Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Freud, Einstein, and Upaya:
Contemporary Reflections on the Question "Why War?"

By Diane Jonte-Pace

In 1932 Albert Einstein was contacted by the League of Nations, the international body that was the precursor of the UN. He was asked to invite someone -- he could choose anyone -- to reflect with him in a series of public letters on a pressing problem or question. The question Einstein selected was this: "Is there any way of delivering humankind from the menace of war?" He was asking the question that many of us are asking today: "How can we promote peace?"

He chose his interlocutor carefully. The physicist with unprecedented understanding of the structure and workings of the universe selected a thinker with unprecedented insight into the structure and workings of the human mind: Sigmund Freud. Freud readily agreed to participate in this conversation. He had just published Civilization and its Discontents, in which he had offered a complex analysis of the psychological difficulties of living together in community. Yet his response to Einstein's question about peace was surprisingly optimistic. Yes, he said, we are torn between a drive for Eros or connection, and a drive toward Death, Thanatos, or Aggression. And indeed, the eagerness to engage in war is an effect of the drive toward Aggression, which itself is always embedded in political, social, and economic contexts. But, he argued, one can bring Eros into play against Aggression: whatever leads us to share important concerns produces a sense of community. "Anything that encourages the growth of emotional ties will operate against war." Einstein's remarks were more political, more practical. Claiming "no insight into the dark places of human will and feeling," he spoke of Macht und Recht, power and right, or violence and law. He called for a world in which Recht would supersede Macht -- law would supersede violence. He urged that all countries, by international consent, agree to honor a legislative and judicial body that would settle every conflict. "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."

Our own president is prepared to act through Macht rather than Recht -- to initiate a war without the consent of our current international, legislative, and judicial body, the UN. Einstein's words, written in support the League of Nations, are as relevant today as they were 70 years ago.

And Freud? Are Freud's words useful to us today? The foundational Freudian principle -- the call to know ourselves -- is invaluable. We cannot pursue peace in the world unless we know our own potential for both peace and war -- Eros and Thanatos -- and our own potential to turn anxiety into aggression. I find Freud's optimism helpful as well. It's not a naive optimism, but a realistic sense of possibilities, a refusal to be limited by past human failures to create a lasting peace.

There's a Buddhist concept that I like very much. It's called Upaya. It means skillful means, appropriate means, useful means, in the path toward compassion, peace, and the end of suffering. Freud's and Einstein's formulations from 1932 are a kind of Upaya, for peace today. With Einstein, we can support the authority of the UN in the current conflict. With Freud, we can try to know ourselves, and to explore ways to build ties that promote peace rather than war.

The Einstein-Freud exchange, published in three languages under the title "Why War?" and widely distributed throughout Western Europe 70 years ago, was banned in Germany. If there's a Upaya in the way we remember this story, surely it is that we must speak openly about peace, we must not censor or silence our voices. Let us call for peace in many voices.

Diane Jonte-Pace is Professor of Religious Studies and Associate Vice Provost at Santa Clara University.

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