Why War? The Role of Envy in Instigating Aggression

Our 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 exchange of ideas 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 is documented as saying: “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 of modern science, the issue of war, in fact, life or death for civilization has been unsolvable. Solutions, he said, must involve international tribunals for resolution and enforcement. All participants must acquiesce to this 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 to date proved futile. He went on to convey his firm proposition of the polarity within human nature, in broad terms, of Love always interacting with Hate in varying measures. 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 apparent evolution of culture and civilization stating that a sober view and deeper appreciation of the inevitable consequences of a future war [mass annihilation] may possibly be averted by a strengthening of intellectual life and a renunciation of base instincts such as violent aggression that may ultimately be self-destructive yet on a grand scale.

The present author's "Envy Theory" agrees with Freud's views, and goes beyond. Humankind's impulse toward self-destruction is innate. 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. It is akin to a parallel unhealthy hyperactivity of cognition accompanying mindless behavioral hyperactivity.

Real amelioration of aggressivity depends on 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 adhere to this pursuit with intellectual and emotional conviction. Maintaining a sense of reality helps distinguish real persecutors from imagined enemies.

Because psychotic anxieites, which tend to be characteristic of large groups, and the xenophobic need to see an enemy outside the self have considerable force in civilizations, 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, perspectives. Realistic individuals who own their own aggressive inclinations have a beneficial effect, to some extent, on larger group processes.

With the aforementioned in mind, understanding the role of envy in individual experience and experiences between groups attempts to expand a deeper understanding of the above ideas whose roots, in large measure, reside in unconscious envious processes.

The author's forthcoming text (Fall 2012), Biomental Child Development: Perspectives on Psychology and Parenting, attempts to contribute knowledge about, deeper understanding of, and guidance toward the aforementioned ends.

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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