The Syrian conflict may led us into believing that war owes its origin to some religious or cultural inclinations. An astute observer of human affairs, Joseph de Maistre, is called upon to refute this argument. De Maistre also interpreted the meaning of conflict in the world. His thoughts are worth reflecting upon at this time.
1. Syrian Conflict
Syria, and its ongoing conflict, has been pushed to the forefront of many minds by the refugee crisis. At the moment there is an incredibly complex picture of the Syrian civil war with as many as four groups of combatants fighting or allying with each other.
At times like these, there are some recurring thoughts amongst people. The first is, understandably, how awful war is. Secondly, we may look to Syria and blame religion or cite cultural factors (e.g. its the Middle East or ‘those Arabs’). After further reflection we may just blame the wickedness of men. Then, following on from that, we may imagine a world where there is no war. What we have blamed – religion, nationalism, ideology,even the authority of men – then obviously has to be reduced or eliminated.
2. Joseph de Maistre
Let us be realistic, however, if nothing else. And to achieve a sense of realism let us call to the witness stand Joseph de Maistre, the Savoyard aristocrat who commented on political matters during one of the most turbulent eras in the history of the world, the French Revolution and its aftermath. One of his most famous works was Considerations on France (1797) and this is where he had some prescient things to say about war. Some things he said are worth quoting extensively, such is their relevance.
3. Considerations on France
De Maistre starts chapter III with the following words;
The King of Dahomey, in the African interior, was not so wrong, unfortunately, when he recently told an Englishman, ‘God made the world for war; all realms, great and small, have always practised it, although on different principles.’
Unhappily, history proves that war is, in a certain sense, the habitual state of mankind, which is to say that human blood must flow without interruption somewhere or other on the globe, and that for every nation, peace is only a respite.
Syria was living in peace before the conflict and in fact analysts suspected that, unlike other Arab countries like Tunisia or Egypt, revolution would not take hold there. Of course, across the region there have been many wars and the role of nation-states from Western countries – the US, the UK, even smaller countries – must be mentioned. Europe has regularly experienced great conflicts like the religious wars of the Reformation, the French revolution and its aftermath, the two world wars. Even from 1945 until today, there have been terrorist campaigns in places like Italy and Ireland and European countries have intervened in other places. Syria is not unique.
Following on from the passage about the King of Dahomey, de Maistre cites conflicts, both recent and ancient, where there was great loss of life and where the conflicts lasted for a long time. Following on from documenting the whole panoply of human carnage and glory, de Maistre states;
If you go back to the birth of nations, if you come down to our own day, if you examine people in all possible conditions from the state of barbarism to the most advanced civilization, you always find war.
Next is where de Maistre interprets events within a Providential context. He is famed for this approach. He questions whether war is such an evil in the following terms;
… mankind may be considered as a tree which an invisible hand is continually pruning and which often profits from the operation. In truth the tree may perish if the trunk is cut or if the tree is overpruned; but who knows the limits of the human tree? … One need not be very clever to know that when more men are killed, fewer remain at the moment … But the results of the operation are what must be considered … following the same comparison, we may observe that the skilful gardener directs the pruning less towards lush vegetation than towards the fructification of the tree; he wants fruit, not wood or leaves.
To further elaborate on this analogy, de Maistre attributes human progress to war.
… fruits of human nature – the arts, sciences, great enterprises, lofty conceptions, manly virtues – are due especially to the state of war. We know that nations have never achieved the highest point of which they are capable except after long and bloody wars.
Once more, we can see that many of the gadgets we hold in our hands or luxuries we experience, such as jet travel, owe much to the utility of such items to the furtherance of war. It is as if the fruits of war drop into our hands after the conflict finishes. To emphasize this point, de Maistre also scoffs at those who believe that it is peace which furnishes progress as opposed to war.
Nonetheless, de Maistre is not a war-monger. He is not someone, I believe, who would support in principle the US military-industrial complex. He is merely realistic about war. So as a final citation, let us listen to the following words;
… let us thunder against war and teach sovereigns an aversion to it; but let us not give into the dreams of Condorcet [a French philosopher who dreamed of producing a perfect state of mankind] … There is only one way of restraining the scourage of war, and that is by restraining the disorders which lead to this terrible purification.
4. Our Reaction to Syria
We see horrors from the Syrian conflict and if we do imagine ourselves in the shoes of those who walk in this tragedy we are subject to several emotions. We feel immense pity, we long for all wars to end, we feel anger at the participants, and probably deep-down a sense of foreboding that this could happen to us. This last sentiment explains some of the ill-feeling towards refugees … we feel that we will catch some ‘war disease’ from them.
De Maistre’s last exhortation I have cited is particularly relevant for those who live in peaceful and happy times. He is really saying we should fight a ‘war’ against injustice and corruption, as we see such things, in peaceful times so as to postpone conflict for as long as possible. But be in no doubt, conflict will inevitably occur. It will occur in the UK, in Germany, in Sweden and elsewhere at some stage, in some era. The days of peace will seem like distant memories, no matter how near they were. This war could engulf me and I might end up trundling miles across land & sea with scanty belongings relying on mercy and fearing being despoiled. It could happen to any of us and we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking otherwise or adopt self-righteously haughty positions.
As for myself, I believe, in a similar way to de Maistre, that we are all subject to a greater plan. We know no more about the plan than a leaf on a tree perceives the greater body of which it is but a small part. Even without war, we feel great pain and unhappiness in our lives but have to learn to look for the silver linings, those linings being wisdom and prudence.
War is part of the world and we are part of the world. What we shouldn’t do is adopt unrealistic perspectives on events or we may end up doing more harm than good to achieve results that are impossible. With that, I leave the final word to a great observer of 20th century events, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn;
At no time has the world been without war. Not in seven or ten or twenty thousand years. Neither the wisest of leaders, nor the noblest of kings, nor yet the Church — none of them has been able to stop it. And don’t succumb to the facile belief that wars will be stopped by hotheaded socialists. Or that rational and just wars can be sorted out from the rest. There will always be thousands of thousands to whom even such a war will be senseless and unjustified.
Colm Gillis has written two books on political theory. His latest is The Exceptionally Decisive Carl Schmitt. See here for details.