Why War? The Role of Envy in Instigating Aggression

This discussion is launched with the famous exchange of letters between Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein in 1932 and subsequently published in Freud’s Collected Writings. This occurred after World War I and before World War II at the behest of the Committee for Literature and Arts of the League of Nations. Although both men contribute serious considerations to the theme, Freud says: “He [Einstein] understands as much about psychology as I [Freud] do about physics, so we had a very pleasant talk.”

Id and Ego, FJN
Source: Id and Ego, FJN

Einstein stressed that despite advances in modern science, the issue of war---life or death for civilization---has been unsolvable. Solutions must involve international tribunals for resolution and enforcement. All participants must acquiesce to ensure survival.

Freud’s emphasis understandably was centered on psychological dynamics both individual and group. The use of force, aggression, and violence in problem-solving among men was highlighted. He, like Einstein, suggested that surrender to a third agency should be a serious consideration since taming aggressive inclinations has proved futile.

He went on to convey his firm belief in the polarity within human nature of Love [Eros] always interacting with Hate [Thanatos] in varying measures. Love is shorthand for rational cooperation and Hate denotes aggression and destructiveness. So firm was Freud in his thinking that he said: “there is no use in trying to get rid of men’s aggressive inclinations… …there is no question of getting rid entirely of human aggressive impulses; it is enough to try to divert them to such an extent that they need not find expression in war.”

Freud then invoked the fact of humankind’s advance in evolving culture and civilization. He stated that a deeper appreciation of the inevitable consequences of future war [mass annihilation] may possibly be averted by a strengthening of intellectual life and renunciation of base instincts. This denoted violent aggression that may be self-destructive on a grand scale.

The author's "Envy Theory" agrees with Freud's views, and goes beyond. Thanatos really means self-undermining that is not constructive and may be destructive. Self-sabotage typically becomes a group phenomenon, and turns to hatred and assaults against "the other." Humankind's impulse toward self-destruction is innate---a disposition that can be modified. Yet, it cannot be diverted merely through intellectual work, which may devolve into defensive intellectualization. This, in itself, is a defense against the painful ambivalence always accompanying aggressivity. 

Real amelioration of aggressivity depends first and foremost on self-development. This includes both the typical development of empathy in childhood along with the earned expansion of empathetic concern that requires work on the self---introspection and taking personal accountability over a lifetime.

Put simply, insight into one's own personal self-destructive and envious inclinations is needed. Insight such as this makes more conscious an awareness of the consequences of destructive actions. Facing one's personal ambivalence (attraction/love and aversion/dislike) and attempting to repair it in a synthesized way make needing an outside enemy unnecessary or, at least, less demanding. Of course, for this to be effective, as many individuals as possible must pursue this with intellectual and emotional conviction. Maintaining a sense of reality helps distinguish real persecutors from imagined enemies.

Psychotic anxieties and irrational behaviors tend to emerge in large groups. There is a xenophobic need to see an enemy outside the self. Individuals--to be and remain rationally free--must temporarily step outside the black box of conventional group identification and take stock of "self." Once this is done, one's natural inclination to participate as a group member may take on more realistic, less extreme, xenophobic perspectives. Realistic individuals who own their own aggressive inclinations have a beneficial effect, to some extent, on larger group processes. Psychotic anxieties and extremism are kept in check.

With the aforementioned in mind, understanding the provocative role of envy in individual experience and experiences between groups is a necessity for mental health

The author's books, Biomental Child Development: Perspectives on Psychology and Parenting, (2013) and Envy Theory: Perspectives on the Psychology of Envy (2010) [amazon.com]  attempt to contribute a deeper understanding to the aforementioned ends; techniques and tools for self-exploration and change are given.


Freud, S. (1964) [1933]. Why War? In. The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud. vol XXII, London: Hogarth Press, pp.197-218.

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