Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Stoic Path: War in Georgia

Is the Georgian war in keeping with Stoic principles? Marcus Aurelius was a warrior although he never engaged in wars of aggression. Aurelius spent ten years defending the northern Roman fronter from Germanic incursions.

So what have we here in this latest sad confrontation in Georgia? And how should a Stoic respond? In his Meditations Aurelius does acknowledge that it is possible for a "state" to suffer harm. One example of this would be any situation in which a legitimate political regime is prevented from exercising its sovereignty. Such would have been the case in the Roman era with the barbarian invasions. The Roman world under Aurelius enjoyed many of the freedoms we do now in most western liberal democracies.

For the Stoic a legitimate political regime would be any regime founded on principles consistent with the egalitarian and cosmopolitan nature of human beings. Any state operating outside of such a framework would be operating contrary to nature and consequently, for a Stoic, considered to be illegitimate. Abusive, dictatorial, totalitarian, or fascist regimes would be considered illegitimate. A Stoic - from the perspective of Aurelius - would have a duty to disarm such regimes. But war in the Stoic context is always a measure of last resort. And when war is required it is viewed as a means of instruction, when all other means of instruction are exhausted. The only possible goal in war is to show where error lies and to correct the error. War never involves anger. A Stoic warrior is never motivated by hate. Stoics - like the Christians who emulated and appropriated many Stoic ideals - were motivated by a genuine love for every human being - including their enemies, who they viewed as acting contrary to nature out of ignorance of nature's law, and nature's law shows that all foes are, by nature, friends. Any action taken by a Stoic against a so-called foe is done in the spirit of what we moderns might call "tough love."

Our response to the conflict in Georgia should be guided by five controlling Stoic attitudes. These are intellectual attitudes that form a framework for all Stoic thinking.

First, avoid anger. A Stoic looking at this conflict might infer that both sides are operating from self-interest. Russia wants to prevent Georgia from joining NATO because this move is seen by Russia as a potential threat to its self-interest. Georgia wants to assert its sovereignty over South Ossetia because it views South Ossetia as essential to its self-interest. South Ossetia maintains that its independence is necessary for the realization of its historical destiny. Whatever the particular motivations here, self-interest - from either a personal or broader political basis - can never be a reason for action. Russia, South Ossetia and Georgia do have common and shared interests. How that plays out politically will require careful and determined negotiation. But the point is that a failure by any or all of these parties to see or understand the reality of common and shared interests is no reason for anger or war. This failure is really merely a failure of reason or a failure of the understanding – and any such failure is correctible.

Second, avoid alienation. The thread that ties all Stoic thinking is the realization that the interconnections between all individuals and all groups of individuals is sacred. South Ossetians, Russians and Georgians are intimately connected through their common capacity for reason. The rules of engagement in reason are never limited by national or personal boundaries once the veils of prejudice are removed.

Third, economics is irrelevant. Confrontations between people and groups of people are often complicated by economic fear. People worry about security of their person. They fear losing the means to enjoy the pleasures of life or fear the pain of deprivation. For a Stoic these pleasures and pains are always secondary to what really is important. And what is important is that we act always in the interest of others. Self-interest misses the point.

Fourth, avoid deception. Dishonesty between people and groups of people is extraordinarily divisive. Nature is honest. What you see is what is. This is logic. The only way that human beings can realize and understand their commonalities is through truth. Dishonesty is contrary to nature.

Fifth, avoid emotional responses and irrational actions. Emotional responses are particular, body focussed and targeted toward self-interest. The only course of action that will provide a permanent and mutually satisfying resolution to all parties is intellectual. In other words, we have a duty to think carefully and deeply and compassionately and truthfully about the conditions and injustices that have led to this sad conflict – and to do so one small step at a time.

Russell McNeil, PhD, is the author of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Selections Annotated and Explained by Skylight Paths Publishing.

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