Today, discussion of war pervade our political sphere. The debates surrounding it are seemingly endless, but always poignantly relevant. In the following essay, three different perspectives on war will be examined. First, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche takes a decidedly atavistic approach to war in his book, On The Genealogy of Morality. Second, a fellow German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, takes an antithetical stance on war in his work, Toward Perpetual Peace. Last, Ralph Emerson’s War advocates a trust in ideas instead of situations.
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In The Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche sees the current state of Europe as awash in a ubiquitous mediocrity. Nothing wishes to become greater or better, only more mediocre and equal. Through a want for sameness, we have become meek. In our meekness, we no longer have anything to fear: there are no longer any predators. Nietzsche holds that along with losing this fear for man, we have also lost the hope and respect for man. In our universal equality, we have abolished all hope for change. This “reduction and equalization of the European human,” as Nietzsche puts it, has made us tired of trying to become better(Nietzsche 24). If we are to become better, we must reawaken our natural, warlike impulses. In order for humanity to prosper, the strong must flourish. In order for the strong to flourish, the weak must be allowed to perish. War is to be desired, on this view. Violence is good, because it allows natural selection to run its course and push mankind into a new era of superiority.
Immanuel Kant takes an opposing view in Toward Perpetual Peace. Whereas Nietzsche sees peace as a resignation, Kant interprets it as a visceral struggle to come-together as people with different aims, interests and abilities. If we are to become better, we must react violently against the war-like impetus that pervades international relations. Kant thinks that violence of any kind can only have its justification in a peaceful goal (Kant 13). Sometimes we have to think pragmatically: there are situations within which we cannot but engage in violence. But these situations can only be justified if our recourse to violence is in the name of peace. This is Kant’s hope: that peace will always serve as the goal of our efforts. On its own, war is irredeemably evil.
Ralph Emerson picks up where Kant leaves off. He argues that we ought always to strive toward peace. However, we should be careful not to get caught up in situations, as opposed to ideas. If our focus falls more so on the former, then we run the risk of turning to violence too quickly. It might seem like peace is too idealistic from the standpoint of most political situations, and therefore we ought to embrace the necessity of war. Emerson writes that “it is a lesson which all history teaches wise men, to put trust in ideas, and not in circumstances” (Emerson 9). This means that we should always keep in mind the fact that peace is worth more than war. Even when we find ourselves thoroughly enmeshed in volatile political encounters that invite us to react with violence, we ought always to look beyond the circumstances themselves. We ought to look toward the idea of peace that transcends political situations.
In conclusion, one can take many different approaches to the question of war. As we have seen, war can be interpreted as a force for change, or it can be interpreted as a deficient pragmatism that steals from us our transcendent visions. If we lose ideas like peace, then we are no better than the animals whose immediate impulse is to fight.
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