The Man Who First Flung a Word of Abuse at His Enemy Instead of a Spear Was the Founder of Civilization

Sigmund Freud? An English Writer? Walt Menninger? Joyce Brothers? Robert Byrne? Apocryphal?

spear10Dear Quote Investigator: The control and deflection of violent impulses is central to the development of fruitful social interactions. A cogent remark on this topic has been attributed to the acclaimed father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. Here are three versions:

1) The first human who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization.
2) The first man to hurl an insult rather than a spear was the founder of civilization.
3) The first human who hurled a curse instead of a weapon against his adversary was the founder of civilization.

I have not been able to find a precise citation. Would you please explore the provenance of this expression?

Quote Investigator: In 1893 Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer published an article titled “Ueber den psychischen Mechanismus hysterischer Phänomene” in a Vienna medical journal. The title could be rendered in English as “On the Psychical Mechanism of Hysterical Phenomena”. The following was the pertinent passage in German about the beginning of civilization. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Aber, wie ein englischer Autor geistreich bemerkte, derjenige, welcher dem Feinde statt des Pfeiles ein Schimpfwort entgegenschleuderte, war der Begründer der Civilisation, so ist das Wort der Ersatz für die That und unter Umständen der einzige Ersatz (Beichte).

A comprehensive twenty four volume work in English called “The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud” was released during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The third volume published in 1962 contained a translation by James Strachey of the 1893 passage above: 2

But, as an English writer has wittily remarked, the man who first flung a word of abuse at his enemy instead of a spear was the founder of civilization. Thus words are substitutes for deeds, and in some circumstances (e.g. in Confession) the only substitutes.

A comment in the “Standard Edition” stated that the medical journal article was based on a shorthand report of a lecture delivered by Freud together with revisions by Freud. Importantly, Freud ascribed the remark about civilization to an unnamed English writer. So, one may say Freud popularized the saying, but he did not originate it.

Translation is often a complex operation, and here the identity of the weapon was arguably ambiguous. The words “arrow”, “dart”, and “spear” were each worthy of consideration as possible translations for “Pfeil”.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Man Who First Flung a Word of Abuse at His Enemy Instead of a Spear Was the Founder of Civilization

Notes:

  1. Date: 1893 January 29, Journal: Wiener Medizinische Presse: Organ für Praktische Ärzte, Volume 34, Number 5, Article: Ueber den psychischen Mechanismus hysterischer Phänomene, Authors: Von Dr. Josef Breuer und Dr. Sigm. Freud in Wien, Start Column Number 165, Quote Column Number 166, Publisher: Urban & Schwarzenberg, Wien. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1962, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Translated from German under the General Editorship of James Strachey, In Collaboration with Anna Freud, Assisted by Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson, Volume 3 (1893-1899): Early Psycho-Analytic Publications, German article title: Ueber den Psychischen Mechanismus Hysterischer Phänomene, English article title: On the Psychical Mechanism of Hysterical Phenomena, Start Page 25, Quote Page 36, Published by Hogarth Press, London. (Verified on paper)