How to Think About War and Peace

In 1944, Mortimer Adler, then professor of law at the University of Chicago, wrote a 300 page book, How to Think about War and Peace, published by Simon and Schuster. Adler has since organized the world’s wisdom into the Syntopicon and has helped shape the Great Books movement. His book on war and peace has influenced the thinking of peacemakers for a quarter of a century.

This book begins with a Plea to the Reader by Clifton Fadiman. “I am pleading with you,” Mr. Fadiman writes with heart-rending sincerity, “to do something difficult—to read a book that had to be hard in order to be good, and is both.” Although I am touched by Mr. Fadiman’s evident adoration for the great intellectual depths and profundities of Mr. Adler, I cannot share his feelings. How to Think about War and Peace did not seem either hard or good to me. It seemed easy and bad.

Mr. Adler’s thesis is so simple that a child, or even a professor of law, could understand it. The thesis is this: there is “only one cause of war,” and this cause is “anarchy.” No other factor is a came of war—not “economic rivalry,” not “cultural antipathies,” not “religious differences,” not “individual acts of injustice,” not “hate and fear,” not even “factions and ideologies.” Mr. Adler examines all these causes and proves, at least to his own satisfaction, that they are not causes of war. Only “anarchy” is a cause of war.

Now this is, on the face of it, absurd. Except for the Eskimos‘ and the Nuer, there are no Stateless societies left in the world. “Archy” (State-ism) and not “Anarchy” (Statelessness) is dominant everywhere. Saying that anarchy is the cause of war—the only cause of war (Mr. Adler actually says, with emphatic italics bristling with dogma)—is like saying that the poverty of the poor is caused by their riches, or that the starving peoples of Asia are dying from over-eating. It is the kind of proposition that only a professor from the University of Chicago would utter.

Oh, but we’ve been taking Mr. Adler too literally. He does not mean by “anarchy” what is normally meant by that word. He admits that we are all blessed with benevolent governments overlooking our activities, but we are still “anarchists.” Why? Well, it seems that we do not have yet enough government. We need more of it; we need it in horse doctor’s doses; we need it on a world-wide scale. In short, we need—surprise! surprise!—World Government.

Let us look into this thesis a bit. According to Mr. Adler, “It is the absence of governmental controls” which causes wars (page 74). Let us look at the largest stretch of anarchist history known to us—the 995,000 years in which man existed without the State.* According to traditional political philosophy (in which Mr. Adler was educated), this was a time of blood and broil and horror, in which Victor McLaghlen type cavemen went around beating the brains out of all weaker-looking humans. The actual facts, however, as revealed by archeology, are quite the reverse. As Elliott Smith says, “All the available evidence seems to point clearly to the conclusion that until the invention of the methods of agriculture and irrigation on the large scale practiced in Egypt and Babylon, the world really enjoyed some such Golden Age of Peace as Hesiod has described.” (The Evolution of Man) W. J. Perry is even more emphatic: “It is an error, as profound as it is universal, to think of man in the food-gathering stage as being given to fighting. All the available facts go to show that the food-gathering stage of history must have been one of perfect peace. The study of the artifacts of the Paleolithic Age fails to reveal any definite signs of human warfare.” (Children of the Sun) Note that these two experts, in a position to know, speak definitely of “all the available evidence” and “all the available facts.”

This is confirmed repeatedly by archeological diggings. Sir Arthur Evans says of his excavations in Crete, “We have found nothing that suggests war, nothing to imply civil strife or even defense against foreign raids.” (The Palace of Minos) McGowan writes of his diggings at Telelat-el-Ghassul that the city presented “no evidence that the place possessed any system of defense.” (The Ladder of Progress in Palenstine) H. B. Stevens sums up: “When the excavations of prehistoric sites get down to levels over four thousand years old, they no longer find the warlike weapons, the signs of a soldier class and the elaborate preparations for defense which characterize recent times.” (Recovery of Culture)

The facts are these: man had 995,000 years of anarchy and peace, followed by 5000 years of government and war. Only a philosopher as deep and profound as Mr. Adler could argue in the face of such historical data that government tends to create peace and anarchy tends to create war.

I am not going to be as dogmatic as Mr. Adler, in the opposite direction. I won’t say that government causes war; I merely point out that it is intimately connected. It is, let us say, part of the same kind of mentality—the authoritarian mentality. Anarchy and peace are part of the non-authoritarian, or libertarian, mentality.

Let us now turn to another of Mr. Adler’s arguments, the one that claims that nothing but anarchy causes war, that “economic rivalry,” for instance, does not came war. His argument for this proposition consists of listing all the factors popularly considered “causes of war”—and, to show how broad-minded he is, he lists almost two pages of such causes, quite objectively. Then he comments that each of these things “operates within a single community without causing war. None of these things is by itself or in itself a cause of war. Nor is war caused by a combination of all of them. Singly or together these factors and forces cause war only when their action is not restrained by the institutions and machinery of government.” (pages 75-76) At this point I begin to feel a little sorry for Mr. Adler. He must have been tired when he wrote that. The book was probably as hard for him to write as it was for Mr. Fadiman to read. For, if anything in the world is obvious, it is that “these factors and forces” (economic rivalry, etc.) “cause war only when their action is IMPLEMENTED by the institutions and machinery of government.” On a smaller scale, they do not cause war; they cause insurrection, revolution, rebellion, strikes, sabotage, passive resistance, etc. It is the “institutions and machinery of government” that lift these conflicts to the plane of war. If we had a World Government, these conflicts would not evaporate, but their expression in action would not be called “war” any more; it would be called “insurrection” or “revolution” or “rebellion,” etc.

I would like to go a little bit deeper in probing Mr. Adler’s philosophy. What causes college professors to propagate deep and profound thoughts such as his? As Korzybski points out, we experience life on three principal levels of abstraction: first, on the object level: we see, touch, handle, etc., concrete things; second, on the descriptive level: we talk about what we have seen, touched, handled, etc.; third, on the “high levels of abstraction” we talk, not about concrete things but about classes and categories of things. These higher levels are infinite: we can go from this chair right here to “chairs in general,” “furniture in general,” “manufactured articles,” “the gross national product,” “labor and capital,” and so on up to Paul Tillich’s god, “Being Itself.” The same distinctions hold true in economics: we work, first, on the object level: we plant seeds, or build chairs, or repair voltmeters, etc.; second, on the lower symbolic level: we collect rent or interest (money-tickets, symbols of labor done by somebody else); third, on increasingly higher levels of abstraction: we handle bills of exchange, or sit in congresses that pass tariff laws, or we alter the value of the currency to profit on exchange, etc. Now, mankind is the symbolizing class of life, and hence, as Korzybski said, “those who control the symbols control us.” The symbol-manipulators (usurers, landlords, philosophers, governors, etc.) make up a class more or less isolated from actual contact with actual labor-processes and they tend to think alike, abstractly and “impersonally.” Kroptokin tells in his autobiography how he became an anarchist through working for the Czarist bureaucracy in Russia: realizing that these men knew nothing about the actual labor-processes they were “administering,” he became convinced that the only way social life could ever become sane was to turn the administration back to voluntary associations of actual farmers, mechanics and other producers. (One of the classic cases Kropotkin recounts is that of a bureaucrat passing navigation laws for a river he had never seen, a river on which his laws would be not only chaotic but physically impossible.)** But the symbol-manipulators can never understand this: they are convinced that a farmer cannot plant, a mechanic cannot tighten a bolt, and a printer cannot set a line of type, without their benevolent administration above him ruling him “for his own good.”

After 5,500 years of this benevolence, the symbol-manipulators have got to the stage where they cannot provide bread for the people without ordering the farmers to burn their wheat and buying somebody else’s wheat from a thousand miles away, and cannot stop themselves from an imbecile accumulation of greater and greater war weapons and an equally compulsive verbal chatter about guaranteeing “peace”—which grows louder and more painfully sincere after each war they create. They will do everything for the people, as Tolstoy says, “everything—except get off their backs.” They love the people and they will rule them “for their own good” if they have to blow up the earth to prove it.

But, since nothing else has worked, they are now driven to carry their logic to its ultimate conclusion. Since having the sowing practices of Ohio farmers controlled from Washington (by a man who wouldn’t know a corn stalk from a tomato plant) doesn’t seem to provide perfect economic rationality, and since having the rice-paddies of Viet-Nam half-ruled by Washington and half by Moscow doesn’t give much peace to Viet-Namese rice farmers, there is, to the symbol-manipulators, only one obvious solution: we need more government, more control, more centralization. Henceforth let one gang of benevolent bureaucrats, seated let us say in Geneva, decide on the best farming methods for the slopes of the Rockies, the best currency laws for the Eskimos, the best hours of labor for the employees of the Ford Motor Co. at Dearborn, the trade regulations between the Zuni and the Navajo, etc. That such earth-shaking powers in the hands of a few men can wreak more havoc than history has ever known is inconceivable to such people.

“To be governed,” wrote Proudhon, “is to be watched, inspected, spied, directed, law-ridden, regulated, penned up, indoctrinated, preached at, checked, appraised, seized, censured, commanded. … To be governed is to have every operation, every transaction, every movement noted, registered, counted, rated, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, refused, authorized, indorsed, admonished, prevented, referred, redressed, corrected. To be governed is, under pretext of public utility and in the name of the general interest, to be laid under contribution, drilled, fleeced, exploited, monopolized, extorted, exhausted, hoaxed and robbed; then, upon the slightest resistance, at the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, villified, annoyed, hunted down, pulled about, beaten, disarmed, bound, imprisoned, shot, judged, condemned, banished, sacrificed, sold, betrayed, and to crown all, ridiculed, derided, outraged and dishonored.” Anyone living in what we ironically call civilized society knows the bitter truth of those words. It takes a philosopher, or a professor of law, to believe that such a system is defective only because it isn’t world-wide, and will become indeed perfect when it is world-wide. Perfect, in truth, it will be: perfect hell.

There is no World Federalist who can seriously claim that, under his system, there cannot occur insurrections. There could even be continent-wide insurrections, indistinguishable from war in all respects except name. That would no doubt satisfy the symbol-manipulators, but it will not satisfy mankind as a whole forever. Sooner or later, if we survive at all, we will have to begin thinking seriously about Kropotkin’s (and Proudhon’s) principle of federation: the voluntary association of small human-size communities in which the local rules are made locally by those who actually do the work. Such communities might occasionally fall into conflict, as did the communes of the Middle Ages, but they will not be able to throw the rest of mankind into an uproar along with themselves, and a man in Peru need never be afraid, under that anarchistic system, that a disagreement between a man in Moscow and a man in Washington might result in the incineration of Lima. In spite of Mr. Adler, that, at any rate, is how I prefer to think about war and peace.

* “In the history of humanity, states are very recent. Man … has probably been on the earth for about a million years. The first states arose about 5,500 years ago. … The State as a social form has therefore only existed for about one-two-hundredth of man’s history.”
— Anthropologist Kathleen Gough, in The Decline of the State (available from School of Living, Brookville, Ohio, for 25¢)

** War, one war after another; Men make ’em who couldn’t put up a good hen-roost.
— Ezra Pound, Canto 18

Way Out
How to Think About War and Peace
by Robert Anton Wilson appeared in Way Out, Volume 18, Issue 11 in December 1962.