World Peace: Reality or Fantasy?

CrimeaAfter the recent outbreak of conflict in Ukraine, it has once again become fashionable for Western critics to cast suspicion upon the ideal of world peace. In a spate of responses to the growing crisis, writers argued that Vladimir Putin’s Machiavellian maneuvers made it clear that world peace is just an unattainable fantasy, and that postmodernism got it right, after all. Henry Jones, for example, cites Foucault’s thesis about the human condition in his reflections on the Ukraine crisis, namely that “there are no universals in human existence, no right answers or correct forms in the area of politics.” It follows that all “peaceful processes” in human life—negotiations, diplomacy, and even personal conversations—are nothing but fig-leaves for the state of perpetual war, pointless niceties which serve merely to mask our true nature. In this worldview, there are neither regulating principles nor universal norms that can truly prevent conflicts from erupting. Human motivations are purely determined by the famous Nietzschean will to power which has no other aim than to overthrow all societal restraints upon itself by way of subjugating all other fellow beings. In this way then, peace becomes simply a lie.

Here we find a poignant criticism of the ideal of world peace, and if one goes a little deeper, we encounter a challenge to widely-accepted liberal assumptions about human nature. Still, Jones does not outright identify liberalism as his intellectual foe.

Doubts about the End of History 

To examine the connection between liberalism and the question of world peace more directly, we might consider Francis Fukuyama’s End of History and the Last Man. In that work, Fukuyama argues in a grand fashion that liberal democracy constitutes the “end of history”: it is the final stage of human development, beyond which there can be no more progress. This argument has its roots in the innermost principles of liberalism itself, and our main contention is that these principles must be examined anew from a fresh perspective, namely classical philosophy, in order that we may move towards a genuine reflection on the situation of liberalism in our age.

Writing on the heels of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Fukuyama pointed out that all the non-liberal forms of government in human history had by then displayed decisive signs of failure. At the same time, liberal democracies continued to prosper economically, spurred on by unceasing waves of technological progress. For Fukuyama, therefore, the triumph of liberal democracy over communism was the final vindication of itself as the ideal form of government, both in theory and in practice. Having thus uncovered the eschatological moment of human history in the manner of Hegel and Marx before him, Fukuyama went on to predict that liberal democracy will irresistibly spread to China, the Middle East, and all other illiberal parts of the world. After this transformation, liberal democracy will at last make world peace a reality.

Such is Fukuyama’s theory, running on the high tide of modern optimism right after the fall of the Soviet Union. Today, of course, these predictions run into intractable difficulties. We need only turn to the resilience of the Communist party in China, the tight hold that fundamentalism retains on the Middle East, and Putin’s aggressive authoritarianism in Russia for a few counterexamples. Despite its formal status as democracy, Putin’s desire to contest the supremacy of the West through the escalating crisis in Ukraine is only the latest iteration of these trends. Clearly, Fukuyama’s vision of humanity at the end of history is still far from obtaining full reality; likewise the world will not find peace under the unitary order of liberal democracy any time soon.

Is Fukuyama’s thesis about liberal democracy tenable? I agree with the postmodern critic that it is not. But what is truly important here are the grounds on which one calls Fukuyama’s thesis into question, and it is on this point I disagree with the postmodern position. Even though those postmodernists believe they have surpassed the horizon of liberalism through their criticism, their effort was in vain. The premises of their criticism hardly deviate from the original framework of liberalism, and so they do not launch a truly radical challenge to liberalism.

Revisiting the Roots of Liberalism

If postmodernism fails, is it at all possible to make a radical critique of liberalism? To do so, we need to re-examine the intellectual roots of liberalism itself. For in the process of re-examination, we may find that the founders of liberalism did their thinking under an intellectual horizon that was far wider and deeper than the horizon bounded by the range of assertions about politics made across the political spectrum today. Therefore while postmodernists today might accuse liberalism as having a naïve, rose-tinted worldview, one needs only to take a look at liberal thinkers like Thomas Hobbes to see the very opposite is true. As is well-known, Hobbes’ Leviathan argues that the roots of political justice and right are to be sought in a state that exists prior to the origin of civil society, which he calls the state of nature. As it turns out, the state of nature is a state of war, where every person, condemned and abandoned by nature to an estranged existence, is gripped with a violent fear of death in the absence of protection from a common political authority. As a result of this fear, each man sees all other men as deadly enemies and is pressured to wage war on them in order to guard oneself from death.

Having seen what Hobbes’ state of nature is like, we realize at once that it is not so different from what postmodernists say about the human condition: perpetual conflict without any moral norms of right and justice. Consequently, the presumption that a horizon unknown to liberalism has been opened up by newcomers of modernity in this instance again proves to be narrow-sighted.

Hobbes’ Realism as a Method of Securing World Peace

Thus for all the din and clamor accompanying the newfangled assertions of postmodernism, they ended up restating no more than propositions that were already spelt out centuries ago on the pages of an old book. This seems to suggest that we latecomers of modernity might still have something to learn from the great books of old, for it may be too soon to say that we have completely surpassed the past in wisdom. Keeping this possibility in mind, let us for now return to the initial question: is the liberal idea of world peace a realizable one? And if postmodernism fails to deliver a truly radical critique of this idea, are there other ways forward?

Turning then to Leviathan, we find that unlike postmodernism, which denies the reality of peace, Hobbes argues peace can be attained through politics. The solution to making peace effective lies in constructing a common political authority, the Leviathan, through the making of a covenant among individuals in the state of nature. For Hobbes, there is little uncertainty that individuals might refuse to make a covenant, because the necessity of this act is guaranteed by the fact that the fear of death exists in universally all men and urges them to escape from the state of nature.

For Hobbes, the darkest abysses of humanity can be made through the ingenious contrivance of human rationality into the very effective support for a bright future. At this point we want to home in on the notion of “effective” in Hobbes’ theory, inasmuch as this notion is to become a central attribute of the thoughts of a long line of thinkers in the liberal tradition down to Fukuyama in our time. For what one sees in common between these thinkers is an intention to present their doctrines as “hardheaded realism”—they take their basis from how men actually live, and not from how men ought to live according to a high-minded ideal. The obvious power of this approach is that no appeal to traditional noble ideals—benevolence or magnanimity, for example—is needed to bring about the success of the projected theory.

Just as in Hobbes’ theory the effectiveness of peace is grounded in the fear of death, a power that operates in men at all times, so in our time Fukuyama follows Hobbes’ practice in that he justifies his theory of world peace on what he regards as a realistic understanding of human behavior. According to Fukuyama, liberal democracy is the form of government that can best satisfy man’s universal desire for recognition, for in liberal democracy all citizens are able to achieve a communal recognition of each other’s equal status as bearer of rights, which in Fukuyama’s theory represents the highest stage of human recognition. And insofar as the desire for recognition in Fukuyama is the universal force that governs and motivates all human actions in every Homo sapiens regardless of his particularities, liberal democracy by virtue of being in service of the desire for recognition hence guarantees its self-actualization in history.

Both Fukuyama and Hobbes’ theories revolve around the idea of guaranteeing the actualization of an ideal on the basis of those parts of human nature which they take to be always effective, and hence “realistic.”  But since we in the beginning already stated that Fukuyama’s theory seems grossly implausible, we now come across a paradox of a very high degree: how did a way of thinking that claims to be entirely realistic in its foundations give rise to such hyper-optimism as Fukuyama’s?

Deconstructive Inquiry after Reality for the sake of World Peace

Yet what principle is more self-evident than this: that a theory must depend on a realistic basis rather than some fluffy wishy-washy ideals! This principle certainly will continue to appear to us as self-evident, but only as long as no effort is made to deconstruct what is self-evident into what is questionable. Here as we press towards an unearthing of Hobbes’ core intention, we eventually find ourselves faced with the question: “what is to be ‘realistic?’” It is easily seen that this question is strictly speaking an extension of a more fundamental question, namely “what is real?” insofar as any assertion about what is “realistic” presupposes a certain conception of what is real as distinct from non-real.

In order to grasp Hobbes’ theory at its core, one must understand his position on this question. To this end, we first note that man as he exists in Hobbes’ state of nature is utterly stripped of those characteristics which constitute the essence of a civilized being living in society, for what is left in him are only those anti-social passions that make him obsessed with pursuing his own advantages without having regard for any other person. Now we ask, does such an anti-social being truly have a self-evident connection to real men found in ordinary life, for is it not the case men in the latter case are not always gain-seekers concerned solely with their own interest but rather more often than not are induced by benevolent motives to care for the good of others as well? And regardless of what evolution nowadays says about the capacity for human beings to undergo radical changes in their nature, common sense at least will maintain that Hobbes’ natural men are chimerical beings broken off from all direct relations to men of ordinary life, and that to insist despite such radical discontinuity that these beings reveal the ground of all human behavior would be to distort violently healthy common sense.

It is now seen that Hobbes’ conception of reality consists in a calculated abstraction of key elements from man as understood by common sense, whereby one obtains a construction of human nature exclusively composed of brutal selfish passions in a clear and distinct form. How strange it is, that abstraction plays the lord over reality! At this point though I am sure many philosophers of our time, in particular those of the postmodern persuasion, will be quick to find fault with our constant reference to “common sense” in our assessment of Hobbes. For if by “common sense” one means the same natural senses are present in all human beings throughout all ages and places, those philosophers would say it is groundless to hold that a substantial continuity of human understanding exists in spite of all the changes in history. It is to be admitted that this way of objection has become something of a platitude in our time. Indeed, ever since the time of an illustrious contemporary of Hobbes, Rene Descartes, it has been an established practice in western intellectual discourses to call into doubt what common sense knows about human life, for, as Descartes says in his Meditations, in order to arrive at “clear and distinct” truths one must begin with the rejection of every single notion that one’s natural senses previously held to be correct. Here again then, the postmodernist who cries down common sense is seen to reiterate the pervasive tendencies of modern thought which he alleges to have overcome.

Deconstructing the New, Recovering the Old

In exploring the basis of Hobbes’ “realistic” doctrine, we find ourselves confronted with the question concerning the truth of common sense. Inasmuch as the pervasive philosophical instinct of our time, following the lead of Hobbes and Descartes, looks down on common sense and thrusts aside its claims about reality, the modern man who is still attached to common sense is likely to falter in his attachment. Yet before he completely gives in to the other side, should he not hear out a full theoretical argument on behalf of common sense? For however much uncertainty there is surrounding common sense, what remains certain is that there were thinkers from long ago who did not treat lightly common sense but instead defended its importance for understanding human nature and politics. These thinkers were none other than Plato and Aristotle, the representatives of classical philosophy. Through their defense of common sense, these thinkers pose an essential opposition to modern thought, and it happens that no one understands the significance and nature of this opposition better than Hobbes the founder himself, seeing as in Chapter 46 “Darkness from Vain Philosophy” from Leviathan he delivers a series of vehement criticisms specifically against classical philosophy in an attempt to dethrone its authority.

What does Hobbes say there about classical philosophy, or the philosophy of the Greeks? Turning to the section titled “The Schoole of the Graecians unprofitable,” we come upon the following sentences:

“What has been the utility of those Schools? What science is there at this day acquired by their Readings and Disputings? […] The natural Philosophy of those Schools, was rather a Dream than Science. … And I believe that scarce any thing can be more absurdly said in natural Philosophy, than that which now is called Aristotles Metaphysiques; nor more repugnant to Government, than much of that he hath said in his Politiques; nor more ignorantly, than a great part of his Ethiques.”

Hobbes, in effect, declares the whole philosophy of the classics to be a farrago of non-sense that never reaches the real matter itself, unlike his own philosophy that grasps the “real matter.”  But if we look past Hobbes’ judgment of classical thinkers and go straight to their original statements, we find that they also claim to offer a real doctrine of human nature. In this doctrine, however, one finds them focusing on analyzing the essence of the notions of various virtues such as courage and magnanimity; this is so because for classical thinkers, what is most real refers to that which belongs to the comprehension of the wholeness of human life in all its manifold aspects, and under this view of the real they hence thought that the notions of virtue are essential for a “realistic” doctrine of man. It is in this regard that those thinkers are said to take bearings from common sense, which is aware to a certain extent that virtue has a substantial existence. But for Hobbes, virtue is just, a thought, a fancy of one’s head as distinguished from the hard matter of bodies. To use the more familiar language of our time, Hobbes makes a distinction between subjective values and objective facts, the implication of which is that there is something “less real” about virtue.  For no matter how one construes a value, does it not always seem to fall short of the indisputable reality of a fact?

Is the possibility of world peace real? In light of our deconstruction, which has brought into view the quarrel between Hobbes and classical thinkers, this question is seen now to involve a decisive dispute which stems from disagreements on what it means to be real. Yet we right now are not in a position to judge this quarrel, for as latecomers of modernity we are still far from attaining a familiar understanding of the thought of classical antiquity as to be able to discern the nature of the quarrel. As far as the question of world peace is concerned then, at this moment we can make no better beginning than to pay heed again to the words of Socrates and his pupils, for a conversation with them may well recover out of the depth of time a horizon of thought where the most self-evident assumptions about human beings prevailing today, a large part of which had been transmitted to us by Hobbes and others in his camp, transform into puzzles capable of drawing out the utmost perplexity and amazement from those who love to think about ideas.

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