Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Natural Desire for War in the Axial Age

Of the desires that I have included on my list of 20 natural desires, none has elicited more criticism than the desire for war. Here's how I have described that desire:

"Human beings generally desire war when they think it will advance their group in conflicts with other groups. Human beings divide themselves into ethnic and territorial groups, and they tend to cooperate more with those people who belong to their own group that with those outside t heir group. So when the competition between communities becomes severe, violent conflict is likely. Human beings desire war when fear, interest, or honor move them to fight for their community against opposing communities. War shows the best and the worst of human nature. War manifests the brutal cruelty of human beings in fighting those they regard as enemies. Yet war also manifests the moral sociality of human beings in fighting courageously for their group. One of the prime causes for the emergence of large, bureaucratic states is the need for increasing military power. War is an instrument of politics, and like political rule generally, warfare is a predominantly male activity."

Critics such as Carson Holloway, John Hare, and C. Stephen Evans have objected that war violates the fundamental moral imperative of universal love and humanitarian compassion. In response to such critics, I have argued that a morality of absolute pacifism is unreasonable because it denies the natural morality of human life as based on a love of one's own and a spirited disposition to defend oneself and one's own against attack. Despite the persistence of pacifist traditions, pacifism has never provided a stable ground for any enduring social order.

But then Karen Armstrong's book The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (2006) would seem to show that all the major religious traditions in the world teach nonviolence. She surveys the history of the emergence of the major religions during what Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age. From about 900 to 200 BC, the great spiritual traditions arose in four parts of the world--Confucianism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in Israel, and philosophical rationalism in Greece. Christianity and Islam were later developments out of these spiritual movements of the Axial Age. Despite the diversity of teachings in these traditions, Armstrong sees a recurrent moral teaching based on the Golden Rule, which dictated universal love and compassion for all human beings, and perhaps even for all creatures, which therefore required nonviolence. This then allows Armstrong to criticize all religious movements based on "holy war" and the coercive imposition of religious orthodoxy as violating the original teaching of the Axial sages.

And yet any careful reading of Armstrong's book shows that she has to ignore or play down the evidence that works against her favored interpretations. For example, she begins her book with Zoroaster (or Zarathustra). Although he probably lived earlier than 900 BC, he formulated many of the religious ideas that would be taken up during the Axial Age. He foresaw a final cosmic judgment when the good would be rewarded with eternal life in bliss and the bad punished with death, which led him to an apocalyptic vision of a final battle between the forces of good and evil. Armstrong rejects this, however, as "a militant piety that polarizes complex reality into oversimplified categories of good and evil," which violates the spirit of "an Axial-style faith" (12). This sets the pattern for her whole book. Whenever one of the Axial thinkers recognizes the need for war, Armstrong dismisses this as deviation from her preferred message of nonviolence and universal love.

Armstrong has a hard time fitting the ancient Greeks into her account of Axial spirituality. The Homeric heroes embody a manly ethos of heroism in war that she cannot accept. She rightly points out that Homer's poignant depiction of Achilles' sympathy for Priam shows an insight into the tragic suffering caused by war. But she assumes that the Greeks were mistaken in not allowing such sympathy to lead them to pacifism (125-34). After recounting the victory of the Athenians over the Persians at the battle of Salamis, she concludes: "Salamis was an Axial moment, and yet, as so often in Greece, it was a martial triumph and led to more warfare" (267). She can't allow herself to consider the thought that this illustrates how the history of the Axial Age might have turned on military battles.

She takes for granted--without any supporting argument--that human beings could eliminate the tragic conflicts of life by adopting a stance of complete nonviolence, and so she can't understand why human beings are so foolish that they can't see this. She never considers the possibility that her own unexamined pacifism might itself show an imprudent blindness to the tragic character of human life.

Armstrong also has a hard time with the Hebrew Bible, one of the most important texts to emerge during the Axial Age. The Hebrew Bible manifests a sober realism in its depiction of human conflict. God himself is a warrior leading his people into battle. Of course, Armstrong doesn't like this. She looks for a pacifist message in Second Isaiah's prophecy of the "suffering servant" of Yahweh. But even here she is disturbed by the depiction of Yahweh as leading the people of Israel to battle against their enemies. She has to dismiss this as a corruption of the true teaching of the Axial vision. Moreover, she doesn't consider the implications of the fact that the Persian ruler Cyrus is called by Second Isaiah the "messiah," the "anointed king" of Yahweh. It seems that Yahweh uses the military might and political prowess of Cyrus to liberate the Hebrew exiles in Babylon (251-57). But Armstrong refuses to acknowledge that the spiritual history of the Axial Age depended on military and political history.

Although the New Testament came after the Axial Age, Armstrong praises the message of Jesus--particularly in the Sermon on Mount--for fulfilling the Axial vision of nonviolence. But again, she has to ignore those elements of Jesus' teaching that undercut the message of pacifism, such as the eternal expulsion of sinners from the Kingdom of God, and she says nothing about the apocalyptic vision of the Last Battle in the Book of Revelation.

The radical requirements of pure nonviolence are manifested in the life of the Jains in India who could hardly move without feeling guilty for stepping on an insect, a blade of grass, or a cobweb. Any activity could cause injury to some creature (288-90). Armstrong praises them for their "truly heroic restraint," without any thought for the silliness of such behavior.

In the ancient Hindu religious traditions, human beings were understood as having sacred duties to fulfill the requirements of each social class, which included warriors and rulers, who had to fight in defense of their communities. Thus, the ethics of nonviolence came into conflict with the requirements of social order. This is evident in one of the great texts of the Axial Age--the Bhagavad-Gita. The great warrior Arjuna has a sacred duty to lead his people into a war, but he hesitates because he doubts the justice of the war, and he fears being punished for his violent karma. Krishna, his charioteer, convinces him to fight by instructing him in spiritual wisdom. Krishna eventually reveals himself as Vishnu, the divine Lord of the Universe. Arjuna is granted a wondrous vision of the god as the supreme monotheistic deity. The primary theological teaching of the Gita is that the god is the source of all that exists, and the primary moral teaching is that one should do one's duty as determined by the social circumstances of one's birth, which includes the duty of a warrior to fight courageously in war. Armstrong stresses Krishna's argument that Arjuna can fight in a spirit of detachment from personal gain, but she fails to ponder the conclusion that social duty often requires violence, and thus pure nonviolence is contrary to the human condition.

Pure nonviolence denies the natural desire for justice as reciprocity. A natural moral sense of justice as reciprocity arises from the human tendency to respond in kind--returning benefit for benefit and injury for injury. This tendency to reciprocity is enforced by moral passions found in most human beings: they are inclined to feel gratitude, love, and benevolence in return for benefits conferred on them; they are inclined to feel anger, hatred, and malevolence in return for injuries inflicted on them; they are inclined to feel guilt, shame, and regret for their violations of their reciprocal obligations to others. Pure nonviolence denies the spirited resistance to evil that enforces justice. (One might wonder, for example, whether the brutal atrocities of the Khymer Rouge in Cambobia could have been stopped if the Buddhist monks had led a movement of violent resistance.)

Some related posts can be found here, here, and here.


Anonymous said...

Interesting you have that list of the 20 desires posted anywhere? I'd love to take a closer look.

Larry Arnhart said...

My account of the 20 natural desires can be found in DARWINIAN NATURAL RIGHT and DARWINIAN CONSERVATISM. You can also do a search of this blog for posts on various desires.

Unknown said...

As Zarathustra is mentioned in this very erudite essay, please see this link:

Larry Arnhart said...

The importance of Zarathustra is a theme of my chapter on Nietzsche in POLITICAL QUESTIONS: POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY FROM PLATO TO RAWLS.