US & World

Area Professor Advocates a Revisit of 18th Century 'Peace' Text

As we head toward the presidential primaries, debate continues over the war in Iraq. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez says academics gathering this week plan to engage in their own discussion about war. They're calling it "On the Enigma of Peace."

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: There were wars before the 18th century. But five continuous years of combat was practically unthinkable.

Marc Redfield: In other words, mass conscription in France, the mobilization of an entire population, or male population, to fight a war.

Guzman-Lopez: Marc Redfield teaches English at Claremont Graduate University. He says Napoleon's European wars in the early 1800s raised human and physical destruction to a new scale.

From a small town on the Baltic Sea, Redfield says, aging philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote an essay that outlined a framework to avoid these horrors.

Redfield: Already he could see, that as he imagines it in this pamphlet, "Toward Perpetual Peace," that humanity could literally destroy itself. And of course that became technically possible after 1945, once we invented the atom bomb.

Guzman-Lopez: The 1795 essay posits that one kind of perpetual peace is the mass graveyard. The other, Redfield says, proposes surrendering the will to wage war.

Redfield: Here's a quotation from the pamphlet: "No treaty of peace that tacitly reserves issues for a future war, shall be held valid. For," he says, "if this were the case it would be a mere truce, a suspension of hostilities, not peace, which means the end of all hostilities."

Guzman-Lopez: Peace for Kant was a moral imperative, achievable through a rational formula. Here it is: countries needed be governed as republics, governments should abolish standing armies, citizens should be allowed to move freely across borders, and some form of "united nations" should oversee world affairs.

These ideas influenced the founders of the League of Nations after World War I, and the framers of the United Nations after the second World War. Redfield says current conflicts makes Kant's essay worth another read.

Redfield: The United States is at war now, yes, and much of the world is consumed by wars, large and small. The United Nations has not been able to do what Kant dreamed that it could do.

Guzman-Lopez: Redfield describes his presentation at the annual Modern Language Association conference in Chicago as a tribute to the philosopher's admonition to pursue light in dark times.

Redfield: We have a moral duty to keep thinking about peace. Peace has this messianic element built into it, that we should keep faith with, that anything less than perpetual peace is not true peace.

Guzman-Lopez: He insists his presentation won't be a political call to action, but Redfield's a Kantian, so he does believe in the urgent need for peace now.