Today, a conversation about the normalization of calls for violence on social media sparked me to wonder what kinds of ethical and moral writings existed about nonviolence — ones that did not take a Christian perspective.
While Googling a variety of terminology (nonviolence, ahimsa, &c.), I ended up finding Mark Kurlansky’s Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea, and looking up information about it.
My interest in nonviolence dates back to when I was a child, maybe 10 or 11. There was a made-for-TV miniseries called Merlin. Merlin is very pro-Christian — one of the core premises is that the “Old Ways” (a euphemism for polytheism) are dying out because they are immoral/amoral and thus bad for people. Queen Mab, some kind of (minor divinity? fae?) is the main antagonist because she wants to maintain the Old Ways, and she is willing to commit violence to do it. (Christianity is presented as civilizing and moralizing in this context, and at the end of the miniseries, Queen Mab is destroyed when the last of her followers turn away from the Old Ways for the new order.)
Despite the context, I vividly remember one specific moment — after Arthur pulls the sword from the stone and raises it aloft, blood drips down from his hands onto his face. Queen Mab, the antagonist, says something like, Behold, his reign begins in blood, and it will end the same.
Those words held fast in my mind as I grew up and increasingly noticed the ways in which violence creates more violence in an endless cycle, something only broken by conscious effort to do something else.
While looking up reviews of Kurlansky’s Nonviolence, I ended up on the Wikipedia page, which doesn’t say much about it. It does, however, include 25 lessons about nonviolence.
Most of these do match what I’ve learned over the years.
These are the ones that stand out the most to me from the Wikipedia page:
8. People who go to war start to resemble their enemy.
9. A conflict between a violent and a nonviolent force is a moral argument. If the violent side can provoke the nonviolent side into violence, the violent side has won.
10. The problem lies not in the nature of man, but in the nature of power.
11. The longer a war lasts, the less popular it becomes.
16. Violence does not resolve; it always leads to more violence.
18. People motivated by fear do not act well.
21. Once you start the business of killing, you just get deeper and deeper without limits.
22. Violence always comes with a supposedly rational explanation, which is only dismissed as irrational if the violence fails.
23. Violence is a virus that infects and takes over.
Violence, to me, always means that something has gone heinously wrong. It doesn’t matter what type of violence it is — it is much easier to punch someone or to wish lim harm than to struggle to continue to see someone else’s human dignity in the face of destructive instinct and impulse. People who do bad things are still human. It is horrifying to think of all of the things we are capable of and just how easily any of us could slip into committing unethical and unjust actions.
This is admittedly a harder line than a lot of people take.
This extends to religious actions, too — I was reading some bits and pieces of Inner Purity and Pollution in Greek Religion, Volume 1, by Andrej and Ivana Petrovic, and they quote Diodorus Siculus saying this about Pythagoras’ view on prayers:
ὅτι ὁ αὐτὸς ἀπεϕαίνετο τοῖς θεοῖς εὔχεσθαι δεῖν τὰ ἀγαθὰ τοὺς ϕρονίμους ὑπὲρ τῶν ἀϕρόνων· τοὺς γὰρ ἀσυνέτους ἀγνοεῖν, τί ποτέ ἐστιν ἐν τῷ βίῳ κατὰ ἀλήθειαν ἀγαθόν. (10.9.8) Ὅτι ὁ αὐτὸς ἔϕασκε δεῖν ἐν ταῖς εὐχαῖς ἁπλῶς εὔχεσθαι τἀγαθά, καὶ μὴ κατὰ μέρος ὀνομάζειν, οἷον ἐξουσίαν, κάλλος, πλοῦτον, τἄλλα τὰ τούτοις ὅμοια· πολλάκις γὰρ τούτων ἕκαστον τοὺς κατ’ ἐπιθυμίαν αὐτῶν τυχόντας τοῖς ὅλοις ἀνατρέπειν.
For he himself [Pythagoras] disclosed that wise men should pray to the gods for the good things for the benefit of the unwise, since the unwise are incapable of understanding what in life is truly good. (10.9.8) He used to say that it was necessary in prayers to pray simply for the good things, and not to name them individually, such as for instance to pray for power, beauty, wealth, and other similar things. For often each of these things, when those who desired them acquire them, turning against them, totally ruins them.
(p. 63 of Inner Purity & Pollution in Greek Religion, emphasis added)
On Twitter a while ago (30 June, to be exact), when I shared that excerpt, I responded to it with this:
As an aside, it’s way harder to pray for the wellbeing + personal growth of someone who has wronged you instead of reaching for vengeance. Like you can feel a prayer in your gut. Moving the dissonant division in your head into alignment with what is right is like breaking stone. [link]
One of the things people might say (okay, that people have said — I don’t remember who, though, because it was years ago) is that pacifism, nonviolence, and similar concepts do not honor Ares — and I think that here, it is important to say that in the Homeric Hymn #8: To Ares, he is propitiated to help people not lose our tempers and to enable peace. A war within one’s own inner self is still a war.
There are some images from the hymns at the Twitter link below — just click on the date to see all of them.
— Kaye Boesme · On Hiatus (@kayeboesme) June 30, 2019
That said, I sometimes slip — we’re all human, after all, and a lot of what is going on right now in society is truly disturbing. It is extremely hard to maintain one’s center when overwhelmed.
I’ve added the book Nonviolence to my already-brimming TBR list, but I thought I’d share these preliminary thoughts. Also, be kind — I legit just spent 15 minutes typing this up during my lunch break. 😝