When Einstein Wrote to Freud

War and Human Affinity

Distance education provides academic intimacy between our daily struggles and pleasures and the reality that all of life is a lecture hall from which we may avert our gaze or take note.  When the cultural going gets tough, our academic critical thinking skills spring into action.  Theorists and tutors alike provide grist for our mental mill.  We walk hand in hand with intellectual giants when we scratch beneath the surface of current events and seek to place contexts within a philosophical framework of human nature as a flowing artifice that explains and advocates for life itself as a learning process.

Two great minds of the past century elucidate the process of interacting and learning from others, in this case literally.  Albert Einstein, cultural superstar of physics, once wrote a letter to Sigmund Freud.  Both being of Viennese extraction, they had geography in common and shared that great baseline of wonderful minds: curiosity.  The letter addressed one of the most crucial questions of that or any time: how and why does violence and warfare ensue and how can we humans avoid and abolish it?

Einstein asked: “This is the problem: Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?  It is 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; nevertheless, for all the zeal displayed, every attempt at its solution has ended in a lamentable breakdown.” (in Popova, online)

Sigmund Freud, in reply to Einstein, wrote: “For the transition from crude violence to the reign of law, a certain psychological condition must first obtain.  The union of the majority must be stable and enduring.  If its sole raison d’etre be the discomfiture of some overweening individual and, after his downfall, it be dissolved, it leads to nothing.  Some other man, trusting to his superior power, will seek to reinstate the rule of violence, and the cycle will repeat itself unendingly.  Thus the union of the people must be permanent and well organized; it must enact rules to meet the risk of possible revolts; must set up machinery insuring that its rules — the laws — are observed and that such acts of violence as the laws demand are duly carried out.  This recognition of a community of interests engenders among the members of the group a sentiment of unity and fraternal solidarity which constitutes its real strength” (Freud in Popova, online).

Clearly, if affinities arise between people then conflict will be diminished.  Yet, in our epoch of shattered unity, where every means of identification seems equal and unique and cynical retorts meet any claim to commonality and universal brotherhood, difference appears to hold sway over common cultural denominators.  Think of the term brotherhood, once used to mean all people.  It’s now considered to be a sexist term?!  There’s an old spraypainting in Greenwood, BC of the flags of countless nations along with the 60s-era phrase let’s live as a human brotherhood.  Driving past it I’ve always pondered how the meaning has changed and been lost because, let’s face it, the words have become more important than the sentiment.  Brotherhoods imply anything but a unified gathering of our species.  Instead, brotherhoods bring to mind at best a club of boys and at words a sexist or racist gathering of ne’er-do-wells.  Would humanhood be a better term, of just another politically-correct clunker?  Maybe just use sisterhood and call it a balanced reprisal for historical injustices?

Can the human race find enough common ground that war and difference don’t drive us apart before, inevitably, bringing us back together with sickening thuds of violence?  The times imply that conflict is here to stay and yet we are, after all, members of the same species with much to gain by working together.  The social sciences are based on seeking to understand these core realities of being human and, where people are involved, philosophy, history, psychology, and biology are never far behind.  In a sense, all of life is a classroom as the laboratory of humanity unfolds before our very eyes.

From Merit to Equality and Back

Think of a meritocracy, a nice idea when kids are old enough to make grilled cheese sandwiches for the whole family on a Saturday afternoon.  What works on the small scale, and dates back to cave-lady days of yore where a simple fireside chat meant just that, does not always add up to success on the societal or global level.  Heck, many people can’t even handle the aroma of one another’s lunches in a break room or their chair-neighbour’s perfume in a waiting room!  Solidarity gets tricky in a society of faceless strangers who we can imagine in the abstract but not relate to at the personal level.  And that’s in situations when basics like language are shared.

The very fables that guide our core beliefs, and recall that challenging our basic conceptions of reality and how it ought to function is fraught with the perilous fact that any good ideology has not only answers for every question but a naturalized method of providing, with algorithmic precision, responses to even the most earnest of critiques, may be what holds us back from societal improvements.  Maybe we have to surrender our critical thinking skills as we’ve learned to apply them and open up to ways and means of thinking that we’d hitherto chucked out or not even noticed.  Freud seemed to be saying to Einstein that, like us all, people have to begin with their commonalities and end with their individuality.  And this, after all, is ironically a personal choice.  Maybe that’s why individualized study at AU is so rewarding.  As a classroom of usually only ourselves we learn as much about our private realms as we do about the world around us.  And isn’t that what learning how to learn and grow is all about?

Einstein, A.  & Freud, S.  In Popova, M.  (2013).  ‘Why War: Einstein and Freud’s Little-Known Correspondence on Violence, Peace & Human Nature’.  The Marginalian.  Retrieved from https://www.themarginalian.org/2013/05/06/why-war-einstein-freud/