Is there a way of freeing humankind from the threat of war? Can human aggression be channeled to help protect people against the impulses of hatred and destruction?
These questions were put to Sigmund Freud in an anxious letter from Albert Einstein dated 30 July 1932, when Fascist and Nazi violence was spreading in Europe. The father of psychoanalysis, whom Einstein described as an "expert in the lore of human instincts", replied two months later, spelling out his thoughts on the psychical foundations of behaviour and defining possible ways in which the conflicts rending humanity could be brought to a halt.
Their correspondence was published in 1933, under the title Why War?, by UNESCO's precursor, the International Institute of Intellectual Co-operation. With a number of other exchanges between leading thinkers of the day, it constitutes one of the most remarkable initiatives taken by the League of Nations (whose mission was taken over by the United Nations Organization in 1946) to preserve the spirit of peace at a time when it was increasingly under threat. Sixty years on, this little-known document has lost none of its interest or validity. Salient extracts from Einstein's letter appeared in the May 1985 issue of the UNESCO Courier entitled Forty Years After, commemorating the end of World War II. Now for the first time we publish Sigmund Freud's reply, in slightly abridged form.
You begin with the relations between Might and Right, and this is assuredly the proper starting-point for our enquiry. 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....
Conflicts of interest between man and man are resolved, in principle, by 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, brute force was the factor which, in small communities, decided points of ownership and the question of 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 skilfully.
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 definitively 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--a point to which we shall revert hereafter. 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.
* From violence to law
... We know that in the course of evolution this state of things was modified, a path was traced that led away from violence to law. But what was this path? Surely it issued from a single verity; that the superiority of one strong man can be overborne by an alliance of many weaklings, that l'union fait la force. Brute force is overcome by union, the allied might of scattered units makes good its right against the isolated giant. …