The outbreak of World War I was a traumatic and disillusioning event for many people in Europe, perhaps most of all for those who had committed themselves to a notion of progress and advancement in human affairs. The sheer scale of the destruction and death unleashed by the war, which "exceeded that of all other wars known to history," at the end of a century which had been largely seen as one of peace, progress and prosperity, was a profound shock - one from which, it could be argued, the nations of Europe never entirely recovered.
When the Austrian psycho-analyst Sigmund Freud sat down to write an article on the war in early 1915, it was this sense of disillusionment, of a loss of faith in progress, that was uppermost in his mind. The resulting essay, "Thoughts for the Times on War and Death," is a sombre meditation that represents the effort of a man who considered himself a member of a tolerant, civilized, peaceful, internationalist European civilization to understand the abrupt destruction of that civilization in a "vortex" of violence, hatred and destruction; it reflects the sense of powerlessness felt by an individual who is merely "a wheel in the gigantic machinery of war."
The essay is divided into two sections. The first, "The Disillusionment of War," reflects on the significance of the war for European civilization and on what it may reveal about the true nature of that civilization and of the people who comprise it - how could this catastrophe happen, and what does it say about the progress and civilization upon which the nations now swallowed up by war have prided themselves? The second, shorter, section, "Our Attitude Towards Death," asks troubling questions about what the war has done to the human view of death - in short, has it made death more acceptable, and made brutes of civilized people?
Underlying the whole of the essay are the paired concepts of progress and degeneration. At the beginning Freud reflects that as long as there are human beings there will be conflict, and that savage wars can be understood in the context of societies that are undeveloped and backward; but that it had been thought that the "advanced nations" had passed beyond the point at which all-out barbaric war between them was a possibility:
We were prepared to find that wars between the primitive and the civilized peoples, between those races whom the colour-line divides, nay, wars within and among the undeveloped nationalities of Europe or those whose culture has perished - that for a considerable period such wars would occupy mankind. But we permitted ourselves to have other hopes. We had expected the great ruling powers among the white nations upon whom leadership of the human species has fallen... peoples such as these we expected to succeed in discovering another way of settling misunderstandings and conflicts of interest.
The war had revealed this hope to be misplaced; not only has war broken out between the "ruling powers" of Britain, Germany, France and Freud's own homeland of Austria, but it is 'at least as cruel, as embittered, as implacable as any that has preceded it'. Was there, then, any real substance to the ideal of "progress" and the edifice of "civilization" in which Freud, like so many others, had put his faith? Is so-called "civilization" simply regressing to a barbarous past?
Freud seeks to understand what has happened by applying the model of human development he has theorized to account for the growth of the individual to society as a whole. For the human individual, this "developmental process" consists of eradicating "evil human tendencies, and, under the influence of education and a civilized environment, replacing them by good ones." If this process has indeed taken place for individuals and for society at large, Freud observes, "it is certainly astonishing that evil should show itself to have such power in those who have been thus nurtured." What the war has done, however, is to reveal conclusively that this developmental process can be reversed, and that there is no guarantee of an increasing level of civilization. "In reality," he writes, "there is no such thing as 'eradicating' evil tendencies." Human nature is, in its fundamentals, a matter of "elemental instincts" aimed at the "satisfaction of certain primal needs" and these instincts remain potent beneath the surface of civilization - indeed, they are the true essence of human nature. The war has stripped away that civilized surface and uncovered the basic, elemental characteristics of human nature. There was a tension, Freud argues, between this true human nature and what society demanded:
Civilized society, which exacts good conduct and does not trouble itself about the impulses underlying it, has thus won over to obedience a great many people who are not thereby following the dictates of their own natures.
The war, Freud argues, has resolved that tension, and cruelty, barbarism and destruction is the result. It has revealed that the "developmental process" of civilization is in many ways fragile and contingent, and can be reversed.
In the second section, "Our Attitude Towards Death," Freud explores the role of changing attitudes to death in the civilizing process, and concludes that the war has undermined that process by reacquainting people with death and with their primal acceptance of it, bringing human nature back to a more primitive state:
The first and most portentous prohibition of the awakening conscience was: Thou shalt not kill. It was born of the reaction against that hate-gratification which lurked behind the grief for the loved dead, and was gradually extended to unloved stranger and finally even to enemies. This final extension is no longer experienced by civilized man.
The coming of war has destroyed the social constructions human beings created to deal with their own mortality. Civilization involves a duality: on the surface, the conventions of civilized social existence, below the surface, the primal instincts of individual survival; and it is clear, Freud writes, what effect the war has had on this duality: "It strips us of the later accretions of civilization, and lays bare the primal man in each of us."
The Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) was, like Freud, a humanist with a strong commitment to an ideal of civilization. Like Freud, he found his commitment tested by the Great War (in which Spain was not directly involved, but which had an immense economic and political impact on that country) and by the crises and instability of the post-war world. A political republican and a social conservative, he watched the rise of political extremism, totalitarianism and authoritarian regimes in the inter-war years with deep concern. In 1929 he published The Revolt of the Masses, in which he synthesized his concerns at the nature of modern society with its mass culture, its violent oscillations between democracy and totalitarianism, and its lack of moral clarity or direction.
The Revolt of the Masses begins with the statement that the most important fact in the public life of contemporary Europe "is the accession of the masses to complete social power." Ortega y Gasset relates this development to the rise of what he calls "technicism," the industrial, technological, social and political developments of the nineteenth century, which he sees reaching a crescendo in the early years of the twentieth century in the tumult of revolution (in Russia, Portugal and Spain), in the Great War, and in the turmoil of mass politics, whether violent or outwardly peaceful in nature:
We are living, then, under the brutal empire of the masses... The element of terror in the destiny of our time is furnished by the overwhelming and violent moral upheaval of the masses; imposing, invincible, and treacherous, as is destiny in every case.
Ortega y Gasset identifies himself as believing in an "aristocratic" form of society, and sees the rise of "mass" as inevitably leading to mediocrity and the destruction of all the highest achievements of human potential. Furthermore, the society of post-war Europe is aware of this, if only subconsciously, "Hence the strange combination of a sense of power and a sense of insecurity which has taken up its abode in the soul of modern man."
There is a clear parallel here between Ortega y Gasset's insecure modern society and Freud's view of the fragility of the civilizing process. Both writers are concerned about the breaking forth of what lurks below the civilized outward appearances of the modern world, and both see a reversion to primitivism in modern man. The "mass-man," comments Ortega y Gasset, "believes that the civilization into which he was born and which he makes use of, is as spontaneous and self-producing as Nature, and ipso facto he is changed into primitive man." In past ages human societies constantly strived to master the world through the application of intelligence, strength, and technology; man's means always lagged behind his will, and this drove him onwards (these gendered terms…