Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, January 22, 2018

Eleven Insights from Freud on War and Human Nature

In his essay, "Thoughts for the Times on War and Death," written about six months after the outbreak of the First World War, Sigmund Freud described the nature of the Great War and expresses his disillusionment about human nature and  the state. While his overall argument follows the logic of his psychoanalytic theory, some of his insights seem to be both common-sensical and still valid a century and many wars later. (At least in this editor's view.)

Sigmund Freud and His Soldier Sons

In the confusion of wartime. . . We cannot but feel that no event has ever destroyed so much that is precious in the common possessions of humanity. . . Probably, however, our sense of these immediate evils is disproportionately strong, and we are not entitled to compare them with the evils of other times which we have not experienced.

We had expected the great world-dominating nations.  .  . to succeed in discovering another way of settling misunderstandings and conflicts of interest. 

Then the war in which we had refused to believe broke out, and it brought - disillusionment. Not only is it more bloody and more destructive than any war of other days, because of the enormously increased perfection of weapons of attack and defense; it is at least as cruel, as embittered, as implacable as any that has preceded it. . . It cuts all the common bonds between the contending peoples, and threatens to leave a legacy of embitterment. . .

[I]n this war. . . the state has forbidden to the individual the practice of wrong-doing, not because it desires to abolish it, but because it wants to monopolize it. . . A belligerent state permits itself every such misdeed, every such act of violence, as would disgrace the individual. 

We welcome illusions because they spare us emotional distress, and enable us instead to indulge in gratification. We must not complain, then, if now and again they come into collision with some portion of reality and are shattered against it.

Two things in this war have aroused our sense of disillusionment: the low morality shown externally by states which in their internal relations pose as the guardians of moral standards, and the brutality shown by individuals whom, as participants in the highest human civilization, one would not have thought capable of such behavior.

In reality, there is no such thing as 'eradicating' evil tendencies. Psychological - or, more strictly speaking, psychoanalytic - investigation shows instead that the deepest essence of human nature consists of instinctual impulses which are of an elementary nature, which are similar in all men and which aim at the satisfaction of certain primal needs. . . It must be granted that all the impulses which society condemns as evil - let us take as representative the selfish and the cruel ones - are of this primitive kind.

[However,] reaction-formations against certain instincts take the deceptive form of a change in their content, as though egoism had changed into altruism, or cruelty into pity. . .The most easily observed and comprehensible instance of this is the fact that intense love and intense hatred are so often to be found together in the same person. . . the most helpful and self-sacrificing members of the community; most of our sentimentalists, friends of humanity and protectors of animals have been evolved from little sadists and animal-tormentors.

we run the risk of over-estimating the total adaptability to culture in comparison with the portion of instinctual life which has remained primitive - that is, we are misled into regarding human beings as 'better' than they actually are. . . 

Circumstances will reveal that one man always acts in a good way because his instinctual inclinations compel him to, and the other is good only in so far and for so long as such cultural behavior is advantageous for his own selfish purposes. But superficial acquaintance with an individual will not enable us distinguish between the two cases, and we are certainly misled by our optimism into grossly exaggerating the number of human beings who have been transformed in a cultural sense.

Our mortification and our painful disillusionment on account of the uncivilized behavior of our fellow-citizens of the world during this war were unjustified. They were based on an illusion to which we had given way. In reality our fellow-citizens have not sunk so low as we feared, because they had never risen so high as we believed. 

The fact that the collective units of mankind, the peoples and states, mutually abrogated their moral restraints naturally prompted these individual citizens to withdraw for a while from the constant pressure of civilization and to grant a temporary satisfaction to the instincts which they had been holding in check. This probably involved no breach in their relative morality within their own nations.

There is, however, another symptom in our fellow-citizens of the world which has perhaps astonished and shocked us no less than the descent from their ethical heights which has so greatly distressed us. What I have in mind is the want of insight shown by the best intellects, their obduracy, their inaccessibility to the most forcible arguments and their uncritical credulity towards the most disputable assertions. . . [But]  we are mistaken in regarding our intelligence as an independent force and in overlooking its dependence on emotional life. Our intellect, they teach us, can function reliably only when it is removed from the influences of strong emotional impulses; otherwise it behaves merely as an instrument of the will and delivers the inference which the will requires. Thus, in their view, logical arguments are impotent against affective interests, and that is why disputes backed by reasons, which in Falstaff's phrase are 'as plenty as blackberries', produce so few victories in the conflict with interests. 

Every day. . . the shrewdest people will all of a sudden behave without insight, like imbeciles, as soon as the necessary insight is confronted by an emotional resistance, but that they will completely regain their understanding once that resistance has been overcome. The logical bedazzlement which this war has conjured up in our fellow-citizens, many of them the best of their kind, is therefore a secondary phenomenon, a consequence of emotional excitement, and is bound, we may hope, to disappear with it.

Read the full essay here:


  1. This is fascinating--and frighteningly insightful.

    1. True.
      Is there any good, recent work on Freud and WWI? I'm reminded how one of his famous patients, "Rat Man", died in the trenches.