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BARBAROUS PHILOSOPHERS

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By Christopher Coker

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The Montréal Review, July 2011

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"Barbarous Philosophers: Reflections on the Nature of War From Heraclitus to Heisenberg" by Christopher Coker (Columbia University Press, 2010)

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"Barbarous Philosophers is a splendid introduction for specialists and nonspecialists. Like Plato synthesizing Parmenides's world of eternal being and Heraclitus's world of constant change, Christopher Coker compels his readers to think through what Clausewitz and Sun called the enduring yet ever-changing character of war."

- Karl F. Walling, United States Naval War College

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"The night can sweat with terror as before

We pieced our thoughts together into philosophy"

(W.B. Yeats, Nineteen hundred and nineteen)

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In his book The Invention Of Peace Michael Howard quotes the nineteenth century English jurist, Sir Henry Maine. "It is not peace which was natural and primitive and old, but rather war. War appears to be as old as mankind but peace is a modern invention. Not only is war to be seen everywhere but it is war more atrocious than we, with our ideas, can easily conceive". (Howard, 2000) In fact,  war is quite recent, and it is an invention too, and it took the philosophers to discern its true 'nature'.  In this book I set out to explore the nature of war through the work of sixteen philosophers from Heraclitus, perhaps the greatest of the pre-Socratics, to Werner Heisenberg, one of the greatest philosopher-physicists of the 20th century.  The contention of the book is that war, as opposed to warfare, is largely an invention of philosophy - our reflection on organised collective violence that dates from the time that we emerged from the hunter-gatherer stage of development and created the first civilisations centred around the city.  

First a word about philosophy. In claiming that philosophers invented war, I acknowledge that the claim that the Greeks invented philosophy does not these days go undisputed. Does philosophy begin with the pre-Socratics? Were all of them Greek? Some historians of philosophy contend, for example, that the Ionian philosophers were the product of a specific multi-cultural environment: they benefited from living at the interface between two cultures, one Persian the other Greek. What I am referring to is a tradition that one man, Aristotle, essentially created by deciding on a canon of works which went back to Plato and beyond to what we (but certainly not the Greeks) call the pre-Socratics, men such as Heraclitus who lived in the 6th century BC, and to whom Plato acknowledged an enormous debt. Greek philosophy may be an invented tradition, but it is a tradition nonetheless, and it happens to be the one that has influenced western thinking about war.

At the centre of the canon is Aristotle's  key insight to be found in one of his lesser books, The Posterior Analytics that "though one perceives the particular, perception is of the universal". The exploration of the  particular will naturally lead to a grasp of an embodied universe. The core of Aristotelian thinking is the idea that  our senses allow us to make sense of perceptible objects, the phenomena we see, feel and hear every day. It is the mind that allows us to make sense of intelligible objects. It is the essence of things that are intelligible which is why our mind contemplates essences such as the nature of war. War, too, has its internally consistent principles, and by reasoning them out, we can give ourselves greater power to shape our lives and the world around us which is what Heraclitus meant when he said (and it is his most famous saying) that 'war is the father of everything'. It fathers change and is in turn transformed by the changes it fathers. Despite the fact that the nature of war is fixed its character is always changing.

At the risk of anachronism, I would call Heraclitus the first complexity theorist - the first writer to appreciate - to echo the contemporary complexity theorist Herbert Simon  -  that  the purpose of philosophy is to understand the "meaningful simplicity in the midst of disorderly complexity". Behind the flux of everyday life, he saw an intelligent structure that had 'ordered' existence, one which it was the task of philosophy to uncover if it could. Behind the ever-changing character of war are to be found 'the rules' which need to be grasped if it is to be waged successfully. But the rules are not really rules - they are regularities, and knowing them won't necessarily help you to win. Most are actually paradoxes. Indeed, the nature of war is paradoxical - that is the supreme insight that philosophy has given us. Although there are rules they are often traps - because knowing the rules will merely give you a better chance of success (all things being equal). War is paradoxical for that reason. All the questions I pose in Part Two of the book where I discuss the contribution of individual philosophers are paradoxes: Why are war and peace so difficult to distinguish? (Heraclitus) Why is war, not the suspension of politics, but its continuation in a different form? (Aristotle) Why is competitiveness positive, and competition not? (Hobbes) Why should we do nothing in war that compromises peace? (Kant) Why is the essence of military technology not 'technological'? (Heidegger) And why, despite the rules, is war still an art, not a science? (Heisenberg)

Most importantly, I am not claiming that the philosophers invented war is the same way that scientists invented the computer or the atomic bomb. What they did was to clarify the nature of war very early in human history using all the resources at their disposal and thereby  influenced how it was conducted. Their ideas penetrated the military consciousness, usually indirectly (although Alexander the Great was unusual on taking a pet philosopher with him on campaign). To the extent generals allowed their minds to be shaped over time by the work of philosophy they were the progeny of Heraclitus, the very first philosopher to ask: what is the nature of war.

In sixteen different essays I look at different features of the grammatology of war through the eyes of some of the great philosophers including: Why war encourages imitation? (Plato) Why war is a continuation of politics by other means? (Aristotle) Why peace is a contested concept? (Augustine) Why war encourages competitiveness, not competition? (Hobbes) Why we must respect our enemies even if they don't respect us (Kant) and why the warrior is a human type (Nietzsche)? And Nietzsche's observation is no less true today than it was when he first formulated it, even in an age when drones roam the skies of Afghanistan and Iraq and soldiers are coming to terms with the fact that they will soon share the battle space with robots.

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Christopher Coker is professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and adjunct professor at the Staff College in Oslo. He is the author of many books on defense and security issues, including The Warrior Ethos: Military Culture and the War on Terror and Human Warfare.

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