September 13, 2013

Henry Geiger - Reflections On War (1983)

Henry Geiger (1908?-15 February 1989) was the editor, publisher, and chief writer of MANAS Journal which published from 1948-1988. Abraham Maslow called him “the only small ‘p’ philosopher America has produced in this century.”
Below is an excerpt from, "Reflections On War" by Henry Geiger. Source: MANAS Journal, Volume XXXVI, No. 18. May 4, 1983.
The major appeal, these days, by people hoping to put an end to war, is to fear of extinction. This is logical enough; no one wants to die before his time; and the next war, if it comes, is likely to bring death and destruction to countless millions. There will be no "lucky" ones, if another major war comes, since many of the essential life-support systems will be destroyed. Yet fear as the basis for action, it must be said, is seldom able to accomplish more than peripheral changes in human behavior. If only fear can put an end to war, then there will be those who argue that the more fear the better; but common sense should suggest that, far from leading to peace, the climax of spreading fear is hysteria. Yet anxious people continue to argue that only fear will get through to a majority of people and bring actual results.

Are they right? Is it true that the hope of the world for peace is based on horror stories? A musing comment on war by Harold Goddard (in The Meaning of Shakespeare) may have bearing on this question. He says:
War is not the supreme tragedy of men and nations. The supreme tragedy of men and nations is that the moment war ceases they give themselves over to the pursuit of pleasure and power: either to idleness, amusement, diversion, dissipation, or sport; or to money, business, intrigues, politics, domination in some one of its diverse aspects—either, that is, to "peace" in that soft sense which indirectly makes more war inevitable, or to the hard selfishness that is nothing but war in its slumbering form. A third way that is neither pleasure nor power is humanity's supreme desideratum. What that third way is is no secret. How to get humanity to take it is the problem. The way itself is that of the imagination: of love of life for its own sake, of human friendship or the good family on a social scale, of play in its adult estate.
How shall this "third way" become the way of mankind? That is the theme that runs through all of Goddard's two volumes on Shakespeare. Hamlet, for him, is a study of conflicting motives.

It was Shakespeare's intent, Goddard believes, to show the folly and uselessness of revenge. But instead of preaching at his audience, he gives full evidence of the pressures on the Prince to do his traditional "duty" and execute his father's murderer. But whom does he cast for fulfillment of this hereditary obligation? Not a man submissive to the expectations of his times, but a sensitive youth and would-be philosopher who recoils from the deed. Yet finally he obeys his father's ghost, almost as one obsessed. He did what the conventional man of his time would have done. What was their code?

Mutually assured destruction—kill and be killed was the formula, very like our foreign policy's credo.

Seeking Shakespeare's intentions as dramatist and poet, Goddard says:
But if we are all repositories of racial revenge, we are also repositories of the rarer tendencies that over the centuries have resisted revenge. Against the contagion of a theater audience these ethereal forces have practically no chance, for in the crowd we are bound to take the play as drama rather than as poetry. But in solitude and silence these forces are sure to lead a certain number of sensitive readers to shudder at the thought of Hamlet shedding blood. Let them express their revulsion, however, and instantly there will be someone to remind them that, whatever may be true now, "in those days" blood revenge was an accepted part of the moral code. As if Shakespeare were a historian and not a poet!

"Those days" never existed. They never existed poetically, I mean. No doubt the code of the vendetta has prevailed for many ages in many lands and revenge has been a favorite theme of the poets from Homer down. History itself, as William James remarked, has been a bath of blood. Yet there is a sense in which the dictum "Thou shalt not kill" has remained just as absolute in the kingdom of the imagination as in the Mosaic law. Moralize bloodshed by custom, legalize it by the state, camouflage it by romance, and still to the finer side of human nature it is just bloodshed; and always where poetry has become purest and risen highest there has been some parting of Hector and Andromache, some lament of the Trojan women, to show that those very deeds of vengeance and martial glory that the poet himself is ostensibly glorifying have somehow failed to utter the last word. . . .
Here is an account of the qualities in humans which can be depended upon, if they become widespread, to put an end to war. All else is emotional button-pushing and a transient passion for "survival." Some actual human evolution is in order, if we are no longer to submit to the darker side of human tradition. This evolution Goddard sees as having already occurred in a few, gaining exquisite expression in the work of a handful of poets. There are futurists and futurists. Blake, and after him Goddard are futurists of the constructive imagination; and can there ever, we may ask, be a world that will give scope to high human possibility without the service of this king faculty of human beings.