For two dozen centuries, at least, a few folks have said that peace is a good idea. Many others have agreed.
Making peace a practical reality has remained an elusive goal. But I think we’re closer to it than when Chu won the Battle of Bi, or Sparta lost the Battle of Leuctra.1
“…There is no true peace without fairness, truth, justice and solidarity….”
(Message for the celebration of XXXIII World Day of Peace, 13, Pope St. John Paul II (January 1, 2000))
“…But above all you should understand that there can never be peace between nations until there is first known that true peace which is within the souls of men….”
(“The Sacred Pipe,” Black Elk (1953) as told to Joseph Epes Brown)
“Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.”
(Jesus, in Matthew 5:9)
“Better than a thousand hollow words
“Is one word that brings peace.
“Better than a thousand hollow verses
“Is one verse that brings peace.
“Better than a hundred hollow lines
“Is one line of the law, bringing peace.”
(“Dhammapada,” Verses 100-115, Siddhartha Gautama, translated by Thomas Byrom)
We had a bumper crop of utopian societies in 19th century America.
Folks from the Harmony Society in Pennsylvania decided to try communal living in the Indiana Territory. They called their town Harmony, lived there from 1814 to 1824, then moved back east.
They gave their Indiana property to Robert Owen, a social reformer and wealthy industrialist. Owen figured the ready-built town was a dandy spot for showcasing Owenism: his version of Enlightenment ideals.
Owen’s New Harmony lasted from 1825 to 1827. That time around, folks decided to chuck their ideology but keep the town. A less utopian, but more durable, New Harmony eventually became part of the Evansville metropolitan area.
Many, but not all, American utopian experiments involved some sort of communal living. Maybe because Americans looking for private property and a chance at prosperity were already living in that sort of society.
Some utopias, like the Harmony Society, apparently thought the ideal community would be communal — and discouraged the process by which we grow new humans. Such communities tended to have trouble lasting more than one generation.2
Americans aren’t the only folks who’ve imagined utopias, or tried building one.
Thomas More’s 1516 satire, “Utopia,” added the word to my language. His readers probably realized that More’s “Utopia” meant something in Greek. The prefix ou- means “not,” topos means “place,” and place-names often got the suffix -iā.
“Utopia,” for More, meant “Nowhere:” a place that doesn’t exist. Somewhere along the line, we got the idea that “Utopia” means eu-topos: “Goodplace,” sort of.
Maybe because Hesoid’s ‘Golden Age’ is such an enduring dream in Western civilization. Hesoid’s “Works and Days” discusses, among other things, five Ages of Man.
Apparently Greek myth and folklore of his day had us starting out living carefree lives in a ‘Golden Age.’ And that it’s gotten steadily worse ever since.
Another tradition says we cycle through the Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dvapara Yuga and Kali Yuga.
I gather that truth typifies the Satya Yuga, and that we’re currently in a Kali Yuga.3
I see parallels between Eden and the apparently-common idea of a ‘good old days’ that we’re not in.
That doesn’t bother me. I’m a Catholic. My obligations include taking Sacred Scripture seriously. Also not assuming that the Bible was written from a particular Western viewpoint. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 101–133)
I suspect that’s partly because I grew up in a culture that is still mostly ‘European.’ Europeans almost certainly had their own utopian folklore when they heard the Genesis account, and that’s another topic.
‘Discovering’ that the Christian Bible’s origins are in the ancient Middle East has been big lately. So has comparing the Bible to standards that are in vogue at the moment: Freudian psychoanalysis, postmodern dialectics, whatever.
I don’t particularly like that sort of thing. Going ballistic over higher criticism or creation science is an option. But not, I think, a reasonable one.
And learning what I can from a store of accumulated wisdom that’s older than Western Civilization’s current iteration.4
Schlaraffenland and Cockaigne looked like reversals of European life in the 1300s.
Instead of wars punctuated by famines, plagues and the Black Death, Cockaigne was a place with no rules, all the food you can eat — and nothing to do all day except see how far gluttony and sloth will take you.
Folks saddled with dubiously-competent landlords and unreasonable production quotas might enjoy Cockaigne dreams. Particularly if they’d heard claims that whatever wasn’t painful was Satanic.5 Some Catholics have that attitude, but it’s not what the Church says. (Ecclesiastes 2:24–25; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 27, 1718–1719, 2112–2114)
Not enough, I think, to let me give an informed opinion.
That won’t stop me from sharing what I think may be true of at least some wannabe utopias. Or maybe not.
Folks living in 19th century America who wanted to try living with private property and a chance at prosperity didn’t need to go anywhere. The society they were in worked like that.
Schlaraffenland and Cockaigne’s no-rules land of cheesy rain, streets paved with pastry and houses made of barley sugar and cakes — was almost exactly what 14th-century European life wasn’t like. The same goes for America’s 19th century communal utopias.
My statistically-insignificant sample suggests that throughout history, Utopia has been the opposite of whatever’s currently ‘normal.’
Or sometimes, maybe, something in current events: swollen beyond all reason.
I occasionally run into someone with an attitude like Pogo’s Deacon Mushrat.6
It’s not 1952 any more, happily. Or 1969. Quite a few folks, myself included, had gotten thoroughly fed up with warped versions of “peace” by the late Sixties.
“‘…Peace iss vhat ve vant und do have,
Und a piece of anything you have.”
(“Bored of the Rings,” Henry N. Beard, Douglas C. Kenney; Harvard Lampoon (1969) via Google Books)
The good news is that quite a few folks don’t act like comic strip characters.
Yearning the ‘good old days’ of my youth isn’t an option. My memory’s too good.
And I know enough about humanity’s story to realize that whatever’s behind our assorted tales of better days long past — it was uncounted ages before our earliest written records.
As an adolescent, I realized that we weren’t living in a perfect world. We aren’t now.
We don’t live in the worst of all possible worlds, either.
If we were, folks around London wouldn’t have responded to senseless killing by saying that love is a good idea.
I think they’re right. Having been one of ‘those crazy kids’ in the 1960s makes accepting the idea easier for me, maybe, than for some. A little easier, anyway.
That’s what I should do. I don’t, not consistently.
But it’s still a good idea, so I keep trying. I also keep suggesting that loving, or at least not hating, other folks is a good idea.
Forgiving others is another incredibly difficult task, and a good idea.
Maybe, if enough of us start trying to act as if ‘love your neighbor’ matters — and focus on solving problems more than getting even — we’ll get a little closer to experiencing peace.
I think it’ll be worth the effort. And I think we’re making progress. Slow progress.
Today, January 1, is another World Day of Peace. It’s international, but isn’t the International Day of Peace. That’s September 21.
The World Day of Peace is a Catholic thing. Instead of talking about that, I’ll wrap this up with a few more quotes — and an opinion:
“…A great project of peace
“In these days, we celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in the wake of the Second World War. In this context, let us also remember the observation of Pope John XXIII: ‘Man’s awareness of his rights must inevitably lead him to the recognition of his duties. The possession of rights involves the duty of implementing those rights, for they are the expression of a man’s personal dignity. And the possession of rights also involves their recognition and respect by others’….”
(“52nd World Day of Peace 2019 – Good politics is at the service of peace,” Pope Francis (December 8, 2018))
“…The answer to the fear which darkens human existence at the end of the twentieth century is the common effort to build the civilization of love, founded on the universal values of peace, solidarity, justice, and liberty….”
(“To the United Nations Organization,” St. John Paul II (October 5, 1995))
“Why then do you judge your brother? Or you, why do you look down on your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God;”
“Then Peter approaching asked him, ‘Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?'”
“Wrath and anger, these also are abominations,
yet a sinner holds on to them.
“The vengeful will face the Lord’s vengeance;
indeed he remembers their sins in detail.
“Forgive your neighbor the wrong done to you;
then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.
“Does anyone nourish anger against another
and expect healing from the LORD?”
Wrath and anger are part of today’s world. Forgiveness is still more an ideal than a reality. But I think we’re making progress: slowly.
Humanity’s plagued with many small wars, but we haven’t had a global conflict for nearly three quarters of a century. A remarkable number of folks say international cooperation makes sense. Some even act as if they believe it.
Getting there will take generations of hard work. Millennia, likely enough. We’ve got an enormous backlog of unresolved injustices to sort out.
But I think working toward that goal is a good idea. And I think it’ll be worth the effort. Eventually.
Remembering peace in 2018:
- “Peace: Optional”
(December 24, 2018)
- “Homer, Hegel, History and Hope”
(May 12, 2018)
- “God, Love and Clouds”
(February 25, 2018)
- “Changing Rules”
(February 4, 2018)
- “‘Imagine All the People’”
(January 8, 2018)
- My views
- Trappists (O.C.S.O.) and vocations
- My views
- “Remembering Wisdom” (January 21, 2018)
- “Science, Faith, and Me” (November 5, 2017)
- “Love. And Science” (October 29, 2017)
- My views
- “The Pogo Papers”
Walt Kelly (1952-1953)