Fall 2013

Philosophy and Ideas

The Theater of War

Daniel Tompsett

War as entertainment goes back at least as far as the birth of Greek tragedy. Even the perception of war’s inevitability has ancient Greek roots. Are struggle, violence and warfare fundamental truths that govern nature itself, as one influential philosopher taught?

Warfare as a form of entertainment has a long history. For example, one of the earliest works attributed to Western literature, the Iliad, relates the tale of the Trojan War in graphic detail. And in the amphitheaters of ancient Rome, spectators reveled in gladiatorial contests and battle reenactments.

The ancient inception of war and violence as subject matter for theater and entertainment persists today. In movie theaters around the world, war films continue to be a hot ticket. Of course, the subject of war is not limited to that medium. A London Telegraph review of a recently released video game described it as “a jet-setting adventure marked by boisterous set-piece spectacle and gratuitous explosions.”

In the modern age, the perpetual reality of war itself came to be seen in theatrical terms. Both military theorist Carl von Clausewitz and British wartime leader Winston Churchill spoke of “the theater of war,” though each doubtless intended the physical space or area in which real wars are fought. Yet if “all the world’s a stage,” as Shakespeare said, then planet Earth in the history of humanity has rarely not been a theater of war.

Does the entrenched nature of literal and virtual warfare mean we must accept that human beings, by choice or by circumstance, are forever consigned to be either spectators or performers in various iterations of “the theater of war”? Further, what does the Bible—parts of which are considerably older than the Iliad—tell us about the origins and future of war, and about the likelihood of lasting peace?

War as Fundamental Truth

That wars occur is of course a sad fact, but some have gone so far as to embrace the concept of war as a fundamental value or principle of truth governing nature itself. One such individual was the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus, who claimed that strife holds the universe together and that “war is the father and king of all.”

Heraclitus’s word for war, polemos, may be defined as “strife” or “struggle”; his view of nature as in a perpetual state of struggle has had a profound influence on thinkers who have helped shape the modern world. For example, Friedrich Nietzsche gave Heraclitus credit for having “raised the curtain on this greatest of all dramas.”

Certainly the principles of progressive evolution—Charles Darwin’s hypothesis concerning natural selection, which he would come to call “the survival of the fittest”—bear a resemblance to the Heraclitean view that nature is in a constant state of struggle or strife. In Darwin’s terms, “fittest” should not be read as “strongest” but rather as what he imagined to be most adept at fitting into the local environment. He contextualized this sense of fittest with such phrases as “the great and complex battle of life,” “the war of nature” and “a struggle for life.”

Darwin’s concepts were informed by a very long philosophical tradition of perceptions about the natural world. With regard to his adoption of the idea of change in nature, cultural historian Jeff Wallace confirms that “a philosophical tradition can be traced back at least to the early Greek philosopher Heraclitus’ conception of the world in a perpetual state of flux or ‘fire.’” Not unlike Darwin, Heraclitus had said that “all things come into being and pass away through strife.” In Darwin’s evolutionary terms, each “formation” is imagined to be only “an occasional scene, taken almost at hazard, in a slowly changing drama.” Darwin and others thus raised the curtain on a new interpretation of the ancient idea that nature is subject to change in a great battle for life.  

Tragic Origins

Is there any truth in the idea of the incremental development and transformation of nature through struggle and war? A historic look at the theater might lead us to conclude that, in part at least, struggle and violence have had a place not only as entertainment but as a supposed fundamental truth in nature.

Theater originates from the Greek theatron, “a viewing place,” from theasthai, “to behold.” The primary genre of theater that the ancient Greeks beheld was tragedy, which, according to Aristotle, originated in choral lyrics sung to honor Dionysus, a mythical Greek god associated with wine, ecstasy and fertility. But the Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion also notes this god’s “dark side,” which included “murder and bloodshed, madness and violence, flight and persecution, and gender hostility.”

Dionysus is further associated with man’s animal nature, often expressed as terrifying savagery and in the idea of transformation from one form or identity—human, animal or god—to another. Nietzsche felt he recognized in the Dionysian practices of the Greeks “the Babylonian Sacaea [a riotous pagan festival] and its throwback of man to the condition of the tiger and the ape.”

In the original Dionysian theaters, complete with an altar to their namesake god, the transfer of identity through the actors’ performance represented “ecstasy,” a word whose roots suggest standing outside oneself, something they symbolized by wearing masks. Meanwhile the audience was also taking part in the communal ritual by watching the often gruesome events enacted.

In ancient Greece, real military concerns were closely associated with such rituals. The main festival at which tragedy was performed was the Great Dionysia. The event incorporated a strong military theme, which Simon Goldhill, professor of Greek literature and culture, has compared to military parades or even “such notorious events as the 1936 Berlin Olympics.” Before the plays were performed, 10 generals—the “most important military and political leaders of the State”—poured wine offerings, and war orphans were paraded in the theater.

We thus find a connection between the worship of Dionysus, as associated with tragic theater, and the view of violent struggle as a divine force in nature. Notions of transformation, gruesome entertainment and various rites connected with the practice of war likewise hark back to the ancient Greek god.

Tragic Influence

The mythology surrounding Dionysus was well known to Heraclitus. The philosopher mocked popular modes of worship as well as people who, apparently unaware that images are unconscious, prayed to such gods. He also claimed that the gods Hades and Dionysus were the same, seeming to imply that he viewed death and life as part of a single, wider reality, much as he seems to have viewed the states of war and change as equating, paradoxically, to peace and rest.

Homer was wrong in saying: ‘Would that strife might perish from among gods and men!’ He did not see that he was praying for the destruction of the universe; for, if his prayer were heard, all things would pass away.”

Heraclitus of Ephesus, Fragment 43, Quoted by John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy

Some scholars see the Heraclitean concept of strife or struggle as transferring the traits of mythical, warring god-beings (depicted in fictional works such as the Iliad) to the physical elements: real, natural phenomena were being endowed with imagined universal power and blind legislative fiat. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, prominent 20th-century social theorists, observed that the categories by which Western philosophy defined its essential concepts marked the spots once occupied by the pagan gods, and that pre-Socratic cosmologies record “the moment of transition.”

The similarity of ideas at work in Greek tragic theater and in the ideas of early Greek thinkers, which would certainly include Heraclitus, has also been noted by their modern counterparts. Twentieth-century philosopher Martin Heidegger remarked that while those Greek thinkers recognized the simultaneous harmony and opposition inherent in “being and seeming,” it “was all portrayed at its highest and purest in Greek tragic poetry.”

In like manner, the only philosopher Nietzsche could conceive had come close to his own peculiar sense of “tragic wisdom,” or the Dionysian philosophy of opposition and war, was Heraclitus.

In other words, through an appreciation for Heraclitus and the world of Greek tragic theater, highly influential thinkers were embracing the ancient pagan idea that all is governed by struggle and presenting it as a truth that should simply be accepted.

From the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.”

Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (1859)

Some have also read mythological origins into philosophies that embrace similar concepts of universal change, such as that of Henri Bergson, who developed a theory of time and consciousness called “duration” (durée). Irwin Edman noted in his foreword to Bergson’s Creative Evolution (1907), a work written in response to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, that the concept of Bergson’s “élan vital [vital force] goes back a long way too: ultimately to the Dionysiac mysteries.”

Via modern thought, the perceived fundamental state of all nature as transforming or progressing in context of a force, antagonism, struggle, battle or war was being falsely presented as a universal law of reality, upheld as virtuous by right of its purported status as truth.

However, it is not only the most celebrated intellectuals who have esteemed the Heraclitean sense of universal war and struggle. Adolf Hitler, in a speech of May 30, 1942, to young officers of the Wehrmacht, said with reference to Heraclitus: “A deeply serious sentence of a great military philosopher enunciates that struggle, and thereby war, is the father of all things. . . . The entire universe seems to be ruled by just this one idea.” While Hitler held political power, for the second time in history the whole world would be forced to play a part in the theater of war.

Hitler’s sense of Heraclitus as “great” chimes with Nietzsche’s comment that Heraclitus sheds light on the “greatest of all dramas”; with Heidegger’s sense that early Greek philosophy and drama each portray the “highest and purest” sense of fundamental antagonism; and even, perhaps, with Darwin’s sense of a “great and complex battle of life.” Their endorsement of the Heraclitean philosophy of war has not just been one of acceptance but of reverence.

Finale

That conflicts occur between individuals, between nations, and within nature itself is sadly true. However, when war is actively embraced by human beings as a fundamental value or governing truth, then catastrophe inevitably follows, as the 20th century attests. The idea that struggle and war are governing truths that result in nature’s progress is a lie. Equally, maintaining gratuitous war or violence as a subject of entertainment only propagates destructive conflict and blurs the line between violent fiction and violent reality.

In ancient history the concept of Dionysus was, of course, only a figment of the human imagination, blended with aspects evident within the natural world. What the Bible makes clear is that the true culprit behind the forms of war and violence we have considered here is Satan the devil. Scripture tells us it is this being who is the source of the violence that has pervaded the earth for millennia, even convincing some that war is a constant necessity and a good thing. The book of Ezekiel describes this former angel as having become “filled with violence”; the apostle Paul confirms that, for the time being, that spirit entity is “the god of this world” (Ezekiel 28:16; 2 Corinthians 4:4, King James Version).

As such the theater of war is alive and well in various places and forms. Yet it is not inevitable; it is not a fundamental truth of nature, and it will come to an end. According to the Scriptures, however, the finale of war and the final curtain call for its director can come only from outside the Western philosophical tradition; that is, following the return of Jesus Christ to this earth (Luke 21:27; Revelation 20:1–3). Prior to that time warfare is not going to go away.

They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

Isaiah 2:4

Christ confirmed that in the period preceding His return, “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom” (Luke 21:10). The returning Christ will bring God’s righteous war as a final remedy to all unrighteous wars inspired by the adversary, Satan.

With the establishment of God’s kingdom on this earth, the idea and practice of war will finally be forgotten. Only then will all have the opportunity to know true and lasting peace with their Creator, the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6; 2:4).