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P is for Pacifism

December, 2014
By Anthony Marshall

I am highly delighted with my 8-volume Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Collier-Macmillan, New York 1967) which, for fifteen euros (about eighteen U.S. dollars) I bought at a market stall in Freiburg some months ago, and which, with aching arms, I lugged back home. Yes, this encyclopedia is now nearly fifty years out of date, but who cares? Plato, Kant, Nietzsche – their ideas surely don't have a use-by date.  All the big names, and all the big ideas, seem to be here: with useful biographies and summaries. You want a quick overview of 'Nonsense', or 'Epistemology' or a potted life of Heidegger? Here it is. Not always short, and not always simple.  As Albert Einstein said: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, and no simpler" and it is, simply, the case that a lot of things in philosophy, even when made as simple as possible, remain highly complicated. To me, at least.

I pick out the volume marked "Logic to Psychologism". Psychologism? What the heck is that? But let's not get side-tracked. P for Pacifism is what I'm looking for.  And here we are, in the Ps. Working backwards: Psychologism (aha!), Plotinus, Probability, Popular arguments for the existence of God, Pope, Alexander (really?), Pleasure, Plato (of course), Perception, Parmenides, Pantheism and Paine, Thomas. And that's it. Paine, Thomas (1737-1809) "author, deist, and American revolutionary leader " heads the Ps.  Pacifism gets no separate entry, in this huge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. How can this be? Is not pacifism an important, highly-debatable philosophical and ethical, as well as political, position?

I am writing this in December, 2014. The year is significant. One hundred years ago the First World War began: the Great War, the war to end all wars, the war which left Europe awash with the blood of millions of victims. And this year, one hundred years later, Europe is again perched precariously: Russia has invaded the Ukraine, has occupied and annexed the Crimea and is supporting pro-Russian rebel separatists in East Ukraine. The Ukraine, NATO and the European Union have condemned these actions and have denounced Russia's leader Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, on NATO's south-eastern flank, on the Turkish-Syrian border, the forces of the Islamic State are fighting a Jihad, a Holy War, to take control of northern Syria and impose the Caliphate there, and elsewhere. NATO is fighting them from the air. The new Pope, Francis, has unequivocally denounced these IS forces as evil and has declared the war against them to be a just war.

The month too is significant. It's December, the month of Advent and Christmas. Freiburg is a-sparkle with festive lights, the Christmas Market is fragrant with the aromas of Gluhwein and cinnamon cakes and waffles and gingerbread. Christmas carols are in the air, including one which tells of the angel Gabriel's message to mankind: "For behold,I bring you tidings of great joy: peace and goodwill to all men." The birth of Jesus Christ, announced by Gabriel, would mark a new age, a new order, in which peace and love would be guiding principles. Jesus's teaching was unequivocal; love your enemy; when you are attacked, turn the other cheek; do not repay evil with evil; blessed are the peacemakers. Love your enemy? Weird stuff! It's no great wonder that this uncomfortable message was watered down, once Christianity became the official religion of the militaristic Roman Empire. It's no great wonder either that St. Augustine of Hippo's doctrine of the 'just war' which, in certain circumstances, allows Christians to take up arms with a clear conscience was eagerly adopted as official policy. But Jesus Christ's original teachings, as transmitted in the Gospels, are the clearest, and purest, and most idealistic, statement of pacifist philosophy it is possible to imagine.

As I browse through my "Logic to Psychologism" volume, I see that 'Loyalty' scores a separate entry:

Loyalty as a moral rather than a political concept, has received scant attention in philosophical literature. In fact, at the present time, it seems banished from respectable ethical discussions, owing, no doubt, to its historical association with an obsolete metaphysics (idealism) and with such odious political movements as the extreme nationalism of Nazism. However, the supposed implications suggested by these disreputable associations are ill-founded. On the contrary, loyalty is an essential ingredient in any civilized and humane system of morals.

I would suggest that pacifism too is "an essential ingredient in any civilized and humane system of morals." But pacifism too seems to have received "scant attention" and, at least in this encyclopedia, to have been "banished from respectable ethical discussions". Is pacifism tainted by its association with odious movements – Christianity, Quakerism, civil disobedience, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Peace Pledge Union, perhaps? By the extremism of such obsolete idealists as Jesus Christ, the Amish, Mohamas Gandhi, Bertrand Russell, John Lennon, Nelson Mandela? Is pacifism just a fad, a fashion, which at present is 'out', and may yet come back 'in'?  Is it the forever-discredited, impossible pipe-dream of San Francisco hippies and bleeding-heart idealists, who preach "Love, not War"? Can pacifists ever be taken seriously? Is pacifism a tenable ethical postion?  I really want to know. At the very least, I really want to know what the great philosophers and theologians can tell me about it, and others too who have pondered the subject and have thought deeply about it in its ethical and historical contexts, I don't expect to turn to an Encyclopedia of Philosophy, look under P for Pacifism, and find a blank.

I want to know more about pacifism because, paradoxically – or perhaps not - I'm fascinated by war. And in particular by the First World War. The shadow of the Great War has hung over me throughout my life, as I am sure it has over many other men of my generation. Our grandfathers – many of them – were directly involved in the war: the grief and the pointlessness and the pity of that war was made explicit to us as schoolboys in the poetry of Wilfrid Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden and many others. While the Second World War made some sort of sense, as a 'just' war, the First World War simply did not. Millions of men were slaughtered – for what?

To find out, I have read many books, I have studied paintings and photographs, I have watched films and documentaries – all recording the horrors and the utter futility of this war. I have read the great novels written by those who were there: All Quiet On the Western Front, Under Fire, Testament of Youth, Goodbye to All That, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, The Middle Parts of Fortune. This last book written by an Australian, Frederic Manning, who served in the British Army, deserves to be better known. No other book portrays better the torment in a sensitive soul of waiting to go into action. Generals Die in Bed by a Canadian, Charles Yale Harrison is another masterpiece from this war, even less well-known. One shocking episode is the shooting of enemy soldiers who have surrendered. "I see the clasped hands lifted over the lip of the shell-hole as we fired into it – clasped hands silently asking for pity......". These were German hands silently asking for pity and the men doing the shooting were Canadian. In war, 'good' soldiers do bad things too. Often under orders to do so.  And this is a part of the horror of war. Evil is not all on one side. Perfectly decent people like you, and like me, are perfectly capable in certain circumstances of carrying out war crimes like this one.

The questions I have often asked myself are, I suspect, what many men of my generation have asked themselves. Had I been a young man in England (or Scotland) in August 1914, would I have enlisted in the army? Willingly or – after conscription became law – unwillingly? And if I had, how would I have borne the horror and the terror of it in the trenches in France: the bombardments, the bloodshed, the squalor, the corpses, the rats?  Would I have been a coward or a hero?  Would I have enjoyed killing, or trying to kill, people?  Could I have borne the pain of being wounded or amputated or disfigured or gassed?  Or the psychological damage?  Would I have obeyed orders, with which I disagreed?  Would I have given orders with which I disagreed?  Would I have played football on Christmas Day with my German enemies?  Would I have forbidden my men to do so?  Would I have shot enemy soldiers who had surrendered, whose clasped hands silently asked for pity?

I cannot know the answers to these questions. All I can do is try to imagine, to empathise with those men for whom these questions were not hypothetical, but real. Mostly I wonder if, in 1914, I would have declared myself a pacifist, a Conscientious Objector. Would I have had the conviction and the courage to stand up and say: "No, I am not going to enlist. I am not going to join the army and learn how to murder people. I have no wish to murder anybody, nor have I any wish to be murdered."

Relatively few men in Britain did have the conviction to stand up and say no. It is estimated that during the First World War only about 6,000 Britons were registered as Conscientious Objectors. Notable literary figures amongst these included Lytton Strachey and George Bernard Shaw. Lady Ottoline Morrell provided a refuge for them and other literary pacifists at her home, Garsington Manor, in Oxfordshire. It is strange that, as far as I know, there is no great English novel from this period, and from this milieu, which takes pacifism as its topic.

But Owen Wingrave, the novella by Henry James, does. Written in 1892, it is the story of the last seven days in the life of a young man who defies his family's militaristic traditions and declares himself to be, in effect, a conscientious objector. Benjamin Britten, the English composer, turned Owen Wingrave, into a powerful opera, which has been revived this year in London and Edinburgh. "At one point in the opera Owen's family express their reaction at his decision not to fight by repeatedly screaming the line 'How dare you?' at him with great vehemence, delivering the line again and again, with the full orchestra backing them up in every vitriolic note." (Neil Bartlett, The Guardian 7 June 2014). The pacifist theme was close to Britten's heart. As a young man he was an active member of the Peace Pledge Union, and he remained a life-long pacifist. In 1939 he avoided military service by leaving England to go and live in the U.S.A. He returned to England in 1942, but still refused to enlist. In Owen Wingrave, Owen is haunted "by the knowledge that, in putting on uniform, he himself would become the perpetrator of violence.....Owen's pacifism comes from the terror of knowing that he could so easily become one of war's perpetrators." It is mildly ironic that, at the outbreak of the First World War, Henry James, in a burst of pro-English sympathy, decided to become a British citizen.

It is striking to read how, on the other side, Sigmund Freud, a subject of Emperor Franz Joseph, reacted with excitement and elation to Austria-Hungary's declaration of war on Serbia, on 28 July 1914. He was living in Vienna then and was aged fifty-eight. "For the first time in thirty years I feel myself to be an Austrian, and feel like giving this not very hopeful empire another chance. All my libido is dedicated to Austria." Libido? Yes, of course, this is Freud. For Freud, the two dominant instinctive impulses in life are Eros and Thanatos, love and death, the drive towards creation or destruction, action or extinction: in war, even in the prospect of war, these forces combine to create an explosion of excitement. This 'pleasure in excitement' expressed by the mass of British people at the outbreak of war in 1914 was something philosopher Bertrand Russell found perplexing, and disturbing. For Freud, it was completely normal, even predictable. The Thanatos principle and its 'destructive and perverse impulses' are simply embedded in the psyche of humanity. In all of us: in him, in you, in me.

Bertrand Russell is probably the best-known philosopher (and English Lord) who embraced pacifism, both in theory and in practise. My Encyclopedia of Philosophy includes this information: "Russell has been twice jailed – in 1918 for six months on a count of an allegedly libelous article in a pacifist journal, and in 1961, at the age of 89, in connection with his campaign for nuclear disarmament." ( I remember this second incident very well, having seen the BBC television coverage of the CND demonstration in Trafalgar Square, at which Bertrand Russell led the sit-down protest. And I still recall the start of a satirical ditty which some people enjoyed singing at the time: "There was Bert, Bert, sitting in the dirt, in the Square, in the Square...!")

The article on Russell goes on to discuss his pacifism, which grew out of his distaste for the violence of British imperialism, especially during the Boer War (1901), and which was clearly developed by the time of the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 :

I had watched with growing anxiety the policies of the European Great Powers in the years before 1914, and was quite unable to accept the superficial melodramatic explanations of the catastrophe which were promulgated by all the belligerent governments. The attitude of ordinary men and women amazed me, particularly the fact that they found a kind of pleasure in the excitement.

Unlike other pacifists, who believed that wars were the work of devious tyrants who forced them on reluctant populations, Russell believed "that the majority of human beings in our culture were filled with destructive and perverse impulses." In his books published, and his lectures delivered, during the Great War, Russell argued that the slaughter of millions of men was not justified by any of the possible gains of a defeat of the Central Powers.

This was hardly the sort of thing that patriotic Englishmen wanted to read or hear:

Meetings addressed by Russell were broken up by violent mobs without any police interference. Eventually he was prosecuted by the government. For writing a pamphlet on the case of a conscientious objector he was fined 100 pounds. When he would not pay, the government sold parts of his library, including rare books on mathematics which he was never able to recover.

In the last year of the war Russell was imprisoned for six months for writing a libelous remark about the U.S. Army in The Tribunal, a weekly pacifist magazine: "unless peace comes soon....the American garrison, which will by that time be occupying England and France.....will no doubt be capable of intimidating strikers, an occupation to which the American army is accustomed when at home." How dare he impugn the honor of our American allies! At last, the government was able to nail him, pretty much on a technicality.

Russell's pacifism was, however, nuanced. He never maintained that the use of force is always wrong and that war can never be justified. On the contrary, he believed that the intervention of the Allies against Hitler in the Second World War was entirely justified, on the grounds that the defeat of the Nazis was essential if human life was to remain tolerable. He believed that the First World War, on the other hand, was not worth fighting: the end could not possibly justify the means, the murderous destruction of millions of people. Is it then possible to call Russell a pacifist?  Is not 'pacifist' an absolute term, like 'vegan' or 'pregnant' or 'dead'? Or may a pacifist be in favor of 'good' wars and 'just' wars but against 'bad' wars? By this measure are we not all 'pacifists'?

In 1933, a book was published with the title Why War? It is a collection of letters between Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, in which they discuss two fundamental questions: Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war? Is it possible to control mankind's mental evolution so as to make him proof against the psychosis of hate and destructiveness?  The answer is apparently yes, but it is a heavily qualified yes: yes, if men can be taught to have a feeling of community, identification and empathy with their fellow men.  "All that produces ties of sentiment between man and man must serve as war's antidote." "Whatever works for cultural development is working also against war."  But Freud writes too: "Paradoxical as it sounds, we must admit that warfare might well serve to pave the way to that unbroken peace we so desire, for it is war that brings vast empires into being, within whose frontiers all war is proscribed by a strong central power." It is ironic that this booklet appeared in 1933, when Freud's creation, psychoanalysis, was officially banned in Germany by the Nazi government, a regime which indeed had the goal of bringing a vast empire into being. Peace at any price? The Roman historian Tacitus wrote about another vast empire, the one which created the 'Pax Romana': "Faciunt solitudinem, pacem appellant." "They create a wilderness and call it peace."  If this is peace, is it a sort of peace worth having?

Karl von Clausewitz famously contended that "War is politics carried on by other means."  In his brillant book The Sleepwalkers. How Europe Went to War in 1914 (Penguin 2012) Christopher Clark gives us remarkable insights into the politics of the time: particularly into the personalities of the leading politicians, their prejudices, their weaknesses, their relationships, their ambitions, their limitations, their powers. The First World War was indeed in some sense simply a continuation of the clash of politics and political wills in Europe. It could have been otherwise, but only if the personalities involved had been different. And – perhaps more importantly – if the culture of Europe had been different.

The culture of Europe is certainly different now. Peace has had a relatively good run in Europe in the past seventy years or so. Apart from atrocities in Northern Ireland and the Balkans, this continent has in this time been largely free from war: something achieved partly by a 'balance of terror' and by a strategy which largely follows the ancient wisdom of "If you want peace, prepare for war." Disarmament has never been a serious proposition. But dialogue, co-operation and inclusiveness have been important factors in Europe's recent peaceful existence: the formation and growth of the European Union being an expression of a new European order. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Empire, and the liberation of Eastern Europe, were remarkable events: almost no blood was shed, as a great tyranny was overthrown by the will of the people. Europe has shown that great things can be achieved, without the firing of guns and the dropping of bombs.

John Lennon, a passionate pacifist, maintained that love was the answer. "And how would love have stopped Hitler as his tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia and Poland?" he was asked in a radio interview. "If Hitler had been showered with love as a child," he replied, "such a thing would never have happened."  A cute answer which neatly dodges reality.  It is the answer of someone who, because he was not there, has the luxury of keeping his conscience and his ideals pure and polished. It's rather easy to leave the dirty work to others, those who are actually doing the policing, the enforcing, the fighting, as they protect your rights and your freedom to express your fine ideals. What do you actually do when the enemy soldier is pointing a gun at your mother/sister/daughter?  Are you going to use your gun? Are you prepared to die, or see them die for the sake of your pacifist principles?  Who can say for sure? But I like to keep in mind the words of Henry Thoreau: "The question is not about the weapon, but the spirit in which you use it."

When interviewed near the end of his long life (he died aged 97) Bertrand Russell exclaimed with passion: "Life is horrible, horrible, horrible!" The question is: Then what? Do we try to make life less horrible, by sticking to our ideals, by trying to eradicate war from the world completely? The pacifist, the idealist, dreams of a world in which the lion will lie down with the lamb. The realist – cynically – believes that the lion will lie down with the lamb only when the lamb is inside the lion's stomach. Who is right? Is there another way? Can we do something else? Something more manageable? Should we perhaps look at ourselves and try to eradicate the war impulse, or at least tame the lion, in our own being? Joseph Campbell wrote: "When we talk about settling the world's problems, we're barking up the wrong tree. The world is perfect. It's a mess. It's always been a mess. We're not going to change it. Our job is to straighten out our own lives."  The world is perfect?  Surely he means the world is not perfect. But he doesn't.  His is an almost Buddhist way of looking at the world: All life is suffering. That's 'perfectly' normal.  Participate with joy in the sorrows of the world.  By treading the Middle Way of right thought and right action, you will alleviate your own suffering and that of others. This is a  formula which is very alien to those of us who have been brought up in the traditions of Christianity, the Enlightenment and ideas of progress, social justice and the perfectibilty of mankind.  'The world is perfect, it is a mess.'  This is a classic Buddhist paradox, a mystery to meditate, like perhaps the sound of one hand clapping. 

In this debate, there are no simple answers. But Christmas is perhaps a good time to stop for a moment and ponder the questions. With or without the help of an Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Anthony Marshall, is a retired secondhand bookseller now living in Germany. He is a member of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Antiquarian Booksellers, a past member of the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association in England, where for ten years he ran the County Bookshop in Oakham, Rutland, and former owner of Alice's Bookshop in Melbourne, Australia.  Mr. Marshall has contributed many articles to book magazines, all of which with the exception of “Book Source Magazine” are now defunct. Some of these articles reappear in his two books: “Trafficking in Old Books” (Lost Domain, Melbourne 1998) and "Fossicking for Old Books” (Bread Street Press, Melbourne 2004).