Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, August 01, 2015

FREUD: Why War?

“Then we must cut off a piece of our neighbor’s land if we are going to have sufficient room for pasture and tillage, and they in turn from ours, if they let themselves go to the unlimited acquisition of money, overstepping the boundary of the necessary …Won’t we go to war as a consequence… and let’s not say whether war works evil or good, but only this much, that we have found the origin of war; in those things whose presence in cities most of all produces evils both public and private.”  -Socrates (Plato’s Republic GB5)

The oldest books in the Great Books Series (Genesis, Exodus, the Iliad) talk a lot about violence and war.  In 1932 Albert Einstein asked Sigmund Freud “Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?”  That’s a long time for such a destructive menace to go unresolved.  What’s the problem?  We’ve sent men to the moon, invented the Internet, figured out how to put peanut butter and jelly into the same jar.  Why can’t we figure out how to stop war?  In our last reading (Plato’s Republic GB5) Socrates wanted to enlarge the concept of justice and look at city-states instead of individual people.  He thought it might be easier for us to see a bigger picture.  In this week’s reading Freud does just the opposite.  He wants to narrow the scope of war and look at the problem through individual people instead of through whole nations.  His basic idea is simple.  A nation goes to war because its citizens are at war within themselves.  Inside every person there’s both an erotic instinct and a death instinct.  The erotic instinct wants to preserve and unite.  The death instinct wants to destroy and kill.  Freud says this is “the universally familiar opposition between Love and Hate.”  Every single person has the capacity to love and also the capacity to hate.  Thus the seeds of war are planted in every human heart.  That’s why Freud thinks war is not just “a concern for statesmen.”  Each one of us must confront the reality of the old saying: you may not be interested in war but war is interested in you.  Whether we like it or not, war is a fact of life.  That’s the problem that bothers Einstein.  He wants to know if there’s a way out of this mess.  Freud’s answer is not optimistic.  He asks “why do you and I and so many other people rebel so violently against war?  Why do we not accept it as another of the many painful calamities of life?  After all, it seems to be quite a natural thing.”  War may or may not be “a natural thing.”  But Freud gives good reasons why we rebel so violently against it.  Everyone wants to live.  War kills people.  It brings us into horrific situations.  It forces us to murder.  It destroys in a flash cities that took years to build.  So why do we do it?  Freud says “it is my opinion that the main reason why we rebel against war is that we cannot help doing so.”  Something in human nature recoils against the ravages of war.  But something in human nature is also attracted to war like a magnet.  In the quote above Socrates conjectures that the origin of war is because people want more than they need.  If people’s material needs were met maybe we could stop war.  Freud doesn’t think that’s the problem.  He points out that “The Russian Communists hope to be able to cause human aggressiveness to disappear by guaranteeing the satisfaction of all material needs and by establishing equality in other respects among all the members of the community.  That, in my opinion, is an illusion.”  It turns out Freud was correct. Russian Communism failed.  The question is whether these kinds of political experiments are always doomed to failure or whether we can create some sort of social and economic arrangement that will curtail human aggressiveness.  Again Freud is not optimistic.  He says “there is no use in trying to get rid of men’s aggressive inclinations.” But we may be able to curb them.  “If willingness to engage in war is an effect of the destructive instinct, the most obvious plan will be to bring Eros, its antagonist, into play against it.”  Make love, not war?  It’s not a great plan but it may be the only hope we have. 

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