Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

FREUD: Thoughts for the Times on War and Death

The Disillusionment of the War -

Reading Freud’s Thoughts gives the impression that World War I may have been more devastating, psychologically, than any previous wars in history. Why? Why was it any worse than other barbaric wars we read about? Freud gives a couple of good reasons. He says that there were “two…potent factors in the mental distress felt by the noncombatants - (1) disillusionment…and (2) the altered attitude toward death.” In this essay I’ll deal with the first topic: disillusionment.

The 19th century was a period of monumental progress in many areas, notably science and technology. Many people truly believed that humanity had turned a corner in its evolutionary development. Indeed, the theory of evolution sprouted in the 19th century and many thought we were finally on the path to progress. The early 20th century shattered those illusions. Freud says “we had expected to succeed in discovering another way of settling misunderstandings and conflicts of interest.” Unfortunately human psychology and international ethics failed to keep pace with developments in other areas. Scientific and technological advances merely provided more firepower to vanquish enemies. After a period of relative peace in Europe many people believed that a progressive international conscience would prevent future all-out wars. This was the illusion. The reality was a war the likes of which we had never seen before.

Freud believes the First World War may have been self-inflicted. By ignoring real human motivations we merely let loose primitive gratifications that had been bottled up by outwardly civilized behavior. Unpleasant truths about human nature were ignored or glossed over at our own peril. Instead, people indulged in illusions about the progress of man. The real world can be dangerous but Freud feels that “we welcome illusions because they spare us emotional distress and enable us instead to indulge in gratification.” However, “We must not then complain if now and again they come into conflict with some portion of reality and are shattered against it.” This shattering of illusions at the start of the 20th century resulted from the reality of brutal trench warfare.

The most civilized portion of mankind (Europe) reverted to its most primitive desires to kill one another rather than using diplomacy to negotiate conflicts. The unpleasant truth is that we all have a deep human instinct to kill. Living in society requires us to control these primitive instincts. Freud believes that “Civilization is the fruit of renunciation of instinctual satisfaction.” Once we let go of civilized behavior our true selves emerge. Even though we’re not aware of it, the desire to kill still resides deep within us. In other words, civilization is only a thin veneer of proper behavior and “there are very many more hypocrites than truly civilized persons” living amongst us.

When we really feel threatened with injury or death we tend to forget civilized behavior and resort to more primitive modes. Nations do the same thing. Their passions sometimes collectively run away with them. War may not be in their best interests but “nations still obey their immediate passions far more readily than their interests. Their interests serve them, at most, as rationalizations for their passions.” Then, when military tactics like trench warfare break out, we’re shocked by our own ferocity and barbarity. Illusions are shattered. Disillusionment sets in. Death on a massive scale results and is psychologically devastating. This is the modern world according to Freud.

-- RDP


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