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Understanding War: St Augustine and Konrad Lorenz

St Augustine’s writings still have the power to fascinate us with their acute observation of human behaviour and their penetrating exploration of fundamental questions that continue to vex us today. At the same time, he inevitably starts from certain presuppositions that not all of us may comfortably share today. One of the most significant of those is his concept of ‘the just war’ – a notion which has persisted, largely unchallenged, to the present day and which has profoundly influenced the thinking and actions of governments and individuals alike across the centuries. As Robert Holmes observes:

Augustine weds Christianity to a militarism that to this day is a hallmark of the societies that profess it.1

For Augustine, it is God ultimately who controls and guides the outcome of all wars ‘according to his pleasure’.2 God it is who also determines the duration of wars; hence some are quickly over while others are prolonged – and Augustine cites historical examples of both kinds. He laments the fact that some people have blamed Christianity for the lack of rapid military success in the Roman Empire and have turned instead to the old gods in times of crisis; but Augustine has studied history and knows rationally that such variability has always occurred:

Let those who have read their history remember how long were the wars waged by Rome in times past, and with what diverse fortunes and grievous disasters they were attended; for the world is liable to be tempest-tossed by such misfortunes, like a storm-swept sea.3

Augustine thus contrives to have his argument both ways: pagans may well be miraculously overwhelmed ‘at a mere sign from the Majesty on high’ but equally God may use ‘a barbarian invasion as a chastisement for immorality’.4 Temporal adversities of this kind should in any case, he remarks, be of little consequence to the Christian who possesses ‘confident expectation of eternal life’.5 That of course is very much the same argument as is deplored by the West when currently used by Islamic fundamentalism.

War is a pervasive though not a dominant theme in Augustine’s writings, and he uses the term both in the literal sense and metaphorically – as in the idea of warfare between the flesh and the spirit or when speaking of such inward moral conflict as he so vividly describes in his Confessions. In the latter sense, it is closely associated with Augustine’s abiding preoccupation with sin and guilt. In one celebrated example, his graphic account of stealing pears as a teenager, Augustine attempts to analyse his motives and feelings in a way we can all empathise with; ultimately, however, he is at a loss to find adequate explanations for his own behaviour:

What was it then that pleased me in that act of theft? Which of my Lord’s powers did I imitate in a perverse and wicked way? Since I had no real power to break his law, was it that I enjoyed at least the pretence of doing so, like the prisoner who creates for himself the illusion of liberty by doing something wrong, when he has no fear of punishment, under a feeble hallucination of power? …Could I enjoy doing wrong for no other reason than that it was wrong?6

Here, as elsewhere, Augustine finds real difficulty in reconciling his necessary belief in human free will, without which there could be no rational basis for guilt, with his over-arching belief in the principle that God has the ‘real power’ and thus rules our lives. His somewhat laboured argument is that mankind does choose freely; and, although God certainly has foreknowledge of all that we will do, that nevertheless does not preclude our choosing to do wrong:

Now if there is for God a fixed order of causes, it does not follow that nothing depends on our free choice. Our wills themselves are in the order of causes, which is, for God, fixed, and is contained in his foreknowledge, since human acts of will are the causes of human activities. Therefore he who had prescience of the causes of all events certainly could not be ignorant of our decisions, which he foreknows as the causes of our actions,7

At the very least, this fails to take account, as we shall see, of the degree to which biological programming determines our actions. Yet Augustine clearly recognises the ways in which behaviour is influenced, for instance, by group pressures. When he stole the pears, he was part of a gang of boys and in retrospect he acknowledges the part played by the bonds of friendship, freely conceding therefore that more than one factor played a part in his commission of that misdeed:

And yet, as I recall my feelings at the time, I am quite sure that I would not have done it on my own. Was it then that I also enjoyed the company of those with whom I committed the crime? If this is so, there was something else I loved besides the act of theft.8

Though the memory of that incident has remained painfully with him for thirty years, Augustine is unable to offer any further psychological explanation of his boyish theft, beyond that it was linked to his comradeship with others of his own age and that this ‘bewitched his mind’ in some fashion or another – a limited but nevertheless important conclusion which foreshadows more modern studies of human behaviour.

The Just War

At first sight, Augustine’s argument here seems straightforward. War is necessary, he says, to defend the City of God against God’s enemies; in addition, warfare is also part of God’s technique of controlling mankind within the earthly city:

For God’s providence constantly uses war to correct and chasten the corrupt morals of mankind, as it also uses such afflictions to train men in a righteous and laudable way of life, removing to a better state those whose life is approved, or else keeping them in this world for further service.9

So warfare is both a learning experience and a divine control mechanism: it simultaneously chastens and teaches, and thus operates positively and negatively. If one dies in battle, that bestows the reward of instant access to a better world; survival on the other hand means that one is retained by God for further training and ‘service’. This far from subtle logic bears close resemblance to Augustine’s views on education which, from his own memories of childhood, was a hard and painful experience yet one which he concludes must, on balance, have been beneficial to him. Though he hated being forced to study, and is still contemptuous of the cruelty inflicted on him by his teachers, he feels it was ultimately all to the good, having been divinely ordained:

But you, who take every hair of our head into your reckoning, used for my benefit the mistaken ideas of all those who insisted on making me study, as a punishment which I deserved to pay, for I was a great sinner for so small a boy. In this way you turned their faults to my advantage and justly punished me for my own.10

This seems highly specious reasoning, all the more disappointing in someone who has an intimate awareness of how children behave and feel, based partly on his adult observations and partly on a meticulous review of his personal experiences. Because he starts from the premise that God knows and disposes all things, Augustine seems obliged to argue that cruelty, in whatever context it may occur, must have a divine purpose and must, in the final analysis, prove beneficial. While he expresses nothing but contempt for the brutality and stupidity of his teachers, he does not thereby try to excuse the ‘sinfulness’ for which they punished him. This is quite an extraordinary attitude: Augustine is fully aware of the imperfections and injustices of those adults around him when he was a child but nevertheless feels bound to argue that their behaviour was justified because it was divinely determined. Exactly the same reasoning lies behind his attitude to the just war. Here, as elsewhere, Augustine’s ambivalence is manifest. He would prefer that all men lived at peace and he plainly abhors cruelty or injustice; yet, since he perceives that the divinely-created world is not constituted as a peaceful place and never has been (at least since the Fall), he is bound to argue that all is nevertheless for the best, since it is ordained by God.

Reasoning again no doubt from his own youthful experiences of gang culture, Augustine views warring nations as no better than robber bands writ large, whose aim is the theft of other peoples’ territory – and the Romans, to whom he is otherwise sympathetic, are no better in this respect than the barbarians.

Without Justice, what are kingdoms but great robber bands? What are robber bands but small kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men, is ruled by the command of a leader, and is held together by a social pact. Plunder is divided in accordance with an agreed-upon law. If this evil increases by the inclusion of dissolute men to the extent that it takes over territory, establishes headquarters, occupies cities, and subdues peoples, it publicly assumes the title of kingdom!11

Nevertheless, his argument consistently follows the pattern we have already seen: while it is true that the Roman empire has steadily increased its boundaries at the expense of other nations, this has come about ‘by the wickedness of those against whom just wars were waged’:

The empire would always have been small indeed, if neighbouring peoples had been peaceable, had always acted with justice, and had never provoked attack by any wrong-doing. In that case, human affairs would have been in a happier state; all kingdoms would have been small and would have rejoiced in concord with their neighbours… To make war and to extend the realm by crushing other peoples is good fortune in the eyes of the wicked; to the good, it is stern necessity. But since it would be worse that the unjust should lord it over the just, this stern necessity may be called good fortune without impropriety.12

This ‘stern necessity’ which validates a just war seems to be the very same necessity which caused adults to beat him as a boy! And perhaps Augustine’s understanding is not so far removed as we might think from modern theories on aggression in general. Augustine clearly understood the essential link between the collective aggression of warfare and the aggressiveness of individuals. Moreover, we can see him (particularly in The City of God) groping towards certain ideas that we find in the scientific principles associated with cybernetics. ‘Peace’ is the optimum state for the human organism as for a nation state:

The peace of the body, we conclude, is a tempering of the component parts in duly ordered proportion; the peace of the irrational soul [i.e. the emotions] is a duly ordered repose of the appetites; the peace of the rational soul [i.e. the intellect] is the duly ordered agreement of cognition and action. The peace of body and soul is the duly ordered life and health of a living creature; peace between God and man is an ordered obedience, in faith, in subjection to an everlasting law; peace between men is an agreement of mind with mind; the peace of a home is the ordered and perfectly harmonious fellowship in the enjoyment of God, and a mutual fellowship with God; the peace of the whole universe is the tranquillity of order [pax omnium rerum tranquillitas ordinis] – and order is the arrangement of things equal and unequal in a pattern which assigns to each its proper position.13

For Augustine then, order is all-important and any deviation from that ordered regularity represents a dangerous or unsettling disturbance. God regulates the universe so as to correct or ‘fine-tune’ those deviations. The metaphor indeed is that of a divine ‘governor’ operating, just as does a mechanical or electronic governor, to maintain homeostasis within the organism or the state. The term cybernetics of course derives from the Latin guberno (Greek kybernao) and cybernetics is the application of  regulatory techniques through what is called negative feedback. In this sense, war is a deviation from the desired norm, which is ‘peace’. There are flaws however in Augustine’s use of the metaphor. He represents peace, for example, as a desired state of rest (“repose”) rather than as (on the mechanical analogy) the optimum level of effective activity; and he regards war both as a deviation from the desired norm and in itself as a regulatory mechanism, since peace always ensues eventually.

Augustine therefore certainly regards war as inevitable – a stern necessity – within human society; the most that one can do accordingly is to ensure that one’s cause is a just one and that the conflict is waged in as humane a manner as possible, without undue brutality or excess:

For it is the injustice of the opposing side that lays on the wise man the duty of waging wars; and this injustice is assuredly to be deplored by a human being, since it is the injustice of human beings, even though no necessity for war should arise from it.14

The western world has comfortably traded on this Augustinian principle for 1500 years. We are forever reluctantly obliged to wage war because of the injustice of the other side: indeed, it is our duty to do so. War is nasty and brutal (largely because of the atrocities committed by the other side) but we are bound to engage in it and, after all, ‘If God is for us, who can be against us?’ Moreover, the resultant victory is a legitimate reason to ‘Rejoice, rejoice’. The loss of human life is naturally regrettable, especially as it affects those having justice on their side; even so, there are compensations – dulce et decorum est pro patria mori – and the supreme sacrifice made by the dead and maimed in war is in some mysterious way believed to be commendable to God.

The Biological Perspective

In the middle of last century, the emergent study of animal behaviour – rather confusingly called ethology – by scientists and writers like Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz added a whole new dimension to the understanding of human behaviour because of the many demonstrated parallels with the observed patterning of animal behaviour. Many creatures (and not by any means primates alone) appeared to have their rituals and to react in stereotypical ways that implied biological pre-programming. It was quite revelatory to read in the 1960s, for example, about the phenomenon of ‘imprinting’ whereby the newly-born ducklings would faithfully adopt the first being they saw as their parent. I want now to compare some of Lorenz’s views as expressed in his classic work, On Aggression, with the Augustinian view of the same human trait. Like Augustine, Lorenz was a gifted and persuasive writer, though his conclusions have been aggressively assailed from time to time by fellow ethologists as well as by anti-evolutionists.

Lorenz generalised (rather riskily) from the animal phenomenon of imprinting at birth to the psychological process of ‘object-fixation’ at or around puberty, when childhood adherence to familial norms begins to be loosened and the adolescent becomes attracted to other affiliations, sometimes with dire consequences:

The instinctive need to be a member of a closely knit group fighting for common ideals may grow so strong that it becomes inessential what these ideals are and whether they possess any intrinsic value. This, I believe, explains the formation of juvenile gangs whose social structure is very probably a reconstruction of that prevailing in primitive human society.15

Interestingly, the theme of group bonding brings us directly back to Augustine and his pear-tree robbing escapade. Lorenz’s explanation however is given in terms of both biology and group psychology. For him, the gang culture is one reflection of the phylogenetically-determined need for humans (and some animals) to bond together closely in groups, having broadly common aims and motives. Lorenz continues:

The process of object-fixation has consequences of an importance that can hardly be overestimated. It determines neither more nor less than that which a man will live for, struggle for and, under certain circumstances, blindly go to war for.16

This is the phenomenon that Lorenz calls ‘militant enthusiasm’ – the over-riding drive to promote certain ‘ideals’ (good or bad) the sharing of which ensures acceptance of the individual within a chosen group, whether a gang, an organisation, a fan-club or a nation. At the national level, of course, such bonding is expressed in the form of patriotism and its existence permits the group leader or leaders to call upon all the group followers to participate in a common struggle against the collective enemy. The result is war - the most extreme and all too common instance of intra-specific aggression, as Lorenz styles the tendency to feel hostility towards ‘outsiders’. Such hostility manifests itself at a less dangerous level in a multiplicity of forms and parallel behaviour is readily observable in animals.

Lorenz argued, very much as Augustine would have done, that this phenomenon was, in his words, ‘a hereditary evil’ and also was (in origin) a necessary evil because of its  evolutionary function of preserving the species through the defence of territory and the protection of offspring. By becoming ritualised, however, much aggression in the animal world was significantly mitigated, so as to control excessive mortality within the species; and he pointed out the obvious analogies within human societies of ritual combat. The ‘pecking order’ paradigm in the animal world, with its rituals of submission and dominance, similarly reflects the innumerable instances in human society throughout history of ritualised behaviour serving to promote and sustain that sense of homeostatic security which derives from ‘knowing one’s place’ and understanding the conventional signs or signals of peace and deference – hand-shakes, bows and the like – all helping to promote that same ‘order’ which Augustine found so fundamental to civilised behaviour.

With the acquisition of language, the human species was enabled to develop a vastly more varied and subtly-graduated range of such signals. The aggressive snarl becomes the vituperative argument; the submissive gesture becomes the effusive apology; the postural threat becomes the spoken demand or written ultimatum. Language, by its very capacity for interminable prolongation, would seem admirably suited to reducing, if not eradicating, internecine aggression. And yet this has not happened in the slightest: what would seem at first sight to have the potential to be the ideal means of negative feedback – verbal mediation – has in fact resulted all too often in an inexorable escalation (i.e. positive feedback) of mutual hostility and rage. Verbal exchanges then exemplify the “tit-for-tat” phenomenon which remains just as likely to degenerate into physical aggression as more primitive threat gestures.

So militant enthusiasm, in pursuit of whatever goal, can in fact be made more rather than less dangerous by means of human rhetoric and propaganda. And yet, as Lorenz observes, without the learned skills of language allied to the competitive drive which underlies the universal ‘struggle for existence’, we should wholly lack the incentive to aim for progress or change:

Without the concentrated dedication of militant enthusiasm neither art nor science, nor indeed any of the great endeavours of humanity would ever have come into existence. Whether enthusiasm is made to serve these endeavours, or whether man’s most powerful motivating instinct makes him go to war in some abjectly silly cause, depends almost entirely on the conditioning and/or imprinting he has undergone during certain susceptible periods of his life. There is reasonable hope that our moral responsibility may gain control over the primeval drive, but our only hope of it ever doing so rests on the humble recognition of the fact that militant enthusiasm is an instinctive response with a phylogenetically determined releasing mechanism, and that the only point at which intelligent and responsible supervision can get control is in the conditioning of the response to an object which proves to be a genuine value under the scrutiny of the categorical question.17

That extended quotation illustrates both Lorenz’s strengths and weaknesses. He rightly points to the fundamental importance of the instinctual, biologically programmed drive towards energetic action, directed not only towards warfare but also towards human creativity, industrial enterprise and scientific research. Without that drive, we would lead wholly passive existences. But ‘conditioning’ is of course a learned response, unlike imprinting which is genetically transmitted, and Lorenz has been criticised for failing to distinguish adequately between the two. Moreover, his solution to the dilemma of warfare is, like Freud’s, simply the ‘reasonable hope’ that our sense of moral responsibility, coupled with our rationality, will ultimately lead to a more pacific society. One might call it a pious hope rather than a reasonable one.

Augustine and Lorenz are far closer in their thinking than we might at first imagine. Both recognise human aggression as an unhappy but inevitable fact of life. For the one, it stems from an inherited primeval sin; for the other, it derives from those evolutionary characteristics which we have similarly inherited – but from our animal ancestors. And what Lorenz describes as ‘militant enthusiasm’ seems very close indeed to Augustine’s basic sin of ‘pride’18 which he regards as overweening ambition and hybris. Lorenz acknowledges that much human behaviour is conditioned by cultural norms which are learned, generation by generation. Some animal behaviour is of this learned kind but in human beings it is of far greater significance, since the acquisition of language has facilitated the transmission of repetitive behavioural patterns (‘rituals’) which are otherwise learned only by mimesis. Language strengthens the permanency of such ritual behaviour by providing an oral rationale for one’s actions: as Robertson Smith first observed, ritual comes before myth; or as Freud remarked, drawing an apophthegm from Goethe’s Faust: ‘In the beginning was the deed’.19

Lorenz imagines an extra-terrestrial being observing human behaviour thus:

He would never gain the impression that human behaviour was dictated by intelligence, still less by responsible morality. The ever-recurrent phenomena of history do not have reasonable causes. Unreasoning and unreasonable human nature causes two nations to compete, though no economic necessity compels them to do so; it induces two political parties or religions with amazingly similar programmes of salvation to fight each other bitterly and it impels an Alexander or a Napoleon to sacrifice millions of lives in his attempt to unite the world under his sceptre.20

Perhaps then we ought seriously to redefine sin as no more than non-rational behaviour – behaviour, that is, which is unable to take full account of the probable consequences of one’s actions. Such a pragmatic definition of sin might at least permit us to adopt a more level-headed and less punitive attitude towards the more mundane transgressions of our fellow human beings.

The Control of War

Konrad Lorenz concludes On Aggression with a chapter entitled ‘Avowal of optimism’, in which he sets out his vision of a peaceful world-wide society. He believed that ‘the majority of tolerably intelligent people’ would soon come to accept what he had said concerning intra-specific aggression and the roles played by cultural ritualization and phylogenetic drives.21 He offered four ‘simple precepts’: a deeper insight into the causal factors underlying human behaviour; the discovery of better ways of discharging or sublimating our aggression; the promotion of international friendship; and the channelling of militant enthusiasm into ‘genuine causes’. In my view he rightly abandons as fruitless attempts to impose a ‘moral veto’ on violence and wisely cautions against the facile eugenic notion of ‘breeding out’ human aggression. While technically feasible, this would inevitably destroy the positive aspects of human ‘enthusiasm’. The re-channelling of aggression, for Lorenz, would involve, firstly, finding yet more such substitutes for ‘real’ aggression as competitive sport, which permits controlled violence and risk-taking while encouraging such virtues as fairness, friendship and chivalry; and, secondly, encouraging the development on a global scale of ‘truly intercultural ethical values’ through science, medicine and art. Shared values, he rightly noted, inhibit hatred and transcend those boundaries which stimulate aggressive defensiveness.

Almost forty years on, we may look back with a certain scepticism at these proposals and feel with some justification that Lorenz’s optimism was premature, if not wholly unfounded. Since the days of ancient Greece and Rome, and doubtless before that, the redirection of aggression by way of sporting challenge has been a standard method of  trying to control inter-group hostility. It works up to a point, but simultaneously encourages partisan violence and hostile rivalry. It does nothing to contain the outbreak of major hostilities between principalities and powers. The international pursuit of humanitarian goals is similarly bedevilled by the principle of corruptio optimi pessima: while the numerous post-war endeavours to promote global causes for the good of mankind do operate with some limited success, not only are the outcomes all too often ‘too little, too late’ (as in the case of AIDS for example) but such efforts are all too often undermined by financial and political corruption. And when Lorenz (in speaking of art) writes: ‘Not even the most ruthlessly daring demagogues have ever undertaken to proclaim the whole art of an enemy nation or political party as entirely worthless’22 he is manifestly wrong, as in the cases of Hitler and the Taliban, to say nothing of less recent episodes of iconoclasm.

How then are we to evaluate the Lorenzian against the Augustinian view? Augustine, as we have seen, believed warfare in the ‘earthly city’ to be inevitable and unending, simply because of mankind’s fallen and hence inherently sinful nature. The most that might be done to mitigate the evils of human conflict was to exhort the warring parties to obey certain rules of conduct so as to minimise brutality, needless cruelty and wanton atrocity. All would eventually be well, however, when – and if – the individual reached the ‘heavenly city’. ‘We can say,’ wrote Augustine, ‘that peace is the ultimate good, just as we so speak of eternal life’.23 True, he rather detracts from that high-sounding sentiment by adding that naturally there will be those (the ungodly) who will have ‘eternal life’ accompanied by perpetual torment. Relatively few Christians today would feel satisfied with that argument. We should weigh also in the balance the fact that Augustine is primarily responsible for the ‘just wars’ [justa bella] principle which has held sway in the western world for fifteen hundred years or more. It has always provided us with  the ultimate get-out clause, in effect carrying with it the blessing of the Church and sanctioning armed intervention as and when any powerful nation sees fit to wage war in the interests of economic wellbeing, or in the face of perceived threats to its territories, or as a punitive excursion against recalcitrant dissidents.

Does Konrad Lorenz come out of the debate with any greater credit?  God is certainly left out of the equation, which somewhat simplifies the matter by reducing the variables in terms of Occam’s razor. Instead, our predisposition to kill one another is explained as a consequence of the evolutionary process: our aggressive drive is a genetic inheritance, a biologically determined trait which operates in conjunction with those secondary patterns of behaviour arising out of cultural and social learning, passed on, generation by generation, to each successive human society.24 Because the drive to compete aggressively is also the source of much that is not only good by human standards but also essential for progress and pleasure – comprising creative and scientific endeavour of all kinds – it would be perverse and foolish to extinguish that drive by any eugenic approach. But Lorenz argues that rational control over destructive ‘militant enthusiasm’, coupled with adequate opportunities to discharge our aggression harmlessly or to channel it into humanitarian causes, offers us a means of curbing warfare and promoting peace.

None of Lorenz’s ideas are novel: many have been tried and found sadly wanting, as even a short survey of events during our own lifetimes serves to demonstrate. Though Lorenz is fully entitled to make his personal ‘avowal of optimism’, it is not one I can wholeheartedly share, any more than I can accept Augustine’s transcendental view of divine intervention. I concur with Lorenz, however, in acknowledging the crucial importance of scientific research into the causes of war – by which I mean essentially the study of human behaviour, whether through psychology, cybernetics, ethology or biochemistry. Single disciplines alone cannot provide the answer and it is ironic that the inhabitants of the academic world seems at times just as prone to self-aggrandisement, jealousy, hostility and aggression as is the rest of humanity.

My own sentiments concur with those of Freud, articulated ominously in 1930 in his essay, Civilization and its Discontents:

Men have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent that with their help they would have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man. They know this, and hence comes a large part of their current unrest, their unhappiness and their mood of anxiety. And now it is expected that the other of the two ‘Heavenly Powers’, eternal Eros, will make an effort to assert himself in the struggle with his equally immortal adversary [Thanatos], But who can foresee with what success and with what result?25

Augustine’s Pauline counsel of patience and hope is one which I am certain Freud would have in part endorsed:

We are fortified by hope; yet a hope that we see is not truly hope. For what we foresee we cannot hope for. If therefore we hope for what we cannot see ahead, that must we look for with patience. Just as we are strengthened by hope, so we are blessed by hope; and though we have neither surety nor blessedness in this present age, we can look to the future with patience; and bear patiently those present ills which we suffer, until we reach those goals… Such wellbeing, which lies in the future, will bring ultimate peace and joy.26

Yet a resigned hope by itself is surely not enough. Taking refuse in hope without actively striving for peace and the betterment of humanity is surely an admission of defeat and an abandonment of our manifold human resources, whatever their origin. I would incline therefore to Freud’s personal expression of hope rather than that of either Lorenz or Augustine:

The voice of the intellect is a soft one, but it does not rest till it has gained a hearing. Finally, after a countless succession of rebuffs, it succeeds. This is one of the few points on which one may be optimistic about the future of mankind, but it is in itself a matter of no small importance. The primacy of the intellect lies, it is true, in a distant, distant future, but probably not an infinitely distant one. It will probably set itself the same aims as those whose realisation you [believers] expect from your God (of course within human limits – so far as external reality, Ananke, allows it), namely the love of man and the decrease of suffering.27