Monday, April 27, 2009

The sad reality of an oxymoron: Just War Theory

Being a peace lover at heart, I’ve never cared for the concept of just war theory. Even the thought of self-defense gives me pause. Who can say my life is more valuable than one which may threaten my physical existence? Not that I am a fan of pain; far from it! But after one too many (another oxymoron!) news stories of a paranoid homeowner killing a burglar to protect his ‘stuff’…well, that slippery slope just gets slipperier. Where do we draw the line?

Hugo Grotius (aka Huig de Groot) laid out one of the first complete definitions of the modern just war theory in his 1625 The Law of War and Peace when he outlined the law of nature versus the law of nations. Contrary to Thomas Hobbes’ later contention in Leviathan that man is a creature of ‘Warre,’ Grotius preferred the idea of man possessing “an impelling desire for society” rather than battle. He traced the development of modern laws from covenants and pacts which arose naturally in the evolution of communities, noting that humanity needed such agreements – the social contracts – for the “maintenance of social order.” Grotius took this form of “mutual consent” a step further, to the relations between nations, insisting that “the state which transgresses the laws of nature and of nations cuts away also the bulwarks which safeguard its own future peace.” He found the only acceptable cause for a just war was in fact self-defense and then went on to lay out strict guidelines for the conduct of such a war, including the safety of non-combatants, the “moderation of laying waste” of enemy lands, property rights, and the peaceful passage of mediators, among other rules. Grotius’ comment that “I observed that men rush to arms for slight causes, or no cause at all, and that when arms have once been taken up there is no longer any respect for law, divine or human” is an eerie reflection of our world today.

Just war theory has had many proponents over the centuries from Cicero to Aquinas to Kant, as well as other more recent philosophers, but most seem to ignore the possibility that the concept is the oxymoron I feel it to be. Pacifism has acquired a negative connotation, especially in the past eight years and even with Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as notable role models. Thich Nhat Hanh offers a current view of peaceful coexistence that we would do well to emulate and I cling to such examples in an increasingly confrontational and violent world. Until mankind accepts that life is indeed transitory, that we will all die some day, and that ‘stuff’ is never more important than life, there will be those who will continue asserting the validity of just war theory. I guess the rest of us are left to take comfort in what little restraint it offers.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


If you’re not angry you’re not paying attention…

But I am paying attention, and I do get angry. All that does is raise my blood pressure and distract me from more important things which need my attention and which I may be able to affect.

The early stoics had the right idea. In his Enchiridion (Manual), the Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “Some things are in our control and others are not.” So much of what the news trumpets in its endless 24-hour loop is beyond my control; why do I let it bother me?

The stoics also point out that “All is as trite as it is transitory.” It makes no sense to ruin the present by fretting about those things which I cannot control and which are less than permanent. “Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are” says the Tao Te Ching (#44). Last week’s class discussion wondered if the stoics were familiar with the teachings of Buddha and the Eastern philosophers who came before them. Even a cursory reading would seem to indicate they were indeed guided by the same influences. With the vast amount of reading I have been immersed in for the past three years, it still astounds me when I find common threads of philosophical thought streaming through the centuries and through civilizations. So many similarities! Forfeit control of those things over which we are powerless. Strive for non-attachment to things. Treat others as you would be treated. Live in the moment. Do not judge. No wonder it is called “wisdom literature.”

Unfortunately, that wisdom is too often lost in today’s me-first society. When the strident demands of the world collide, who wins? Or more likely, do we all lose? How much abuse do we, the peacemakers, take before defending ourselves? I’m not content with “the meek shall inherit the earth.” I don’t want the earth. And some mystical reward hereafter does not compensate for hell on that earth. Where do we find that balance the stoics stressed, the harmony which is the source of the good life?

In class, Bill proffered the concept of stoic activists. Keep your head while fighting back, in non-violent ways. “Turn off the juice, boy! Go man, go, But not like a yo-yo schoolboy. Just play it cool, boy.” (West Side Story, “Cool”) Gandhi, King, the Dalai Lama – good examples, all.

But that brings me back to my original problem. Even those things which do bother me – remembering the stoics warning that “It is not things themselves that disturb men, but their judgments about these things” (Epictetus again) – and accepting that those things are out of my control, what and why do I fight? I have long argued that my actions have no effect on national or global issues. All I can change is myself. “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one,” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations) and hope that life by example will have a positive influence on those with whom I come in contact. That is the best I can hope for in this life.

Are you paying attention?

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

During a recent return to my philosophical roots via a visit to Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, I was reminded how far we have come from their principles. Both men stressed the ‘good life,’ or eudymonia (εὐδαιμονία), as the goal of a human (we’ll leave aside their inherent sexism for now) and laid out logical paths for its attainment. They assumed all reasonable men understood the term good life, and beyond a bit of fine-tuning and clarification, no argument was necessary to prove that wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice were the character virtues needed for fulfillment as a person. Material wealth was incidental, and again assumed in large part, but the good life was not dependent on such.

Fast forward 2,400 years and we find a society where the good life is measured in dollar and cents, in the accumulation of stuff, and in the amount of public acclaim one garners as a result. Excellence as a human being in whatever function one’s nature may call for is secondary, if that, and unless celebrities famous for being celebrities are truly fulfilling their role in the greater scheme of the universe, it appears that being known is far more important than knowing anything.

A class discussion on this topic brought forth the question of whether the means used to reach the goal of a good life could in themselves be ‘not good,’ but justifiable – ends-justify-the-means and all. I maintain that question is moot when the good life being justified is poorly defined. When the good life is measured in financial ways and ends are assumed to justify means, Bernie Madoff’s actions in defrauding millions of individuals are entirely acceptable as the wealth he accumulated surrounded him a physical luxury few of us could ever imagine – a crassly distorted vision of the good life. And unfortunately, I have recently participated in discussions where such gains were considered legitimate. Not on Maoff’s scale perhaps, but support was expressed for making money in whatever ways are legally possible, no matter the finer shadings of ‘legal’ or those individuals who may be harmed along the way.

Which brings me to a second divergence noted with the esteemed Greeks: a dependence on ‘legal’ versus reliance on the ethical. It appears that many in society today ignore ethics as an out-moded impediment to success, preferring to rely on legal contortions that support actions which are blatantly unethical in the sense of not serving the polis, or the good of the community, but rather benefitting a select few at the expense of the many. The idea of acting for the greater good is dismissed as a pipe dream, incompatible with the reality of a cut-throat society. Lawrence Selden, in Edith Warton’s The House of Mirth, asked “Why do we call all our grand ideas illusions and the mean ones truth?” In my lifetime, this tendency has never been more prevalent than it is today. Perhaps this is why I return time and again to the wisdom of old.

Pass the hemlock, please.