Vendredi Voltaire: War

All creatures are perpetually in a state of war: each species is born to devour others.

Voltaire by Houdon

There are not even sheep and doves that don’t swallow a prodigious quantity of imperceptible animals. The males of a species make war on one another over the females, like Menelaus and Paris. The sky, the soil, and the waters are all battlefields.

It seems that, since god gave man reason, reason ought to keep us from demeaning ourselves by imitating animals, especially since nature did not give us weapons to kill our fellow men, not instinct that drives us to drink their blood.

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Voltaire mistakes the animals’ urge to kill for warfare; it is not. Warfare is a different thing, entirely – it is not a personal one-on-one combat as we see in nature – it’s an organized activity where, usually, people are encouraged to fight for politics, or religion. Almost always war is in the service of someone else; a dear leader or a belief system like nationalism. It’s when our rationality is hacked and used against us.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    I actually disagree with Voltaire on this. What would nature be like if predation had never evolved as a trait? I imagine a world of fat, blob-like creatures — no point in evolving much locomotion if all you eat are plants and there’s nothing to run away from, no need for fancy eyes if you aren’t looking for prey or looking to avoid being eaten. Survival of the fittest would still be in operation, but the penalty for being unfit is much lower. Evolution would still happen, but it would be drastically slowed down.

    The same is true for warfare in early cultures. Warfare puts a premium on certain cultural characteristics, and punishes ruthlessly cultures that can’t adapt. Without warfare, I’m not sure we would have motivation to make it out of the bronze age yet.

    Which is not to say that this rationalization for war is still in place. What you need for progress is competition, and commerce offers a far more efficient and less wasteful method for that. Also, warfare has become ever more destructive and wasteful of resources as time has gone by, while other forms of cultural competition have not.

    There’s an interesting poem by Robinson Jeffers on the subject:

  2. says

    Definitely no heroes.

    I didn’t know Voltaire was involved in the slave trade, though it touched everyone somehow economically. I’m going to need to research that a bit more. There is also this:

    I don’t have my copy of Peter Gay handy but I’m going to be down at my parents for christmas, so I can raid dad’s library. I know right where several bios of Voltaire are sitting…

    I’ll be disappointed if he was. But not surprised.

  3. konrad_arflane says

    a personal one-on-one combat as we see in nature

    I suspect that’s a pretty gross generalization of what happens in nature. For one thing, wolves definitely don’t engage in “personal one-on-one combat” with their prey unless they somehow find themselves without a pack.

    Also, I think calling a cat playing with a mouse “personal one-on-one combat” is giving the mouse a bit too much credit.

  4. oldmanbynow says

    War is a lot of things, but at least, it is organized violence. It can be organized for something as simple as predation, or survival. Is a coyote pack at war? At one level, it is.

    Man is a rational animal. Animals are almost all capable of violence, even if only in self-defense. When man organizes violence, it is called war.

    Voltaire goes wrong only in saying that reason should prevent war. Reason is instrumental. It was the great error of the Enlightenment, from Kant to Voltaire et al, to think that reason somehow could replace God as an a priori source of values. In fact, as Franklin said (paraphrasing), man is a rational animal–so that he can rationalize whatever he wants. That is the content of Alasdair McIntyre’s terrific book “After Virtue” in a nutshell, which directs us all back to Aristotle as the answer to ethical conduct after the relativist tsunami of modernity.

    On another note, all of you who are looking for a hero who meets all of your modern-day litmus tests, including especially racism, please just stop. It is naive to the point of imbecility. You are all criminals in your own way, in the eyes of everyone who has come before you, or will come after you. Ah, but you are vegetarian and live off the grid, you say? Remember the fate of Ananias and Sapphira, whose sacrifice was not entire….