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:

“Uncharitably, we can say that civilization is an epiphenomenon of war; charitably, we can say that war is an epiphenomenon of civilization.”

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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Carl von Clausewitz

Carl von Clausewitz

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Carl Philipp Gottlieb von Clausewitz (July 1, 1780 – November 16, 1831)

Carl Philipp Gottlieb von Clausewitz (July 1, 1780 – November 16, 1831)

While on the topic of Clausewitz

Contradictory concepts are locked in a dialectical relation. Logically, this means that a definition of a given concept yields the definition of its contradictory through negation. If war is the contradictory of peace, and peace the contradictory of war, then a negation of a definition of war yields a definition of peace, and a negation of a definition of peace yields a definition of war.

Things are rarely as simple as this in fact; this kind of conceptual neatness is rare. Concepts — especially old concepts with a long history — tend to be complex and to be related by implication to many other concepts. Conceptual pairs like war and peace — sometimes called polar concepts — are assumed to be contradictories when they are in fact richer in content and the polar concepts imply more than each other. And what concepts could be older than those of war and peace? The emergence of civilization is nearly identical with the emergence of war in human history, and the idea of peace emerges as a hope immediately following upon the depredations of war.

Thus war and peace are not precisely dialectical, not precisely definable in terms of the contradictory of the other. This in itself renders war and peace as dialectical concepts, as any attempt to think them through coherently and systematically engages the thinker in an attempt to reconciling internal tensions within the concept. If successful, this process yields a higher synthesis that transcends the limited perspective and scope of previous definitions of the concept and establishes a more comprehensive concept informed by previous conceptions but more adequate than earlier formulations.

The Dialectic of Conceptual Pairs

Conceptual pairs, like war and peace, that are apparently or superficially contradictory yet integral in fact are common in our intellectual experience. A few weeks ago I mentioned Romero’s distinction between doctrinaire and inorganic democracy. This is a great example of what I am trying to illustrate. What we have are two clusters of concepts that suggest in turn two further contradictory clusters. Doctrinaire democracy is contradicted by non-doctrinaire democracy (each can be defined as the negation of the other), while inorganic democracy is contradicted by organic democracy (which, again, can each be defined as the negation of the other). Thus doctrinaire and inorganic democracy stand in a problematic relationship to each other, as do non-doctrinaire and organic democracy. But systematically setting these concepts within a theoretical context that includes them all may help to illuminate the initial pair of concepts with which we began.

In my Political Economy of Globalization I made similar observations regarding the dialectic of the conceptual pair of globalism and localism:

Globalism is correctly understood as one half of a dialectic, that of globalism and localism, or globalism and tribalism. And this extension of the concept of globalism to the pair of concepts globalism/tribalism emphasizes the departure from twentieth century nationalism that is already becoming a fact of political life: the nation-state appears nowhere in this dialectic. However, the concept of globalism is also extended by another dialectic: that of advocacy and opposition, or globalism/anti-globalism…

Thus the pair of concepts, globalism and anti-globalism, extends the concept of globalism simpliciter, so that the only obvious permutation missing in this twice extended concept of globalism is that of anti-tribalism, and it is here, finally, that we recover the nation-state. For the nation-state is an undeclared anti-tribalism: personal loyalty to chieftain must be abolished so that a territorial loyalty to the nation-state can take its place.

There I also cited section 2 of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil:

“How could anything originate out of its opposite? For example, truth out of error? Or the will to truth out of the will to deception? Or selfless action out of self-interest? Or the pure sunlike gaze of the sage out of covetousness? Such origins are impossible; whoever dreams of them is a fool, even worse; the things of the highest value must have another, separate origin of their own—they cannot be derived from this transitory, seductive, deceptive, lowly world, from this turmoil of delusion and desire! Rather from the lap of being, the intransitory, the hidden god, the ‘thing-in-itself ’—there must be their basis, and nowhere else!”— This way of judging constitutes the typical prejudice by which the metaphysicians of all ages can be recognized; this kind of valuation looms in the background of all their logical procedures; it is on account of this “belief” that they trouble themselves about “knowledge,” about something that is finally christened solemnly as “the truth.” The fundamental belief of the metaphysicians is the belief in antithetical of values.

What could be more true of the opposites of war and peace? The faith in antithetical values has encouraged us to believe that war and peace are precisely contradictory, but we have seen that the concepts are more complex than that.

The Means and Ends of War

We can easily see how the concept of peace might emerge from the concept of war, or vice versa, from Clausewitz’s famous definition of war as the pursuit of politics by other means. Clausewitz restates this principle throughout On War and gives it several formulations, so that it constitutes a point of reference for his thought and is the locus classicus for what Anatol Rapoport called political war (in contradistinction to eschatological war and catastrophic war).

This Clausewitzian principle inevitably invited the formulation of its inversion by Foucault: “politics is the continuation of war by other means.” (“Society Must be Defended”: Lectures at the College de France 1975-1976, p. 15) Thus politics, ideally peaceful, can be transformed into war, and war can be transformed into peace.

In holding that war is the pursuit of politics by other means, Clausewitz implicitly invokes the ends/means distinction, and suggests that the end, aim, and goal of war and politics alike is the same; only the means are different. War is the use of military means — violence — to compel another to do our will, whereas politics employs diplomatic means in the attempt to compel another to do our will. Seen in this context of means and ends, the transformation of war into peace and peace into war becomes obvious. Politicians pursue their ends with diplomacy, and finding the result unsatisfying turn to force in the attempt to attain the same ends. The use of force either attains these ends satisfactorily, in which case the war ends, or the ends are not attained, and eventually the war ends because it is seen as ineffectual in attaining the desired ends, and the politicians return to diplomacy in the attempt to secure that which could be be gotten by force.

Omnipresent War

Recent history has been rich in indecisive conflicts — the Colombian civil war, the Lebanese civil war, and the recently settled Sri Lankan civil war — in which the combatants have gone between peace table and battlefield as though through a revolving door. In such contexts, “peace” means little, and the temporary absence of armed conflict is only called peace for lack of a better term.

In so far as peace is an ideal — and we are well familiar with this ideal from literature and art — and not merely the cessation of hostility or the temporary absence of armed conflict, the greater part of the world for the greater part of history have not known peace. It was a tradition among the Romans that the doors to the Temple of Janus — called the Gates of War — would be closed in time of peace. This is said to have happened only five times in the combined history of the Republic and the Empire.

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More on Clausewitz

25 May 2009


tomb of the unknown soldier

A Clausewitzean Meditation on Memorial Day

As a day of remembrance that often highlights the sacrifices of the military, there is a sense in which it is eminently appropriate to write about Clausewitz today. In yesterday’s Another Book that Changed the World I discussed Hew Strachan’s Clausewitz’s On War: A Biography. Today I should like to further pursue some Clausewitzian themes.

Clausewitz - front

In Anatol Rapoport’s Introduction to the widely available Penguin abridgment of On War, Rapoport distinguishes three philosophies of war which he calls the political, the eschatological, and the cataclysmic. I would rather call these three conceptions of war — conceptions that can be illuminated by philosophical analysis — but I won’t quibble over this at present. Rapoport gives Clausewitz as the paradigmatic representative of political war, characterizes eschatological war as a messianic conception with both sacred and secular variants, and describes the cataclysmic conception of war as something akin to a natural disaster like a fire or an epidemic.

Anatol Rapoport (Russian: Анато́лий Бори́сович Рапопо́рт, 22 May 1911- 20 January 2007)

Anatol Rapoport (Russian: Анато́лий Бори́сович Рапопо́рт, born May 22, 1911- January 20, 2007)

Rapoport cites no figures comparable to Clausewitz as philosophers of war who have formulated an eschatological or cataclysmic conception of war, though for the latter it is not difficult to find a reference. In the letter I quoted yesterday that W. T. Sherman sent to the City Council of Atlanta on 12 September 1864, Sherman wrote:

You might as well appeal against the thunder-storm as against these terrible hardships of war. They are inevitable, and the only way the people of Atlanta can hope once more to live in peace and quiet at home, is to stop the war, which can only be done by admitting that it began in error and is perpetuated in pride.

The comparison of war to the inevitability of a thunder-storm classes Sherman amongst the cataclysmic philosophers of war.

Clausewitz - back

In Rapoport’s exposition of these three philosophies of war, war appears as an event that “happens,” interrupting the “ordinary” and “normal” condition of peace that prevails, or ought to prevail, and it is clearly implied that something must be done to “explain” the outbreak of war. Why not rather explain the outbreak of “peace”? In what sense can we consider peace to be a norm that is shattered by the outbreak of war? In fact, it is not. War is no less the norm than peace.

Such assumptions are foreign to Clausewitz’s theoretical framework. The famous aphorism that is associated with Clausewitz, “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” (Book I, Chapter I, 24) proposes a continuity between state policy and war, and this is as much as to propose a continuity of war and peace. There is not only a continuity of the genesis of war of peace, but a continuum that bridges the apparent gap between war and peace, and the actions and policies of most nation-states can be located somewhere along this continuum while only rarely would it be accurate to say that they unambiguously should be classed at one extreme pole or the other of a smoothly graduated continuum.

Clausewitz wrote (On War, Book I, Chapter I, 3):

“If the Wars of civilised people are less cruel and destructive than those of savages, the difference arises from the social condition both of States in themselves and in their relations to each other. Out of this social condition and its relations War arises, and by it War is subjected to conditions, is controlled and modified. But these things do not belong to War itself; they are only given conditions; and to introduce into the philosophy of War itself a principle of moderation would be an absurdity.”

Clausewitz was wrong about war being crueler among savages; anthropological research since his time has shown definitively that war is far more costly in lives and materiel among so-called “civilized” peoples, but the important idea here for Clausewitz is that war is subject to, and shaped by, social conditions (something that I discussed in Civilization and War as Social Technologies).

Clausewitz makes the point again (On War, Book I, Chapter III, 3):

“…War belongs not to the province of Arts and Sciences, but to the province of social life. It is a conflict of great interests which is settled by bloodshed, and only in that is it different from others. It would be better, instead of comparing it with any Art, to liken it to business competition, which is also a conflict of human interests and activities; and it is still more like State policy, which again, on its part, may be looked upon as a kind of business competition on a great scale. Besides, State policy is the womb in which War is developed, in which its outlines lie hidden in a rudimentary state, like the qualities of living creatures in their germs.”

As I noted yesterday, for Clausewitz, war is a form of social organization, a form of social technology, that is integral with other forms of social technology (these are my terms, not Clausewitz’s terms). War is an extension of social custom to violence, but, as Clausewitz and Sherman note, the violence cannot ultimately be limited. To limit the scope of violence in war is to leave open the possibility to another party to the conflict not observing these limits and thus triumphing by default.

We see clearly in the integral nature of war and peace within a political continuum Clausewitz’s dialectical conception of war. The Clausewitzian dialectic is equally present in the interrelation of violence and social custom.

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