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Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). Reflections on War and Death. 1918.

II. Our Attitude Towards Death

IT remains for us to consider the second factor of which I have already spoken which accounts for our feeling of strangeness in a world which used to seem so beautiful and familiar to us. I refer to the disturbance in our former attitude towards death.

Our attitude had not been a sincere one. To listen to us we were, of course, prepared to maintain that death is the necessary termination of life, that everyone of us owes nature his death and must be prepared to pay his debt, in short, that death was natural, undeniable, and inevitable. In practice we were accustomed to act as if matters were quite different. We have shown an unmistakable tendency to put death aside, to eliminate it from life. We attempted to hush it up, in fact, we have the proverb: to think of something as of death. Of course we meant our own death. We cannot, indeed, imagine our own death; whenever we try to do so we find that we survive ourselves as spectators. The school of psychoanalysis could thus assert that at bottom no one believes in his own death, which amounts to saying: in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his immortality.

As far as the death of another person is concerned every man of culture will studiously avoid mentioning this possibility in the presence of the person in question. Only children ignore this restraint; they boldly threaten each other with the possibility of death, and are quite capable of giving expression to the thought of death in relation to the persons they love, as, for instance: Dear Mama, when unfortunately, you are dead, I shall do so and so. The civilized adult also likes to avoid entertaining the thought of another’s death lest he seem harsh or unkind, unless his profession as a physician or a lawyer brings up the question. Least of all would he permit himself to think of somebody’s death if this event is connected with a gain of freedom, wealth, or position. Death is, of course, not deferred through our sensitiveness on the subject, and when it occurs we are always deeply affected, as if our expectations had been shattered. We regularly lay stress upon the unexpected causes of death, we speak of the accident, the infection, or advanced age, and thus betray our endeavor to debase death from a necessity to an accident. A large number of deaths seems unspeakably dreadful to us. We assume a special attitude towards the dead, something almost like admiration for one who has accomplished a very difficult feat. We suspend criticism of him, overlooking whatever wrongs he may have done, and issue the command, de mortuis nil nisi bene: we act as if we were justified in singing his praises at the funeral oration, and inscribe only what is to his advantage on the tombstone. This consideration for the dead, which he really no longer needs, is more important to us than the truth and to most of us, certainly, it is more important than consideration for the living.

This conventional attitude of civilized people towards death is made still more striking by our complete collapse at the death of a person closely related to us, such as a parent, a wife or husband, a brother or sister, a child or a dear friend. We bury our hopes, our wishes, and our desires with the dead, we are inconsolable and refuse to replace our loss. We act in this case as if we belonged to the tribe of the Asra who also die when those whom they love perish.

But this attitude of ours towards death exerts a powerful influence upon our lives. Life becomes impoverished and loses its interest when life itself, the highest stake in the game of living, must not be risked. It becomes as hollow and empty as an American flirtation in which it is understood from the beginning that nothing is to happen, in contrast to a continental love affair in which both partners must always bear in mind the serious consequences. Our emotional ties, the unbearable intensity of our grief, make us disinclined to court dangers for ourselves and those belonging to us. We do not dare to contemplate a number of undertakings that are dangerous but really indispensable, such as aeroplane flights, expeditions to distant countries, and experiments with explosive substances. We are paralyzed by the thought of who is to replace the son to his mother, the husband to his wife, or the father to his children, should an accident occur. A number of other renunciations and exclusions result from this tendency to rule out death from the calculations of life. And yet the motto of the Hanseatic League said: Navigare necesse est, vivere non necesse: It is necessary to sail the seas, but not to live.

It is therefore inevitable that we should seek compensation for the loss of life in the world of fiction, in literature, and in the theater. There we still find people who know how to die, who are even quite capable of killing others. There alone the condition for reconciling ourselves to death is fulfilled, namely, if beneath all the vicissitudes of life a permanent life still remains to us. It is really too sad that it may happen in life as in chess, where a false move can force us to lose the game, but with this difference, that we cannot begin a return match. In the realm of fiction we find the many lives in one for which we crave. We die in identification with a certain hero and yet we outlive him and, quite unharmed, are prepared to die again with the next hero.

It is obvious that the war must brush aside this conventional treatment of death. Death is no longer to be denied; we are compelled to believe in it. People really die and no longer one by one, but in large numbers, often ten thousand in one day. It is no longer an accident. Of course, it still seems accidental whether a particular bullet strikes this man or that but the survivor may easily be struck down by a second bullet, and the accumulation of deaths ends the impression of accident. Life has indeed become interesting again; it has once more received its full significance.

Let us make a division here and separate those who risk their lives in battle from those who remain at home, where they can only expect to lose one of their loved ones through injury, illness, or infection. It would certainly be very interesting to study the changes in the psychology of the combatants but I know too little about this. We must stick to the second group, to which we ourselves belong. I have already stated that I think the confusion and paralysis of our activities from which we are suffering is essentially determined by the fact that we cannot retain our previous attitude towards death. Perhaps it will help us to direct our psychological investigation to two other attitudes towards death, one of which we may ascribe to primitive man, while the other is still preserved, though invisible to our consciousness, in the deeper layers of our psychic life.

The attitude of prehistoric man towards death is, of course, known to us only through deductions and reconstructions, but I am of the opinion that these have given us fairly trustworthy information.

Primitive man maintained a very curious attitude towards death. It is not at all consistent but rather contradictory. On the one hand he took death very seriously, recognized it as the termination of life, and made use of it in this sense; but, on the other hand, he also denied death and reduced it to nothingness. This contradiction was made possible by the fact that he maintained a radically different position in regard to the death of others, a stranger or an enemy, than in regard to his own. The death of another person fitted in with his idea, it signified the annihilation of the hated one, and primitive man had no scruples against bringing it about. He must have been a very passionate being, more cruel and vicious than other animals. He liked to kill and did it as a matter of course. Nor need we attribute to him the instinct which restrains other animals from killing and devouring their own species.

As a matter of fact the primitive history of mankind is filled with murder. The history of the world which is still taught to our children is essentially a series of race murders. The dimly felt sense of guilt under which man has lived since archaic times, and which in many religions has been condensed into the assumption of a primal guilt, a hereditary sin, is probably the expression of a blood guilt, the burden of which primitive man assumed. In my book entitled “Totem and Taboo,” 1913, I have followed the hints of W. Robertson Smith, Atkinson, and Charles Darwin in the attempt to fathom the nature of this ancient guilt, and am of the opinion that the Christian doctrine of today still makes it possible for us to work back to its origin.

If the Son of God had to sacrifice his life to absolve mankind from original sin, then, according to the law of retaliation, the return of like for like, this sin must have been an act of killing, a murder. Nothing else could call for the sacrifice of a life in expiation. And if original sin was a sin against the God Father, the oldest sin of mankind must have been a patricide—the killing of the primal father of the primitive human horde, whose memory picture later was transfigured into a deity.

Primitive man was as incapable of imagining and realizing his own death as any one of us are today. But a case arose in which the two opposite attitudes towards death clashed and came into conflict with each other, with results that are both significant and far reaching. Such a case was given when primitive man saw one of his own relatives die, his wife, child, or friend, whom he certainly loved as we do ours; for love cannot be much younger than the lust for murder. In his pain he must have discovered that he, too, could die, an admission against which his whole being must have revolted, for everyone of these loved ones was a part of his own beloved self. On the other hand again, every such death was satisfactory to him, for there was also something foreign in each one of these persons. The law of emotional ambivalence, which today still governs our emotional relations to those whom we love, certainly obtained far more widely in primitive times. The beloved dead had nevertheless roused some hostile feelings in primitive man just because they had been both friends and enemies.

Philosophers have maintained that the intellectual puzzle which the picture of death presented to primitive man forced him to reflect and became the starting point of every speculation. I believe the philosophers here think too philosophically, they give too little consideration to the primary effective motive. I should therefore like to correct and limit the above assertion; primitive man probably triumphed at the side of the corpse of the slain enemy, without finding any occasion to puzzle his head about the riddle of life and death. It was not the intellectual puzzle or any particular death which roused the spirit of inquiry in man, but the conflict of emotions at the death of beloved and withal foreign and hated persons.

From this emotional conflict psychology arose. Man could no longer keep death away from him, for he had tasted of it in his grief for the deceased, but he did not want to acknowledge it, since he could not imagine himself dead. He therefore formed a compromise and concealed his own death but denied it the significance of destroying life, a distinction for which the death of his enemies had given him no motive. He invented spirits during his contemplation of the corpse of the person he loved, and his consciousness of guilt over the gratification which mingled with his grief brought it about that these first created spirits were transformed into evil demons who were to be feared. The changes wrought by death suggested to him to divide the individual into body and soul, at first several souls, and in this way his train of thought paralleled the disintegration process inaugurated by death. The continued remembrance of the dead became the basis of the assumption of other forms of existence and gave him the idea of a future life after apparent death.

These later forms of existence were at first only vaguely associated appendages to those whom death had cut off, and enjoyed only slight esteem until much later times; they still betrayed a very meagre knowledge. The reply which the soul of Achilles made to Odysseus comes to our mind:

  • Erst in the life on the earth, no less than a god we revered thee,
  • We the Achaeans; and now in the realm of the dead as a monarch
  • Here thou dost rule; then why should death thus grieve thee, Achilles?
  • Thus did I speak: forthwith then answering thus he addressed me.
  • Speak not smoothly of death, I beseech, O famous Odysseus,
  • Better by far to remain on the earth as the thrall of another,
  • E’en of a portionless man that hath means right scanty of living,
  • Rather than reign sole king in the realm of the bodiless phantoms.
  • Odysseus XI, verse 484–491
  • Translated by H. B. Coterill.
  • Heine has rendered this in a forcible and bitter parody:

  • The smallest living philistine,
  • At Stuckert on the Neckar
  • Is much happier than I am,
  • Son of Pelleus, the dead hero,
  • Shadowy ruler of the Underworld.
  • It was much later before religions managed to declare this after-life as the more valuable and perfect and to debase our mortal life to a mere preparation for the life to come. It was then only logical to prolong our existence into the past and to invent former existences, transmigrations of souls, and reincarnations, all with the object of depriving death of its meaning as the termination of life. It was as early as this that the denial of death, which we described as the product of conventional culture, originated.

    Contemplation of the corpse of the person loved gave birth not only to the theory of the soul, the belief in immortality, and implanted the deep roots of the human sense of guilt, but it also created the first ethical laws. The first and most important prohibition of the awakening conscience declared: Thou shalt not kill. This arose as a reaction against the gratification of hate for the beloved dead which is concealed behind grief, and was gradually extended to the unloved stranger and finally also to the enemy.

    Civilized man no longer feels this way in regard to killing enemies. When the fierce struggle of this war will have reached a decision every victorious warrior will joyfully and without delay return home to his wife and children, undisturbed by thoughts of the enemy he has killed either at close quarters or with weapons operating at a distance.

    It is worthy of note that the primitive races which still inhabit the earth and who are certainly closer to primitive man than we, act differently in this respect, or have so acted as long as they did not yet feel the influence of our civilization. The savage, such as the Australian, the Bushman, or the inhabitant of Terra del Fuego, is by no means a remorseless murderer; when he returns home as victor from the war path he is not allowed to enter his village or touch his wife until he has expiated his war murders through lengthy and often painful penances. The explanation for this is, of course, related to his superstition; the savage fears the avenging spirit of the slain. But the spirits of the fallen enemy are nothing but the expression of his evil conscience over his blood guilt; behind this superstition there lies concealed a bit of ethical delicacy of feeling which has been lost to us civilized beings.

    Pious souls, who would like to think us removed from contact with what is evil and mean, will surely not fail to draw satisfactory conclusions in regard to the strength of the ethical impulses which have been implanted in us from these early and forcible murder prohibitions. Unfortunately this argument proves even more for the opposite contention.

    Such a powerful inhibition can only be directed against an equally strong impulse. What no human being desires to do does not have to be forbidden, it is self-exclusive. The very emphasis of the commandment: Thou shalt not kill, makes it certain that we are descended from an endlessly long chain of generations of murderers, whose love of murder was in their blood as it is perhaps also in ours. The ethical strivings of mankind, with the strength and significance of which we need not quarrel, are an acquisition of the history of man; they have since become, though unfortunately in very variable quantities, the hereditary possessions of people of today.

    Let us now leave primitive man and turn to the unconscious in our psyche. Here we depend entirely upon psychoanalytic investigation, the only method which reaches such depths. The question is what is the attitude of our unconscious towards death. In answer we say that it is almost like that of primitive man. In this respect, as well as in many others, the man of prehistoric times lives on, unchanged, in our conscious.

    Our unconscious therefore does not believe in its own death; it acts as though it were immortal. What we call our unconscious, those deepest layers in our psyche which consist of impulses, recognizes no negative or any form of denial and resolves all contradictions, so that it does not acknowledge its own death, to which we can give only a negative content. The idea of death finds absolutely no acceptance in our impulses. This is perhaps the real secret of heroism. The rational basis of heroism is dependent upon the decision that one’s own life cannot be worth as much as certain abstract common ideals. But I believe that instinctive or impulsive heroism is much more frequently independent of such motivation and simply defies danger on the assurance which animated Hans, the stone-cutter, a character in Anzengruber, who always said to himself: Nothing can happen to me. Or that motivation only serves to clear away the hesitations which might restrain the corresponding heroic reaction in the unconscious. The fear of death, which controls us more frequently than we are aware, is comparatively secondary and is usually the outcome of the consciousness of guilt.

    On the other hand we recognize the death of strangers and of enemies and sentence them to it just as willingly and unhesitatingly as primitive man. Here there is indeed a distinction which becomes decisive in practice. Our unconscious does not carry out the killing, it only thinks and wishes it. But it would be wrong to underestimate the psychic reality so completely in comparison to the practical reality. It is really important and full of serious consequences.

    In our unconscious we daily and hourly do away with all those who stand in our way, all those who have insulted or harmed us. The expression: “The devil take him,” which so frequently crosses our lips in the form of an ill-humored jest, but by which we really intend to say, “Death take him,” is a serious and forceful death wish in our unconscious. Indeed our unconscious murders even for trifles; like the old Athenian law of Draco, it knows no other punishment for crime than death, and this not without a certain consistency, for every injury done to our all-mighty and self-glorifying self is at bottom a crimen laesae majestatis.

    Thus, if we are to be judged by our unconscious wishes, we ourselves are nothing but a band of murderers, just like primitive man. It is lucky that all wishes do not possess the power which people of primitive times attributed to them. For in the cross fire of mutual maledictions mankind would have perished long ago, not excepting the best and wisest of men as well as the most beautiful and charming women.

    As a rule the layman refuses to believe these theories of psychoanalysis. They are rejected as calumnies which can be ignored in the face of the assurances of consciousness, while the few signs through which the unconscious betrays itself to consciousness are cleverly overlooked. It is therefore in place here to point out that many thinkers who could not possibly have been influenced by psychoanalysis have very clearly accused our silent thought of a readiness to ignore the murder prohibition in order to clear away what stands in our path. Instead of quoting many examples I have chosen one which is very famous. In his novel, Père Goriot, Balzac refers to a place in the works of J. J. Rousseau where this author asks the reader what he would do if, without leaving Paris and, of course, without being discovered, he could kill an old mandarin in Peking, with great profit to himself, by a mere act of the will. He makes it possible for us to guess that he does not consider the life of this dignitary very secure. “To kill your mandarin” has become proverbial for this secret readiness to kill, even on the part of people of today.

    There are also a number of cynical jokes and anecdotes which bear witness to the same effect, such as the remark attributed to the husband: “If one of us dies I shall move to Paris.” Such cynical jokes would not be possible if they did not have an unavowed truth to reveal which we cannot admit when it is baldly and seriously stated. It is well known that one may even speak the truth in jest.

    A case arises for our consciousness, just as it did for primitive man, in which the two opposite attitudes towards death, one of which acknowledges it as the destroyer of life, while the other denies the reality of death, clash and come into conflict. The case is identical for both, it consists of the death of one of our loved ones, of a parent or a partner in wedlock, of a brother or a sister, of a child or a friend. These persons we love are on the one hand a part of our inner possessions and a constituent of our own selves, but on the other hand they are also in part strangers and even enemies. Except in a few instances, even the tenderest and closest love relations also contain a bit of hostility which can rouse an unconscious death wish. But at the present day this ambivalent conflict no longer results in the development of ethics and soul theories, but in neuroses which also gives us a profound insight into the normal psychic life. Doctors who practice psychoanalysis have frequently had to deal with the symptom of over tender care for the welfare of relatives or with wholly unfounded self reproaches after the death of a beloved person. The study of these cases has left them in no doubt as to the significance of unconscious death wishes.

    The layman feels an extraordinary horror at the possibility of such an emotion and takes his aversion to it as a legitimate ground for disbelief in the assertions of psychoanalysis. I think he is wrong there. No debasing of our love life is intended and none such has resulted. It is indeed foreign to our comprehension as well as to our feelings to unite love and hate in this manner, but in so far as nature employs these contrasts she brings it about that love is always kept alive and fresh in order to safeguard it against the hate that is lurking behind it. It may be said that we owe the most beautiful unfolding of our love life to the reaction against this hostile impulse which we feel in our hearts.

    Let us sum up what we have said. Our unconscious is just as inaccessible to the conception of our own death, just as much inclined to kill the stranger, and just as divided, or ambivalent towards the persons we love as was primitive man. But how far we are removed from this primitive state in our conventionally civilized attitude towards death!

    It is easy to see how war enters into this disunity. War strips off the later deposits of civilization and allows the primitive man in us to reappear. It forces us again to be heroes who cannot believe in their own death, it stamps all strangers as enemies whose death we ought to cause or wish; it counsels us to rise above the death of those whom we love. But war cannot be abolished; as long as the conditions of existence among races are so varied and the repulsions between them are so vehement, there will have to be wars. The question then arises whether we shall be the ones to yield and adapt ourselves to it. Shall we not admit that in our civilized attitude towards death we have again lived psychologically beyond our means? Shall we not turn around and avow the truth? Were it not better to give death the place to which it is entitled both in reality and in our thoughts and to reveal a little more of our unconscious attitude towards death which up to now we have so carefully suppressed? This may not appear a very high achievement and in some respects rather a step backwards, a kind of regression, but at least it has the advantage of taking the truth into account a little more and of making life more bearable again. To bear life remains, after all, the first duty of the living. The illusion becomes worthless if it disturbs us in this.

    We remember the old saying:

  • Si vis pacem, para bellum.
  • If you wish peace, prepare for war.
  • The times call for a paraphrase:
  • Si vis vitam, para mortem.
  • If you wish life, prepare for death.