Monday, August 25, 2014

Of custom

“And freely to speak my thoughts, it argues a strange self-love and great presumption to be so fond of one’s own opinions, that a public peace must be overthrown to establish them, and to introduce so many inevitable mischiefs, and so dreadful a corruption of manners, as a civil war and the mutations of state consequent to it, always bring in their train, and to introduce them, in a thing of so high concern, into the bowels of one's own country.” Montaigne, Essays, Book I, chapter 23.

Montaigne lived in a time of civil war. One religious war after another followed in France since the first one broke out in 1562. Nine wars of religion were fought and only a few years after Montaigne’s death this period of devastation and turmoil came to an end. These wars were about power, as always, but the main reason was trying to establish the right religion: Protestantism or Roman Catholicism. Wars on ideology and religion are always among the most devastating. This was also the case in Montaigne’s times, which brought him to the phrase that I quoted. And with right, for what makes that just you are on the right side when your opponent claims exactly the same but then from his perspective?
When this series of wars had ended at last with the Edict of Nantes in 1598, it was to be expected that people would have learned from the past and would find ways of peacefully living together in spite of differences in religion, ideology or world view. Nothing is farther from the truth. Soon we got the Thirty Years’ War in Germany (1618-1648), new religious revolts in France and so on, till the present religious wars in the Middle East. We only need to see the ruins in that part of the world for understanding what Montaigne wrote immediately after the quotation above:

“Can there be worse husbandry than to set up so many certain and knowing vices against errors that are only contested and disputable? And are there any worse sorts of vices than those committed against a man’s own conscience, and the natural light of his own reason?”

But alas, the perpetrators always seem to have different views on what they are doing and think to have good reasons for it. Anyway, Montaigne knew what he was talking about, for the religious wars in France were waged also around his castle. Moreover, Montaigne had relations with all parties. He often acted as a mediator between them.
Montaigne discussed the theme when he talked about custom. Customs can be quite treacherous, so Montaigne, because they can come to dominate us. Moreover they can numb us and make that we are no longer able to see that things can also take place in a different way. Once it has come that far, it has become difficult to avoid acting according our customs. They have become unconscious automatisms. Then it has become almost impossible to think about our customs in a rational way and not to think that what is not according a certain custom need not to be unreasonable. The problem is that everybody thinks so about his or her own customs against the customs of the other, even in the degree that one detests actions that are not in keeping with one’s own. Only once one realizes this mechanism and sees one’s own prejudices, one sees that many customs are based on nothing, are unintelligible and are unreasonable, so Montaigne. Nevertheless he didn’t like changes in his life (at least he says so), but I think that there is a difference between not liking changes in one’s own life and being attached to one’s customs and thinking that everything needs to be the same for everybody and that everybody basically needs to behave that way. That wasn’t what Montaigne thought and wanted to defend. And even if everything would be basically the same, there still are different views on it, as the picture above shows.

Monday, August 18, 2014

What are we fighting for? A cynical comment on war

The daily ceremony at the Menin Gate for the British and Commonwealth soldiers killed near
Ypres during World War I and whose graves are unknown attracts always many spectators

These days it is hundred years ago that the First World War broke out. Especially the countries involved in this war, like France, Belgium, Britain and Germany, will commemorate it and all the events that followed till the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 that ended this war. Recently I was in France for my photo exhibition there and for my summer holiday and everywhere I saw preparations for the coming commemorations and the first have already been held. For instance, on August 2 the church bells were rung, remembering that this was also done when the French army was mobilized 100 years ago. Especially two things were striking when I was there: the big number of articles on World War I in the local newspapers and that all war monuments in the region where I was (Lorraine) had been cleaned and restored. France is well prepared for the four (or actually five) years lasting commemoration.
Commemorating is only one aspect of an afterwar period. Another one is war tourism: visiting places where battles have taken place. Especially sites known from the Second World War and even more so from the First World War attract an increasing number of tourists. But also battlefields of other wars are popular: Waterloo, Gettysburg, and so on. I must say that I am also guilty of war tourism, for not only have I visited nearly the whole Western Front of World War One during the years, but recently I have also been to the battle field of Lake Trasimene in Italy (Hannibal versus the Roman) and to Alesia (Caesar versus the Gauls) again in France.
War tourism is probably of all ages and it “belongs” to war. The First World War had hardly ended or relatives of the British soldiers came to Ypres in Belgium in order to see where their sons had died. I cannot prove it, but I think that it was the same for other battle fields, at least for some. Moreover, on such places there is always something to find for collectors and robbers: souvenirs and valuables. What is different today, however, is the commercialization of war tourism. Already in the 19th century Thomas Cook organised comparable trips but today such trips are organised not only for people with a specific interest in war and history but they have become part of the tourism industry. I have nothing against it but some battle fields are gradually becoming a kind of amusement park, which is quite a nasty idea, since the “amusement” is there because thousands of people have died on the site.
It is also nasty for another reason. Many wars and battles belong not only factually to the past but also emotionally. Unlike still the Vietnam War, the Second World War and also often yet the First World War, wars further away in history have become neutral facts. Who is yet emotionally aroused by the battle between Caesar and Vercingetorix in 52 BC or let’s say the Battle of Nicaea in 193 AD between two Roman armies, led by two would-be Roman emperors? Often people hardly know anymore what the battle was about or from the perspective of today we find the reason for the battle stupid or unreal. Let’s take a present example. During the ages France and Germany have fought many wars, but today even the idea that these countries would send out armies against each other sounds absurd. History has changed once real possibilities. Motives that once could lead to war between these countries have disappeared, anyhow, and conflicts between these countries are solved peacefully. In view of this, one can wonder what the soldiers on the battle fields of the past have been fighting for and why they had to die. Did it ever had sense in view of the present world situation that the Franco-German wars were fought? I know that it’s a very ahistoric idea, but why can France and Germany now stand hand in hand together while in 1914 (and in 1939) they extended their hands against each other? It’s a very cynical remark, indeed, and I do not want to deny the heroism and patriotism of the soldiers (these concepts being taken in a positive way in the sense of being prepared to do what is valuable; not in the sense of a plain machismo or nationalism), but in the light of present-day views one would tend to say that these wars were waged for the pleasure of the modern tourist. I think that if one could learn a lesson from all those battles fought in the course of history it is the adage that originated on the battle fields of Vietnam, so to speak: Make love, not war. But looking around at what is happening in the world today, I am afraid that mankind will never learn and that the battle fields of Gaza, Iraq, the Ukraine etc. will be the tourist resorts of the future.

Friday, August 08, 2014


I think you know the situation: Two children are playing around as children often do. Let’s say that they are a bit boxing or something like that. One gives a blow to the other. “Don’t beat me that hard”, the other says and strikes back. Then the first one says: “I dont beat hard. You do!” And before you know it, they are really fighting. We call this escalation. Why did this happen?
In an article by Suparna Choudhury and Sarah-Jayne Blakemore I found an interesting explanation of this phenomenon, which they derived from a study by S.S. Shergill et al.: “... just as happens when we try to tickle ourselves, the brain predicts the sensory consequences of the self-generated force and then reduces the sensory feedback. Since the forward model can only predict the outcome of our own actions and not of those of someone else, sensations that are externally caused are enhanced relative to self-produced sensations. As a result, if you were to deliver a vengeful punch to match the force of your opponent’s blow, it is likely that you would overestimate the strength of the opponent’s punch and strike back harder”. (source: see below) In short: We tend to underestimate the force of our own actions (blows), because the sensations related to them are attenuated, while we don’t correctly judge the force when dealing a blow to another person. Even if the other person wants to strike back with the same force, his blow will be harder than the one received. The result is escalation.
I think that this is a general phenomenon: We often underestimate the effects of what we do. We underestimate the way we talk negatively about other people or even hurt them purposively, while we overestimate it when other people talk bad about us or hurt us with their words. When we feel guilty if other people accuse us of having done something bad, we think that what we did is not as bad as when we see a third person doing the same.
However, the phenomenon is wider. You see it everywhere where people maintain relations to others, especially in politics and in war. In war, the victims on your side count more than the same number of victims on the side of your enemy. “Our revenge will be thousandfold”. “One victim on our side means ten on theirs”. Who doesn’t know words like these? The harm done to your side looks bigger than the harm on the other side done by you, so by way of revenge the harm is increased when hitting back. Again: The result is escalation. Within societies the restraints that escalation really will take place are much bigger than in international affairs, although happily even there the restraints on conflicts are growing. The essence of the problem is, of course, a kind of ego-centration, together with your physical setup. The upshot is: Behave yourself and put yourself in the shoes of the other.
Source: Suparna Choudhury and Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, “Intentions, Actions, and the Self”, in: Susan Pockett, et al., Does consciousness cause behavior? Cambridge, Mass. etc.: MIT Press, 2006; pp. 41-42.