Something I Read About Nonviolence

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.

 

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. 😝

6 thoughts on “Something I Read About Nonviolence

  1. I have argued that the common assumption that Ares is all about war all the time is missing a deeper mystery of His that has to do with emotional honesty. A mystery that involves acknowledging pain and sadness and fear and turning them into action instead of bottling them up and making them self-destructive. In this context, praying to Him for help in channeling these passions into a form not soaked in blood makes the same sense as praying to Apollo to withhold plague. It also suggests the Spartans’ “chained Ares” was less about “keeping the martial spirit in Sparta” and more about restraining one’s passions except when it served the state.

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    1. That’s a very interesting insight, thank you!

      From my perspective, conflict is inevitable, but choosing a nonviolent paradigm is what matters. Nonviolent strategies are the realm of Hermes and Athene because they involve things that are grouped under “soft power” and persuasive techniques, applied systematically — the difference, as you have noted, is that Ares is “bound” into the paradigm of nonviolence instead of being “bound” into the paradigm of violence.

      I was thinking last night that some might misconstrue this post as a clamor for some kind of Christianized “turn the other cheek” thing, so I’m happy that you commented because it gives me the opportunity to clarify my position with the above. I grew up in Upstate NY (at least before we moved to Missouri — the parts of my childhood that were formative were in the gorges of NY, and my heart will always be there), and my mother taught me about the founding of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy because my family supports native sovereignty and rights. The story of the Peacemaker is very inspiring, and I think that there are a lot of cross-cultural lessons that can be taken about the cost of all-out war and the courage to advocate for a paradigm that involves less harm to society. (The first anti-war vigil I attended was right after 9/11 with my parents.) I recently read Plato’s Seventh Letter, and what struck me about his frustrating story (about politics and how fed up he was with them) is that it was just so relatable — it is hard to advocate for just and civil human relationships in societal settings where there is backstabbing and a perpetual cycle of violence.

      I think that once people admit that all violence begets violence and is wrong, it enables society (and groups within it) to make better choices about when to engage in which types of conflict, how to purify from violence, and how to re-integrate those who have had to commit it. Sometimes people have to choose between two morally and ethically bad spots, but that should never be an excuse to say that a certain violent action is “good” — it is a tragedy, thinking in terms of what Lattimore wrote about in STORY PATTERNS IN GREEK TRAGEDY, specifically the sections on choice and inevitability.

      Again, thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. To be fair, I don’t personally hold to the notion that nonviolence by itself solves anything- any more than does a cycle of violence. This was my main break with Christianity (Yeshua, not Constantine). I see nonviolence as powerful in the context of presenting an alternative to greater violence. In general, all of the important historical successes (including the founding of the Haudenosaunee) involved peace presented as the only way to avoid escalation by someone (not always the nonviolent resisters). When there isn’t that counterbalance, history typically winds up with Neville Chamberlain declaring “peace in our time”.

        This dual approach, I would argue, is the Athenaic one- diplomacy, compromise, and common ground with those who are willing to see reason or Promachos against those who insist on ignorance, hatred, and cycles of violence.

        I’m not trying to start an argument, I just wanted to present an alternative view of the topic. I do have great respect for those who can effectively “fight fire with marshmallows”. It takes tremendous courage and self-sacrifice.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I don’t think we’re in complete disagreement, and I think this has been a good conversation — you’ve brought up some very good points. I think this comes back to the idea that all violence is tragedy and that human effort needs to be made to prevent it. Sometimes terrible things happen, and human interactions are not the only place where we have to make ambiguous ethical decisions.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pacifism can get you killed. “Be more kind to your abuser” is the anthem of the abuser, who would always prefer you never to defend yourself.

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    1. Nonviolence doesn’t mean being a doormat. It is a set of strategies and tools that stand in active opposition to violence. However, it is definitely misconstrued in the public image.

      Liked by 1 person

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