Sunday, March 22, 2015

Getting to pacifism

War turns life into death. Immanuel Kant wrote 220 years ago:

It follows that a war of extermination, in which the destruction of both parties and of all justice can result, would permit perpetual peace only in the vast burial ground of the human race.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said that violence moves us backward from our intended direction:

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.

War is wasteful and makes less sense every day in our hyperconnected society. Umberto Eco, writing 24 years ago of "instant information":

There is a more radical way of thinking about war: in merely formal terms, in terms of internal consistency, by reflecting on its conditions of possibility – the conclusion being that you cannot make war because of the existence of a society based on instant information, rapid transport, and continuous intercontinental migration, allied to the nature of the new technologies of war, has made war impossible and irrational. War is in contradiction with the very reasons for which it is waged. * * * It is an intellectual duty to proclaim the inconceivability of war. Even if there were no alternative solutions. * * * War cannot be justified, because – in terms of the rights of the species – it is worse than a crime. It is a waste.

Pragmatically, people often feel forced into war. Jonathan Glover, writing about genocide:

The moral debate about the use of the [atomic] bombs is about two central issues. Could the war have been stopped by other means? And, if there were no alternative ways of stopping the war, would this justify dropping these bombs?

The people involved in fighting wars are generally doing so for a reason. They are not only commanded to fight; they believe in some underlying myth that gives them a reason to fight. Yuval Noah Harari observes:

However, an imagined order cannot be sustained by violence alone. It requires some true believers as well. ... A single priest often does the work of a hundred soldiers far more cheaply and effectively. Moreover, no matter how efficient bayonets are, somebody must wield them. Why should the soldiers, jailors, judges and police maintain an imagined order in which they do not believe? Of all human collective activities, the one most difficult to organise is violence. To say that a social order is maintained by military force immediately raises the question: what maintains the military order? It is impossible to organise an army solely by coercion. At least some of the commanders and soldiers must truly believe in something, be it God, honour, motherland, manhood or money.

How, then, does one change the underlying beliefs and still be able to negotiate the hard facts driving the originally perceived need for violence to arrive at a functional pacifism? Thomas Berry invokes a "cosmology of peace," which is a structure for myth-making, and offers a lens through which to see that there can be "violent aspects" and a "state of tension" in arriving at "creative resolution" of problems, yet these can be overall folded into the cosmology of peace.

My proposal is that the cosmology of peace is presently the basic issue. The human must be seen in its cosmological role just as the cosmos needs to be seen in its human manifestation. This cosmological context has never been more clear than it is now, when everything depends on a creative resolution of our present antagonisms. I refer to a creative resolution of antagonism rather than to peace in deference to the violent aspects of the cosmological process. Phenomenal existence itself seems to be a violent mode of being. Also, there is a general feeling of fullness bordering on decay that is easily associated with peace. Neither violence nor peace in this sense is in accord with the creative transformations through which the more splendid achievements of the universe have taken place. As the distinguished anthropologist A.I. Kroeber once indicated: The ideal situation for any individual or any culture is not exactly "bovine placidity." It is, rather, "the highest state of tension that the organism can bear creatively."


Immanuel Kant. Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch, 1795. Section 1, No. 6.
Martin Luther King Jr., quoted in The New York Times, quoted in The Week, March 27, 2015, p. 17.
Umberto Eco, "Reflections on War" (1991). In Five Moral Pieces, translated by Alastair McEwen. Harcourt, Inc: 2002. pp 6, 16-7.
Jonathan Glover. Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century. Yale University Press, 2001 (originally 1999). p 105.
Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. (2014) Tantor Audio, 2015.
Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988. p 219

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