Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, January 03, 2011

FREUD: Why War?

The oldest selection in the Great Books series is Homer’s Iliad and dates to about 750 B.C. It’s an epic poem about the war. In the opening scene there’s a big argument between two soldiers over war booty, in this case a beautiful young girl. Two boys fighting over a girl. Sound familiar? Homer’s telling us a war story but his underlying theme is about human conflict and its two fundamental causes: aggression and sexuality. Surely Homer must have been one of the top psychologists of his day. Fast forward almost 3000 years. One of the top psychologists of our day (Sigmund Freud) writes a letter responding to the top physicist (Albert Einstein). Einstein has posed this question: What is to be done to rid mankind of the war menace? Here’s what Freud says: I was dumbfounded by the thought of my (I almost wrote, of our) incompetence to answer this question. Aren’t there experts on war? Shouldn’t we be consulting Army Generals? Politicians? Philosophers? To Freud’s credit, one of the first clues of competence is to realize when you’re incompetent. And Freud feely confesses that he’s a psychologist, not a military commander. But it’s interesting to get his psychological perspective into why men fight and kill one another: You are amazed that it is so easy to infect men with the war fever, and you surmise that man has in him an active instinct for hatred and destruction, amenable to such stimulations. I entirely agree with you. I believe in the existence of this instinct and have been recently at pains to study its manifestations. In this connection may I set out a fragment of that knowledge of the instincts, which we psychoanalysts, after so many tentative essays and gropings in the dark, have compassed? We assume that human instincts are of two kinds: those that conserve and unify, which we call "erotic" (in the meaning Plato gives to Eros in his Symposium), or else "sexual" (explicitly extending the popular connotation of "sex"); and, secondly, the instincts to destroy and kill, which we assimilate as the aggressive or destructive instincts. Freud confirms what Homer must have suspected 3000 years ago. Homer was “groping in the dark” but Freud states the same phenomenon in scientific terms. What’s really at stake in war is the aggressive instinct for domination and destruction versus the erotic instinct for peace and preservation. The question now becomes: which instinct is stronger? War depends on the answer we give. This psychological stuff is all well and good but Einstein asked a practical question: Can war ever be permanently eliminated? Freud is not optimistic. He believes there is but one sure way of ending war and that is the establishment, by common consent, of a central control which shall have the last word in every conflict of interests. In short, will one group of people voluntarily relinquish full control over their property, their bodies and their lives to another group of people? Not likely. That’s why we have wars. And it may be too much to overcome the biological instinct for survival in order to follow “reason” and lay down our weapons while hostile enemies are still armed and dangerous. This isn’t reasonable. It’s easy to imagine what happens when two men are pointing guns at each other: you drop your gun and I’ll drop mine. Ok, you go first. Freud doesn’t think either man will drop the gun first. But he comes to an interesting conclusion: Why do we, you and I and many another, protest so vehemently against war, instead of just accepting it as another of life's odious importunities? For it seems a natural thing enough, biologically sound and practically unavoidable. Since wars have always been with us, why shouldn’t we accept them as an unpleasant fact of life and just move on? Freud answers his own question: Because every man has a right over his own life and war destroys lives that were full of promise; it forces the individual into situations that shame his manhood, obliging him to murder fellow men, against his will; it ravages material amenities, the fruits of human toil, and much besides. War is hell. And maybe we’ll never stop it. But in Freud’s opinion we should never stop trying.


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