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Democracy and happiness – a good kind of warfare

by Edmond Grace SJ


Appendix II: Warfare and Spirituality

Peace cannot be sustained by the shrill denunciation of those who resort to armed violence and certainly not by a supercilious disregard of those who love military life. We place peace in danger if we underestimate the power of warfare to seduce young men, in particular, and if we fail to devise ways of overcoming that seduction. One does not have to agree with the pacifism of the English war veteran, Vera Brittain, to be moved by what she wrote in 1933 about the fascination which warfare can exert on those who take part in it:

It is, I think, this glamour, this magic, this incomparable keying up of the spirit in a time of mortal conflict, that constitutes the pacifist’s real problem – a problem still incompletely imagined, and still quite unsolved. The causes of war are always falsely represented; its honour is dishonest and its glory meretricious, but the challenge to spiritual endurance, the intense sharpening of all the senses, the vitalising consciousness of human peril for a common end remain to allure those boys and girls who have just reached the age when love and friendship and adventure call more persistently than at any other time …

I do not believe that a League of Nations … or any Disarmament Conference, will ever rescue our poor remnant of civilisation from the threatening forces of destruction, until we can somehow impart to the rational processes of constructive thought and experiment that element of sanctified loveliness which, like superb sunshine breaking through thunder clouds from time to time, glorifies war.

All the great spiritual traditions of the world use the symbol of warfare as a way of motivating individuals in their search for wisdom and self-discipline. The spiritual person is presented as being in a paradoxical state of unrelenting, growth-ful and life-giving warfare. The theatre of this spiritual warfare is the conscience. The focus, in this book, on the conscience of the governing elite is an attempt to bring into the realm of public affairs this universal and ancient use of warfare as a spiritual symbol. The defining struggle of the democratic process, between government and opposition, reflects that creative inner struggle of conscience.

The emphasis in the text on the role of greed, vanity and pride in the interaction of government and opposition owes much to one particular spiritual heritage and its use of the symbol of warfare. The ‘Meditation on the Two Standards’ in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola presents the primordial struggle between good and evil in terms of a warfare between two armies – one demonic, the other human. The focus of this meditation is, emphatically, on the conscience of the one who meditates – not on any external enemy.

This meditation is designed to help the conscientious person to be alert to what could be called a strategy of corruption. According to this understanding of human nature, we are always being tempted to covet riches, which in turn draws us towards ‘the empty honours of this world’ and, from there, to ‘overweening pride’. The remedies proposed in the meditation – to seek ‘poverty as opposed to riches … insults or contempt as opposed to the honour of this world … humility as opposed to pride’ – may appear extreme but they do contain rich psychological insight into the effects of greed, vanity and pride on the human personality.

Firstly, not only does the greedy person have no desire to share what they have, they cannot even comprehend how any reasonable person could give away anything. That basic generosity which justice requires is, for them, an absurd impoverishment. The invitation to seek ‘poverty instead of riches’ is addressed to the conscientious person, who is willing to entertain the possibility of their own greed and who will, therefore, be willing to endure what they themselves, from their initial perspective of greed, will perceive as poverty.

Secondly, not only is the vain person preoccupied with their own appearance, they cannot imagine that there is anything of greater moment than this preoccupation. The resulting self-absorption makes it impossible for them to see the actual effect that they have on others. From the perspective of the onlooker, the person obsessed with their own appearance cuts a ridiculous figure, which explains why, for the vain person, coming to see themselves as others see them is often experienced as humiliating and even insulting. The invitation to seek ‘insults or contempt as opposed to the honour of this world’ is addressed the conscientious person who is willing to entertain the possibility of their own vanity, and will, therefore, also be ready to face that painful process whereby the vain person comes to terms with reality.

Thirdly, not only does the proud person see others from a position of superiority, in their opinion only a fool could question this view. For the proud person, to be other than how they are, to be other than proud (i.e. humble), is to be low. In the eyes of the proud, to be low is to be contemptible and they are perpetually on their guard against those who might seek to bring them down. The humble person, by contrast, does not think in terms of superiority or contempt. The true test of humility is not self-effacement, but an ability to engage with others as equals, be they powerful or powerless. This is the quintessentially democratic virtue. The invitation to seek ‘humility as opposed to pride’ is addressed to the conscientious person, who is willing to entertain the possibility of their own pride, and who will, therefore, be ready to face their own unacknowledged inclinations to look down on others and their corresponding guardedness against dealing with them as equals.

The Spiritual Exercises are not explicitly concerned with political power, but the insights of the ‘Meditation on the Two Standards’ do play a central role in the analysis of democratic government presented in this book. The global discourse on human rights, which has been such a powerful feature of the democratic process in the past fifty years, needs to be complemented by a process of reflection on the role of power – and conscience – in public affairs. Without a discerning conscience, alert to its own tendencies towards greed, vanity and pride, democratic government cannot respond to the relentlessly changing and conflictual nature of human society.