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Philosophy Shorts

Philosophers on War & Peace

by Matt Qvortrup

‘More songs about Buildings and Food’ was the title of a 1978 album by the rock band Talking Heads, about all the things rock stars normally don’t sing about. Pop songs are usually about variations on the theme of love; tracks like Rose Royce’s 1976 hit Carwash are the are the exception.

Philosophers, likewise, tend to have a narrow focus on epistemology, metaphysics and trifles like the meaning of life. But occasionally great minds stray from their turf and write about other matters, for example buildings (Martin Heidegger), food (Hobbes), tomato juice (Robert Nozick), and the weather (Lucretius and Aristotle). This series of Shorts is about these unfamiliar themes; about the things philosophers also write about.

“I am off to read Leo Tolstoy’s Special Military Operation and Peace”, read a meme that did the rounds on social media after the Russian Duma banned the word ‘War’ concerning the invasion of Ukraine. Certainly, Tolstoy’s great epic about the French invasion of Russia in 1812 is a rich source for those who want to understand the gruesome nature of armed conflict through literature. But philosophers too have poured over and analysed the horrors of war.

Nietzsche, always the enfant terrible among thinkers, sought to see something positive in wanton destruction, and famously opined, “From the warrior school of life: what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” (Twilight of the Idols, p.8)

He was the odd one out. Most philosophers are critical of war. “There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare” wrote Sun Tzu (544-396 BCE) in The Art of War. A couple of thousands of years later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) described the aftermath of a battle in a way that shows that very little has changed: “I see fire and flames, a countryside deserted, villages pillaged. I bear witness to a murderous scene, to ten thousand slaughtered men, the dead piled together, the dying trampled… everywhere the sight of death and agony” (The State of War, p.609). This scene from the Seven Years’ War of 1756-1763 applies equally to Kyiv in 2022. Niccolò Machiavelli (1470-1527) was no less horrified, but a bit more succinct, observing merely that “war produces thieves and peace hangs them.” (The Art of War, p.492)

It follows from this that most philosophers are keen to establish peace at all costs. But how?

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) famously wrote of the “Warre of every man against every man” (Leviathan, p.67), and that the remedy for this was that “the Arts of Peace, enclineth men to obey a common Power” – the State, which he called ‘Leviathan’.

Other philosophers saw it differently. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was a liberal before that term was generally used, and believed that “the spirit of trade… cannot coexist with war.” (Perpetual Peace, p.65) But he also asserted that democracies were less likely to go to war, for, “If the consent of the citizens is required in order to decide that war should be declared… nothing is more natural than that they would be very cautious in commencing such a poor game.” (p.75)

Sadly, for most of history we have witnessed wars; as G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) observed, “Periods of peace are the empty pages in the history books” (The Philosophy of History, p.55). Maybe we should simply quote folksinger Pete Seeger’s ‘Where have all the Flowers Gone?’, and ask the warmongers of the world, “When will you ever learn? When will you ever learn?”

© Prof. Matt Qvortrup 2022

Matt Qvortrup is Professor of Political Science at Coventry University.

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