Saturday February 25, 2006
Last week I watched a TV programme on Qui Shihuangdi, the First Emperor of China. It was a curious programme, the dramatisations of life in ancient China scripted in a way that would not look out of place in a soap opera. In fact, if you cut out the academics and the talking heads, you would end up with something very like Neighbours, only with a bit more decapitation.
In historical terms, this was nevertheless a fascinating programme, and particularly intriguing was the discovery of recent evidence that lends some historical weight to many of the supposedly legendary accounts of the Emperor’s life and death. But nevertheless it was also a bloodthirsty and ugly story, a story of a man whose ruthlessness was at least equal to that of any of the despots of the twentieth century.
What was disturbing about the programme, however, was the lack of critical and moral reflection upon the barbarity and the brutality. Quite the contrary: the programme seemed at the very least to be attempting to argue that such murder, pillage, torture and hardness of heart are somehow necessary to bring about unity, if not to argue that such things, conducted for a higher cause, are themselves noble. The overwhelming message was that peace is only attainable through war. It was striking that, without fail, whenever the film turned to dramatisations of battle scenes, the soundtrack would swell with soaring music, the string section imparting a kind of nobility to the sight of human beings being speared by the shafts of arrows, or having their throats slit by bronze swords.
Since then, I can’t help noticing: we live in a warrior culture. A culture that puts supposedly ennobling music to the sound of human slaughter is a culture that is intoxicated with the idea of war. This intoxication is deep-rooted and the signs of it are everywhere: in the grim speeches – and the grimmer acts – of our politicians, in the shrill reporting of the press, in the obscenely swelling budgets of our military complexes, woven into the very fabric of our language, completely tangled up with the ways that we think about truth and its means of attainment, even lurking in the privacy of our own hearts and minds: I cannot help noticing how susceptible I am to these cheap illusions of nobility that mask the realities of human suffering. Like it or not, we are children of the culture into which we are born, we find ourselves a part of it, implicated in it; and the roots go back thousands of years. It is striking that Western literature – and hence what might be termed the “Western imagination” – begins with Homer’s staggeringly bloodthirsty Iliad – and that the first word of Homer’s Iliad is menin: rage. If this is one of the first documents of our civilization, it is hard not to think of Walter Benjamin’s assertion in his Theses on the Philosophy of History that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”
We are in a tangle, I suspect, precisely because the problem with which we are entangled is that of a particular style of imagination; it is a way of imagining things that too often also informs how we respond to the problem itself. So, in this warrior culture of ours, we “fight” injustice, we “conquer” wrong-doing, we “suppress” evil, we see peace as something that is to be “won”, we talk about the “enemies” of those virtues to which we hold dear. What is this, if it is not the language of war? What is needed, perhaps, is a language of peace. We might even call it a language of, in the etymological sense, appeasement – a dirty word for many. Appeasement, literally, means the act of bringing about peace. Not through war, but through a gentleness that is, it seems to me, the necessary and inescapable basis for wisdom. I turn to the pages of the Dhammapada, and find the following translation:
Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.
See Channel 4’s site on Qin Shihuangdi here
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