Si vis pacem, para bellum—If you wish for peace, prepare for war (Allmand, 2011). This runs counter to Scilla Elworthy’s message, but is worth considering in conjunction with her talk.
Vegetius’ De Re Militari explores this struggle between war and peace, shared by both philosopher kings of the ancient city-states and leaders of the modern world today (Allmand, 2011). Though the two most popular schools of thought in evolutionary psychology still disagree heavily over the innateness of war and violence, it is hard to dismiss the universality of conflict and aggression present in humans and animals alike. While research has shown the potential for violence to be a universal quality, hard-wired at birth for human survival, some anthropologists believe that humans also have a greater potential for peace than for violence (Plutchik, 1994; Fry, 2007). Answers to questions concerning this aspect of human nature lie somewhere in between. Many individuals deny and even fear their capacity to perform brutal acts of violence or murder, preferring to view the world with rose-colored lenses. To deny our ability to inflict harm or kill another human is to deny an entire facet of ourselves, however.
When Vegetius wrote De Re Militari, he did much more than produce a treatise on strategic warfare and operational success in combat. In the midst of Rome’s military dominance, Vegetius breathed new life into the muscled and brute notions of strength and power, perhaps saving the Roman Empire from its own demise. Vegetius explained that only through the strength of arms can a civilization maintain peace. His concern was not about simply fighting, but fighting wisely. One of the principles of war he outlines includes a military maxim which describes military strength as preparation for peace, not war (Allmand, 2011). Similar to Max Weber’s theory on the monopoly on violence, Vegetius’ fervid exhortation of what sounds like an arms build-up would cause extreme discomfort in today’s post-Cold War world, especially as leaders in each of the power countries do a political song and dance with the nuclear arms of other countries. However, it is especially true in these occasions that Vegetius and Weber would preach to maintain peace, for a state’s success comes from its institutionalized military. Even in a regime headed by an unruly dictator, the existence of a professionalized and institutionalized military allows the state to maintain peace and protect its people because a state’s monopoly on violence does not equate to a dictator’s desire to exert power (Weber, 1919). Simply put, an institutionalized military can prevent abuses of power by an authoritarian regime; it can prevent unnecessary war or conflict.
This becomes important in understanding self-defense. Isolating the concept of si vis pacem, para bellum to just the individual yields a better understanding of the interplay of power, strength, and violence. The individual needs to have a full appreciation of all three in order to achieve peace and, more importantly, ensure safety. This corollary comes as a natural extension to the monopoly on violence, which, at its core, boils down to the ability to control violence. Self-defense and the martial arts do not concern themselves with the liberal use of violence or the abuse of power. By their very nature, violent techniques, when performed correctly, allow any individual to inflict serious harm on another or cause death. However, in the martial arts, violence is not taught, practiced, or used as the primary means of achieving peace. It teaches the individual about the capacity for violence and controls it the same way a state controls its monopoly on violence. Self-defense is never solely about learning techniques. Proper self-defense emphasizes cultivating the proper mentality above all else. Techniques should be used only after all other means of resolving conflict have been exhausted or under the threat of imminent danger. It is more than apparent that life-threatening situations demand the use of self-defense. Once techniques are learned properly, the potential for violence is well-established in any individual.
At this point, the conversation shifts from whether an individual can inflict potentially fatal blows on another—to which the answer is a definitive yes, but whether the individual can live with the consequences that may arise. To do so requires us to consciously peer into what we consider as repulsive in ourselves. It is only through reaching into the depths of the soul can we begin to appreciate the aspects of ourselves we fear or intentionally avoid—the unpleasant aspects that make us aware of our ability to injure or kill. That which we consider destructive—the ability to harm—cannot also be thought of as something to expunge from ourselves because in life-threatening situations, can becomes need to. Soldiers understand the gravity of taking another life, but accept that possibility as part of their duty. These individuals can and will harm/kill because they are on a battlefield that demands it. The same logic applies for civilians who find themselves in imminent danger, and flight is not an option.
Civilian or officer, the thought of permanently injuring or taking the life of another should never sit comfortably with anyone, whether it is in the name of self-defense or even the duty to protect. Violence is not an option unless it is the only option. This does not signal an erosion of morals. It comes with the recognition that the use of violence must be consistent with the moral maxims each person lives by. The majority of the general population cannot stomach or live by an ethical code that includes violence, but those who do are warriors who fight the good fight. That is how the strongest of men, capable of killing enemy combatants with their bare hands, can also be the most loving of fathers. They serve by properly channeling their passions into something good. One can be stirred to anger by an injustice or provoked to “noble anger” to correct a wrong or protect a civil society. Much like the quality of anger itself cannot be considered a vice, violence cannot be deemed morally good or bad. More often than not, though, violence is conventionally and conveniently viewed as inextricably linked to moral depravity. This understanding of violence does not take into consideration the preservation of life by what is described as “legitimate defense,” the use of measured force to preserve one’s own life or the life of another, with measured force being only that which is necessary to defend against imminent danger.
This does not change when in defense of others. In Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas states, the “lack of the passion of anger is also a vice” (1920). ). It is never enough to avoid evil; one must continuously strive to do good, even at the cost of losing patience. Aquinas cautions against becoming comfortable with what he considers “unreasonable patience, […] the hotbed of many vices” (1920). To do so allows us to stop challenging ourselves to channel passions into good causes. If we fail to protect, for fear of what it turns us into, we fail ourselves, our loved ones, and our society. Patience is a virtue we must lose when we take up the right cause or a worthy fight. In its place is anger, a passion that can create evil, but can also stir a mother to give up her own life trying to protect her children against an intruder, a woman to fight a man who wants to advantage of her body, and a brother to look over his younger siblings vigilantly in a bad neighborhood. The defense of others requires us to dig even further than we would otherwise, into the core of our being, to fight for someone else while preserving our own moral fiber.
As with protecting oneself, the martial arts also mold individuals into protectors and guardians of others. They are forces to be reckoned with because they value their loved ones, their community, or their country before themselves. Their passions are more intense than the average person because they have already committed to valuing others’ lives more than their own. They are the first to be incited but the last to use physical force as a solution. Their spirit ignites a fire so others leave this world better than when they found it.
Allmand, C. (2011). The De Re Militari of Vegetius: The Reception, Transmission and Legacy of a Roman text in the Middle Ages. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Aquinas, T. (1920). Summa Theologica (Vol. 4). London, England: Burns, Oates & Washburne.
Fry, D. (2007). The Human Potential for Peace: An Anthropological Challenge to Assumptions about War and Violence. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Plutchik, R. (1994). The Psychology and biology of emotion. Cambridge: Harper Collins College Publishers.
Weber, M. (1919). “Politics as a Vocation.” Essays in Sociology, edited by H.H. Garth and C. Wright Mills, 26-45. New York: Macmillian.