“Against Nature’s silence I use action. In the vast indifference I invent meaning. I don’t watch unmoved I intervene And say that and this are wrong And I work to alter and improve them.” Peter Weiss


“Against Nature’s silence I use action. In the vast indifference I invent meaning. I don’t watch unmoved I intervene And say that and this are wrong And I work to alter and improve them.” Peter Weiss

From where I sit, on the face of it, the Universe is unfathomable.   With the little knowledge I possess, the vastness of space, the fact that it is unending, is beyond my understanding.  This space suggests something devoid of meaning.  Infinite.  Emotionless. Blind.  Yet here on our tiny planet Earth I look in wonder at all the evidence of life – we have an abundance of plants, sea creatures, animals and billions of micro-organisms.  There are also those curious inhabitants known as Homo sapiens.  The totality of the activity of this species, what I and others call the “human project”, stands in stark contrast to an indifferent Universe.  For some reason it compels me to reconsider outer space, and our planet, as a dynamic group of entities and beings with laws and norms that govern their movements – a cosmos, no longer without meaning.  Orderly.  A home for our ongoing experiment.

The history of mankind; the endless conflicts and triumphs, has aroused the interest of countless people.  Many scholars have researched the scope of our behaviour in an effort to find meaning and purpose.  Of course, out of these enquiries many religions have been born.  Solutions to seemingly intractable inequalities among people have been continually sought.  These investigations have continued from before the time man could first speak into modern times.  The human project goes forward unabated… like a river on its way to the sea: “He saw that the water continually flowed and flowed yet it was always there; it was always the same and yet every moment it was new”, wrote Herman Hesse’s character Siddhartha (paraphrasing the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who also famously said “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”).  And so goes the history of our species: flowing along with lots of wrongs and rights, seemingly endless, down through the ages…always the same problems but with different players in different places.  Never-the-less the search for solutions, and meaning remains constant.

Is there really any meaning to life?  Is the human project of any value?  Why war?  The earliest of civilizations found the answers to these questions and solace in gods of the sky (sun, moon and stars) along with natural elements and certain animals they considered divine.  These so-called gods were routinely anthropomorphized and worshipped with intricate ceremonies.  In most societies priestly classes were created to oversee religious practices.  Over time a new notion of gods was devised.  These were spiritual, invisible deities.  In the Mediterranean world this evolved into a belief in one God – this monotheism spawned three great religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam).  This unknowable, supposedly omnipotent being was believed to be male (to question this “fact” is considered blasphemy).  Regardless, according to the those that were converted, God took an interest in the human project and, according to believers, thereby gave our lives some gravitas, as well as meaning.  Ideas of a heaven and hell were accepted, and pleasing this God by righteous behaviour and the acceptance of his/her divinity was your ticket to an afterlife.  However concurrently, there were other views about our place in the Universe.  As Macbeth say’s in Shakespeare’s play:

“Out, out, a brief candle.

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then heard no more; it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing”.

Personally, I lean towards Shakespeare’s measure of people’s importance in the grand scheme of things.  However, I do believe there can be some meaning in life defined by some basic secular principles that, if accepted universally, could alter the flow of the human project towards more peaceful waters.

There are, I believe, some common sense rules that are enlightened and apparent to all thinking people. These are encompassed in a belief system that is called “humanism”. Humanism believes that not only are the lives of each person important, but also that humans are inherently good given the chance, and that there are certain indisputable values which are obviously true at “first sight” (prima facie, in philosophy).  These few human values, along with associated intrinsic rights, were the stuff of much discussion in early years of the American republic and in pre-revolutionary France.  One of the best, and most famous, expressions of the nature and rights of people was included in the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident,

That all men are created equal… with certain

Unalienable Rights, that among these are

Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

The French developed a similar “battle cry” for their revolution that also included brotherhood/sisterhood. Join these two traditions together, expanding them slightly, and we end up with five key values and rights that as Jefferson said, and I believe, are truly self-evident to any intelligent person:

1.      Life – everyone should have fair access to food, shelter and health care;

2.     Liberty – all people deserve freedom of speech and movement;

3.     Equality – all people should be treated equally;

4.     Brotherhood\Sisterhood – includes the right to fraternize and nurture friendships; and

5.     Pursuit of Happiness – all people should have the right and ability to pursue their dreams.

Place these five principles under an umbrella of the “Golden Rule”, do onto others as you’d have them do onto you, and you’d have a simple prescription for a civilized society – a society where people, and corporations, must respect these universal basic rights. There is no need for any “supernatural” being in our story.  These self-evident truths, mostly consistent with the worlds’ religions, act as a guiding light for an orderly and peaceful society. The moment one of these rights or values is denied a person, or nation, that is the time to “intervene” as advised by Peter Weiss’s quote at the beginning of this essay. The question is how?  As a pacifist I recommend an appeal to reason above all, and frank discussions between disagreeing parties, mediation, arbitration, the courts or, in the case of countries, diplomacy (and international courts).

I’m fond of Christopher Hitchens’s reason for getting into the business of journalism.  “I devoutly believe that words ought to be weapons”.  Convincing arguments should be the first line of defense against injustice and violation of people’s rights.  Silence is often interpreted as implicit approval.  Speak up!  Of course, there are times when more “words” won’t stop criminals, or heads of state determined to conquer weaker nations.  There are times when it is an absolute requirement to use force (think Adolf Hitler).

Throughout history there have been various attempts to protect the five basic individual rights and values outlined.  Many countries have passed laws governing citizens that encourage adherence to these basic, dare I say enlightened, principles. The method of intervening is generally performed by policing and an independent  judicial system, along with an emphasis on education.  In many nations this approach has let to successful societies with thriving populations.

Nations pose more complex problems – both in kind and magnitude.  Once words fail the options for stopping a nefarious state is limited.  It’s a pity that the United Nations does not have more cohesion, consensus and “teeth’ when it comes to dealing with wayward countries… but it doesn’t.  Recently a trade based strategy has had some success – embargos by blocks of nations have gently, and peacefully, reversed the ambitions of rogue countries.  Isolating offensive states can also bring them back to negotiations thereby allowing diplomacy to function.

Another successful strategy for avoiding wars involves the use of propaganda.  Thanks to modern electronic media it is much easier to reach the general populace (by-passing the leadership), and foment change through facts and greater knowledge.  Currently, countries can censor, or even block, all forms of electronic communications and print media but there will come day when everyone can get the information they seek…” seek and ye shall find” a great seer once declared!  Imagine being able to drop smart phones that are equipped to receive direct satellite communications so that a populace can get unfettered information- a rather fanciful proposition?  Maybe, but all efforts to avoid war and foster peaceful resolutions to conflicts are worth considering… whether it’s through talks, conferences, trade sanctions or direct and truthful propaganda, every tactic should be used before resorting to force.

When all else fails war is often inevitable. These wars are often justified because right and wrong exists at this level too. Some are wars within nations, civil or revolutionary, and others are nation against nation. Usually one party is the instigator.  If you are a state with the capacity; the question is when do you intervene? Probably when you simply cannot bear to sit by and watch anymore - when injustice and atrocities have reached an intolerable point. Che Guevara once wrote, ‘If you are capable of trembling with indignation each time an injustice is committed in the world, we are comrades….”  I think the word “trembling” offers a clue to when it is time to intervene and fight for justice.  For me, Che is speaking of a visceral kind of disgust about an event or situation.  It can also be a dangerous time because this is often when emotion overtakes reason.  As much as the Cuban Revolution was a noble fight against repression, exploitation and blatant injustice, the methods employed by the eventual victors was, and still is, open to question.  However, a peaceful resolution to an untenable situation was not realistic - under no circumstances would the ruling elites, landowners and factory owners in Cuba have given up their power and associated privileges.  This does not condone the original tactics of the revolutionaries, which included the murder of innocent people or their eventual mistreatment of anyone associated with the previous government.  As time passed there was a degradation of people’s human rights under Castro’s rule…and soon he was accused of using comparable repressive and heavy-handed tactics to that of his predecessor Batista.

The main problem with using force in conflicts is that it can also become not only indiscriminate, think Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but even worse, habit forming. The trembling fury tends to obliterate empathy and compassion.  The world becomes a black and white division of “we” vs. “they”.  A dogmatic world-view dominates the combatants on both sides and soon morphs into fanaticism…now the world is on fire.

It’s important to remember that there is always time to step back and reconsider our positions.  A healthy dose of scepticism regarding our dearly held beliefs should be included in our self-evaluation and assessments.  Realizing that all people, political systems and nations have a measure of what’s good and bad is essential.  If humanity universally accepts the noble values of life, liberty, equality, fraternity and the right to pursue one’s dreams then we must also accept that there are different routes to these rights and values.  No one person or country has all the answers.

A major obstacle to most countries achieving a society that honours and respects the five values rests with a ruling class that does not fully include the general populace in its pursuit of privilege and wealth.  This is a mistake that often leads to the demise of that same ruling class.  As Bertrand Russell wrote,” The fundamental cause of trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt”.  The stupidity he speaks of I equate with dogmatism… which, as I’ve said, leads to fanaticism which is the prevailing characteristic of religious, political and elitist thinking in general.  I wish we could tear down the fanaticism with reason and appeal to the universal values that are truly self-evident.  Am I hopeful?  Well, not very…. As Frank Zappa observed, “There is more stupidity than hydrogen in the universe, and it has a longer shelf life”.