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Thomas Merton: Simone Weil and why nations go to war

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

American writers on peace and against war

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Thomas Merton
From The Answer of Minerva
Pacifism and Resistance in Simone Weil

Simone Weil’s love of peace was never sentimental and never quietistic; and though her judgment sometimes erred in assessing concrete situations, it was seldom unrealistic. An important article she wrote in 1937 remains one of the classic treatments of the problem of war and peace in our time. Its original title was “Let us not start the Trojan War all over again.” It appears in her Selected Essays as “The Power of Words.”…

But there is nothing mystical about this essay. It develops a theme familiar to Montaigne and Charron: the most terrible thing about war is that, if it is examined closely, it is discovered to have no rationally definable objective. The supposed objectives of war are actually myths and fictions which are all the more capable of enlisting the full force of devotion to duty and hatred of the enemy when they are completely empty of content. Let us briefly resume this article, since it contains the substance of Simone Weil’s ideas on peace and is (apart from some of her topical examples) just as relevant to our own time as it was to the late thirties.

…Simone Weil remarks that while our technology has given us weapons of immense destructive power, the weapons do not go off by themselves (we hope). Hence, it is a primordial mistake to think and act as if the weapons were what constituted our danger, rather than the people who are disposed to fire them. But more precisely still: the danger lies not so much in this or that group or class, but in the climate of thought in which all participate (not excluding pacifists). This is what Simone Weil set herself to understand. The theme of the article is, then, that war must be regarded as a problem to be solved by rational analysis and action, not as a fatality to which we must submit with bravery or desperation. We see immediately that she is anything but passively resigned to the evil of war. She says clearly that the acceptance of war as an unavoidable fatality is the root of the power politician’s ruthless and obsessive commitment to violence.

This, she believed, was the “key to our history.”

If, in fact, conflicting statesmen face one another only with clearly defined objectives that were fully rational, there would be a certain measure and limit which would permit of discussion and negotiation. But where the objectives are actually nothing more than capital letter slogans without intelligible content, there is no common measure, therefore no possibility of communication, therefore, again, no possibility of avoiding war except by ambiguous compromises or by agreements that are not intended to be kept. Such agreements do not really avoid war. And of course they solve no problems.

The typology of the Trojan War, “known to every educated man,” illustrates this. The only one, Greek or Trojan, who had any interest in Helen was Paris. No one, Greek or Trojan, was fighting for Helen, but for the “real issue” which Helen symbolized. Unfortunately, there was no real issue at all for her to symbolize. Both armies, in this war, which is the type of all wars, were fighting in a moral void, motivated by symbols without content, which in the case of the Homeric heroes took the form of gods and myths. Simone Weil considered that this was relatively fortunate for them, since their myths were thus kept within a well-defined area. For us, on the other hand (since we imagine that we have no myths at all), myth actually is without limitation and can easily penetrate the whole realm of political, social, and ethical thought.

Instead of going to war because the gods have been arguing among themselves, we go because of “secret plots” and sinister combinations, because of political slogans elevated to the dignity of metaphysical absolutes: “our political universe is peopled with myths and monsters – we know nothing there but absolutes.” We shed blood for high-sounding words spelled out in capital letters. We seek to impart content to them by destroying other men who believe in enemy-words, also in capital letters.

But how can men really be brought to kill each other for what is objectively void? The nothingness of national, class, or racial myth must receive an apparent substance, not from intelligible content but from the will to destroy and be destroyed. (We may observe here that the substance of idolatry is the willingness to give reality to metaphysical nothingness by sacrificing to it. The more totally one destroys present realities and alienates oneself to an object which is really void, the more total is the idolatry, i.e., the commitment to the falsehood that the nonentity is an objective absolute….

The will to kill and be killed grows out of sacrifices and acts of destruction already performed. As soon as the war has begun, the first dead are there to demand further sacrifice from their companions, since they have demonstrated by their example that the objective of the war is such that no price is too high to pay for its attainment. This is the “sledge hammer argument,” the argument of Minerva in Homer: “You must fight on, for if you now make peace with the enemy, you will offend the dead.”

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