Albert Einstein​ & Sigmund Freud​ Exchange Letters and Debate How to Make the World Free from War (1932)

einstein freud

The prob­lem of vio­lence, per­haps the true root of all social ills, seems irre­solv­able. Yet, as most thought­ful peo­ple have real­ized after the wars of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, the dan­gers human aggres­sion pose have only increased expo­nen­tial­ly along with glob­al­iza­tion and tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment. And as Albert Ein­stein rec­og­nized after the nuclear attacks on Hiroshi­ma and Nagasaki—which he part­ly helped to engi­neer with the Man­hat­tan Project—the aggres­sive poten­tial of nations in war had reached mass sui­ci­dal lev­els.

After Einstein’s involve­ment in the cre­ation of the atom­ic bomb, he spent his life “work­ing for dis­ar­ma­ment and glob­al gov­ern­ment,” writes psy­chol­o­gist Mark Lei­th, “anguished by his impos­si­ble, Faus­t­ian deci­sion.” Yet, as we dis­cov­er in let­ters Ein­stein wrote to Sig­mund Freud in 1932, he had been advo­cat­ing for a glob­al solu­tion to war long before the start of World War II. Ein­stein and Freud’s cor­re­spon­dence took place under the aus­pices of the League of Nation’s new­ly-formed Inter­na­tion­al Insti­tute of Intel­lec­tu­al Coop­er­a­tion, cre­at­ed to fos­ter dis­cus­sion between promi­nent pub­lic thinkers. Ein­stein enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly chose Freud as his inter­locu­tor.

In his first let­ter to the psy­chol­o­gist, he writes, “This is the prob­lem: Is there any way of deliv­er­ing mankind from the men­ace of war?” Well before the atom­ic age, Ein­stein alleges the urgency of the ques­tion is a mat­ter of “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.”

Ein­stein reveals him­self as a sort of Pla­ton­ist in pol­i­tics, endors­ing The Repub­lic’s vision of rule by elite philoso­pher-kings. But unlike Socrates in that work, the physi­cist pro­pos­es not city-states, but an entire world gov­ern­ment of intel­lec­tu­al elites, who hold sway over both reli­gious lead­ers and the League of Nations. The con­se­quence of such a poli­ty, he writes, would be world peace—the price, like­ly, far too high for any world leader to pay:

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.

Ein­stein express­es his pro­pos­al in some sin­is­ter-sound­ing terms, ask­ing how it might be pos­si­ble for a “small clique to bend the will of the major­i­ty.” His final ques­tion to Freud: “Is it pos­si­ble to con­trol man’s men­tal evo­lu­tion so as to make him proof against the psy­chosis of hate and destruc­tive­ness?”

Freud’s response to Ein­stein, dat­ed Sep­tem­ber, 1932, sets up a fas­ci­nat­ing dialec­tic between the physicist’s per­haps dan­ger­ous­ly naïve opti­mism and the psychologist’s unsen­ti­men­tal appraisal of the human sit­u­a­tion. Freud’s mode of analy­sis tends toward what we would now call evo­lu­tion­ary psy­chol­o­gy, or what he calls a “’mythol­o­gy’ of the instincts.” He gives a most­ly spec­u­la­tive account of the pre­his­to­ry of human con­flict, in which “a path was traced that led away from vio­lence to law”—itself main­tained by orga­nized vio­lence.

Freud makes explic­it ref­er­ence to ancient sources, writ­ing of the “Pan­hel­lenic con­cep­tion, the Greeks’ aware­ness of supe­ri­or­i­ty over their bar­bar­ian neigh­bors.” This kind of pro­to-nation­al­ism “was strong enough to human­ize the meth­ods of war­fare.” Like the Hel­lenis­tic mod­el, Freud pro­pos­es for indi­vid­u­als a course of human­iza­tion through edu­ca­tion and what he calls “iden­ti­fi­ca­tion” with “what­ev­er leads men to share impor­tant inter­ests,” thus cre­at­ing a “com­mu­ni­ty of feel­ing.” These means, he grants, may lead to peace. “From our ‘mythol­o­gy’ of the instincts,” he writes, “we may eas­i­ly deduce a for­mu­la for an indi­rect method of elim­i­nat­ing war.”

And yet, Freud con­cludes with ambiva­lence and a great deal of skep­ti­cism about the elim­i­na­tion of vio­lent instincts and war. He con­trasts ancient Greek pol­i­tics with “the Bol­she­vist con­cep­tions” that pro­pose a future end of war and which are like­ly “under present con­di­tions, doomed to fail.” Refer­ring to his the­o­ry of the com­pet­ing bina­ry instincts he calls Eros and Thanatos—roughly love (or lust) and death drives—Freud arrives at what he calls a plau­si­ble “mythol­o­gy” of human exis­tence:

The upshot of these obser­va­tions, as bear­ing on the sub­ject in hand, is that there is no like­li­hood of our being able to sup­press human­i­ty’s aggres­sive ten­den­cies. In some hap­py cor­ners of the earth, they say, where nature brings forth abun­dant­ly what­ev­er man desires, there flour­ish races whose lives go gen­tly by; unknow­ing of aggres­sion or con­straint. This I can hard­ly cred­it; I would like fur­ther details about these hap­py folk.

Nonethe­less, he says weari­ly and with more than a hint of res­ig­na­tion, “per­haps our hope” that war will end in the near future, “is not chimeri­cal.” Freud’s let­ter offers no easy answers, and shies away from the kinds of ide­al­is­tic polit­i­cal cer­tain­ties of Ein­stein. For this, the physi­cist expressed grat­i­tude, call­ing Freud’s lengthy response “a tru­ly clas­sic reply…. We can­not know what may grow from such seed.”

This exchange of let­ters, con­tends Hum­boldt State Uni­ver­si­ty phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor John Pow­ell, “has nev­er been giv­en the atten­tion it deserves.… By the time the exchange between Ein­stein and Freud was pub­lished in 1933 under the title Why War?, Hitler, who was to dri­ve both men into exile, was already in pow­er, and the let­ters nev­er achieved the wide cir­cu­la­tion intend­ed for them.” Their cor­re­spon­dence is now no less rel­e­vant, and the ques­tions they address no less urgent and vex­ing. You can read the com­plete exchange at pro­fes­sor Powell’s site here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Albert Ein­stein Reads ‘The Com­mon Lan­guage of Sci­ence’ (1941)

Lis­ten as Albert Ein­stein Calls for Peace and Social Jus­tice in 1945

The Famous Let­ter Where Freud Breaks His Rela­tion­ship with Jung (1913)

Sig­mund Freud Appears in Rare, Sur­viv­ing Video & Audio Record­ed Dur­ing the 1930s

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (6)
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  • AB says:

    Thanks for post­ing, and for pro­vid­ing the link to the let­ters. Inter­est­ing read­ing indeed. One sen­tence real­ly caught my eye:

    “a path was traced that led away from vio­lence to law”—itself main­tained by orga­nized vio­lence.

    Com­pelling, it made me con­sid­er the Melian dia­logue dis­cussed by Thucy­dides.

    I also found their dis­cus­sion inter­est­ing because I had recent­ly watched the orig­i­nal ver­sion of The Day The Earth Stood Still, which draws the lead­ers of he world togeth­er to con­sid­er out­comes con­trolled by out­siders who do not like the games our nations play. Much of the debate I hear about the Unit­ed Nations focus­es on the orga­ni­za­tion’s lack of teeth and/or it’s threat to the sov­er­eign­ty of “great nations” should it try to slow or stop aggres­sive ten­den­cies.

    Sad­ly, I think the U.S. focus on defense is such an eco­nom­i­cal­ly entan­gled alliance that war will always be near the top in the list of solu­tions.

    Thanks again. It’s great to have a site where I can read about every­thing from Pat­ti Smith and Ein­stein to Pink Floyd, World Peace and the art of Dali.

  • Hanoch says:

    I think it is more accu­rate to say that evil, rather than vio­lence, is the root of social ills. Vio­lence itself can be bad or good, depend­ing on how and why it is used. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, as long as humans exist in this world, evil will exist. The real test for human­i­ty is the recog­ni­tion that evil needs to be vig­or­ous­ly com­bat­ted in every age. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, that was a test that the demo­c­ra­t­ic nations failed mis­er­ably in the mid-1930s which led to the great­est human cat­a­stro­phe in his­to­ry.

  • Chris says:

    Excel­lent overview. One minor point, Freud was a psy­chi­a­trist, not a psy­chol­o­gist, as his grad­u­ate train­ing was in med­i­cine.

  • Robert says:

    The lust for power,usually in the form of mon­ey is the root of all evil. The elit­ist view that both men obvi­ous­ly held seems to have cloud­ed their judge­ment. What Ein­stein is pro­mot­ing is in real­i­ty Fas­cism, and since Freud appar­ent­ly did not point out the fal­la­cy of his sug­ges­tion he must have of agreed with him. Both men held elit­ist ideals that lead them to believe that peace at any cost was worth the price, for­get­ting that peace with­out free­dom is unjust and can only be accom­plished through tyran­ny.

  • Kopper says:

    But then, evil is sub­jec­tive as well. What one group con­sid­ers evil, the oth­er finds total­ly accept­able in light of the goal they’re pur­su­ing.

  • Judith Kerr says:

    I am grate­ful to be able to read this impor­tant exchange on your site. Thanks for mak­ing it avail­able to all. Study­ing Freud is a love-hate rela­tion­ship, hav­ing stag­nat­ed progress for so many years. Still, he was a great force for med­i­cine. Hear­ing his voice was a great expe­ri­ence.

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