TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 15 May 2023
Albert Einstein’s Letter to Sigmund Freud
In 1931, the International Institute for Intellectual Cooperation invited Albert Einstein to enter correspondence with a prominent person of his own choosing on a subject of importance to society. The Institute planned to publish a collection of such dialogues. Einstein accepted at once, and decided to write to Sigmund Freud to ask his opinion about how humanity could free itself from the curse of war. Here are some quotations from Einstein’s letter, translated from the original German:
“Dear Professor Freud,
“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.
“I believe, moreover, that those 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 enquiry now proposed, I can do little more than 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…
“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. But here, at the outset, I come up against a difficulty; a tribunal is a human institution which, in proportion as the power at its disposal is inadequate to enforce its verdicts, is all the more prone to suffer these to be deflected by extrajudicial pressure…”
Freud replied with a long and thoughtful letter in which he said that a tendency towards conflict is an intrinsic part of human emotional nature, but that emotions can be overridden by rationality, and that rational behavior is the only hope for humankind.
How can we explain humanity’s suicidal rush towards war today? Is there hope of avoiding the universal disaster of an all-destroying nuclear war?
Tribalism and Nationalism
Human nature seems to have a fault that was built into our genetic makeup during the long period when humans lived in small, genetically homogeneous tribes, competing with each other for territory on the grasslands of Africa. During this long period when human emotions were formed, the tribe itself either survived or perished as a whole. The tribe was the unit upon which the Darwinian forces of natural selection acted. Tribes with the greatest “team spirit” survived the best. Thus, humans have a tendency to show self-sacrifice in defending the community to which they belong, and a tendency to exhibit terrible aggression towards any enemy whom they think is a threat to their own community. Today, that community has been enlarged from the tribe to the nation-state, but the emotion is the same, and today nationalism is encouraged by education. Sadly, nationalism makes today’s wars possible.
Military Industrial Complexes
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the world spent 2.113 trillion US dollars on armaments in 2021. Of this almost incomprehensible amount of money, the United States spent almost half the total, $801 billion.
Perhaps one reason for the disproportionately large US arms spending is that in the United States, the arms industry has been privatized; not the case in China and in Russia. In the US, selling weapons and death is a business. It is a business, in which capitalist investors can make enormous profits, selling weapons and selling death.
Giant weapons corporations like Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Raytheon sell to the US government, and it is therefore in their interest to control the government. In fact they do control it. The sums of money involved are so vast that arms manufacturers can tip the scales in elections and elect whom they please. Donors with enormously deep pockets are something that no politician can ignore.
Nuclear Weapons Are Criminal! Every War Is a Crime!
War was always madness, always immoral, always the cause of unspeakable suffering, economic waste and widespread destruction, and always a source of poverty, hate, barbarism and endless cycles of revenge and counter-revenge. It has always been a crime for soldiers to kill people, just as it is a crime for murderers in civil society to kill people. No flag has ever been wide enough to cover up atrocities.
But today, the development of all-destroying nuclear weapons has put war completely beyond the bounds of sanity and elementary humanity.
Can we not rid ourselves of both nuclear weapons and the institution of war itself? We must act quickly and resolutely before everything that we love in our beautiful world is reduced to radioactive ashes.
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John Scales Avery, Ph.D., who was part of a group that shared the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in organizing the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He is chairman of both the Danish National Pugwash Group and the Danish Peace Academy and received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent books are Information Theory and Evolution and Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century (pdf). Website: https://www.johnavery.info/
Tags: Albert Einstein, Anti-war, Peace Culture, Sigmund Freud
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 15 May 2023.
Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: Why War?, is included. Thank you.
This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.
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