Giving Peace a Chance

Review War and Peace

Peace: A World History

by Antony Adolf

Polity, 2009, 272 pp.

As implied by the title of Antony Adolf’s book, Peace: A World History is an ambitious undertaking. Adolf tackles the entire history of peace, spanning the entire globe, running from prehistoric times to the present. In the introduction, Adolf promises to deliver a “comprehensive re-interpretation” of facts “outside the shadows in which they have been previously cast.” The book does not, however, truly live up to this promise. At a mere 248 pages, Peace provides only a cursory examination of the history of peace, offering little original analysis in the process. But the book is valuable nonetheless; it is well researched and rife with factoids and footnotes that could serve as raw materials for a future work of deeper analytical significance.

Peace starts off strong. Adolf endeavors to locate the origin of peace and searches beyond human history to biology. It turns out that humans’ primate progenitors seemingly possess an innate capacity for peaceful behavior. “[P]eaceful interactions are far more frequent than aggressive ones,” Jane Goodall notes of chimpanzees. Baboons “place a premium on reciprocity, and individuals act out of enlightened self-interest,” writes primatologist Robert Bigelow. Since humans share 99 percent of their genes with their fellow primates, Adolf asserts that perhaps mankind, too, has a natural tendency toward peacemaking.

The fossil and archeological records bolster this claim. Around 2.5 million years ago, humans developed smaller teeth. Since animals use large teeth primarily for food gathering and protection, the emergence of smaller teeth indicates that early humans enjoyed secure food sources and a relative freedom from the threat of violence. The first archeological evidence of war comes from much later in human history—fortifications around the city of Jericho from 9500 BCE, decapitated skulls in a German cave from around 8500 B.C.E., and evidence of the first standing armies and police forces from around 5000 B.C.E. Thus, Adolf concludes, peace predated war.

In an interesting analytical exercise, Adolf examines this historical evidence through the lens of political theory—namely, the debate between Hobbes and Rousseau over the natural state of man. Hobbes believed man’s natural state to be one of perpetual war and competition, while Rousseau instead believed man’s natural state to be peaceful. Adolf argues that neither view is correct: peace is both natural and difficult, he asserts, and “it is precisely because peace is natural that its fulfillment requires overcoming the stressors, obstacles and complexities intrinsic to nature.”

Sadly the rest of Peace does not live up to the intellectual promise of this early chapter. Adolf quickly abandons the technique of applying political theoretical lenses to the historical record and instead mostly supplies exceedingly brisk summaries of the peaceful rhetoric and pacifistic practices of various cultures. Still, the book offers a valuable recap of attempts to forge lasting peaceful societies throughout history, though some facts may surprise the reader. For example, the history of successful non-violent resistance stretches back at least to Ancient Rome. Within the first few decades of the founding of the Roman Republic, the plebeians waged a non-cooperation campaign against the patricians, refusing to either work or pay taxes. This effort led to the establishment of the Plebeian Council, which provided the citizenry with an institutional check against the patricians’ political power. Adolf also emphasizes that contrary to popular belief, the Middle Ages were actually a significant period for the development of peace. During this period, nation-states joined together in a plethora of treaties and interstate agreements, while religious scholars developed and codified the “Just War” theory, which limited the range of situations in which war could legitimately and morally be waged.

Adolf also examines the connection between inner and outer peace, a concept developed in the introduction and returned to in the conclusion. In the pages in between, however, he does not develop it as comprehensively as he could have; Adolf contends that the concept has emerged at several disparate points throughout history: In Ancient Egypt, for example, the pharaoh’s duty was to uphold both Maat, or cosmic order, and Ka, which was “the peaceful life-force tied to an individual’s body.” Similarly, St. Augustine wrote in the Middle Ages that “[t]he peace of the body is an ordered proportioning of its components … peace between men is an ordered agreement of mind… the peace of all things is a tranquility of order.” In the modern age, Abraham Maslow created the Maslow Pyramid, which visually displays this same inner-peace/outer-peace connection. Perhaps, Adolf surmises, this connection deserves more attention from modern scholars.

Overall, the briskness with which Adolf moves through history leads him to gloss over many of peace’s complexities. Adolf notes that Pennsylvania-founded by the Quaker William Penn-was “the only known state officially founded on pacific principles.” Within a few generations, though, the Quakers lost power to settlers with “monetary and military rather than missionary motives,” but Adolf does not specifically address the idea that the Quakers’ loss of political power resulted directly from their dedication to pacifism. As Daniel Boorstin examines in The Americans (1958), the Quakers’ reluctance to protect their population from Native American raids ultimately led to their political demise. Does this episode indicate that a state founded on pacific principles cannot successfully endure? Adolf could have used this incident to examine this question, but instead he merely summarizes the events while providing little interpretation.

This conundrum—whether states can truly be pacific—runs through Adolf’s narrative. He examines the Thirty Years peace between Athens and Sparta in 446 B.C.E., which broke down well before the allotted thirty years had elapsed; the grandiosely named Treaty of Perpetual Peace of 1502 between England and Scotland, which lasted a mere decade; and the oldest known peace agreement, the Kadesh Peace Agreement, which was actually an instrument to solidify an Egyptian-Hittite alliance to militarily check the rise of the rival power, Assyria. All of these efforts to build lasting peaces failed. Adolf quotes the political scientist Ronald Cohen, “states are in part, and always will be, war machines.” Unfortunately Adolf does not delve very deeply into this question. He fails to draw connections between these events, leaving the reader unsure about what lesson, if any, to draw from these peacemaking failures.

Though Adolf doesn’t offer the “comprehensive re-interpretation of facts” that he promises in the introduction, nor does he comprehensively examine “how and why the world’s peaces came or ceased to be what they are,” as he writes in the conclusion, he does provide a valuable primer on the history of peace around the world. As Adolf notes, peace is an under-explored subject; historians and political scientists seem to gravitate perpetually toward the study of war, but the study of peace could be much more valuable to the future of humanity. Peace is a notable effort to correct this problem.

March 30, 2011

frontispiece and illustration: broken rifle image of the War Resisters League

Correction:The quote in the second-to-last paragraph now attributed to Richard Cohen incorrectly identified Moses Finley as the source. Editor, April 6, 2011.