Fly on the Wall—November 11, 2018

The Privilege of Remembering

Behind ideas and actions lie belief systems; in times of war, philosophies have mortal consequences.  Veterans spent so much of their life’s vigour and vim because they believed in ideals of duty, democracy, nation, and honour; in short, everything that makes our society free.  Our liberty to study and flourish today exists because of these individuals who were willing to defend the ideals they believed in.   So, when we consider the traditional Remembrance Day slogan never again, we are faced inevitably, even brutally, with the question of the inevitability of warfare and its connection to the irascible tendencies of human nature.  Is war often natural and inevitable; is peace invariably ephemeral and short?

For Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) human nature was a pleasant abyss of possibility.  From his initial assertion, manna for those who see in humanity an ever-present potential for liberation, that “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains”, Rousseau proceeded to elevate our species’ potential (Rousseau, online).  In classic humanist fashion he expressed and endorsed our supposed inborn tendencies to peacefully live and let live.  Immanuel Kant, who for his part wrote that the “maintenance of peace requires the achievement of constitutional government by the states”, himself became entranced by Rousseau’s impassioned glorification of our peaceful capacities, and  “gave up his daily walk in order to continue his study of Rousseau’s ‘Emile’” (Northedge, 66, Frierson, online).  Ideas can rouse men to physical inactivity as well as to violent action, after all.

Rouseau’s summary of the valorous potential of human nature invokes the value of acquired knowledge we know well at AU:

“It is ordinary people who have to be educated, and their education alone can serve as a pattern for the education of their fellows.” (Rousseau, online)

Given Rousseau’s claims about our natural inclination toward peaceful coexistence implied that it would arise naturally given correct circumstances, he proceeded in curious fashion  to implore his readers:

“Men, be kind to your fellow-men; this is your duty, kind to every age and station, kind to all that is not foreign to humanity.  What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?” (Rousseau, online).

That duty arises naturally, and that our naturally-occurring duty is one of peace toward one’s brethren, had been assiduously contended a century before by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679).  In his time, that of Oliver Cromwell, civil war, and perpetual unrest, Hobbes asserted that man begins in a state of nature where a “war of all against all” obtains up to and until a “social pact” between an all-powerful sovereign and his dutiful subjects ensures peace on point of  punishment (Hobbes, online).  Fear drives us toward a trembling detente, thought Hobbes.

He additionally noted that wherever progress and peace has reigned it has been because of a temporary pause in an eternal battle whereby we all seek to fulfill our boundless desires at the expense of others.  We can think today of what was referred to by John F.  Kennedy as the Pax Americana; in Hobbes’ time the relatively peaceful centuries of the Pax Romana were recalled positively, with their aqueducts slaking the thirst of an empire and highways where all roads lead to Rome (Kennedy, online).  Hobbes stated:

“What a Beast of prey was the Roman people, whilst with its conquering Eagles it erected its proud Trophees so far and wide over the world” (Hobbes, online).

This pact of power occurred with the perpetual possibility in mind that:

“Rome her selfe, as well as Sylla, was to be raz’d; for that there wouyld alwayes be Wolves and Depredaedatours of their Liberty, unlesse the Forrest that lodg’d them were grubb’d up by the roots.  To speak imparitally, both sayings are very true; That Man to Man is a kind of God; and that Man to Man is an arrant Wolfe.” (Hobbes, online).

An errant Wolfe—perhaps foaming at the mouth like someone just through having a senseless online debate with a stranger on the internet—is what Hobbes saw as our potential nature were we without the iron hand of a sovereign to steady our impulses.  Is this what the human race has to look forward to as a recurrent reality whenever force fails to invoke right?  Maybe.

Another school of thought, nicely elucidated by F. S. Northedge, notes that war itself occurs in pursuit of peace and that the latter is an ideal held dear by all humans no matter their present civility.  Violence by this measure is merely a species of peace-seeking.  It is as though the human heart cannot bare of strife, so it seeks to strike down in advance the very possibility of conflict.  This is akin to the archaic parenting phrase this is gonna hurt me a lot more than it’s gonna hurt you.

From this camp, who took a relatively stoic view toward war, several notable and noble voices emerge.  There is Thomas Aquinas, who claimed that “peace was the greatest aim toward which man should strive in fulfilment of his natural ends” (Northedge, 63).  Next we have Hugo Grotius, who noted with studious and owl-like, affection, that “far from war’s being a breakdown of the law of nations it is, in fact, a condition of life to which law is as applicable as it is to the conditions of peace” (Northedge, 63).  In other words, lawfulness is the essential state of humanity and this trumps both war and peace as that which creates a certain Homo civilitus.  Even the means-justifies-the-ends philosopher par excellence Niccolo Machiavelli actually claimed that war occurs “not because man was evil…but because of malign fate (fortuna) which is always forcing man to arm himself against adversity” (Northedge, 64).  Sometimes fortune favours peace and other times war, it would appear.

Meanwhile, echoes of our positive potential serve as a recurrent rejoinder.  John Locke (ostensibly the founder of liberalism), claimed that “war was not a universal condition in the state of nature but occurred only when force was exercised without right” (Northedge, 64).  War by this token might be seen as a sort of bloody oopsie-doodle whereby power had been misallocated to the wrong sovereign in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Perhaps we tend toward concord rather than conflict.  Adding to this wonderful though somewhat idealistic desire for a harmonious human society are the benign words of the philosopher Desiderius Erasmus (who, ironically, was elsewhere noted for his satiric portrayals of figures both ecclesiastical and worldly): “man is born not for destruction but for love, friendship, and service to his fellow men” (Erasmus in Northedge, 65).

That this service to others sometimes takes the form of violence is why we solemnly remember the heroes of our fallen citizens in conflicts past; while praying and wishing in our chosen ways to avoid such calamities if at all possible in the future.  As AU students, we well realize that we study on the privileged dime of a freedom that may be historically fleeting.  We cannot alter the bloody path that history has arrived at in our present epoch and yet we can, through the reality of our Remembrance of those who served and suffered and sacrificed, be aware of how fortunate we truly are to inhabit this country in this place and in this time.

Whatever our views on the spectrum that is human action we can be aware of the material conditions of history.  Remembrance Day, and possibly our annual attendance at a cenotaph ceremony, provides an unparalleled opportunity to step outside of the mundanity of our present lives and into an appreciation of the mortal combat that has shaped our history.  We do well to remember that it is with actions and responses to the world in its concrete form, and not only through discursive bush-beating and social media meme-posting, that we form the world in the image of the freedom we wish for ourselves and our neighbours.  As the Prussian statesman Otto van Bismarck announced in 1862, bearing in mind loss of life in wars during his own century, it is “not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided-that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849-but by iron and blood” (Bismarck, online)  We are well off to remember the real blood and real iron that forged our present time period and most especially those who paid the ultimate price such that our we may prosper.

Bismarck, O.  Otto von Bismarck’s Blood and Iron Speech.  ‘Age of the Sage’.  Retrieved from
Frierson, P.  Rousseau.  ‘’.  Retrieved from
Hobbes, T.  (2015).  Homo homini lupus/Homo homini deus.  ‘Antiquitatem’.  Retrieved from
Kennedy, J.F.  (1963).  Commencement Address at American University, Washington D.C.  ‘John F.  Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum’.  Retrieved from
Northedge, F.S.  (1967).  Peace, War, and Philosophy.  ‘The Encyclopedia of Philosophy’.  Paul Edwards, Editor in Chief.  New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc & The Free Press.