Albert Einstein’s letter to Sigmund Freud
“Why War?”, the title of this book, was also the title of a famous letter written to Sigmund Freud by Albert Einstein.
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 Einsteins’s letter, translated from the original German:
“Dear Professor Freud,
“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.
Tribalism, and its relationship to nationalism
Can we give better answers today to the questions raised by the exchange of letters between Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud?
Charles Darwin’s observations convinced him that in humans, just as in other mammals, the emotions and their expression are to a very large extent inherited universal characteristics of the species.
The study of inherited behavior patterns in animals (and humans) was continued in the 20th century by such researchers as Karl von Frisch (1886-1982), Nikolaas Tinbergen (1907-1988), and Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989), three scientists who shared a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1973.
The third of the 1973 prizewinners, Konrad Lorenz, is the most controversial, but at the same time very interesting in the context of studies of the causes of war and discussions of how war may be avoided.
As a young boy, he was very fond of animals, and his tolerant parents allowed him to build up a large menagerie in their house in Altenberg, Austria. Even as a child, he became an expert on waterfowl behavior, and he discovered the phenomenon of imprinting.
He was given a one day old duckling, and found, to his intense joy, that it transferred its following response to his person. As Lorenz discovered, young waterfowl have a short period immediately after being hatched, when they identify as their “mother” whomever they see first. In later life, Lorenz continued his studies of imprinting, and there exists a touching photograph of him, with his white beard, standing waist-deep in a pond, surrounded by an adoring group of goslings who believe him to be their mother. Lorenz also studied bonding behavior in waterfowl.
It is, however, for his controversial book “On Aggression” that Konrad Lorenz is best known. In this book, Lorenz makes a distinction between intergroup aggression and intragroup aggression. Among animals, he points out, rank-determining fights are seldom fatal. Thus, for example, the fights that determine leadership within a wolf pack end when the loser makes a gesture of submission. By contrast, fights between groups of animals are often fights to the death, examples being wars between ant colonies, or of bees against intruders, or the defense of a rat pack against strange rats.
Many animals, humans included, seem willing to kill or be killed in defense of the communities to which they belong. Lorenz calls this behavioral tendency a “communal defense response”. He points out that the “holy shiver” – the tingling of the spine that humans experience when performing a heroic act in defense of their communities – is related to the prehuman reflex for raising the hair on the back of an animal as it confronts an enemy – a reflex that makes the animal seem larger than it really is.
In an essay entitled “The Urge to Self-Destruction” (in “The Place of Value in a World of Facts”, A. Tiselius and S. Nielsson editors, Wiley, New York, 1970), Arthur Koestler writes:
“Even a cursory glance at history should convince one that individual crimes, committed for selfish motives, play a quite insignificant role in the human tragedy compared with the numbers massacred in unselfish love of one’s tribe, nation, dynasty, church or ideology… Wars are not fought for personal gain, but out of loyalty and devotion to king, country or cause…
“We have seen on the screen the radiant love of the Fuhrer on the faces of the Hitler Youth… They are transfixed with love, like monks in ecstasy on religious paintings. The sound of the nation’s anthem, the sight of its proud flag, makes you feel part of a wonderfully loving community. The fanatic is prepared to lay down his life for the object of his worship, as the lover is prepared to die for his idol. He is, alas, also prepared to kill anybody who represents a supposed threat to the idol.”
The emotion described here by Koestler is the same as the communal defense mechanism (“militant enthusiasm”) described in biological terms by Lorenz.
Human emotions evolved during the long period when our ancestors lived in small, genetically homogeneous tribes, competing for territory on the grasslands of Africa.
To explain from an evolutionary point of view the communal defense mechanism discussed by Lorenz – the willingness of humans to kill and be killed in defense of their communities – we have only to imagine that our ancestors lived in small tribes and that marriage was likely to take place
within a tribe rather than across tribal boundaries. Under these circumstances, each tribe would tend to consist of genetically similar individuals. The tribe itself, rather than the individual, would be the
unit on which the evolutionary forces of natural selection would act. The idea of group selection in evolution was first proposed by J.B.S. Haldane and R.A. Fischer, and more recently it has been discussed by W.D. Hamilton and E.O. Wilson.
In his farewell address, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned his nation against the excessive power that had been acquired during World War II by the military-industrial complex: “We have been compelled to create an armaments industry of vast proportions,” Eisenhower said, “…Now this conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every state house, every office in the federal government. … We must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. … We must stand guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted.”
Because the world spends roughly two trillion dollars each year on armaments, it follows that very many people make their living from war. This is the reason why it is correct to speak of war as a social, political and economic institution, and also one of the main reasons why war persists, although everyone realizes that it is the cause of much of the suffering of humanity.
We know that war is madness, but it persists. We know that it threatens the survival of our species, but it persists, entrenched in the attitudes of historians, newspaper editors and television producers, entrenched in the methods by which politicians finance their campaigns, and entrenched in the financial power of arms manufacturers – entrenched also in the ponderous and costly hardware of war, the fleets of warships, bombers, tanks, nuclear missiles and so on.
The Industrial Revolution opened up an enormous gap in military strength between the industrialized nations and the rest of the world. Taking advantage of their superior weaponry, Europe, the United States and Japan rapidly carved up the remainder of the world into colonies, which acted as sources of raw materials and food, and as markets for manufactured goods. Between 1800 and 1914, the percentage of the earth under the domination of colonial powers increased to 85 percent, if former colonies are included.
The English economist and Fabian, John Atkinson Hobson (1858-1940), offered a famous explanation of the colonial era in his book “Imperialism: A Study” (1902). According to Hobson, the basic problem that led to colonial expansion was an excessively unequal distribution of incomes in the industrialized countries. The result of this unequal distribution was that neither the rich nor the poor could buy back the total output of their society. The incomes of the poor were insufficient, and rich were too few in number. The rich had finite needs, and tended to reinvest their money. As Hobson pointed out, reinvestment in new factories only made the situation worse by increasing output.
Hobson had been sent as a reporter by the Manchester Guardian to cover the Second Boer War. His experiences had convinced him that colonial wars have an economic motive. Such wars are fought, he believed, to facilitate investment of the excess money of the rich in African or Asian plantations and mines, and to make possible the overseas sale of excess manufactured goods. Hobson believed imperialism to be immoral. The cure that he recommended was a more equal distribution of incomes in the manufacturing countries.
Do our “Defense Departments” really defend us? Absolutely not! Their very title is a lie. The military-industrial complex sells itself by claiming to defend civilians. It justifies vast and crippling budgets by this claim; but it is a fraud. For the military-industrial complex, the only goal is money and power. Civilians like ourselves are just hostages. We are expendable. We are pawns in the power game, the money game.
Nations possessing nuclear weapons threaten each other with “Mutually Assured Destruction”, which has the very appropriate acronym MAD.
What does this mean? Does it mean that civilians are being protected? Not at all. Instead they are threatened with complete destruction. Civilians here play the role of hostages in the power games of their leaders.
A thermonuclear war today would be not only genocidal but also omnicidal. It would kill people of all ages, babies, children, young people, mothers, fathers and grandparents, without any regard whatever for guilt or innocence. Such a war would be the ultimate ecological catastrophe, destroying not only human civilization but also much of the biosphere.
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 thermonuclear weapons has put war completely beyond the bounds of sanity and elementary humanity.
Can we not rid the world of these insane and antihuman weapons before everything of value in our beautiful world is reduced to radioactive ashes? Can we not rid the world of the institution of war?
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