(But not this particular war and peace!)
They say that women, upon falling pregnant, notice other pregnant women everywhere. In other words, once you've taken an interest in a certain topic, you wind up encountering it all the time. It's been like that for me this year with peace initiatives. Now that I've got somewhat involved with peace movements in New Zealand, I get invited to events, I meet peace activists, I keep getting recommended articles to read... suddenly it seems to me as if every second person is just as interested in the topic as I am. (Perhaps they always have been and I'm just a slow learner!) Truly though, we have an impressive number of groups promoting peace in the community. These include faith-based groups, such as Sokka Gakkai - an offshoot of Buddhism which emphasises human rights, sustainability and peace - and my own Anglican church which has turned its attention to the ongoing suffering in the Middle East. In addition there are research centres like Otago University's Peace and Conflict Studies, community organisations like Peace Movement Aotearoa and branches such as the United Nations Association of New Zealand. There are many calendar days given over to reflection on peace. I wrote a post following the August commemorations of the atomic bombings of Japan in 1945 and just last week I attended an event marking the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. We have all heard of Armistice Day and ANZAC Day, at which we acknowledge the sacrifice made by our soldiers in the wars and wish for future peace and security.
Mutiple days are given over to reflection on war and peace.
Over the ages, we humans have struggled with the idea of peace. Are humans inherently violent? Is peace desirable? If it is, how is it possible for us to become peaceful? I'm doing a paper on political philosophy at the moment and thought I could share some of the views we've been exposed to from thinkers such as Kant, Hegel and Butler. I want to start with Sigmund Freud. Most famous as the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud also philosophised on peace. He believed that we humans are caught between the conflicting drives of Eros (the desire to preserve) and Thanatos (the desire to destroy.) It was Freud's belief that man will always be caught in this struggle between Eros and Thanatos, and that this individual conflict also plays out on a societal level. The two drives are necessary for our existence and neither is inherently detrimental. For example, the act of loving another person is influenced by Eros - as we protect and nurture that person - as well as by Thanatos - as we possess that person and jealously guard him from anybody else who might dare to also love him. Freud thought it unlikely that we ever successfully overcome our aggressive tendencies, so wrought are they in the human psyche.
Freud's letter Why War? to Einstein is good to read.
Does this mean that we should immediately give up on empty ideals for peace? Not at all. Freud believed that, even though we will always struggle with Thanatos, we should attempt to repress our aggressive instincts. In Freud's own words, (in his letter to Albert Einstein Why War?), "it is not a matter of fully removing the human inclination to aggression; one can attempt to divert it in such a way that it need not find expression in war." This diversion could be created by instead appealing to Eros, for example, by placing a high emphasis on creating bonds between others so that we are less likely inflict violence on one another. "Everything that creates emotional bonds among human beings must work against war." Freud postulated that over time, as humans journey towards an understanding of progress or civilisation, that humans were learning to become more co-operative and peaceful. He noted that, "among the psychological features [since Freud was of course the founder of psychoanalysis] of civilisation two seem to be the most important: the strengthening of the intellect, which is beginning to dominate the instinctive life... and the internalisation of the tendency towards aggression." Freud pronounced himself a pacifist not because he thought that complete peace was achievable, but on the grounds of principle, because it was the right thing to do.
J.A. Panetta's representation of Eros and Thanatos.
Perhaps we should take Freud's writings with a grain of salt. After all, Freud did himself concede that, "not much is achieved by calling the unworldly theoretician [aka the philosopher] to solve practical problems." He also had a few ideas which seem misplaced to say the least. For example, his concern about the modern willingness to curb sexual tendencies lead him to remark that this could, "lead to the extinction of the human race, because it compromises the sexual function in more than one respect, and even today uncivilised races and backward strata of the population are multiplying more rapidly than those with a high level of culture." I had to read this a couple of times before I could take Freud seriously, as if expecting to suddenly notice a handwritten lol scrawled on the edge of the paper. (It seems completely out of place for a man one minute advocating peace and touting the benefits of universal human rights to be holding such apparently racist views!) Naturally Freud has his own human failings and we should always retain a healthy degree of scepticism about his writings. However, I do believe his thoughts on war and peace have some helpful insights for us today.
What does this mean for disarmament?
Much of Freud's analysis really resonates with me. When I have talk to people about nuclear disarmament, many are quick to retort that total disarmament is an unrealistic and absurd goal. In response to this I would say that just because a particular goal is challenging, this does not make it any less worth striving for. It may only stress the need to get as close as we can towards this goal, even if the goal itself may prove impossible.
In my opinion, it is far better to strive for disarmament and make small but significant steps in reducing nuclear stockpiles around the world, than it is to do nothing and risk total devastation of one or more human communities. Work towards disarmament has its own costs, it takes time and money in terms of research and advocacy, however, what monetary costs could ever match up to that of potential human lives? I believe we are compelled to curb mankind's aggressive Thanatos tendencies by promoting peace, and to give Thanatos less outlet by promoting disarmament and taking away the potential for mass death.
Finally, it is interesting to note that right back in 1933, Freud was highly concerned about modern warfare and its unprecedented potential for destruction. He noted darkly, "a future war, because of such great advances in the means of destruction, would mean the extermination of one or both adversaries." This is, in my view, all the more reason for us to take seriously our obligations to work for peace.