The Roots and Inevitability of Violence: Ancient Works, Modern Brutality


[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] H [/yt_dropcap] istory, as is often said, is written by the victors. Rarely have victors been found where violence does not also follow in their wake. Not only that, it is arguable that major history itself rarely excludes immense violence. Even when creative works do not reflect history accurately, violence is almost always projected in honorable displays and heightened to metaphorical significance.

The utility of violence is difficult to accept as inevitable, especially in modern society, with people today trying to discredit the passion and effectiveness of violence by saying it can be surpassed, even overcome, through words and mutual understanding. But it is without doubt, tragically, that “violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst.” (Heinlein) Even more tragic is that this reality seems only more applicable in the modern world.

The ideas communicated within Thucydides’ account of the relations between Melos and Athens is by far the most vivid in supporting the necessity of violence in the face of conflict. After sending forth commissioners to negotiate peace, the ensuing conversation still embodies modern-day reasoning in wartime. The negotiators’ motivations were to circumvent a future looming war. Yet even with this mindset in place, both city-states found themselves unable to compromise their values or accommodate the others’ demands for surrender. Thus, Melos was promptly destroyed by Athens.

Athens argues a cynical realist worldview by saying, “…right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” (Strassler) They see themselves as the strong due to their abundant resources and military strength with the Melians as the weak, destined to suffer at the hands of the Athenians. The Athenians justify this suffering by saying Melos willfully brought disgrace upon itself by not submitting to Athens. The Melians argue against the Athenians, wondering why they even need to conquer Melos: they are a neutral country and attacking someone like them would simply make more enemies where Athens originally had none. The Athens commissioner contends that their image, should they leave Melos be, would be tainted as they would be painted as scared and weak. The fact that Athens consistently rejects the Melians’ arguments suggests a deep-rooted prejudice that powerlessness is equal to disgrace, something utterly unacceptable as an Athenian. This equivalence still exists today in too many places. It is immutable within the minds of the Athenians, rejecting all Melian entreaties. On the Melian side, their refusal to give in rested on the idea that Sparta would come to the aid of its colony. The Melians continually ignored Athenian threats and advances, standing firmly on their belief that the seemingly stronger nation would not overpower them. In the case of these two city-states, violence was made inevitable because neither would consider even the slightest compromise. Each nation perpetuated the conflict politics and principles that separated them as people in the first place. The notion that negotiation could be possible proves, in fact, to be nothing but “wishful thinking at its worst.” (Heinlein)

The Old Testament in the Christian Bible is another prime case in which violence is used as the only possible means to an end. It is shown as God’s facilitator as well as a primary instrument through which God works. In the verses of Joshua and Kings, violence is immense and inescapable, truly one of the main elements emphasized throughout. When Joshua comes to the Holy Land that was promised to him and the Israelites by God, it is required that he conquers the land even though it has been supposedly “inherited” by him. The Lord tells them to march around the city of Jericho seven times. On the seventh circling they are to give a shout and watch the walls fall, allowing them to rush in. On that seventh march, total devastation ensues: “they devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.” (Joshua:6:21) After slaughtering everyone, except for the family of Rahab, they proceed to burn the entire city. This utter destruction of Jericho was ordered by the Lord for not-so-obvious reasons. One idea traditionally offered has been the simple fact that God, being omniscient, knew that the land he wanted to give to His loyal, obeying people was occupied by those He knew would never convert and had already sinned against Him. The only way then to get the land for the Israelites was for Joshua and his holy army to conquer through violence.

Even in a different religious tradition where the most important emotion is declared as love and eternal peace, violence is not just supported, but glorified. The beginning of the Bhagavad Gita has prince Arjuna going to war against those whom he considers good people: his well-wishers, friends, and even family members. As Arjuna laments the loss of these people should he kill them, his God, Vishnu, interjects that “the body is mortal, but that which dwells in the body is immortal and immeasurable. Therefore, Arjuna, fight in this battle.” (Easwaran) Although Arjuna is hesitant about the validity of killing, Vishnu goes so far as to say that the perpetration of this violence will allow “an open gate to heaven.” (Easwaran) He says this because the people they are warring against are seen as evil, unchanging, and therefore worthy of the violence being put against them. The Bhagavad Gita even argues that pain, one of the results of violence, is simply a material emotion resulting from a mortal experience. Vishnu advises Arjuna that he should close himself off to these feelings because those “who are the same in pleasure and pain, are truly wise and fit for immortality.” (Easwaran) This is the ultimate purpose of Hinduism.

In conclusion, patriotism is a root of violence. Religion has frustratingly remained a root of violence. Even the achievement of one’s dharma can be at the root of violence. No matter the excuse or situation given for the violence, it has without doubt been prevalent, even dominant, across all cultures and belief systems. Clearly, the reason why violence is inevitable amongst people is the persistent inability to accept and respect the differences between cultures and beliefs. This eventually leads to the irresistible need to prove oneself, or one’s views, as victor. Without doubt, this desire for dominance will not change going forward seeing as how all the works read have reinforced as well as condoned violence. They are even lauded in contemporary society as profound works to study. In the modern context it seems that “naked force” will continue to conquer our future as much as it has dominated our past.