Saturday, September 10, 2005

Hobbes or Erasmus?

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) held that the entire purpose of moral philosophy was to bring about and maintain peace. Peace through the understanding of moral philosophy! Having experienced the English civil war, he was more concerned to protect against civil strife than to prevent international conflicts, but he wrote about the need for peace generally.

[A]ll such calamities as may be avoided by human industry, arise from war, but chiefly from civil war.... The cause...of civil war is, that men know not the causes neither of war nor peace, there being but few in the world that have learned those duties which unite and keep men in peace, that is to say, that have learned the rules of civil life sufficiently. Now, the knowledge of these rules is moral philosophy. (De Corpore 1.7)

This quote is taken from J. B. Schneewind's The Invention of Autonomy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 83. Schneewind explains Hobbes' view as follows:

"Seek peace" is accordingly the first law of nature; and the second is "if peace is not attainable, do what you must to stay alive." Normative laws reflect psychological necessities. How is peace to be obtained? By giving up our right to all things. And what can this mean? Only this: recognizing that I must have peace, I will cease to have an overpoweringly strong desire for unlimited power, glory, and anything else I have previously wanted. I will come to want only as much as allows me to coexist with others who have a similarly limited set of desires. But this deisre will be my effective last appetite or will only if I am quite sure others have also come to want only this much. (90)

A much different approach to peace through understanding is found in the works of Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536). The topic of war and peace was a recurrent theme in his writings, one of which was titled with the adage: Dulce Bellum Inexpertis (war is sweet to the inexperienced). As Fred Dallmayr explains in his Peace Talks (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 2004): "Emulating Aristotle's teachings (and anticipating those of Hegel), experience for Erasmus signifies not just a factual happening, but rather a seasoning or learning process which transforms the person undergoing the experience." (33) So, the sort of understanding through which peace may be achieved, according to Erasmus, would not be knowledge of the moral rules to which Hobbes appeals, but the recollection of past sufferings leading to a determination to avoid their recurrence. People fail to learn from the horrors of past and present wars because of a kind of obtuseness or amnesia. This failure of understanding is promoted by warmongers and demagogues among whom are those "whose only reason for inciting war is to use it as a means to exercise their tyranny over their subjects more easily." (34)


Blogger Thomas said...

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10 September, 2005 14:05  

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