25 Nov They stab one another with pens dipped in the venom of malice… (LOU MARINOFF)
The Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus described how this eternal cycle of conflict is perpetuated at every level of society in his 1517 book The Complaint of Peace.
I enter the courts of kings … I see every outward sign of the highest offices and humanity … It is all paint and varnish. Everything is corrupted by open faction, or by secret grudges and animosities.
– Desiderius Erasmus
Even philosophy, scholarship, scrupulous devotion to reason, and the search for truth have not succeeded in establishing peace. Erasmus continued: “Here also I find war of another kind, less bloody indeed but not less furious … they stab one another with pens dipped in the venom of malice; they tear one another with biting labels, and dart the deadly arrow of their tongues against their opponent’s reputation.”
These words ring as true today as centuries ago: It is also an apt description of small-town gossip, office politics, and political campaigning itself.
None of which has stopped philosophers (along with many others) from trying to express how deeply they’ve been affected by the human conflicts they have witnessed. Many have been inspired to map out ways of alleviating future conflicts. Plato lived through the destruction of Athenian culture in the Peloponnesian war with Sparta, and in response wrote the Republic in an attempt to create a blue- print for utopia. Similarly, after witnessing the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths, Augustine wrote the City of God, pointing to utopia in the next world instead of this one.
Thomas Hobbes wrote Leviathan in exile during the English Civil War, trying to establish a state of lasting civil peace and commonwealth.
Immanuel Kant tried his hand at conflict resolution in a little book called Perpetual Peace, laying out a plan for settling the European differences of his day nonviolently. He ironically borrowed the title of the book from an innkeeper’s sign – at an inn located next to a cemetery. We’ll all attain perpetual peace eventually, just too late to do us much good in this world and this life!
Great thinkers of the twentieth century also weighed in, even more heavy- handedly, after witnessing the European carnage of World War I and the global devastation of World War II.
Cyril Joad wrote, “Modern Western civilization is the result of endowing with the fruits of a dozen men of genius a population which is emotionally at the level of savages and culturally at the level of schoolboys.” And that was before the precipitous decline in Western education and literacy, which has been reducing culture to savagery as well!
Yet, these immortal thoughts aside, mortal conflicts continued apace. At the same time, the literature on conflict became less optimistic, largely gave up the idea of utopia, and waxed more cynical and satirical.
Aldous Huxley, George Or- well, Ayn Rand, and Arthur Koestler wrote great but disturbing books about dystopias (respectively, Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Atlas Shrugged, and Darkness at Noon), which raised deep philosophical questions about human nature and questioned whether we even have the capacity to live in peace.
The Big Questions: How Philosophy Can Change Your Life