Sunday, February 15, 2009

Week 6’s book: A Brief History of Pacifism: From Jesus to Tolstoy, by Peter Brock

A friend who knows that I’m reading up on pacifism suggested Peter Brock’s A Brief History of Pacifism. It was an intriguing survey of pacifist movements; I’m not totally sure it was worth what I paid for it, but it’s out of print, and I inadvertently ordered it from a bookseller in England, which kind of inflated the price.

Brock starts out with this assertion: “An unconditional rejection of war, so far as we know, arose first among the early Christians….True, the idea of peace and nonviolence can be found earlier in the history of man as well as in other cultures…for instance, among Indians and Chinese and the indigenous peoples of North America. But nowhere else do we find ‘pacifist’ ideas leading to…the refusal of military service as the ultimate expression of a principled repudiation of violence.”

Which is fascinating in a couple of ways. First: is that really true? If someone can contradict it (with proof, please), I’d be interested to hear about it. Second: the biggest question I have about principled pacifism is wrapped up right in this sentence. The “refusal of military service” can only be carried out by an individual who is rejecting a government’s demand. And this is what I continually come back to: Can there be such a thing as a pacifist government?

I tend to think not; I’ve just worked my way through centuries of military history, and it is abundantly clear that governments which do not fight for survival die. Violence–defensive violence, at the very least–is essential to survival. Brock’s book points this out, several times, in its pairing of the rejection of war with the rejection of the entire apparatus of the state. “The Czech Brethren,” he writes about one pacifist movement, “regarded the state…as an unchristian institution and renounced war as an unchristian occupation.” Pacificist are, in Brock’s history, consistently portrayed as separatists, men and women who turn away from any involvement with the structures of state and nation in order to hold to their principles.

I have no problem with this as an individual stance. But if a principle is true, won’t it apply to states and nations, as well as to individuals?

Not pacifism, according to Brock. Invariably, pacifist movements forbid their adherents to hold office, because that might require them to wage war or to enforce violent punishments on criminals.

I am drawn to this philosophy. But I can’t help wondering: Are these individual pacifists (please excuse the metaphor) moral parasites, holding to a principle which they can only assert because others–those who do not share their beliefs–are willing to fight in order to hold the framework of nations (the nations in which the pacifists live) together?

Or is pacifism, by its nature, a movement which will always exist on the fringes of the established order, forcing that order to answer for its decisions? And is it morally defensible to insist that something is 1) true and 2) incapable of being applied on a national, global scale? I am distressed by this question…as an individual, as a voter in a democratic society, as a historian.

Or is this an incredibly basic and stupid question? And if it is, can it be answered succinctly, so that I can struggle with more essential questions? And what are those?

No answers, this time around. Just questions and more questions.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a book that creates conversation. Thank you for the review.