Published by ThinkDeeply.com, 2003.
Read any book about the history of the World and it’s likely that you’ll be left with one overriding impression: that human beings find it impossible to live in harmony with one another. Books on world history usually begin with the ‘first’ civilisations of Sumeria and Egypt, which arose at around 3000 BC, and from that point until the present day, history is little more than a catalogue of endless wars.
According to one famous statistic, for every one year of peace in human history there have been 14 years of war. Think back to your history lessons at school – if they were anything like mine, all you can probably remember of them are the names of Kings and Queens and the names of the wars which were fought during their reigns (here’s a few just off the top of my head: the War of the Roses, the English Civil War, the Seven Years War, the Hundred Years War, the War of the Spanish Succession etc.) ‘Just think how lucky you are,’ I remember a teacher telling my class once. ‘If you’d been born at any other time in history you’d all be sent off to fight in some foreign country and the chances are you wouldn’t come back.’
War seems to be natural to human beings – or at least to male human beings, since war has always been an almost exclusively male occupation. There seems to be something wrong with us, a kind of restlessness and constant dissatisfaction which means that we have to create conflict. Most modern scientists would probably agree with this, and suggest that there’s a strong genetic and biological basis for war. They would point to the fact that the purpose of life is genetic survival, and that this means competing with other living beings for food and territory. Or they might point to the theories of the zoologist Konrad Lorenz, who showed that all animals have an instinct to establish an area that belongs to their family or tribe, and to stop any other animals encroaching on it. In human terms this would mean that wars occur when groups are struggling against each other to establish territory for themselves, or when ‘invaders’ encroach upon a group’s established territory.
However, there’s a major problem with the view that war is natural: the fact that human beings haven’t always waged war against each other. On the contrary, there’s a lot of evidence which suggests that war is only a fairly recent historical development.
Most pre-historians (that is, historians who investigate the centuries before the civilisations of Sumeria and Egypt) and archaelogists agree that the ‘age of war’ only actually began around 5,000 years ago. Before then, it seems, human beings did live in a kind of harmony with each other. Until around 10,000 BC all human beings lived as hunter-gatherers, and all the evidence we have suggests that, as the Anthroplogist Robert Lawlor writes, ‘the so-called primitive hunter-gatherer lifestyle did not include the activity of warfare as we know it.’
One way to verify this is to look at the peoples in the world who lived as hunter-gatherers until very recently. The different tribes of the Australian aborigines, for example, very rarely fought against each other, and even when they did it was common to ‘ritualise’ the conflict into a fight between two individuals. A representative of each tribe would be chosen, and the two men would stand motionless, about 25 metres apart, and throw spears at each other. When one of them was wounded the ‘war’ would be over.
The Native Americans became much more war-like as a result of their conflicts with European colonists, and certain tribes (like the Aztecs and the Sioux) were always aggressive, but in general war was a much less prominent part of life for them than for Europeans. For them ‘war’ usually only meant short sporadic raids, in order to find slaves or victims for sacrifice, and attacking sides would usually stop fighting as soon as they suffered casualties, believing that nothing was worth the loss of their own people. They never fought long battles, and very rarely invaded other tribes’ territory and tried to conquer them.
At around 10,000 BC the agricultural revolution began – people started to ‘settle down’ into villages and townships, where they cultivated crops and domesticated animals. Some historians see this as the beginning of the ‘age of war’, but the historical evidence doesn’t support this. The period of history from 10,000 BC until 3000 BC was also, it seems, a time of peace. Archaelogist’s diggings from this period show, as the historian Lewis Mumford wrote, ‘the complete absence of weapons.’ Villages were built in easily accessible areas, and didn’t have walls around them, which suggests that there was no threat from invaders. The cave and vase drawings which have survived from this period show no weapons or scenes of fighting. But perhaps most impressively, some Neolithic cultures existed for thousands of years, and show no sign of being damaged or disrupted by war. This is true of the ancient town of Catal Huyuk in Turkey, for example, and of the neolithic civilisations of Malta and Crete (at least until their ultimate destruction by Indo-European invaders). As the archaelogist J.D. Evans writes of the neolithic cultures of Malta, for example, ‘No more peaceable society seems ever to have existed.’
The Age of War
But this age came to a very abrupt end. During the third millenium BC the whole of Europe and much of the rest of the world erupted with war.
A people who archaelogists now call the ‘Indo-Europeans’ were largely responsible for this – they branched out from their homeland in the steppes of Southern Russia and waged war against the peaceful neolithic tribes, gradually conquering the whole of Europe and beyond. But there were other war-like peoples too, all of them based around central Europe and Northern Africa: the Egyptians, the Mesopotanians and the Semitic peoples. As Ken Wilber writes in Up From Eden, ‘The simple fact is that, around the 3rd millenium BC, especially in Sumer…modern massive warfare of one state against another was born.’
From this point on war became a central part of human life. Villages and towns began to be built inland and on hills, where they were less vulnerable. Whereas the ‘Old Europeans’ had worshipped goddess figures who symbolised the fertility and benevolence of nature, people now began to worship warrior gods – fearsome and cruel gods like Yahweh of the Old Testament. People were buried with weapons, to help them to defend themselves in the afterlife, and their artwork was filled with images of war.
Other kinds of conflict and violence became rife too. Pirates roamed the mediterrean, attacking ships and coastal settlements, and robbery became so widespread that, as the Greek historian Thucydides notes, writing in 500 BC, ‘in ancient times, all Greeks carried weapons because their homes were undefended and intercourse was unsafe; like the Barbarians they went armed in their every-day life.’
The ‘Ego Explosion’
It’s generally agreed that the cause of this transition was a change in the human psyche – or at least in the psyche of the peoples who were responsible for this eruption of war.
Some writers have used the phrase the ‘brain explosion’ to describe the rapid growth of the human brain during our evolution, and it’s equally apt to use the phrase ‘ego explosion’ to describe what happened during the third millenium BC. All the evidence suggests that these peoples developed something which human beings had never had before: a strong sense of individual identity, an internalised sense of ‘I’ which they could use to talk themselves with and make decisions – in other words, a strong sense of ego. This isn’t to say that people before then didn’t have a sense of being individuals, or that the other peoples in the world who didn’t undergo this development don’t have this, but it seems that at this time, for these peoples, the sense of ‘I-ness’ became much stronger than ever before.
It was this that enabled these peoples to create the first modern civilisations – their strongly developed sense of ego meant that they were more self-reflective and better at problem-solving, and therefore that they were very practical and inventive. But the ‘ego explosion’ also caused many problems. It meant that, for the first time, human beings had a sense of real separateness – separateness from each other and separateness from nature. We became individualistic and selfish, and developed a sense of disconnection from the natural world which has led to our present environmental problems. We even developed a sense of separateness to our own bodies too, which meant that we began to think of the ‘flesh’ as somehow ‘sinful’, and to think of instincts and bodily processess like sex and menstruation as ‘unclean’ and shameful. We lost the sense of inner harmony and the feeling of being ‘at home’ in the world which people had had before, and began to experience a sense of self-division and of being at odds with the world.
Causes of War
The question we really need to to answer though is: how did the stronger sense of ego which human beings developed during this time cause an eruption of war?
There are several probable reasons for this. As I’ve just suggested, the ego explosion meant that people began to experience a sense of inner discontent. They experienced a painful sense of separation and isolation, of being trapped in their heads with the rest of the world ‘out there’. And their strongly developed egos also meant that, like modern human beings, they experienced constant ‘thought chatter’ – the endless stream of daydreams, memories, images, worries etc. which runs through our minds.
This also causes inner discontent because it disturbs our being, and in addition because ‘thought chatter’ is usually negatively based and focused around worries and problems, and so gives rise to anxiety, depression and other negative states.
Because of this, in an effort to compensate for their inner discontent, human beings started to look for well-being from external things. They began to started thinking of happiness in terms of owning goods and gaining status and power, instinctively believing that these things would fill the ‘lack’ they felt inside them. And the ‘war instinct’ grew out of this. Invading other people’s territories and attempting to conquer them became a way of gaining new material goods and new territory, of gaining new power, and of increasing the glory and status of their tribe or ’empire’.
The ego explosion also meant that ‘boredom’ became part of the human condition. Human beings began to find it impossible to ‘do nothing’, partly because when there’s nothing outside us to focus our attention on to we have to face the inner turmoil of our ego-isolation and ‘thought chatter’; and also because, now that people were living ‘in their heads’ rather than actually in the world, the world became a much less colourful and fascinating place than earlier human beings experienced it as. And it’s possible to say that the ‘war instinct’ was also partly rooted in a desire to escape restlessness and boredom. In other words – trite though it may sound – war became a kind of entertainment, which was necessary because human beings desperately needed activity, since they now found it impossible to just stay in their villages and live sedate lives. The French scientist and philosopher Pascal recognised this 350 years ago, in his famous Pensees, where he notes that,’the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room…The only good thing for men is to be diverted from thinking what they are…that is why gaming and feminine society, war and high office are so popular.’
The ‘ego explosion’ also made war possible because people became less able to empathise with others. A strong sense of ego means that you’re always preoccupied with yourself, that it’s difficult for you to identify with others and to feel compassion towards them. And this meant that human beings were capable of all kinds of cruelties and atrocities which would’ve been foreign to them before. They had no qualms about torturing and killing other people because they couldn’t ‘feel with’ them and get a sense of the pain and suffering they were causing.
Technology was undoubtedly a factor too. As I’ve said, the development of this stronger sense of ego gave people greater powers of invention and practicality, and it was these which gave rise to modern civilisation. And these same powers also gave rise to new weapons, new systems of transport, and more efficient organisation, all of which meant human beings were capable of violence and destruction on a massive scale.
What this really means is that conflict between different human beings is the result of the conflict which goes on inside every human being; the consequence of the inner turmoil and discontent which we all experience as a result of the ‘ego explosion’.
As long as this inner conflict is there, there will always be war in the world. The only sure way to go beyond war is to make peace with ourselves.
And the good news is that there is a tried and tested method of doing this: through the practice of spirituality. The whole point of spiritual traditions like Buddhism, Vedanta and Tantra is to overcome exactly those problems which the ‘ego explosion’ has left us with. Through spiritual practice – mainly the practice of meditation – we learn to tame our chattering egos, so that our beings are no longer disturbed by ‘thought chatter’, and we gradually transcend our painful sense of separate ‘I-ness’ and develop a sense of unity with other human beings, other living beings and the universe itself. We also make contact with the source of our being, the pure consciousness inside us, and experience the serene contentment which is its nature. For these reasons, we develop a sense of inner well-being which means that we no longer have to look for happiness from materialism and power; we no longer experience boredom either, and we have a natural sense of empathy with other human beings which makes violence impossible.
In view of this, it’s perhaps significant that there are some signs that the human race as a whole is moving beyond war. There are still many wars and conflicts in the world, of course, but probably fewer than at any other time in history (at least in the last 5,000 years.) As the social scientist Duane Elgin notes, for instance, we seem to be moving into an ‘age of of reconciliation’, in which we are ‘shifting out of the adolescent reactive mode into the adult interactive mode of negotiation.’ This might well be another indication of the collective spiritual development which the human race seems to be undergoing, the collective ‘awakening’ which so many researchers and writers believe is taking place now. It may be that a new sense of inner peace is spreading through people in general, which might eventually lead to a new age of peace in the world.