The Close Relationship Between Einstein and Freud, Relatively Speaking

Correspondence between the two Jewish giants of the 20th century shows that although they didn’t understand each other’s professions, they agreed on at least one thing – the qualities of Moses.

David Bargal and Ofer Ashkenazi
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Sigmund Freud.
Sigmund Freud.Credit: AP
David Bargal and Ofer Ashkenazi

May 6 is the 160th anniversary of the birth of Sigmund Freud. In the weeks before his 80th birthday in May 1936, he complained to his faithful biographer, Ernest Jones, that he didn’t consider it a cause for celebration. But in the depth of his heart, he greatly enjoyed the international recognition he had won and the expressions of admiration that were sent by the major cultural heroes of the age.

Prominent among those congratulating him were writers Thomas Mann, Romain Rolland, H.G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, Stefan Zweig and another 191 authors and artists. Albert Einstein also wrote him, and Freud responded with a detailed reply full of gentle yet sharp humor. The letter exchanges were part of the long-running correspondence between these two giants of science and culture, who left their mark on the experience and consciousness of the 20th century and beyond.

It’s a unique correspondence, based on deep mutual respect on the one hand, and, on the other, a complete lack of understanding of the field of research of the other (and in the case of Einstein, also casting doubt on the scientific value of his colleague). This combination led to the two discussing the principles that shaped their worldviews, and their sense of identity and identification.

Freud wrote his nephew in England in 1926: “The Jews all over the world boast of my name, pairing me with Einstein.” And at the cornerstone-laying ceremony at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1925, the renowned Lord Balfour mentioned Freud, calling him one of three Jews who had most influenced modern philosophy and culture. The others he cited were Einstein and French philosopher Henri Bergson.

In 1928, Einstein – a Nobel laureate himself – refused to endorse Freud’s candidacy for the Nobel Prize. Einstein contended, according to biographer Peter Gay, “that he could not offer any dependable opinion on the truth of Freud’s teaching,” adding that “it seemed doubtful to him that a psychologist like Freud should really be eligible for the Nobel Prize in Medicine, ‘which is, I suppose, the only one that could be considered.’”

In the wake of a request from League of Nations representatives, Einstein turned to Freud in July 1932, initiating an exchange of letters about the possibility of understanding the reasons for modern war, and perhaps even to prevent the outbreak of another war in Europe.

In the end of his appeal to Freud, Einstein wrote, “I know that in your writings we may find answers, explicit or implied, to all the issues of this urgent and absorbing problem. But it would be of the greatest service to us all were you to present the problem of world peace in the light of your most recent discoveries, for such a presentation well might blaze the trail for new and fruitful modes of action.”

In the end, despite their mutual loathing for mass violence, Einstein and Freud’s approaches to war were completely different. While Freud connected violence to basic psychological urges within people, Einstein focused on political aspects of the sources of violence. Basing world order on nation-states with unlimited sovereignty, he believed, would necessarily lead to denying human rights within the state and to endless international tensions.

‘Beautiful conception’

The disagreement around the issue of the reasons for war didn’t put an end to the two men’s close relations. In his letter on the occasion of Freud’s 80th birthday, Einstein wrote that no doubt Freud had not made it any easier for the skeptical layman to independently judge his discoveries. “Until recently I could only apprehend the speculative power of your train of thought without being in a position to form a definite opinion about the amount of truth it contains,” wrote Einstein. “Not long ago, I had the opportunity of hearing about a few instances which in my judgment exclude any other interpretation than that provided by the theory of repression. I was delighted to come across them; since it is always delightful when a great and beautiful conception proves to be consistent with reality.”

In a postscript, Einstein implored Freud not to answer his letter, since the very enjoyment of sending the congratulations was his reward. Nevertheless, Freud responded on May 3, 1936, writing: “You struggle in vain against my answering your charming letter. I really must tell you how delighted I am to learn of the change in your judgment, or at least a move in that direction. Of course I always knew that you admired me only ‘out of politeness,’ and that you are convinced by very few of my assertions. But I have often asked myself what indeed there is to admire about them if they are not true – i.e., if they do not contain a high degree of truth. Incidentally, don’t you think I should have been far better treated if my doctrines had incorporated a greater percentage of error and folly?

“You are so much younger than I: and I may hope that by the time you have reached my age you will have become a disciple of mine,” Freud continued. “Since I shall not be here to learn of this, I am now anticipating the satisfaction.”

Albert Einstein in 1947.Credit: Orren Jack Turner, Library of Congress

In May 1939, sick and persecuted by the Nazis, Freud was close to leaving Vienna for London. Einstein wrote him at the time, thanking him for sending him a copy of his latest book, “Moses and Monotheism.” Freud needed every show of support in wake of the heretical ideas he had raised in his book, which claimed Moses was an Egyptian nobleman. However, alongside this idea – which annoyed many Jewish intellectuals – Freud presented a new message: Attributing a central place to Judaism in the development of Western cultural and ethics. According to Freud, Moses the leader represented the type of reciprocal relations that should be developed between leaders and their followers in a Western democratic society, which is rationalist in its orientation and aimed at developing adult individuals who possess an ethical, autonomous and internalized system of values.

Moses represented through his values the embodiment of the rational approach and self-control that underwent personal sublimation processes, Freud opined. Thanks to them, he was able to receive and articulate the Ten Commandments, the ethical codex that guides Western culture until today. The religion that Moses bequeathed was not fundamentalist, demanding of its believers a high level of personal responsibility, Freud believed.

It seems that Einstein, too, could also identify with an exemplary leader like Moses, who was presented as the preferred ideal in contrast to the leadership of Hitler and fascism. Strangely, these ideas are like an echo of what Einstein had written a decade earlier in his eulogy of Gustav Stresemann, the German politician who had helped establish and stabilize the Weimar Republic.

Einstein wrote in 1929 that Stresemann had characteristics found among preeminent leaders. He noted that Stresemann didn’t act as a representative of a specific caste, profession or state, and that he wasn’t at all like such types. Rather, stated Einstein, he acted as an intellectual and the bearer of an idea. Einstein wrote that Stresemann distinguished himself from standard politicians just as a genius is different from a professional.

The father of the theory of relativity and the father of the theory of emotional relationships saw eye to eye on this issue.

Prof. David Bargal is a professor emeritus of social work at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Dr. Ofer Ashkenazi is head of the Richard Koebner Minerva Center for German History at Hebrew University.

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