Friday, August 17, 2007

Of Saints and War (paca)

First, I want to say that "Of Saints and War" is my best title ever, and I am now going to drop any writing projects I have ongoing just so that I can write something which I can title "Of Saints and War."

On to the post....

J, on her blog, quoted from the novel Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield, which is a fictional account of the battle of Thermopylae, made famous most recently by the movie 300. (Can a battle that has been known for 2,500 years be 'made famous' still?). The quote:

"War, not peace, produces virtue. War, not peace, purges vice. War, and preparation for war, call forth all that is noble and honorable in a man. It unites him with his brothers and binds them in selfless love, eradicating in the crucible of necessity all which is base and ignoble. There in the holy mill of murder the meanest of men may seek and find that part of himself, concealed beneath the corrupt, which shines forth brilliant and virtuous, worthy of honor before the gods.

Do not despise war, my young friend, nor delude yourself that mercy and compassion are virtues superior to andreia, to manly valor."

I was not initially reading this as a novel of Sparta, but as a real point about humanity and morality, and it is from this angle I am writing today. It's fascinating because in some way, it's absolutely right. In war, many men and women find their greatest virtues shining forth, virtues that had been disguised by whatever other foibles they had, virtues uncalled for in peaceful times. It is precisely in times of war that they become their own selves at their best, an example of what a human can be.

If this is true, though, what do we make of it? Should we actually desire war as a crucible to polish up the rough diamonds of our soul? Is war particularly important to this? Is it special?

The trouble is that we often only truly distinguish ourselves when disaster, of many types, is at our doorstep. However, just because we are often able to rise to the occasion, it doesn't mean that the disaster is "good". When a person or someone they care for gets cancer, many virtues can come forth. They discover depths of self-sacrifice in caring for another that they never knew they possessed. Their perspective on what is most important to them becomes clearer. But, this in no way means that we should wish for cancer. There was a guest columnist at a Philadephia paper who got brief notoriety a few days ago for essentially hoping for another 9/11 to bring the country together. This is, of course, muddle-headed at best.

And yet my refutation is not the whole picture either. We clearly do need things to fight for, obstacles to overcome, mountains to climb, gauntlets to run. If peace is just stasis, a pretty little nothingness, then it is a spiritual killer as much as anything else. But who says this is what peace must be? Can not launching a starship to Mars be something to fight for? Exploring the trenches of the deep ocean?

To give a novel-writing perspective on things, if peace is just a setting, but there are no obstacles to overcome, then there is no story. From a computer science perspective, there are two situations in which nothing can be learned. When things are completely random and when things are completely repetitive. If peace is mere repetition, there is no way to grow. Or from a religious perspective, this world is described as one of soul-making. We are born as biological humans and our goal is to grow into spiritual, divine humans. But surely there are other ways to grow than choosing war. As much as one man grows spiritually for fighting selflessly for the life and freedom of his family, another man never has the chance as he is lying dead in his house due to a stray bullet.


One of the most profitable discussions in moral philosophy in the last 15 years is the discussion of saints**. Saints can be religious figures, of course, but the terms has expanded to be shorthand for "moral saints", exemplars of virtue, who may or may not have religious beliefs. What's most fascinating about the study of saints is their diversity. Even if you narrow saints down to canonized Catholic saints, the virtues they exhibit are horribly varied. One saint is an intellectual scholar (Aquinas), another conquered his base self (Augustine), another is a social recluse finding closeness with God directly (Theresa), another exhibits profound compassion for others (Francis), another dies for defending his beliefs (More). In fact, there seems to be little that they truly have in common. This variability is common across cultures and traditions. Jewish wise men (tzazikim, I believe, but I don't have the book with me), Confucian scholar-sages, Boddhisatvas, and other exemplars, such as MLK Jr, Ghandi, and Schindler, are all very different types of people. Even in everyday life, seemingly opposing traits can both genuinely be lauded, such as one person being a joy for her gregariousness and friendliness, and another person being a blessing for her calm and quiet manner.

What do we do with all this? If we are to emulate the saints, how can we ever do so if they are all so different? What does this mean for our own personal goal of living up to our own potential?

One intriguing fact about moral saints is that there seems to be a bit of luck in becoming one. Let's take Oscar Schindler, who saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust. He was in fact a deeply flawed human being who only had a factory because it was taken from the original Jewish owners and he happily went over to run it. He liked drink and womanizing. And, moreover, one of the only reasons he was later able to save so many people was because he was able for some time to hang out pleasantly with Nazi commanders and SS captains. If the Holocaust had not occurred, it is very possible he would have passed away into the world having never encountered a situation that required him to become more than he was. He was "lucky" in that what was needed at that point in history were the virtues that he happened to have. If his greatest strength had been as a bold and strident fighter for what he believed, he likely would have been killed and saved few.

Returning to war, when one man is bravely desperately storming the beaches of Normandy with bullets flying, one of his comrades fails and collapses into the water, unable to function. Perhaps he will by luck survive, perhaps he will die, but he did not have the virtues that this battle called for. However, maybe he would have saved a hundred men by dressing their wounds. Or he might have turned a battle by sitting in a room in London calculating statistics and breaking a code. But he never had those chances, where he could have been a successful hero. Instead he was in a place where he could not cope and was washed away in the reddening surf.

**This discussion of saints and Schindler is based entirely on a single book, but I do not have it with me. I will dig up the title and author for you when I am in my office again.


J said...

Thanks for your thoughts on this.

I posted the quote because it explains why people romanticize war and also the fraternity among veterans.

But this quote ignores killing in war and the "othering" of the enemy. Although, interestingly, Gates of Fire also addresses that. It's a very good book.

Sammy Jankis said...

Personally I'd like to see us battle, oh, I don't know, hunger, poverty, social injustice, ignorance, and the Florida Gator football team. I really think Bush was swayed into Iraq by GOP hawks who convinced him that he would go down in history as the man who laid the first stone toward a foundation for uniting the Middle East under democratic ideals. He saw himself as a noble benefactor that would be remembered throughout history. The truth is that many people see war as the true capstone of the country's economic engine and a source of prestige and envy for the rest of the world.

Mamaebeth said...

well, at least among the catholic saints, there is a common characteristic. The "head" saint, the person we (Catholics) are supposed to look up to more than any other saint (we're excluding Jesus here) is Mary. The reason is in the bible; An angel of God tells Mary what God wants her to do and she submits to God's will. she doesn't run away, she doesn't argue, she doesn't fight against it.
That's it really. i think you kind of hit on the idea at the end of your post. to be a "saint" you should figure out what God wants you to do, what your purpose is and do it to the best of your abilities.
or at least that is my understanding of it. I think Merton addresses it in his book "On Life and Holiness"