May 312011
 

“Only the dead have seen the end of war.” – George Santayana

Popularly misattributed to Plato, it was Spanish-American George Santayana who first wrote that ringing phrase in his “Soliloquies in England” in 1924, just after the greatest, most horrifying war the world had ever seen. No wise and ancient philosopher tucked away among refined Ionic columns, but a man who, like many of his time, witnessed the devastating power and tragedy of violence on a scale previously unimaginable, and for the pettiest of reasons. The phrase was not so much a philosophical observation, as a mockery of those who would celebrate too soon the tenuous peace they had accomplished through violent means, who foolishly dreamed that the war was over. A phrase written by a man who would live to see another World War spring from the festering wounds of humiliated, impoverished Germany, and the stirrings of the Cold War to follow — a man who most famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Plato did have some things to say about war, as well. “When the tyrant has disposed of foreign enemies by conquest or treaty, and there is nothing to fear from them, then he is always stirring up some war or other, in order that the people may require a leader.” Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. I can’t help but think that there is some cosmic irony in the fact that it was General Douglas MacArthur, dismissed from command by Truman for insubordination and publicly promoting aggressive war tactics against the President’s orders, who first attributed Santayana’s quote to Plato in a farewell speech to the cadets at West Point on May 12, 1962, only months before the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of a nuclear holocaust. In his farewell speech, MacArthur praised American soldiers as the greatest lovers of peace, while insisting that war and victory must be their sole obsession. Only the dead have seen the end of war.

I know little about death and what our ancestors, the beloved dead, would say or do if they were alive today. I find it hard to believe that Plato would be anything less than horrified by the mechanisms of global warfare and violence that we have invented in the last century; I imagine that he, like Santayana and so many other philosophers of our time, would struggle to reconcile such sweeping violence with a belief that there is reason and structure within the chaos, that he would be forced to temper his Idealism with the realities of impersonal genocide, chemical and biological weapons of mass suffering, remote-control drones and sophisticated technologies of destruction. But if he were living today, Plato would not be the Plato of history that we remember and honor, the philosopher contemplating the shadows in his cave with what we like to imagine as a kind of prescient wisdom. He would be somebody else entirely. So I can’t say what our dead might think, feel or desire.

But I do believe that the dead live on in us. Decay is only another kind of creation, and as the poet Gary Snyder writes, “The other side of the ‘sacred’ is the sight of your beloved in the underworld, dripping with maggots.” The cycles of nature make this much clear: death is not an ending, but only another turn in the spiraling trajectory of life’s will to unfold itself into the universe. The dead live on in us. Whether in the form of literal reincarnation, souls taking up the mud and blood of the world to mold new bodies in which to make their homes — or as a metaphor that speaks of life feasting on life, each atom of air, each molecule of water cycling and recycling through countless beings, connecting us all in an eternal weft of flesh woven through the strung up warp of the horizon — is a matter for theological debate. Either way, we come to face the horrifying fact that life continues.

Horrifying, because it forces us to look at the past with different eyes. It reveals that notion — that “the dead have seen the end of war” — as a last vain hope, so long as those of us still living pursue war and violence as a means to a someday future peace. If the dead live on in us, then what kind of life do we owe to our ancestors, who fought and died — as we do still today — for the hope that it would not be the dead, but the living who would benefit? Maybe they fought for noble reasons, believing they did what was right, believing that their participation in violence could some day bring about a better world. Do we prove them wrong? The breath of that officer who once shouted his commands now fills the gasping lungs of the refugee driven from her home by bombs. The blood of the soldier spilled defending his country now runs as tears down the cheeks of the children of our enemies who, too, have lost fathers and brothers to war. We are all connected. Life continues.

On Memorial Day, I find it difficult to celebrate the militarism of our culture with barbecues and fireworks. I am brought up short by the irony of history and the ambivalence of memory. I remember not only those who have died before me, but that those of us living today are the future they were dying for, and the weight of that obligation keeps me sober and sad. That we have failed our ancestors in some way by failing to live more peaceful lives… that we have failed them by perpetuating “the Old Lie, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”*… that we have failed them by continuing to put off and postpone the real and difficult work of peace for another day, another generation…. those are the thoughts that linger in my mind when so many of the people around me seem eager to forget everything but the glory and the triumph and the self-congratulations of the victorious.

But on the day after Memorial Day, I square my shoulders and get back to work. There is much to be grateful for, and many of our beloved dead who left us legacies of peace who deserve to be remembered as well. If Memorial Day is a day to grieve the deaths of those who sought, whether nobly or foolishly, to secure a better peace through acts of war, the day after Memorial Day — and every other day besides — is a day to honor their memory by living that peace they hoped for, and ensuring that our own descendants have less reason to grieve.

~

* From the poem “Dulce et Decorum Est,” by Wilfred Owen, British poet and WWI soldier, who voluntarily returned to the front lines in order to continue to document the horrors of war, and who died in battle exactly one week before the signing of the Armistice.

Apr 102011
 

An amazing, though not surprising, story caught my eye recently in Yes! Magazine on the ever-developing scientific discoveries about our closest primate relatives in the animal kingdom.

For those of us whose religious practices are anchored in relationship with the earth and its many inhabitants, the scientific world has often seemed to lag behind in its recognition of the complexity and subtlety of nonhuman experience as we witness it on a regular basis. Studies revealing the intelligence and sensitivity of dolphins, elephants, corvine birds, honeybees and even trees and other plants, confirm what many of us have long known to be true of the many denizens that share the planet with us.

Yet for all the reluctance and skepticism of modern science, the general knowledge of the nonscientific layperson often lags another decade or two behind that. Such is the case when it comes to our closest animal relatives: primates. Most people are familiar with research from the 1960s and 1970s when scientists first began to document examples of violence and even a kind of proto-”warfare” among chimpanzees and other primate species. Advocates of patriarchy and warfare as inherent aspects of human nature often cite these examples to make their case, stating that efforts towards peaceful and egalitarian societies are bound for failure in the face of our “natural” animal instincts towards violence and domination.

Yet, as biologist Robert M. Sapolsky points out:

…all along there has been another chimp species, one traditionally ignored because of its small numbers; its habitat in remote, impenetrable rain forests; and the fact that its early chroniclers published in Japanese. These skinny little creatures were originally called “pygmy chimps” and were thought of as uninteresting, some sort of regressed subspecies of the real thing. Now known as bonobos, they are recognized as a separate and distinct species that taxonomically and genetically is just as closely related to humans as the standard chimp.

A layperson more up-to-date on their popular science may have also heard of the bonobos, especially their reputation for “free love” sexuality.

Bonobos have sex in every conceivable position and some seemingly inconceivable ones, in pairs and groups, between genders and within genders, to greet each other and to resolve conflicts, to work off steam after a predator scare, to celebrate finding food or to cajole its sharing, or just because.

Within their female-dominated social system, bonobos often engage in sharing food (and sex) along with other well-developed ways of easing social tensions and establishing community bonds. Bonobo males tend to be smaller than their chimp relatives, and far less aggressive. Yet, like the chimpanzees with their aggression, bonobos seem to be “peaceful by nature,” and it’s difficult to say exactly why they are the way they are. While their genetic similarity to human beings certainly puts a damper on arguments drawing too heavily from the example of chimpanzees alone, as Sapolsky says, “the bonobo has little to say to us” as a species with an undeniable history of both war and peace to reconcile.

Perhaps far more fascinating, and far more relevant to conversations about the “naturalness” of peace versus violence in the human animal, is the latest research coming from primatologists on the adaptability and elasticity of primate nature.

This adaptability appears most strikingly among some of the most violent of primates: the savanna baboons of the African grasslands. An expert with thirty years experience researching this species, Sapolsky describes them as aggressive “warriors,” noting the strict hierarchies among males based on violent rivalries to establish dominance, the high rate of aggression directed towards third parties (e.g. subordinate bystanders), and the fact that most males die as the result of violent conflict of one kind or another. Yet even in this species, with violence so apparently innate, surprising adaptability can be found. Sapolsky cites one particular study of a troop of savanna baboons in Kenya (known as the “Forest Troop”) whose dominant, aggressive males were all wiped out by disease in a “selective bottleneck” in the 1980s, resulting in a population of less aggressive and more social than average males and a doubled female-to-male ratio. Sapolsky writes:

The social consequences of these changes were dramatic. There remained a hierarchy among the Forest Troop males, but it was far looser than before. Aggression was less frequent, particularly against third parties. And rates of affiliative behaviors, such as males and females grooming each other or sitting together, soared. There were even instances, now and then, of adult males grooming each other—a behavior nearly as unprecedented as baboons sprouting wings.

But the real surprise came almost twenty years later. To this day, this particular troop of baboons retains its less aggressive, more peaceful behavior despite the rarity of such behavior among others of their species. Furthermore, this change in behavior is not due to genetic selection. Male baboons leave the troop of their birth at puberty, ensuring genetic variety; as a result, by the early 1990s all of original high affiliation males of the Forest Troop had died and their male offspring moved on, to be replaced with male baboons from other troops. These new males, rather than causing a resulting increase in aggression among the members of the troop, adapted to the more social, more peaceful culture.

The use of the word “culture” here is no accident, either. As Sapolsky explains:

As defined by both anthropologists and animal behaviorists, “culture” consists of local behavioral variations, occurring for nongenetic and nonecological reasons, that last beyond the time of their originators. Forest Troop’s low aggression/high affiliation society constitutes nothing less than a multigenerational benign culture.

What implications does this new research have for human beings grappling with questions of nature versus nurture when examining issues of violence, war, peace and justice?

For generations, human beings viewed themselves as unique or special among the creatures of the earth, able to rise above their degraded, violent, “fallen” animal natures and choose instead lives of peace, morality, justice and kindness. Today, both earth-centered, embodied Pagan traditions and modern research in biology and neuroscience challenge the false dichotomy that would separate human beings from the other animals of the world. While some might see this as reason to embrace the “inherent violent tendencies” of human nature and revel in the destructive and aggressive behaviors that result, growing evidence in many fields of study suggest that “nature” is far from the cruel, brutish, “red in tooth and claw” realm of fear and struggle that we have long assumed it to be. In fact, the natural world is full of examples of affection, compassion, sympathy, friendship, altruism and, yes, peaceful community living — even among our close relatives.

But more importantly, studies by contemporary primatologists continue to uncover examples of how our closest animal relatives are not just capable of peace, but of astounding adaptation, flexibility and elasticity in their behavior. Evidence for the existence of culture among nonhuman primates, in which behaviors of sociability and cooperation can be learned and passed down for generations, suggests not only that humans are far from unique in this respect, but that our striving towards justice, fairness and peace — our longing for “thinking to replace killing” — may itself actually be an expression of our primate natures.

The philosophy of pacifism has been built on this very notion. The word itself — from the Latin roots pax and facere, meaning “to make peace” — invokes the idea of creating peace even in the midst of violence. Pacifism does not deny that violence is an aspect both of human nature and of our shared history of warfare and conflict. Rather, it celebrates the creativity and adaptability of the human animal, and our capacity to respond to conflict and destruction with kindness, patience, compassion and altruism. Pacifism looks to human culture as that reserve of wisdom and tradition that we inherit from our ancestors, who have seen the violence and war of history firsthand, and that we will pass on to our descendants in our turn, and it asks us the simple question: what kind of culture are we willing to create?

The natural world is no longer the world of unbending, immutable physical laws scientists once believed it to be, even by their own admission. More and more, we see the evidence in nature — both in nonhuman animals and in ourselves — that there is room for chance, there is space for choice, and there is, always, the possibility of change.




Now would be a good time to mention the newest PNC blog, No Unsacred Place, which launched last week and has already featured several excellent pieces by writers such as Ruby Sara, Cat Chapin-Bishop, Meical abAwen and more! There is a great variety of both talent and expertise among the writers of this project, who’ll be covering everything from animal rights to nature-based liturgy to green living. The blog administrator, I will also be participating as a writer, focusing especially on topics of deep ecology, environmental ethics and issues of “ecojustice.” So if you’re interested in more articles exploring “the relationships between religion and science, nature and civilization from a diversity of modern Pagan perspectives,” definitely head on over and check it out!


* My friend and coworker, Arthur, can be blamed for the title of this post. Enjoy the literal video version.