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The Narrative of Peace: What We Can Learn From the History of Peace Thought


By John Gittings

• “Although most people have always sought to live in peace, our perception of the past is over-dominated by a narrative that is obsessed with war”, argues John Gittings – long-standing ORG Adviser and Guardian Writer, in his latest book The Glorious Art of Peace: From the Iliad to Iraq’, published this year by Oxford University Press.

August 2012

In this special article for ORG, based on his book, John Gittings demonstrates that we need to open our minds to an alternative view of history, which acknowledges the strength of the case for peace, as it has been argued from ancient times to the present day.

This rich record of peace thought and argument is not only of great historical interest: It highlights the need to understand that peace is essential for civilisation, and that we must find better ways to educate for peace, to develop more effective forms of negotiation, and to mobilise popular support to work for global peace.

War still has a much higher visibility than peace, in spite of the flourishing of peace studies over the last three to four decades, and many people are unaware that there is a science of peace which is every bit as complex and rich as the science of war. A survey of the shelves any large bookshop or library will illustrate the point: It is much easier to find Sunzi on the Art of War than the thoughts on peace of his Chinese contemporary Mengzi. Machiavelli’s militaristic counsel to The Prince is much more accessible than the pacific advice to another Prince of his Renaissance contemporary Erasmus. Clausewitz’s thoughts On War are more likely to be on the shelves than the reflections On Perpetual Peace by his fellow thinker of the Enlightenment Immanuel Kant. And for a round-up of thinking on peace and war, while the Oxford reader on War (Freedman, ed., 1994) is generally available, the Oxford reader on Approaches to Peace (Barash, ed., 2000), is much less so. Yet, over the last two millennia, there has been a powerful and multi-stranded narrative of peace, expressed in different forms and in different environments, challenging the more familiar dialogue of war. This trajectory of pacific thought is not just of scholarly interest but can still enrich our contemporary debate on how to fashion a more peaceful world. Here I shall trace it (briefly and selectively) from ancient China and Greece, through early Christian thought to the humanist thinkers of the Renaissance, onwards in an increasingly rich dialogue through the Enlightenment into the 19th century when peace became a campaigning issue and the modern peace movement can be said to have emerged. I shall then consider what lessons we can draw from this still under-explored wealth of peace thinking which may continue to be relevant today.



Our journey begins in China during the 4th-3rd century BC – the period of the Warring States which led to the first unification of China (221BC) – when we may listen in on a vigorous debate between scholar-advisers of the different Schools of thought (the so-called Hundred Schools) on the merits of peace and war. The “Legalists” valued military force above all else and claimed that aggression was the best form of defence. The Strategists provided the city-state rulers with strategic and tactical advice, most famously in Sunzi’s Art of War, which is still studied by military commanders this day. Powerful arguments in favour of peace were also made at the court by Confucian and Mohist scholars, though these are less familiar to us today. War is almost always a disaster, they told their rulers, and it inflicts grievous harm on the ordinary people who bear its brunt. In the words of the Confucian scholar Mengzi (Mencius):

In wars to win land, the dead fill the fields; in wars to seize cities, the dead fill their streets. This is what we mean by ‘teaching the earth how to eat human flesh.

– – – – –

Popular anti-war sentiment in the age of modern warfare from the 18th into the 19th century was often drowned out by the sound of drums and the display of scarlet uniforms as princely regimes sought to mobilise the populace for cannon fodder. However, with the spread of literacy and modern communications, the Napoleonic Wars initiated a new awareness of the real horrors of armed – and still mostly hand-to-hand – conflict. 19th century writers such as Stendhal (The Charterhouse of Parma), Thackeray (Vanity Fair), Zola (La Débâcle) and, most famously, Tolstoy in his War and Peace, presented an emphatically anti-heroic view of war. The mass media of the 19th century also began to report, though usually in a form biased in favour of the colonial powers, the popular resistance of many colonised peoples. The full extent of such resistance, which typically began with passive and non-violent disaffection but, when suppressed by violence, was likely to become violent in return, is still not sufficiently recognised. (Richard Gott’s Britain’s Empire: Resistance, repression and revolt, Verso, 2011, fills an important gap in this story). Gandhi is often credited with virtually inventing the concept of non-violent protest, yet it must have been practiced in many thousands of separate incidents in Europe, Africa and Asia for many centuries.

The popular voice for peace, as we are well aware, has become louder and clearer in the last hundred years although it still can be swayed by appeals to patriotism and chauvinism. Yet from ancient times onwards, peace thinkers have recognised that peace is, in the end, about serving the interests of the people, and that peace is more likely to be secured if the people can be rallied to its cause. Although we live today in very different times, the validity of this proposition is not diminished, and we have seen important (though unfortunately not yet sufficient) results from popular activism against war and nuclear weapons. I could conclude this article with a suitable quotation on the subject from one of the great peace advocates of the modern world, such as Jane Addams, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Joseph Rotblat, Alva Myrdal, Johan Galtung or Kenneth Boulding. Instead, I shall end with a lyric from a popular song of the mid-19th century, often sung in the music-halls of Britain. The singer is a young woman, saying farewell to her lover who is going off to the wars, and the last four lines of her ballad, widely quoted at the time by the advocates of peace, convey a simple and still important truth.

When glory leads the way, you’ll be madly rushing on,

Never thinking if they kill you that my happiness is gone.

If you win the day perhaps, a general you’ll be;

Though I’m proud to think of that, what will become of me!

Oh, if I were Queen of France—or, still better, Pope of Rome,

I would have no fighting men abroad—no weeping maids at home.

All the world should be at peace, or if kings must show their might,

Why, let them who make the quarrel be the only men to fight.

(‘Jeannette’s Song’, c .1848)


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