The Clausewitzean Conception of Civilization
8 February 2012
Clausewitz is a philosopher more closely associated with the idea of war than the idea of civilization, but Clausewitz’s conception of war can also shed some light on civilization. Allow me to review some familiar ground in regard to the Clausewitzean conception of war. Here is a famous passage from On War that gives Clausewitz’s famous formulation of war as a continuation of politics by other means:
“…war is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means. All beyond this which is strictly peculiar to war relates merely to the peculiar nature of the means which it uses. That the tendencies and views of policy shall not be incompatible with these means, the art of war in general and the commander in each particular case may demand, and this claim is truly not a trifling one. But however powerfully this may react on political views in particular cases, still it must always be regarded as only a modification of them; for the political view is the object, war is the means, and the means must always include the object in our conception.”
Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book 1, Chapter 1, section 24
Before this Clausewitz gives a sense of how the military aim and the political aim give way to each other based on the presumed progress of a conflict:
“The law of the extreme, the view to disarm the adversary, to overthrow him, has hitherto to a certain extent usurped the place of this end or object. Just as this law loses its force, the political object must again come forward. If the whole consideration is a calculation of probability based on definite persons and relations, then the political object, being the original motive, must be an essential factor in the product.”
Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book 1, Chapter 1, section 11
This insistence upon the political character of war is the reason Anatol Rapoport identified Clausewitz’s philosophy as a political theory of war, which Rapoport contrasted to cataclysmic and eschatological theories of war (something that I have discussed in More on Clausewitz, Toward a Dialectical Conception of War, Species of War and Peace, and War and Peace, Again).
More recently, as I have continued to think about these Clausewitzean themes, I wrote this on Twitter:
Then reformulated the same idea in A Shift in Hemispheres:
“Civilization and war are born twins. Recently on Twitter I wrote that one could uncharitably say of civilization that is is merely epiphenomenal of war, or one could say more charitably that war is merely epiphenomenal of civilization. Perhaps each is epiphenomenal of the other, and there is no one, single foundation of organized human activity — it is simply that large-scale human activity sometimes manifests itself as civilization and sometimes manifests itself as war.”
And reformulated the idea once more in The Agricultural Apocalypse:
“Only the social organization provided by civilization can make organized violence on the scale of war possible. I have even suggested that instead of seeing war and civilization as a facile dichotomy of human experience, we ought to think of large-scale human activity sometimes manifesting itself as civilization and sometimes manifesting itself as war. The two activities are convertible.”
Obviously, this has been on my mind lately. And as unlikely as this may sound, when I was writing these observations I was thinking of a passage in Hermann Weyl’s Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science. In an appendix to this work, after describing the response among mathematicians when Gödel’s incompleteness theorems demonstrated that Hilbert’s program (the finite axiomatization of mathematics) could not be carried out, Weyl wrote:
“The ultimate foundations and the ultimate meaning of mathematics remain an open problem; we do not know in what direction it will find its solution, nor even whether a final objective answer can be expected at all. ‘Mathematizing’ may well be a creative activity of man, like music, the products of which not only in form but also in substance are conditioned by the decisions of history and therefore defy complete objective rationalization.”
Hermann Weyl, Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science, Appendix A, “The Structure of Mathematics”
A generalization of Weyl’s observation beyond the exclusive concern for creative activities of man might comprehend both creative and destructive activities of man, and that human activity, whatever form it takes, is conditioned by the decisions of history and therefore defies complete objective rationalization. Of course, I doubt even Clausewitz (Enlightenment philosopher of war that he was) would have thought that war transcended history and is amenable to complete objective rationalization, but we must of course think of this in comparative terms: we would have high expectations for mathematics to conform to this ideal, and relatively low expectations for warfare to conform to this ideal, but all human activities would presumably fall on a continuum defined at its end points by that which is entirely immanent to history and that which entirely transcends history. It is the degree of being “conditioned by the decisions of history” that marks the difference between abstract and a priori disciplines like mathematics and concrete and a posteriori disciplines like war.
It would be interesting to construct a philosophy of war based upon the idea that war does in fact transcend the accidents of history and is amenable to complete objective rationalization, but I will not attempt to do that at the present moment (but I will suggest that we might call this, in contradistinction to the political, eschatological, and cataclysmic conceptions of war, the transcendental conception of war). In the meantime, I will assume that war eludes a transcendental theory and must be given a theoretical treatment (if at all) as being “conditioned by the decisions of history” to a greater or lesser extent. Moreover, I will make the same assumption about civilization, which appears to be as “conditioned by the decisions of history” as is the constant warfare that has attended civilized life. Civilization also eludes complete objective rationalization. In this, then, we already see that war and civilization belong to similar spheres of human endeavor, residing near the empirical end of the a priori/a posteriori continuum, while mathematics and logic lie at the opposite end of the same continuum. That is to say, we have similar theoretical expectations for war and for civilization.
Nevertheless, Clausewitz himself points out the continued need to elucidate philosophical truth even from historically contingent events by attending to the essential elements:
“Whoever laughs at these reflections as utopian dreams, does so at the expense of philosophical truth. Although we may learn from it the relations which the essential elements of things bear to each other, it would be rash to attempt to deduce laws from the same by which each individual case should be governed without regard to any accidental disturbing influences. But when a person, in the words of a great writer, “never rises above anecdote,” builds all history on it, begins always with the most individual points, with the climaxes of events, and only goes down just so deep as he finds a motive for doing, and therefore never reaches to the lowest foundation of the predominant general relations, his opinion will never have any value beyond the one case, and to him, that which philosophy proves to be applicable to cases in general, will only appear a dream.”
Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book 6, Chapter 6, section 5
Clausewitz, throughout his treatise, maintains his focus on the political nature of war as a means to the end of discerning, “the relations which the essential elements of things bear to each other,” and in so doing finds his inquiry led to broader considerations such as, “the general state of intellectual culture in the country” (Bk. 1, Ch. 3, “On Military Genius”), which must be, at least in part, a function of civilization. Clausewitz goes on to say in the same section:
“If we look at a wild, warlike race, then we find a warlike spirit in individuals much more common than in a civilised people; for in the former almost every warrior possesses it; whilst in the civilised, whole masses are only carried away by it from necessity, never by inclination. But amongst uncivilised people we never find a really great general, and very seldom what we can properly call a military genius, because that requires a development of the intelligent powers which cannot be found in an uncivilised state. That a civilised people may also have a warlike tendency and development is a matter of course; and the more this is general, the more frequently also will military spirit be found in individuals in their armies. Now as this coincides in such case with the higher degree of civilisation, therefore from such nations have issued forth the most brilliant military exploits, as the Romans and the French have exemplified. The greatest names in these and in all other nations that have been renowned in war, belong strictly to epochs of higher culture.”
Thus, for Clausewitz, the highest degree of civilization coincides with the highest degree of military genius; high achievement in civilization is the necessary condition for high achievement in war. Military exploits can be the work of genius, like a sculpture of Michelangelo or a fugue by Bach. Brilliance, then, whether expressed in war or in any other endeavor of civilization, requires the achievements of high culture (presumably cultivated by civilization) to reach its ultimate expression.
All of this has been stated — as Clausewitz stated it — giving civilization the priority, but all of these formulations can be inverted ceteris paribus, with war given priority, so that, for example, the highest degree of war coincides with the highest degree of civilizational genius; high achievement in war is the necessary condition for high achievement in civilization. Here we see again, as we have seen before, that war and civilization are convertible. The antithetical view is that war and civilization are not convertible, but antithetical.
It has become a kind of truism — usually unchallenged — in discussing the violence and brutality of the twentieth century to segue into a critique, implicit or explicit, of industrial-technological civilization, which inevitably resulted in the industrialization of war and the application of science and technology to violence and brutality. We find this, for example, in Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View, in which he says in regard to the fate of some of Europe’s cultural treasures during the Second World War:
“Many buildings of the eighteenth century were erected simply to give pleasure by people who believed that pleasure was important, and worth taking trouble about, and could be given some of the quality of art. And we managed to destroy a good many of them during the war including the Zwinger at Dresden, the palace of Charlottenburg in Berlin, and the greater part of the Residenz in Wurzburg. As I have said, it may be difficult to define civilization, but it isn’t so difficult to recognize barbarism.”
Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, Chapter 9, pp. 240-241
In a similar vein, after the 1981 Brixton riots Margaret Thatcher was quoted as saying, “The veneer of civilization is very thin.” Earlier in the above-quoted work (p. 220), Clark made a related reference that extended his critique from industrialized warfare to industrialized civilization itself:
“…the triumph of rational philosophy had resulted in a new form of barbarism… stretching as far as the eye can reach, the squalid disorder of industrial society…”
For Clark, industrialized society and industrialized warfare is transparently barbaric and antithetical to civilization. This is what many of us would like to believe, but in order to believe this we must adopt a systematic blindness of the history of civilization, since war is implicated at every step. In every age of organized human activity, civilization has built monuments to itself, and war has destroyed most of them. A few treasures remain for us from the past, but they are the exception, not the rule. The history of civilization without war is also the exception, not the rule.
We flatter ourselves when we only condescend to give the name of civilization to a certain range of values that we believe reflect well on humanity. This reminds me of the scene in the film Dead Poets Society in which the professor ridicules the overly-refined and delicate way in which Shakespeare is often presented. In the film this is a laugh line, but in real life people really convince themselves civilization is the equivalent of the comedic presentation of Shakespeare.
Even as we attempt to flatter ourselves by associating humanity with a certain selection of values, we also impoverish ourselves. We must convince ourselves, against experience and reason, that civilization is a delicate and fragile thing, rather than the robust reality that it is, forged in war, tried by fire, and built out of sacrifices.
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