Why War: Einstein and Freud’s Little-Known Correspondence on Violence, Peace, and Human Nature
Despite his enormous contributions to science, Albert Einstein was no reclusive genius, his ever-eager conversations and correspondence engaging such diverse partners as the Indian philosopher Tagore and a young South African girl who wanted to be a scientist. In 1931, the Institute for Intellectual Cooperation invited the renowned physicist to a cross-disciplinary exchange of ideas about politics and peace with a thinker of his choosing. He selected Sigmund Freud, born on May 6, 1856, whom he had met briefly in 1927 and whose work, despite being skeptical of psychoanalysis, the legendary physicist had come to admire. A series of letters followed, discussing the abstract generalities of human nature and the potential concrete steps for reducing violence in the world. In a twist of irony, the correspondence was only published in 1933 — after Hitler, who would eventually banish both Einstein and Freud into exile, rose to power — in a slim limited-edition pamphlet titled Why War?. Only 2,000 copies of the English translation were printed, most of which were lost during the war. But the gist of the correspondence, which remains surprisingly little-known, is preserved in the 1960 volume Einstein on Peace (public library), featuring a foreword by none other than Bertrand Russell.
In a letter dated April 29, 1931, Einstein laments to Freud:
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?
I am convinced that almost all great men who, because of their accomplishments, are recognized as leaders even of small groups share the same ideals. But they have little influence on the course of political events. It would almost appear that the very domain of human activity most crucial to the fate of nations is inescapably in the hands of wholly irresponsible political rulers.
Political leaders or governments owe their power either to the use of force or to their election by the masses. They cannot be regarded as representative of the superior moral or intellectual elements in a nation. In our time, the intellectual elite does not exercise any direct influence on the history of the world; the very fact of its division into many factions makes it impossible for its members to co-operate in the solution of today’s problems.
He goes on to argue that the only positive way forward is through the establishment of “a free association of men whose previous work and achievements offer a guarantee of their ability and integrity,” envisioning the power of such a network decades before social media empowered a similar groundswell:
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!
I offer these suggestions to you, rather than to anyone else in the world, because your sense of reality is less clouded by wishful thinking than is the case with other people and since you combine the qualities of critical judgment, earnestness and responsibility.
The following summer, Einstein officially invites Freud to participate in the Institute for Intellectual Cooperation exchange, presenting the brief:
This is the problem: Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war? It is common knowledge that, with the advance of modern science, this issue has come to mean a matter of life and death for Civilization as we know it; nevertheless, for all the zeal displayed, every attempt at its solution has ended in a lamentable breakdown.
He explains why he has sought out Freud:
[T]hose whose duty it is to tackle the problem professionally and practically are growing only too aware of their impotence to deal with it, and have now a very lively desire to learn the views of men who, absorbed in the pursuit of science, can see world problems in the perspective distance lends. As for me, the normal objective of my thought affords no insight into the dark places of human will and feeling. Thus, in the inquiry now proposed, I can do little more than to seek to clarify the question at issue and, clearing the ground of the more obvious solutions, enable you to bring the light of your far-reaching knowledge of man’s instinctive life to bear upon the problem. There are certain psychological obstacles whose existence a layman in the mental sciences may dimly surmise, but whose interrelations and vagaries he is incompetent to fathom; you, I am convinced, will be able to suggest educative methods, lying more or less outside the scope of politics, which will eliminate these obstacles.
Einstein, who describes himself as “one immune from nationalist bias,” puts forth his own ideas for what a solution might entail — an international legislative and judicial body, which would settle all conflicts by mutual consent — but is wary of the challenges to this concept:
This is a fact with which we have to reckon; law and might inevitably go hand in hand, and juridical decisions approach more nearly the ideal justice demanded by the community (in whose name and interests these verdicts are pronounced) insofar as the community has effective power to compel respect of its juridical ideal. But at present we are far from possessing any supranational organization competent to render verdicts of incontestable authority and enforce absolute submission to the execution of its verdicts. 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.
Long before today’s heated debates on gun control, Einstein points to pro-gun groups as a chief culprit in hindering this legislative utopia:
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. … Another question follows hard upon it: How is it possible for this small clique to bend the will of the majority, who stand to lose and suffer by a state of war, to the service of their ambitions. … An obvious answer to this question would seem to be that the minority, the ruling class at present, has the schools and press, usually the Church as well, under its thumb. This enables it to organize and sway the emotions of the masses, and makes its tool of them.
Einstein then arrives at his main question for Freud:
Is it possible to control man’s mental evolution so as to make him proof against the psychosis of hate and destructiveness? Here I am thinking by no means only of the so-called uncultured masses. Experience proves that it is rather the so-called “intelligentsia” that is most apt to yield to these disastrous collective suggestions, since the intellectual has no direct contact with life in the raw but encounters it in its easiest, synthetic form — upon the printed page. … But … here we have the best occasion of discovering ways and means to render all armed conflicts impossible.
I know that in your writings we may find answers, explicit or implied, to all the issues of this urgent and absorbing problem. But it 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.
A few weeks later, on September 12, 1932, Einstein receives word from Leon Steinig, a League of Nations principal who facilitated the correspondence, that Freud was interested in the exchange, with the caveat that what he had to say might be too pessimistic for people’s taste but he couldn’t bring himself to sugarcoat the uncomfortable truth:
All my life I have had to tell people truths that were difficult to swallow. Now that I am old, I certainly do not want to fool them.
After Einstein assures Freud that he seeks a psychologically effective reply rather than an optimistic one, the correspondence launches into full swing and Freud writes later in September:
Dear Mr. Einstein:
When I learned of your intention to invite me to a mutual exchange of views upon a subject which not only interested you personally but seemed deserving, too, of public interest, I cordially assented. I expected you to choose a problem lying on the borderland of the knowable, as it stands today, a theme which each of us, physicist and psychologist, might approach from his own angle, to meet at last on common ground, though setting out from different premises. Thus the question which you put me — what is to be done to rid mankind of the war menace? — took me by surprise. And, next, I was dumbfounded by the thought of my (of our, I almost wrote) incompetence; for this struck me as being a matter of practical politics, the statesman’s proper study. But then I realized that you did not raise the question in your capacity of scientist or physicist, but as a lover of his fellow men… And, next, I reminded myself that I was not being called on to formulate practical proposals but, rather, to explain how this question of preventing wars strikes a psychologist.
Freud then describes his theory of the evolutionary trajectory of violence:
You begin with the relations between might and right, and this is assuredly the proper starting point for our inquiry. But, for the term might, I would substitute a tougher and more telling word: violence. In right and violence we have today an obvious antinomy. It is easy to prove that one has evolved from the other and, when we go back to origins and examine primitive conditions, the solution of the problem follows easily enough.
Conflicts of interest between man and man are resolved, in principle, by the recourse to violence. It is the same in the animal kingdom, from which man cannot claim exclusion; nevertheless, men are also prone to conflicts of opinion, touching, on occasion, the loftiest peaks of abstract thought, which seem to call for settlement by quite another method. This refinement is, however, a late development. To start with, group force was the factor which, in small communities, decided points of ownership and the question which man’s will was to prevail. Very soon physical force was implemented, then replaced, by the use of various adjuncts; he proved the victor whose weapon was the better, or handled the more skillfully. Now, for the first time, with the coming of weapons, superior brains began to oust brute force, but the object of the conflict remained the same: one party was to be constrained, by the injury done him or impairment of his strength, to retract a claim or a refusal. This end is most effectively gained when the opponent is definitely put out of action — in other words, is killed. This procedure has two advantages: the enemy cannot renew hostilities, and, secondly, his fate deters others from following his example. Moreover, the slaughter of a foe gratifies an instinctive craving. … However, another consideration may be set off against this will to kill: the possibility of using an enemy for servile tasks if his spirit be broken and his life spared. Here violence finds an outlet not in slaughter but in subjugation. Hence springs the practice of giving quarter; but the victor, having from now on to reckon with the craving for revenge that rankles in his victim, forfeits to some extent his personal security.
In tracing how civilization evolved from “brute violence, or violence backed by arms” to law, Freud argues that shared identification and a sense of community are a better bastion of order than force:
Brute force is overcome by union; the allied might of scattered units makes good its right against the isolated giant. Thus we may define “right” (i.e., law) as the might of a community. Yet it, too, is nothing else than violence, quick to attack whatever individual stands in its path, and it employs the selfsame methods, follows like ends, with but one difference: it is the communal, not individual, violence that has its way. But, for the transition from crude violence to the reign of law, a certain psychological condition must first obtain. The union of the majority must be stable and enduring. If its sole raison d’etre be the discomfiture of some overweening individual and, after his downfall, it be dissolved, it leads to nothing. Some other man, trusting to his superior power, will seek to reinstate the rule of violence, and the cycle will repeat itself unendingly. Thus the union of the people must be permanent and well organized; it must enact rules to meet the risk of possible revolts; must set up machinery insuring that its rules — the laws — are observed and that such acts of violence as the laws demand are duly carried out. This recognition of a community of interests engenders among the members of the group a sentiment of unity and fraternal solidarity which constitutes its real strength. … I have set out what seems to me the kernel of the matter: the suppression of brute force by the transfer of power to a larger combination, founded on the community of sentiments linking up its members.
But this, Freud points out, is easier in theory than in practice, since it assumes a community of equals and yet most groups have an inherent power imbalance between individuals, which results in inevitable conflict:
Thenceforward there exist within the state two factors making for legal instability, but legislative evolution, too: first, the attempts by members of the ruling class to set themselves above the law’s restrictions and, secondly, the constant struggle of the ruled to extend their rights and see each gain embodied in the code, replacing legal disabilities by equal laws for all.
From this, Freud observes, results the paradox of peace:
No single all-embracing judgment can be passed on these wars of aggrandizement. Some, like the war between the Mongols and the Turks, have led to unmitigated misery; others, however, have furthered the transition from violence to law, since they brought larger units into being, within whose limits a recourse to violence was banned and a new regime determined all disputes. Thus the Roman conquest brought that boon, the pax Romana, to the Mediterranean lands. The French kings’ lust for aggrandizement created a new France, flourishing in peace and unity. Paradoxical as its sounds, we must admit that warfare well might serve to pave the way to that unbroken peace we so desire, for it is war that brings vast empires into being, within whose frontiers all warfare is proscribed by a strong central power.
Freud brings his theory back to the present predicament, proposing that there is only one certain way of ending war — establishing, by consensus, a centralized body of control that resolves all such conflicts of interest. But that necessitates certain conditions, which at the time remained — as they do today — unmet:
For this, two things are needed: first, the creation of such a supreme court of judicature; secondly, its investment with adequate executive force. Unless this second requirement be fulfilled, the first is unavailing. Obviously the League of Nations, acting as a Supreme Court, fulfills the first condition; it does not fulfill the second. It has no force at its disposal and can only get it if the members of the new body, its constituent nations, furnish it. And, as things are, this is a forlorn hope. Still we should be taking a very shortsighted view of the League of Nations were we to ignore the fact that here is an experiment the like of which has rarely — never before, perhaps, on such a scale — been attempted in the course of history. It is an attempt to acquire the authority (in other words, coercive influence), which hitherto reposed exclusively in the possession of power, by calling into play certain idealistic attitudes of mind. … [T]here are two factors of cohesion in a community: violent compulsion and ties of sentiment (“identifications,” in technical parlance) between the members of the group. If one of these factors becomes inoperative, the other may still suffice to hold the group together.
And, in our times, we look in vain for some such unifying notion whose authority would be unquestioned. It is all too clear that the nationalistic ideas, paramount today in every country, operate in quite a contrary direction. Some there are who hold that the Bolshevist conceptions may make an end of war, but, as things are, that goal lies very far away and, perhaps, could only be attained after a spell of brutal internecine warfare. Thus it would seem that any effort to replace brute force by the might of an ideal is, under present conditions, doomed to fail. Our logic is at fault if we ignore the fact that right is founded on brute force and even today needs violence to maintain it.
Freud then sets forth the most compelling portion of his theory, which deals with the dual capacity for good and evil in human nature, and argues that these two seemingly opposing forces operate in necessary unison:
We assume that human instincts are of two kinds: those that conserve and unify, which we call “erotic” (in the meaning Plato gives to Eros in his Symposium), or else “sexual” (explicitly extending the popular connotation of “sex”); and, secondly, the instincts to destroy and kill, which we assimilate as the aggressive or destructive instincts. These are, as you perceive, the well known opposites, Love and Hate, transformed into theoretical entities; they are, perhaps, another aspect of those eternal polarities, attraction and repulsion, which fall within your province. But we must be chary of passing overhastily to the notions of good and evil. Each of these instincts is every whit as indispensable as its opposite, and all the phenomena of life derive from their activity, whether they work in concert or in opposition. It seems that an instinct of either category can operate but rarely in isolation; it is always blended (“alloyed,” as we say) with a certain dosage of its opposite, which modifies its aim or even, in certain circumstances, is a prime condition of its attainment. Thus the instinct of self-preservation is certainly of an erotic nature, but to gain its end this very instinct necessitates aggressive action. In the same way the love instinct, when directed to a specific object, calls for an admixture of the acquisitive instinct if it is to enter into effective possession of that object. It is the difficulty of isolating the two kinds of instinct in their manifestations that has so long prevented us from recognizing them. … Only exceptionally does an action follow on the stimulus of a single instinct, which is per se a blend of Eros and destructiveness. As a rule several motives of similar composition concur to bring about the act.
He relates this to the international dynamics of war:
[W]hen a nation is summoned to engage in war, a whole gamut of human motives may respond to this appeal–high and low motives, some openly avowed, others slurred over. The lust for aggression and destruction is certainly included; the innumerable cruelties of history and man’s daily life confirm its prevalence and strength. The stimulation of these destructive impulses by appeals to idealism and the erotic instinct naturally facilitate their release. Musing on the atrocities recorded on history’s page, we feel that the ideal motive has often served as a camouflage for the dust of destruction; sometimes, as with the cruelties of the Inquisition, it seems that, while the ideal motives occupied the foreground of consciousness, they drew their strength from the destructive instincts submerged in the unconscious. Both interpretations are feasible.
In a meta-deliberation aside, Freud makes a poignant and prescient point about the similitude between science and philosophy:
All this may give you the impression that our theories amount to species of mythology and a gloomy one at that! But does not every natural science lead ultimately to this — a sort of mythology? Is it otherwise today with your physical sciences?
In fact, a similar relationship exists between psychology and religious doctrine, and in their underlying common denominator Freud finds the proposed answer to Einstein’s original question, one that embodies Chaplin’s iconic speech from The Great Dictator, proclaiming that “we want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery.”:
From our “mythology” of the instincts we may easily deduce a formula for an indirect method of eliminating war. If the propensity for war be due to the destructive instinct, we have always its counter-agent, Eros, to our hand. All that produces ties of sentiment between man and man must serve us as war’s antidote. These ties are of two kinds. First, such relations as those toward a beloved object, void though they be of sexual intent. The psychoanalyst need feel no compunction in mentioning “love” in this connection; religion uses the same language: Love thy neighbor as thyself. A pious injunction, easy to enounce, but hard to carry out! The other bond of sentiment is by way of identification. All that brings out the significant resemblances between men calls into play this feeling of community, identification, whereon is founded, in large measure, the whole edifice of human society.
That men are divided into the leaders and the led is but another manifestation of their inborn and irremediable inequality. The second class constitutes the vast majority; they need a high command to make decisions for them, to which decisions they usually bow without demur. In this context we would point out that men should be at greater pains than heretofore to form a superior class of independent thinkers, unamenable to intimidation and fervent in the quest of truth, whose function it would be to guide the masses dependent on their lead. There is no need to point out how little the rule of politicians and the Church’s ban on liberty of thought encourage such a new creation. The ideal conditions would obviously be found in a community where every man subordinated his instinctive life to the dictates of reason. Nothing less than this could bring about so thorough and so durable a union between men, even if this involved the severance of mutual ties of sentiment. But surely such a hope is utterly utopian, as things are. The other indirect methods of preventing war are certainly more feasible, but entail no quick results. They conjure up an ugly picture of mills that grind so slowly that, before the flour is ready, men are dead of hunger.
Despite his generally dystopian disposition, Freud takes care to point out why Einstein’s quest is a worthwhile one nonetheless:
[E]very 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.
Given Einstein’s faith in intuition over rationality — “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift,” he wrote — it’s interesting that Freud points to the intellect’s suppression of instinct as the hallmark of human progress:
The cultural development of mankind (some, I know, prefer to call it civilization) has been in progress since immemorial antiquity. To this processus we owe all that is best in our composition, but also much that makes for human suffering. Its origins and causes are obscure, its issue is uncertain, but some of its characteristics are easy to perceive. It well may lead to the extinction of mankind, for it impairs the sexual function in more than one respect, and even today the uncivilized races and the backward classes of all nations are multiplying more rapidly than the cultured elements. … 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. … 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.
In light of today’s conflict-torn world, Freud’s conclusion echoes with aching discomfort:
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.
On December 3, 1932, Einstein responds in a warm letter:
You have earned my gratitude and the gratitude of all men for having devoted all your strength to the search for truth and for having shown the rarest courage in professing your convictions all your life.
During the same period, Einstein was actively involved in the intellectual activism of peace. His most poignant observation — timeless and timelier than ever — was written in April of 1932, a contribution to a symposium on Europe and the Coming War,” printed in the Russian-language journal Nord-Ost:
As long as all international conflicts are not subject to arbitration and the enforcement of decisions arrived at by arbitration is not guaranteed, and as long as war production is not prohibited we may be sure that war will follow upon war. Unless our civilization achieves the moral strength to overcome this evil, it is bound to share the fate of former civilizations: decline and decay.
Brain Pickings is the brain child of Maria Popova, an interestingness hunter-gatherer and curious mind at large, who also writes for Wired UK and The Atlantic, among others, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow. She has gotten occasional help from a handful of guest contributors. It is a human-powered discovery engine for interestingness, a subjective lens on what matters in the world and why, bringing you things you didn’t know you were interested in — until you are.
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