Einstein and Freud

In the J. Robert Oppenheimer speech about Einstein that was the subject of yesterday’s post, we find the following paragraph:

Einstein is also, and I think rightly, known as a man of very great good will and humanity. Indeed, if I had to think of a single word for his attitude towards human problems, I would pick the Sanscrit word Ahinsa, not to hurt, harmlessness. He had a deep distrust of power; he did not have that convenient and natural converse with statesmen and men of power that was quite appropriate to Rutherford and to Bohr, perhaps the two physicists of this century who most nearly rivaled him in eminence. In 1915, as he made the general theory of relativity, Europe was tearing itself to pieces and half losing its past. He was always a pacifist. Only as the Nazis came into power in Germany did he have some doubts, as his famous and rather deep exchange of letters with Freud showed, and began to understand with melancholy and without true acceptance that, in addition to understanding, man sometimes has a duty to act.

Having no recollection of this correspondence between these two great thinkers, I was interested to track it down — and I was also struck by the timeliness, and relevance to matters currently under discussion here, of the final phrase above: “…in addition to understanding, man sometimes has a duty to act.”

I was quickly able to find the letters on line. Einstein’s letter to Freud was written in 1932, just months before Adolf Hitler replaced Kurt von Schleicher as Reichschancellor. It begins:

Dear Mr. Freud:

The proposal of the League of Nations and its International Institute of Intellectual Co-operation at Paris that I should invite a person, to be chosen by myself, to a frank exchange of views on any problem that I might select affords me a very welcome opportunity of conferring with you upon a question which, as things now are, seems the most insistent of all the problems civilization has to face. 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.

Einstein sees clearly that just as, in order to live peaceful lives within their own nations, men must surrender a monopoly of violence to the State, that nations themselves will have to do the same:

As one immune from nationalist bias, I personally see a simple way of dealing with the superficial (i.e., administrative) aspect of the problem: the setting up, by international consent, of a legislative and judicial body to settle every conflict arising between nations. Each nation would undertake to abide by the orders issued by this legislative body, to invoke its decision in every dispute, to accept its judgments unreservedly and to carry out every measure the tribunal deems necessary for the execution of its decrees.

But this has been impossible to achieve:

But at present we are far from possessing any supranational organization competent to render verdicts of incontestable authority and enforce absolute submission to the execution of its verdicts. Thus I am led to my first axiom: The quest of international security involves the unconditional surrender by every nation, in a certain measure, of its liberty of action–its sovereignty that is to say–and it is clear beyond all doubt that no other road can lead to such security.

The ill success, despite their obvious sincerity, of all the efforts made during the last decade to reach this goal leaves us no room to doubt that strong psychological factors are at work which paralyze these efforts. Some of these factors are not far to seek. The craving for power which characterizes the governing class in every nation is hostile to any limitation of the national sovereignty. This political power hunger is often supported by the activities of another group, whose aspirations are on purely mercenary, economic lines. I have especially in mind that small but determined group, active in every nation, composed of individuals who, indifferent to social considerations and restraints, regard warfare, the manufacture and sale of arms, simply as an occasion to advance their personal interests and enlarge their personal authority.

So he turns to Freud, whose eminence in his own sphere in those days rivalled that of Einstein:

And so we come to our last question. Is it possible to control man’s mental evolution so as to make him proof against the psychosis of hate and destructiveness? Here I am thinking by no means only of the so-called uncultured masses. Experience proves that it is rather the so-called “intelligentsia” that is most apt to yield to these disastrous collective suggestions, since the intellectual has no direct contact with life in the raw but encounters it in its easiest, synthetic form — upon the printed page. … I know that in your writings we may find answers, explicit or implied, to all the issues of this urgent and absorbing problem. But it would be of the greatest service to us all were you to present the problem of world peace in the light of your most recent discoveries, for such a presentation well might blaze the trail for new and fruitful modes of action.

Yours very sincerely,

A. Einstein

Freud’s response, however, written as he suffered the excruciating torments of oral cancer, and just a few years before his suicide, was not an optimistic one. Toward the end he offers a gloomy prognosis:

The upshot of these observations, as bearing on the subject in hand, is that there is no likelihood of our being able to suppress humanity’s aggressive tendencies. In some happy corners of the earth, they say, where nature brings forth abundantly whatever man desires, there flourish races whose lives go gently by; unknowing of aggression or constraint. This I can hardly credit; I would like further details about these happy folk.

So much for Utopian pipe-dreams: man is made of crooked timber. But enough of excerpts and summaries! Go and read the full exchange here.


  1. By coincidence I was reading this morning a review of yet another biography of Einstein. I was surprised (I do not pretend to any detailed knowledge of the man) that he gave up German nationality at the modest age of 17(!) because of his dislike of the German nationalism then evinced by the Kaiser and his cronies. His inherent pacifism is remarked on by the reviewer but he reminds us that Einstein, having come to a clear decision concerning Hitlerism, urged Roosevelt to develop an atom bomb before the Nazis.

    Posted June 3, 2007 at 2:39 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi David, and thanks for commenting.

    Yes, scientists have to be willing to modify their views as the facts come in, and the Nazi conquest of Europe was a fact that even a committed pacifist like Einstein could scarcely ignore. And indeed he did also seem to move away, as a result of this exchange, from whatever optimism he may have had about the possibility of weaning Man from war.

    By the way, that’s a fine website you have there.

    Posted June 4, 2007 at 12:07 am | Permalink
  3. Malcolm, greetings from this side of the pond where life is much cooler!

    The review, by Terence Kealey, was in the Sunday Telegraph but it might be a day or two before it goes up on their website – if at all. The book was “Einstein: His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson.


    Posted June 4, 2007 at 6:27 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Hi David,

    Yes, I had assumed that it was the Isaacson biography you were talking about. It’s on my list, as is his bio of Franklin.

    Thanks for the trans-oceanic shoutout; indeed, I gaze wistfully across the water every year about this time. My own parents grew up in Great Britain — my late mother in Scotland, and my father in London — so my genome, which is all Scots on my mum’s side, and Cornish/Welsh on my dad’s, is tuned for cool, grey days, not the blistering glare and superheated miasma of summer in Gotham. It is a major problem.

    Posted June 4, 2007 at 10:39 am | Permalink

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