether magnificent.” Since the current American President has declared a War on Terror with no foreseeable end, Einstein’s question forces itself upon us with urgency also. What was the substance of the letter? Is there anything in Freud’s reply that can give us hope today?

Freud was not an optimist by either natural or theoretical disposition. His vision of human nature was notoriously dark. He restates in his letter to Einstein the instinct theory he had developed twelve years earlier, largely in reaction to the unprecedented brutality of the First World War, in which 20,000,000 people were killed. Like every living being, Freud asserts, man is driven by two equally powerful instincts. One, eros, is creative, unifying; the other, thanatos (or the death instinct), is aggressive and destructive. In his reply to Einstein Freud says that what makes human beings so responsive to the drums of war is a natural passion for destruction, a primal urge to reduce life to inert matter. And when this death instinct can ally itself with the creative drive through a great purpose, as when war is unleashed for the purity of the Aryan race, or for the glory of the brotherhood of Allah – the combined instinctual gratification is well nigh irresistible.

But despite this, Freud refuses to answer Einstein’s earnest question whether we can be delivered from the menace of war with a world-weary “No.” He instead asks himself why he and Einstein are so intent on ridding humankind of war. Why don’t they simply accept it as a tragic inevitability, as another of life’s odious but inescapable facts? Since this is exactly the attitude toward war taken by many sophisticated observers of humanity in their time and in our own, I think it worthwhile to consider Freud’s straightforward reply to this question. Freud protests the fact of war because it violates the fundamental right of a human being to life; because it cuts off young lives in the midst of their flowering and thereby deprives humankind of their promise; because it brutalizes the individual by forcing him into “situations that shame his manhood, obliging him to murder fellow men, against his will”; because it ravages the fruits of human labor; and because, given the continual refinements in arms technology, we are speeding toward the day when war will mean the sheer extermination of all the combatants. The confident and worldly pessimism that accepts war as an irremediable fact of human life is an attitude we can no longer afford: it’s an extravagant complacency. Whatever the wretched lessons of history, whatever we have learned of the human psyche, its native lust for cruelty and destruction, we must keep alive the hope for peace, because resignation to the inevitability of war is now resignation to the endgame of humanity. Optimism in regard to peace was thus for Freud a moral necessity.

But if war has the overwhelming instinctual foundation Freud postulates for it, is it not invulnerable to any imaginable strategy for its elimination? If optimism in regard to peace is a moral obligation, what rational basis might we have for such a hope? In face of his own considerable contribution to our understanding of the naturalness of human depravity, is Freud not in fact hopelessly enjoining us to sustain an illusion, a willful blindness to the ineluctability of war?

Freud identifies two key sources of hope: we can defeat war either by strengthening the natural antidote to the death instinct, or by overcoming the instincts altogether in an evolution of the human psyche. The first option would mean a strengthening of the bonds of eros among human beings, either by fostering actual affection from person to person, or by persuading them that what they share as human beings is stronger than what tears them apart as members of different tribes. The second source of hope is inspired by Plato: it would require the development of the civilized intelligence which makes one’s instinctual drives subservient to the power of reason in a substantial portion of the world’s population (especially its leaders).

The history of human conflict offers no encouragement about either of these prospects. The strongest bonds of identity and love across large populations have invariably been forged in vengeance against a common enemy. And the dominance of instinct by critical intelligence has thus far been achieved in only a very small segment of humanity – and then not without the serious risks to mental health incurred by the introversion of aggression, as Freud recognized. The resurgence of tribal fervor and bloodlust in recent history from Bosnia to Darfur, to the nascent civil war in Iraq, can only reinforce the judgment that the world is very far from either of these scenarios for peace. But it is not as though the passion for world peace is without its own powerful instinctual support. And there are signs in our time of the working of eros, including the European Union, the porosity of borders, the trend toward open trade and the worldwide outpouring of spontaneous sympathy for the US in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

Freud has in a sense given us our charge as citizens of the 21st Century. We must help to forge the bonds of eros among our fellow humans, while increasing the power of our intelligence to channel our instinctual drives. If we thought through how these two commitments might be enforced in our daily action, each of us would find an agenda for a lifetime.

But doesn’t history teach us the futility of all such efforts? To say that it does is to give to history a wholly mythical power, for history has no such lessons of futility to teach. It is only by our present consent that the past can set limits to the future. So can we dare to hope for peace on earth? Freud’s answer is an unequivocal mandate for our time: we can dare nothing less.

© Prof. Jeffrey Gordon 2008

Jeffrey Gordon is Professor of Philosophy and NEH Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Humanities at Texas State University.

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