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Why War? Freud, Einstein and Shantideva

Shapiro, S.A. (2009). Why War? Why Not Peace? Santideva's Answer to Einstein's Famous Question to Freud. Studies in Gender...

(2009). Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 10:200-212 Why War? Why Not Peace? Santideva's Answer to Einstein's Famous

Question to Freud

Sue A. Shapiro, Ph.D.

Reviewing Sigmund Freud's essays and correspondence during World War I, we find that for the most part he minimized or denied the impact the war was having on him and his patients. Just as Sandor Ferenczi's emphasis on the impact of “real” childhood events and the “real” relationship between patient and analyst was seen as aberrant, so too was Ferenczi's warning Freud to leave Germany in 1933 treated as paranoia. Freud's later works apply his psychoanalytic theories to society as a whole but do not consider ways to “cure” social ills, so it is not surprising that Freud didn't hear Albert Einstein's famous question, Why War? as a plea for insight into how to end war. The author suggests a reconsideration of Einstein's question from the perspective of Buddhist psychology and finds a more optimistic albeit difficult answer.

Several years ago, while struggling to come to terms with the impact of 9/11 on my clinical work, I went back to the beginning, to Sigmund Freud, to see how the events of his day informed his clinical and theoretical work. It seemed to me that what Masson (1984) referred to as “the assault on truth” (his book of the same title documenting Freud's abandonment of the seduction theory) was much broader than just the abandonment of the seduction theory. Freud's assault on truth went much deeper—his increasing allegiance to theory over observation and to the survival of the psychoanalytic movement rather than the treatment of individual patients enabled him to shift his gaze away from the traumatic events of his time.

He turned his gaze away from two levels of truth: the personal historical truth of his patients and the larger contextual truth of the society and culture that they and he inhabited. Two examples: When, during World War I, Freud dreamt of his son's death, he interpreted the dreams in his June 29, 1918, letter to Sandor Ferenczi as stemming primarily from his envy of his son's youth. Never mind that three of his sons were serving at the front. He wrote, “Analysis then showed me the presumed neurotic contribution. There was also envy of the sons in it, of which I had otherwise felt nothing, and, in fact, envy on account of youth.”1 In 1919, Lou Andreas-Salomé wrote to Freud about a young patient who had lost her twin brother in the war and suffered from a number of somatic and obsessional symptoms.2 Neither she nor Freud


1 Falzeder and Brabant (1996), The Correspondence of Sigmund Freud and Sandor Ferenczi (Vol. 2, pp. 291–292). 2 Pfeiffer (1966), Sigmund Freud and Lou Andreas-Salomé Letters, pp. 91–93.

attended to feelings of loss related to the brother's death, discussing instead the then usual sexual factors: repressed homosexuality, father fixation, phallic symbols, and the Oedipus complex.

Freud's theoretical writings during the war years (even “Mourning and Melancholia,” 1917) make almost no reference to the war. He refers to this personal defensive style in a letter on December 15, 1914, to Ferenczi: “I am living, as my brother says, in my private trench. I speculate and write, and after hard battles have got safely through the first line of riddles and difficulties. Anxiety, hysteria, and paranoia have capitulated. We shall see how far the successes can be carried forward.”3 Freud's commitment to the movement he started and his ability to stay focused on the development of his ideas reflected both his intense will and determination but also his defense against the pain of his own and others' fears and losses. This grit and determination would shape and distort clinical practice for many generations. Although it is certainly unfair to expect Freud or any of us to transcend our cultural/historical time, we've become much more aware of the fact that our theories, our data, even our perceptions get shaped by our lived context.

It is as though Freud retreated to deal with his private battles with ideas while his colleagues lent their expertise to the war effort treating shell-shocked soldiers. As Breger (2000) notes, Freud dealt with war neuroses and trauma the way he had dealt earlier with sexual trauma, the way he dealt with his own fears and losses: he turned to theorizing. Freud claimed that civilized “man” has no prohibitions against killing enemies in war. “When the furious struggle of the present war has been decided each one of the victorious fighters will return home joyfully to his wife and children, unchecked and undisturbed by thoughts of the enemies he has killed whether at close quarters or at long range” (Freud, 1915, p. 295).

Karl Abraham, who did work with men suffering from shell shock, believed that those men were psychologically deficient if they shrank from killing. Symptoms such as

trembling, agitation, irritability, sensitiveness, sleeplessness, headaches, anxiety, depression of spirits and feelings of incompetency. Two neurotic types with the same symptoms—although these do not appear so prominently as in the war—would be the impotent man and the frigid woman. A similarity which is so marked in external phenomena leads one to expect a similarity also in internal processes [K. Abraham, 1918, p. 23].

Karl Abraham goes on to say,

War neurotics already before the trauma were labile people...especially so as regards their sexuality.... A further factor which operates on the labile sexuality of those disposed to neuroses is the almost exclusive association with men. The sexuality of the normal person takes no harm from this, but it is otherwise in men with strong narcissistic traits. The knowledge of the connection between homosexuality and narcissism enables us to understand this.... The previously unstable attitude towards women begins to waver under such conditions [K. Abraham, 1918, p. 24].

The idea that war neuroses occurred only in people with preexisting pathology is an idea that the U.S. Army is currently reviving in its effort to avoid compensating soldiers who return from war with severe psychological problems (Usher, 2007).


3 Falzeder and Brabant (1996), pp. 36–38.

Freud's privileged position by the start of World War I kept him from the “rabble” who were struggling for food and shelter. His elitism and prejudices remained intact and unchallenged. Freud's use of wartime metaphors is especially striking in the letter he wrote Karl Abraham on June 25, 1914, shortly before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914—the action that started World War I. Freud wrote, “The bombshell has now burst and we shall soon discover with what effect. I think we shall have to allow the victims [Jung and his friends] two or three weeks time to collect themselves and react.”4 Breger (2000, p. 234) notes that “Freud, who had always stayed aloof from politics and had shown little patriotism in previous years, was swept up in the massive expression of national unity.” In a letter to Karl Abraham on July 26, 1914,5 Freud spoke of his enthusiasm for the outbreak of hostilities: “For the first time in thirty years, I feel myself to be an Austrian and feel like giving this not very hopeful Empire another chance.” Jones (1954) also noted with some surprise Freud's immediate response to the declaration of war, which was one of “youthful enthusiasm, apparently a re-awakening of the military ardors of his boyhood...he was quite carried away, could not think of any work, and spent his time discussing the events of the day with his brother Alexander...[as] he put it: ‘All my libido is given to Austro-Hungary’” (p. 171). This patriotic experience and identification with power perhaps helped Freud get through the deprivations and terrors of war, but what impact did this coping strategy have on his treatments and theories? Perhaps there are blinders we more or less consciously put on to do our work. Are they really necessary? What purpose do they serve? Are they some form of metacountertransference, a posture we adopt to get into our analytic role? And if this is the case, are we obligated to continually try to remove them?

In this paper, I use my reactions to the events of 9/11 and my experiences working with survivors of the Asian Tsunami to raise questions about the relationship between the intimacy of the psychoanalytic (or, indeed, any therapeutic) encounter, the theories we write about this work, and the larger social and cultural forces that shape and contextualize both. I suggest that just as Freud's focus on oedipal fantasies covered up the true incidence of sexual abuse and incest (Masson, 1984), so too his allegiance to his theories and to building the psychoanalytic movement blinded him to the major challenge facing humanity in the 20th and 21st centuries—the need to eradicate or at least greatly reduce our need for war. After describing my experiences in Asia and how they provided a view into the embedded nature of the individual in the larger social context, I return to this larger question through some thoughts on the correspondence in 1932 between Albert Einstein and Freud called “Why War?” (Freud, 1933).

For most of our history, psychoanalysts have resisted integrating data from extraanalytic sources into their understanding of patients. In the last few decades this has begun to change. There is increased interest in neurobiology (the new journal Neuro-Psychoanalysis) and infancy research (Stern and Sander, 1980; Beebe and Lachmann, 2003). Alongside this attention to a new body of research there has also been a reluctant acknowledgment of the social/historical blinders that informed much early psychoanalytic theorizing. Feminist critiques of Freud and more open-minded attitudes toward homosexuality have affected our work and our theories. Psychoanalysis might initially have been subversive of the public order, challenging Victorian society, but beginning with the second generation of analysts and the birth of ego psychology


4 Falzeder (2002), The Complete Correspondence Between Sigmund Freud and Karl Abraham, p. 251. 5 Falzeder (2002), p. 264.

it became more conservative and was often seen (e.g., Kernberg, 1996) as upholding convention rather than posing a challenge. As Howard Zinn (1984) argued in regard to “the people's history of the United States,” we are still the prison guards even if we work to make prisoners safer and less distressed within the prison. For the most part we enjoy our work and do help people, but what about a larger question that became ever more insistent for me after the events of 9/11?

After 9/11, I found it increasingly difficult to focus on the psychoanalytic areas of research that I had hoped to pursue. I was preoccupied by my sense of uncertainty, by my efforts at understanding the hatred of America, by what many were referring to as the “clash of civilizations.”6 Patients and friends spoke of leaving New York or even leaving America. Although this talk subsided, some people in my circle did relocate—and I certainly couldn't quarrel with them. On the other hand, there were also patients who seemed not to notice that the World Trade Center had been destroyed and even on September 11 came in complaining about the inconvenience they had been caused.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 some patients didn't want to come downtown. Others were willing to travel but their families didn't want them taking the subway to see me. I was not sure how I should work with this: in the usual way of analyzing resistance? What if I were wrong? What if disaster struck and my patients got hurt on their way to the office?

I also found myself listening differently to patients' struggles with contemporary life: increased workload, travel, juggling family, or trying to find work that is meaningful. The uncertain proximity of death, at least for a time, was in the room pressing both me and my patients to reevaluate the life we were living. As well, I found myself questioning the value I placed on work, money, consuming, being entertained. I felt as if I understood some of the rage and fear that led to the terrorist attacks.

Several years passed, but I was still struggling with the relative importance of my own and my patients' continuing personal, psychodynamic issues and how these concerns and my work with these issues made sense in this new context. Then I had the opportunity to view this larger question on a smaller, albeit hugely tragic, scale: the Asian Tsunami on December 26, 2004. I had planned on vacationing in Southeast Asia in February 2005. When I heard about the tsunami, I started looking for ways to help out while I was over there. I found out about a project that was getting under way, spearheaded by Jane Lopacka, a British social worker who had started a trauma center7 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. As soon as travel was possible, Jane flew to Thailand to help with the disaster. Once the immediate needs for food and shelter were addressed, Jane and several Israeli traumatologists began to use EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) with some of the more traumatized staff. They were then invited to work in the refugee camps directly and developed a project called “Making Waves” (Marshall, 2005). The goal was very simple: most of the people who had been dislocated by the tsunami made their living off the sea. Many were fishermen, and others provided the fishermen with necessary supplies. In order for life to get back to “normal,” the fishermen would have to get over their fears of the ocean that arose in the wake of the tsunami. The goal of the project was to help large numbers of people lose their fear of the sea. In order to do this, a variation on the standard EMDR protocol was created to work with many people at a time. In addition to this,


6 I was informed after writing this paper that the idea of a “clash of civilizations” is actually quite politically charged and was first used by Huntington (1997).

7 Jane Lopacka Counseling & Mediation Services Ltd.

members of the team would identify people who were at greater risk for developing PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and would work with them individually.

During my brief stay in Thailand, I got to experience, in a microcosm, the interplay of psyche, soma, and social/cultural/political forces alongside transference and intense countertransference. I spent my days in a central location at the camp along with several art therapists from Hong Kong, some Thai people who had lost their hotel jobs when their hotel was destroyed, an English trauma specialist who had planned on a vacation with Jane, and several people from various professions and several continents who were taking time off between jobs when the tsunami hit. People had different skill sets—some worked with children using drawings, others helped organize the project and worked on gaining financial support from Thai businessmen. Others helped with translation and transportation.

My week working with tsunami survivors in Thailand was one of the happiest weeks of my life. Working as part of a team is something I rarely get to do, and certainly that was part of the pleasure of that week. The knowledge that I was being useful; that I was appreciated; that I was bridging deep cultural, ethnic, generational, and class divides; that I was connecting through common humanity; that I was joining with people from several continents with many different skills to get something important done quickly and as efficiently as possible was enormously uplifting. I was struck and inspired by people's resilience, by their determination to make their single rooms in the refugee center as homey as possible.

By the time I arrived, 6 weeks after the disaster, people had begun to turn their one-room plywood sections into temporary homes—some with plants, home cooking, toys. In some ways, the camp was very well organized with donated food and clothing, organized group meals, and individual meals that people cooked for their families as soon as some family member was able to get out of the camp and fish or shop. In addition to participating in the group work aimed at helping people recover from their fear of the ocean so that they could get back to their traditional work,

fishing, I was also able to work individually with several people, and I found this work the most satisfying. I was able to work with some of the men and women who struggled with profound guilt over the survival of some of their children and the death of others, or the death of nieces and nephews who were in their care on that day. Once a few people found it helpful to speak with me, more people started to come by and I was surprised by how quickly they began to speak openly about very intimate matters.

Most of the refugees were fishermen and women who had lost everything: family (sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, husbands or wives, sisters and brothers), friends and neighbors, beachfront homes, and their boats. They deeply grieved their losses, feared for where and when they would once again have their own homes and boats, were terrified to go back to the ocean, and hadn't yet been back to their old neighborhoods. They had lived in these neighborhoods and made their living off the sea for generations. They were plagued by nightmares and often one person's nightmare and screams of a wave coming would trigger their neighbor's and the whole camp would wake up in terror. Rumors of new earthquakes and tsunamis abounded and of course there were many aftershocks.

Although most of the people I met worked on their own, a small minority were the local businessmen. Some had bought an extra boat that they rented out, others owned electronics or food stores. These businessmen had another source of concern: debt. They owed a lot of money and didn't know how they would pay off the debt or ever start their businesses again. Although the large businesses, for example, hotels that were under construction, knew that the government would make sure they could rebuild, the local people would have to pay off their debts themselves.

Kao Lak, the region in Thailand that was hardest hit by the tsunami, was a culture that had been in transition. In it, most people still lived traditional lives and readily seemed to establish a sense of community in the refugee camp even though they had suffered severe losses. Although everyone feared another tsunami, those who had already started to leave the traditional lifestyle suffered a different anxiety; they were less a part of the community because they were already the “boss” and as such were distrusted by other community members. Their higher status was worthless now while at the same time they had more worries. Another group of people, those who had a spouse at work in another village or in the city, had additional worries. These couples had been separated during the tsunami and found that their separation often meant increased difficulty reconnecting. In addition to the physical distance, their experiences had been so different. Many of these men and women enjoyed some kind of financial stability because they had a source of income outside of their community, but they had this security at the cost of greater loneliness.

In addition to my work with trauma, I was seeing how, in this newly created community, problems of self- government, centralized authority within the camp, and the relationship to the government outside the camp were unclear and how corruption and exploitation were setting in despite the resilience and good intentions of most of the people I met. I was authorized by the Making Waves project to help people work through some of their fears, be able to go back into the water, and thus be one step closer to getting back on their feet. But I wasn't asked for advice on how to organize the camps in a way that would facilitate psychological well-being—I'm not sure I would have known how to do this, but I had some ideas, or at least I thought I knew some things that were bad ideas. For example, there didn't seem to be anyone actually in charge of the camp—no central authority who was present. The organizer of Making Waves knew some people in positions of authority in the rescue efforts, but these people were overwhelmed with the loss of life and devastation of the local infrastructure.

Many well-meaning international groups offered help; for example, some donated boats. But this sort of help kept people passive and idle while they awaited word of when they could move into their own homes, go back to work, and so on. I knew it was a bad idea to leave traumatized people with lots of time on their hands and nothing to do to facilitate the start of their new life. But where people who were in the camp might have been employed to make new boats, or build new houses, outsiders were hired instead. No one in the camp seemed to know exactly what was going on and rumors flourished as people worried about their future. Doctors volunteered to help and were giving out medications, including both sleeping pills and antidepressants. But it seemed to me that, although the sleeping pills were certainly useful, the antidepressants made no sense. Insomnia was a real problem: the days and nights were filled with aftershocks and the screams from people's nightmares that a wave was coming. Those who were lucky enough to fall asleep often had their sleep interrupted by these screams. For those who could not sleep, sleeping medication helped. But most of the refugees didn't understand how to take the antidepressants, nor was it clear that they were really suffering from depression. This diagnosis seemed to me like a mistaken pathologizing of a totally normal response. In addition, the antidepressants had unwanted side effects, including sexual ones, that often had not been sufficiently explained; sexual difficulties only added to people's loss of sense of self and increased their agitation.

More ominously, I began to hear disturbing rumors, later confirmed by reports in The New York Times (Mydans, 2005), that the Thai government was using this natural catastrophe to accomplish their long-standing goal of taking the fishermen's beachfront property and selling it to multinational hotels. At the same time, I was hearing that people in the camp feared that the government was going to betray them. Their fears were well-founded. The Thai government was indeed going to rebuild homes for the fishermen but not in the same locations unless they could produce deeds. However, very few people in Kao Lak had deeds: many homes had been in the same families for

hundreds of years, their ownership a matter of tradition, not paper deeds. As for those who happened to have deeds, they had probably lost them to the tsunami. Furthermore, instead of rebuilding homes on the beach, the Thai government was going to build motel-style homes and apartments that were more permanent versions of the rooms the fishermen were inhabiting in the refugee camps. These new homes were often several miles from their old homes. It was the same case with their boats: the government wanted the local people to stop fishing and instead start making trinkets for the tourists. So unless they had licenses for their boats they wouldn't receive replacement boats from the government.

I knew something was very wrong with the government's response and only later understood that what I was observing was part of a global trend that Naomi Klein refers to as “shock capitalism” (Klein, 2007). In shock capitalism, multinationals take advantage of devastation caused by either natural disasters like the tsunami in Asia and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans or man-made destruction like the war in Iraq. According to Klein, all of these disasters become opportunities for rebuilding not by local people but by major corporations like Halliburton.

I was sad to leave Kao Lak—I loved the informality and human connection of my time there. The faces of people before and after they overcame their fear of returning to the ocean are indelibly printed on my mind. My photographs vividly show the frozen, masklike expressions of many of the people when I first met them. During the week that I knew them I saw emotion return to their faces—not only sadness and fear as we worked both individually and in groups on their experiences during the tsunami and their fears of even seeing the ocean but also later some smiles and even laughter both during and after our time in the ocean. The hospitality and generosity of people in the camp— offering me food, sharing smiles, asking for help with the most intimate matters—and the quick entry into people's lives suited me. But I was becoming increasingly troubled by the government's schemes and I was confused and troubled by the wealthy businessmen who lent us cars and drivers and interpreters. At first I was simply grateful for their generosity. But then I realized that these businessmen owned hotel casinos in Chiang Rai, a city in the north of Thailand, just across the Mekong River from Burma. This is an area called the Golden Triangle because of the trade in opium, and it has recently become notorious for another commodity as well: young girls who are sold and bought into sex slavery. So I was left with the paradoxical experience of thinking I was doing good work that left me relatively uncompromised yet knowing that my therapeutic interventions were embedded in a larger corrupt system.

I returned home to New York, a city still subject to frequent warnings about the next terrorist attack, and wondered how my individual work with patients might be affected by both the larger political context that I'm conscious of and the forces beneath the surface that I can't see. My reentry is always marked by an increased awareness of the constant advertising, the impact of always being told subtly and blatantly that who I am and what I have is insufficient but if I just get...then I will be happy. Am I using my profession defensively and in the service of

adaptation, my own and my patients? Is there the danger that I collude with my patients in denying the legitimacy of fears of terrorist attacks? After all, if the news we were getting was to be believed, why would people stay in the city?

In seeking to address my concerns, I did what any analyst would do: I went back to the beginning, to Freud. How did he live and work through the First World War and how did he work in the shadow of Nazi Germany? I've already written about Freud's strategy for dealing with World War I—he wrote some of his greatest metapsychological papers. But how did he contend with the growing threat of Hitler? How did he continue doing analysis? What if his patients thought of leaving Vienna because of fear for the future?

I get some sense of Freud's thinking in his last exchange of letters with Ferenczi. In 1933, shortly before he died, Ferenczi warned Freud to get out of Austria (March 29, 1933). “Short and sweet: I advise you to make use of the time of the not yet immediately dangerously threatening situation and, with a few patients and your daughter Anna, to go to a more secure country, perhaps England.”8 In Freud's response to Ferenczi on April 2, we see the denial that colored his response to World War I, a denial tragically shared by many of his contemporaries. Freud recognized that his stance involved some rationalizations about Hitler's power and the response of the Austrian populace but went on to say, “There is certainly no personal danger for me.”9 By 1933 he had achieved world prominence and couldn't imagine that to the Nazis he would be just another Jew.

Hence Freud's response to Ferenczi, written on April 2:

...Now, as concerns the current motive for your writing, the motive of flight, I will gladly inform you that I am not considering leaving Vienna. I am not mobile enough, too dependent on treatment, little alleviations and comforts, also don't like to leave my property in the lurch, but I would probably also remain if I were intact and youthfully fresh. An emotional attitude naturally lies at the base of this decision, but there is also no lack of rationalizations. It is not certain that the Hitler regime will also overpower Austria; it is, of course, possible, but everyone believes that it will not reach the height of brutality here that it has in Germany. There is certainly no personal danger for me, and if you assume life in oppression to be amply uncomfortable for us Jews, then don't forget how little contentment life promises refugees in a foreign country, be it Switzerland or England. Flight, I think, would be justified only in the case of lethal danger.... Ernst [Freud's grandson] arrived from Berlin just a few hours ago.... He is a German, can't go back anymore now; from now on, no German Jew will be let out anymore. Simmel, I heard, escaped to Zurich.9

In Freud's letter to Jones after Ferenczi's death on May 24, 1933, we see how much Ferenczi had been pathologized by Freud, especially after his most controversial paper, “The Confusion of Tongues Between Adults and Children” (Ferenczi, 1933). Freud (May 29, 1933)10 writes Jones: “To be sure, the loss was not a new one; for years Ferenczi has no longer been with us, indeed, not even with himself.... In his last weeks he could no longer walk or stand at all. Simultaneously a mental degeneration in the form of paranoia developed with uncanny logical consistency.” As evidence of Ferenczi's paranoia, Jones cites his “delusion about Freud's supposed hostility” (Jones, 1957, p. 178).


8 Falzeder and Brabant (2000), The Correspondence of Sigmund Freud and Sandor Ferenczi (Vol. 3, pp. 447–448).

9 Falzeder and Brabant (2000), pp. 448–449.

10 Cited by Jones, 1957, p. 179.

There are several other windows into Freud's attitude toward current events and their impact on our psyches and the work that we do. I focus on just one of them: “Why War?” (Freud, 1933). In 1931, a subcommittee of the League of Nations wanted to have an exchange “of letters between representative intellectuals ‘on subjects calculated to serve the common interests of the League of Nations and of intellectual life’” (Strachey, 1964, p. 196). One of the first to be asked to start such an exchange was Albert Einstein, who suggested a correspondence with Freud. “Why War?” was Freud's response to this request (letter of July 30, 1932, in Freud, 1933, p. 197) that he consider the causes of war and how it might be avoided. Einstein wrote in a clear and generous spirit, addressing Freud as someone with a “deep devotion to the great goal of the internal and external liberation of man from the evils of war.” Einstein wanted Freud to address what he considered the most insistent of all the problems civilization had to face.

Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?...As for me, the normal objective of my thought affords no insight into the dark places of human will and feeling. Thus, in the inquiry now proposed, I can do little more than to seek to clarify the question at issue and, clearing the ground of the more obvious solutions, enable you to bring the light of your far­reaching knowledge of man's instinctive life to bear upon the problem. There are certain psychological obstacles whose existence a layman in the mental science may dimly surmise, but whose interrelations and vagaries he is incompetent to fathom; you, I am convinced, will be able to suggest educative methods, lying more or less outside the scope of politics which will eliminate these obstacles. [Einstein, 1932 in Freud, 1933, p. 1999]

Einstein goes on to enumerate the main reasons he sees for war: the pursuit of power and money and the ability of a small group of people to convince the masses to go along with war even though they will suffer its consequences. Next, he asks Freud, “Is it possible to control man's mental evolution as to make him proof against the psychosis of hate and destructiveness?” (Einstein, 1932 in Freud, 1933, p. 201). We know from Einstein's subsequent writings that his seeking Freud's help in finding a solution to the problem of violence and war was utterly sincere. In his later years it is this problem that preoccupied Einstein (Rowe, 2007).

Although Einstein thanked Freud for “Why War?” it seemed to me that Freud had added very little to the obvious reasons for war that Einstein had already enumerated. Furthermore, he gave no thought to ways in which people might be educated to make war less likely. Freud himself later characterized his response to Einstein as “tedious and sterile”(Jones, 1957, p. 187). Clearly, he had not been enthusiastic about this opportunity to dialogue with one of the other great minds of the century.

Freud begins his response to Einstein with his view that, because conflict and war are inevitable, there is little point in trying to think about the possibility that humanity could be educated away from such barbarism. He says,

When I learned of your intention to invite me to a mutual exchange of views upon a subject which not only interested you personally but seemed deserving, too, of public interest, I cordially assented. I expected you to choose a problem lying on the borderland of the knowable as it stands today, a theme which each of us, physicist and psychologist, might approach from his own angle, to meet at last on common ground, though setting out from different premises. Thus the question which you put me— what is to be done to rid mankind of the war menace?—took me by surprise. And, next, I was dumbfounded by the thought of my (of our, I almost wrote) incompetence; for this struck me as being a matter of practical politics, the statesman's proper study.... But I reminded myself

that I was not being called on to formulate practical proposals, but rather, to explain how this question

of preventing wars strikes a psychologist. But here, too, you have stated the gist of the matter in your letter—and taken the wind out of my sails. [Freud, 1933, p. 203]

There are several reasons that I can think of for Freud's pessimism and lack of interest. The first is autobiographical. Freud's personal psychology (Jones, 1954; Roazen, 1975; Gay, 1988; Breger, 2000) was so dominated by competitiveness, rejection of others' views, and war metaphors, it is not surprising that he felt that conflict was inevitable and not worth trying to eliminate. Also, his main project at this point was the survival and growth of the psychoanalytic movement, not the improvement of the quality of human life (Roazen, 1975; Gay, 1988; Breger, 2000; Falzeder and Brabant, 2000).

The second reason is intellectual. Freud viewed conflict as an inevitable condition of living in society. Invariably an individual had to subordinate instinctive drives for pleasure to the demands of reality—to the demands of social living. His view of human nature can be seen as a secularized version of the Judeo-Christian tradition's emphasis on original sin. He greatly increased the understanding of human conflict but I do not think he seriously considered the possibility of either an original or an achieved state of internal or external peace. At best, the psychologically healthy individual could achieve a “balance of power,” if you will, between id, ego, and superego.

Freud's view of international conflict as inevitable is an extension of his understanding of human nature. In this emphasis his understanding is consistent with the Western tradition described by Walter Dorn (2000) in his paper, “Lotus on the Lake: How Eastern Spirituality Contributes to the Vision of World Peace”:

Eastern and Western civilizations have traditionally approached the all important question of peace in fundamentally different ways. The West has been primarily concerned with peace between nations, wrestles with the evolving notions of the balance of power, collective security, and international and international organization. The role of the state remains paramount.... The Eastern approach to peace has been inner rather than outer. Rather than focus on countries and institutions or even other people, the object is one's self. Rather than change the behavior of states, the goal is to change the state of consciousness of the individual. Not the legislation of international laws, but the inner discovery and elucidation of spiritual laws was the goal. Instead of stressing the means to prevent aggression between nations, the Eastern approach has sought to reduce the sources of aggression within the individual. The ultimate aim was not to avoid or mitigate the fires of war, but to dampen the fires of anger, desire and ignorance. While the West studied mediation, the East strove to explore meditation [and through the] immediacy of meditation to obtain peace within themselves in the present moment. Not armed force, but inner force was called for. In short, the Western approach was about outer peace and the Eastern one was centered on inner peace [pp. 156–157].

I think Einstein was looking to Freud for help in developing a new Western approach to peace, one that involved inner transformation. Einstein, a longtime critic of war, with a spirituality born out of respect for nature, was asking about the possibility of a new form psychological training, one that could not only treat neurosis but also could truly increase the likelihood of individual and collective peace. In the years following their exchange of letters, Einstein's interest in finding a way to increase peace and reduce the causes of war continued.

It seems to me that, although Einstein didn't get answers from Western psychology, he was developing his own ways of viewing the relationship between our individual lives and the lives of others. He enunciated a foundational element of this view in a letter he wrote to a rabbi whose daughter had died.

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us ‘universe,’ a part linked in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation, and a foundation for inner security [Einstein, 1954].

The views Einstein expressed in this letter are amazingly congruent with the central message of Buddhist psychology, and so it is interesting to turn to this psychology to address the concerns Einstein raised in his letter to Freud. Clearly a full exploration of this psychology is beyond the scope of this paper, but a few ideas are worth mentioning. Buddhist psychology is famously and succinctly described by Santideva, the 7th-century Buddhist scholar, in his classic work, A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life (7th century). Buddhist psychology, unlike the psychological theories we are familiar with in the West, does not define mental health as the absence of psychopathology. Rather, it considers the fully healthy person as enlightened. Such a person develops increases in generosity and emotions such as compassion, loving-kindness, equanimity, and sympathetic joy and reduction in the negative emotions or afflictions of hatred, craving, and ignorance. As we now know from the work of Richard Davidson et al. (2003) and others (Goleman, 2003; Lazar et al., 2005), the cultivation of these attitudes leads to

alterations in brain waves and structure in a direction that correlates with increased happiness, quicker rebound from negative emotions, decrease in stress response, and increase in immunity. Clinically we also know that Tibetan Buddhist monks who were victims of torture have a much lower incidence of PTSD than was expected (Keller et al., 2006). When I attended H. H. Dalai Lama's teachings on “The Bodhisattva Way of Life” in September 2005, he told the following story about a monk who saw him after escaping China. This monk reported that while he was imprisoned and tortured for over 10 years he sometimes was afraid. The Dalai Lama asked, “What were you afraid of?” The monk replied, “I was afraid that I was losing my compassion for the Chinese prison guards who were torturing me.” This sounds like the kind of educational change that Einstein was looking for—a way to stop the cycle of hate and violence.

Freud and psychoanalysis never really defined mental health and did not develop a program for increasing the mental health of world citizens. Western psychological treatments and theories, like Western medicine, are theories of and responses to pathology and disease. We enter late in the “disease” process. Psychoanalytic theory does not have a highly articulated view of mental health, not just normalcy, but optimum health.

Einstein was asking for something more. So perhaps with the increasing appreciation we have today of both the benefits of meditation and the goals of Buddhist psychology we can begin to truly address the question raised by Einstein in his letter to Freud: “How can we educate people and help them evolve so that they are less prone to hatred and violence?”


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Article Citation

Shapiro, S.A. (2009). Why War? Why Not Peace? Santideva's Answer to Einstein's Famous Question to Freud. Stud. Gend. Sex., 10

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