Reflections On War And Death; Our Attitude Towards Death: Paragraphs 4 through 12

Once upon a time, I placed here in the main body of an article, a large section of a public domain book.  I did that because I did not have enough time, and frankly the wherewithal to write a piece of my own that particular night.

As I recall that night I picked a particular section of book II of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.

Well, today things are kind of the same.  It is nearly time for me to go to bed, I have work tomorrow, and I haven’t written a damn thing.  Well I have, I wrote 1500 more words on my story of the month, but nothing here.  So, it being after 10 pm, and me getting ready to go to bed, and not wanting to leave this space entirely blank tonight, I’m going to that well again.

So without further adieu, I give you a portion of Sigmund Freud’s reflections on War and Death, copy and pasted from


Reflections On War And Death; Our Attitude Towards Death: Paragraphs 4 through 12

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 tions 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 deity.


That’s it from here, America.  G’night.


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