“Peace is not the absence of war; it is virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.”’ – Baruch Spinoza
The suggestion that peace is about presence rather than merely an absence is found in many forms: a presence of justice, of Christ, of God, creativity. Perhaps the most well-known is Martin Luther King Jr’s “True peace is not merely the absence of tension, but the presence of justice”. In some way these quotes speak volumes to the inner need and yearning we have – to shift our focus from a world filled with violence and conflict to one filled with peace and community. When peace is an absence, conflict fills in the space. When we assume that peace is simply an absence, it becomes as interesting as an empty room – it loses the focus and suggests that war is some assumed position, given birth rights greater than non-violence. Even were war to be ‘the state of nature’ in Hobbes’s words, we are called upon as agents of tomorrow to pursue peaceful ends.
The difficulty I find is the repetition of this formula: “Peace is not an absence of … but a presence of …” Yes, we know already! We can keep scrolling down the page, rather than let the words sink in, challenge us, change us. Worse still, I can feel the quote removing from me any real necessity for action on my part.
In 1946 the Conference on World Government at Rollins College in Florida made an “Appeal to the Peoples of the World” which highlighted the challenges set forth in a post-nuclear age. Among the statements was yet another version of the quote: Peace is not merely the absence of war, but the presence of justice, of law, of order – in short, of government.” (as a side note, signatories included Albert Einstein, for whom the quote is often attributed; but he was not actually present at the conference.)
This was understandable at that time: the declaration highlights how precarious nuclear capability and security was, and lobbied for governments to ensure robust measures for preserving peace.
However, preserving peace and ‘Preserving the peace’ are two different kettles of fish, and nine years later, Martin Luther King Jr. remarked ‘True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice,” reminding individuals that the absence of conflict does not equal a fair and flowing peace.
The force of his argument is amplified when in 1963 he descried ‘white moderates’ of wanting a ‘negative peace’ which is linked more with order than with justice. Order is stagnant, justice is vibrant. Order seeks hierarchy, justice seek fairness. Order preserves the old way, justice seeks to build anew. Order is the machine into which regularity is stamped, justice is the plant that grows from lived experience and true dialogue. By moving the centre of the quote to justice, and away from law and order, King clearly places it back in ourselves. We have a hand in shaping justice.
300 years before King, Baruch Spinoza wrote: ‘Peace is not absence of war; it is virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.’ It anticipates King’s words “peaceable means to peaceable ends.” And so we see that we are afforded an opportunity to develop this disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice. Each day we witness opportunities to make the world a more fair, loving, just, peaceful world. Each day we have the option to amplify conflict, or amplify dialogue. Peace, rather than being some far off Eden, is a characteristic we have in ourselves. When strengthened, we combat the malice, hatred, vengeance and violence we face, bringing the world ever deeper into community.