In 1915, soon after World war I broke out, Sigmund Freud wrote about the disillusionment of war and the conflicting dynamics of individual and collective morality, in this timely and timeless piece. Freud analyzed the harmony of paradoxes in the co-existence of opposites.

The naive illusion of the civilized

Disillusionment is, in essence, a result of betrayal that breaks the naivete. The war is a disillusionment for the individual regarding the myth of civilization. War is not only exposing the harsh hooliganism of the collective human endeavor, but also highlighting the undesirable in the individual. War is thus, the betrayal of our pretentious optimism. It opens our eyes to the irony of our moral GPS, the super ego which has its foundations in the dread of the very community that easily looses itself in chaotic anarchy.

 The individual citizen can with horror convince himself in this war of what would occasionally cross his mind in peace-time – that 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, like salt and tobacco. 

Sigmund Freud (1915)

The individual holds onto a fragile illusion of culture, yet his identity, his existence and his soul is sold to ideologies in society. As Jung said people don’t have ideas, but ideas have people and they just play their parts with utmost commitment, going to any lengths as demonstrated by Zimbardo in his infamous prison study years later.

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

Act II, Scene 2, Hamlet (William Shakespeare)

Freud details how our judgment of primitive impulses as bad, leads to the emergence of defenses like reaction formations. This eventually leads to an ambivalence of feeling, as in the case of feeling intense hate for the person we loved the most. But upon understanding further, we realize that opposites exist not in binaries, but in spectrums. And there is always a dynamic possibility of transformation.

The judgment and transformation of impulses

Freud charts out how our adaptability to culture is dependent on our ability to transform instincts into socially appropriate behaviors. This can be done in an innate way founded in an inherent affinity for love or it can be motivated by external, acquired influence such as learning. This is when it becomes essential to look beyond the behaviorist reductionism of behavior as stimulus- response mechanisms and to consider both intentions and consequences.

Transformation of instincts to socially acceptable ways: The story of intentions

Freud opines that the pressures of the moral asphyxiation imposed by civilization either unleashes pathological chaos or produces moral hypocrites. The outcome of the war’s disillusionment is the realization that we were wrong in our demarcations between the civilized and the barbaric, for we are more similar than we’d like to imagine.

The commonality that Freud traces is still relevant. He suggests how our preoccupation with divorcing affect from rational intelligence is flawed. He acknowledges how the primitive mind is imperishable and how it offers an abode to descend to, in times of turbulence. Freud attributes the horrors of the war to the reemergence of the unaddressed, oppressed emotional side. He urges humanity to realize that externally imposed morality is too fragile. While accounting for the inevitability of war, Freud rests his hope in the evolution of our collective psyche, in the capacity of humanity to make wisdom out of our wounds.

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