Wednesday, July 06, 2005


Pick your poison!

[Open quote] To summarize, then: There has been from earliest times the idea that war (of one kind or another) is not only inevitable and good but also the normal and most exhilarating mode of social action of civilized mankind, the waging of war being the normal delight, as well as duty, of kings. A monarch neither engaged in nor preparing to be engaged in war would be, according to this way of thinking, a fool: a “paper tiger.

But, on the other hand, in the annals of world history accounts are to be found also of a diametrically opposite point of view to this, where the aim is to become quit of war and strife altogether in a state of perpetual peace. However, the usual corollary of this aspiration is that, since strife and pain are intrinsic to temporal existence, life itself, as we know it, is to be negated. Examples of this negativism are seen most strikingly in India, in Jainism and early (Hinayana) Buddhism, but have appeared also in the West, as in certain early Christian movements, and in twelfth-century France among the Albigenses.

Reviewing the mythologies of war, we have found in both the Torah and Koran a belief that God, the creator and sole governor of the universe, was absolutely and always on the side of a certain chosen community, and that its wars, consequently, were Holy Wars, waged in the name and interest of God’s will. A not very different notion inspired the “Flowery Wars” of the Aztecs for the capture of sacrifices to keep the sun in motion. In the Iliad, on the other hand, the sympathies of the Olympians are on both sides of the combat, the Trojan War itself being interpreted not in cosmic but in earthly, human terms: it was a war for the recovery of a stolen wife. And the noble ideal of the human warrior-hero was there expressed in the character and words not of a Greek, but of a Trojan hero, Hector. I see here an evident contrast to the spirit of the two Semitic war mythologies, and an affinity, on the other hand, to the Indian Mahabharata. The forthright resolution of Hector, going into combat in fulfillment of his clear duty to his family and city, and the “self-control” (the yoga) required of Arjuna in the Gita, in fulfillment of the duties of his caste, are of essentially the same order. Moreover, in the Indian as in the Greek epic, there is equal honor and respect bestowed on the combatants of both sides.

But now, and finally, we have discovered also in our survey a third point of view in relation to the ideals and aims of war and peace, neither affirming nor denying war as life, and life as war, but aspiring to a time when wars should cease. In the Persian Zoroastrian eschatological myth, which appears to have been the first in which such a prospect was seriously envisioned, the day of the great transformation was to be in the nature of a cosmic, crisis, when the laws of nature would cease to operate and an eviternity of no time, no change, no life as we know life then come into being. Ironically, there would be wars enough during the centuries of struggle just antecedent to this general transfiguration. Within the Persian Empire itself, however, there was to flourish and increase, meanwhile, a prefigurative reign of relative peace—enforced by imperial spies, informants, and police; and with the expansion of this peaceful empire, the bounds of the reign of temporal peace also would expand—until. . . .

But we have heard the likes of all this more recently and close at hand. The idea, as we have seen, became assimilated to the Biblical image of Israel; and in the period of the Dead Sea Scrolls passed on into apocalyptic Christianity (see Mark 13:3—37). It is the idea essentially of the dar al-Islam and dar al-harb of the Arabs. And we have it again in the peace of Moscow—spies, informers, police crackdowns, and all.

As far as I know, there is, in addition to these, only one more thought about war and peace to he found among the great traditions, and that is the one first announced by the eminent seventeenth-century Dutch legal philosopher Grotius, in 1625, in his epochal treatise on The Rights of War and Peace. Here, for the first time in the history of mankind, the proposal is offered of a law of nations based on ethical, not jungle principles. In India the governing law of international relations has for centuries been known as the matsya nyaya, “law of the fish,” which is, to wit, that the big ones eat the little ones and the little ones have to be smart. War is the natural duty of princes, and periods of peace are merely interludes, like periods of rest between boxing rounds. Whereas war in Grotius’s view is a breach of the proper civilized norm, which is peace; and its aim should be to produce peace, a peace not enforced by might of arms, but of rational mutual interest. This, in turn, was the ideal that Woodrow Wilson represented when he spoke, at the end of the First World War, of “peace without victory.” And we have the ideal symbolized also in the figure of our American eagle, which is pictured with a cluster of arrows in the talons of its left foot, an olive branch in its right, and its head—in the spirit of Grotius— turned rightward, facing the olive branch. Let us hope, however, in the name of peace, that he keeps those arrowheads over there sharp until neither asceticism nor the power of arms, but an understanding of mutual advantage, will have become for all mankind the guarantee, at long last, of a knowledge of the reign of peace. [Close quote]

All the above is from MYTHS TO LIVE BY by Joseph Campbell

"There is no such thing as fun for the whole family." —Jerry Seinfeld

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