Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Why We Fight by Simon Van Booy

Why We Fight
edited by Simon Van Booy

Simon Van Booy’s Why We Fight continues the philosophical exploration of the human experience. Partial as I am to love, the selected writings on aggression still made for interesting reading. With Shakespeare making another appearance, we also hear from Oscar Wilde, Victor Hugo, James Joyce and others.

The reasons behind fighting fall into two categories: pride and power. Within those two categories, the reasoning becomes either personal or communal. We either fight for the greater good for “our” people, or we fight to better our own situation and emotions. These often overlap, of course, but any sort of reasoning behind battle will boil down to those categories. However, not all fighting is noble, nor is it always thoughtfully considered:

“Very little cruelty shown by men can really be attributed to cruel instinct. Most of it comes from thoughtlessness or inherited habit.”
— Albert Schweitzer from Memoirs of Childhood and Youth

For example, consider the practice of women tearing down other women: We see it in 13-year-old girls, we see it on parenting forums, we see it in our culture of gossip and judgement. Are the people who participate in this negativity inherently bad people? Probably not, save for the occasional true psychopath. What’s more likely is that these women want to feel as though they personally have the upper-hand on their lives — power — to maintain their family, their job, whatever is important to them at that given time. Also, passing judgement becomes easy when you have made yourself to feel special, better than the rest.

On the flilpside, there’s also a certain amount of insecurity and doubt — What if I’m not actually doing a good job? is the lingering thought. That’s where pride figures in — act as though you’ve got it all together in the hopes that everything will fall into place. And that’s where in some cases, people tend to point out the flaws in others so that their own mistakes will not be as noticeable.

I’ve simplified the matter to be sure, but it’s a matter worth examining in ourselves every now and then. Everyone suffers from and participates in instances of light cruelty at times, no matter how hard we try to avoid it.

Speaking of inevitability, Why We Fight also features writing from the scientific community, exploring how much our genetics and environment figure into our aggression.

“War is a battle for power over people and for resources such as land and minerals, neither of which are relevant in hunting and gathering societies. With the growth of agriculture and of materially-based societies, warfare has increased steadily in both ferocity and duration, culminating in our current capability to destroy even the planet: powerful leaders have found more to fight about, and increasingly effective ways of achieving their ends. [...] The transition from the nomadic hunting way of life to the sedentary one of farmers and industrialists made war possible and potentially profitable.

Possible, but not inevitable.”
— Roger Lewin, from “Aggression, Sex and Human Nature” from Origins

That particular section was much more readable than Desmond Morris’ excerpt from The Naked Ape, which discusses humans in the same terms a scientist would about any other animal. It tends to equate breeding as an innate act of aggression — that the need for “pair-bonds” and reproduction cycle into each other in such a way that anyone having more than two or three children is contributing to the problem. I don’t really agree with that notion.

I will admit that I glazed over a bit when I got to Konrad Lorenz’s On Aggression, a lengthy and densely-written examination of inter- and intra-species fighting. This sort of writing doesn’t make me feel anything — it’s all fact and I’m no anthropologist.

So it should be unsurprising that the most satisfying portions for me were the fiction excerpts. Over ten years have passed since I last read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, one of those rare assigned classics I wholeheartedly enjoyed in school. In this example of fighting, Jean Val Jean is arrested for stealing a loaf of bread, meant to feed himself and his sister’s family. He is sentenced to five years in the galleys, and when he attempts to escape several times, his imprisonment totals nineteen years.

He declared to himself that there was no equilibrium between the harm which he had caused and the harm which was being done to him; he finally arrived at the conclusion that his punishment was not, in truth, unjust, but that it most assuredly was iniquitous.

The pride in one’s family and desire for well-being versus the power of a justice system over its people: In this case, it planted the seeds for one man’s hatred and distrust of society.

Though not as personally satisfying as Why We Need Love, Why We Fight is still a thought-provoking counterpoint and even the words from thousands of years ago still hold their relevance in our current culture.


Full disclosure: This book was sent to me along with four others for review purposes from Harper Perennial. I thank them for dedicating a small marketing write-off to my site, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

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