From the ancient days and civilizations, through the battles of saints, and up to the wars declared in the name of the divine, as well as power struggles and domination wars; the list and scenes of murder, violence, and slaughter extend, making our human history a stage for the exhibition of violence that spans across the entire geography.
As the chapters of this theatrical spectacle unfold, scenes have transformed into phenomena driven by religious, social, economic, and political causes, with each party attempting to justify them according to its interests.
- Primitive people with a civilized appearance
- Violence and Nonviolence in Human Nature
- Violence and the Legitimacy Need
- Myths of the Gods and the Founding Legitimacy of Violence in History
- Justice and Law as the Legitimacy of Violence
- The Phenomenon of Violence Evolution
- Legitimacy of Violence (Authority)
- Violence as a Necessity to Avoid Greater Violence (Capability and Power)
- Immersion in the Culture of Violence
Primitive people with a civilized appearance
Throughout history, concepts and terms have recurred, reflecting the state and society’s evolution. In primitive societies, no one dreams of deviating from the social rules that were confined to the jungle law. Then, the strongest ruled according to laws derived from myths that differed in their understanding from the “instinctual law” of the primitive human.
Violence was inevitable to manage the instinct and apply the myth as a means of leadership and control over societies. The natural inclination of the violent human, who did not suffice to express his feelings and emotions through mere symbols, was utilized. Instead, it took a direct embodied form, drawn from “myth and religion,” where daily facts were subject to religious ritual influences. Eventually, violence became the controller of all aspects of life.
So, societies as a whole, starting from primitive humans governed by their primitive laws, to civilized humans who expanded their scope, moved towards codifying violence through myths that suited the intellectual development of society. The civilized human is bound by social laws that differ from the primitive human, and therefore, the existence of a conflict between “heavenly” gods becomes necessary. Societies derive their laws from these gods to structure the governance in their community.
Primitive violence, transcending history and cultures, has become more sophisticated in its tools, forms, and the legitimacy of its use, where the end justifies the means.
Violence and Nonviolence in Human Nature
Since primitive eras up to modern times, sociologists have consistently addressed the violence phenomenon as a sociological and human occurrence connected to the instinctual aspect of “survival” and the control of nature and its material resources. The violence used by humans was inevitable in any positive movement in life, such as the search for food through hunting, self-defense against predatory animals, and engaging in sexual activities.
The psychological school, starting with Freud, divided instincts into two drives that guide and energize the individual: the Life Drive (Eros) and the Death Drive (Thanatos).
Eros (Life Drive): This drive is the source of sexual energy responsible for all positive emotional and compassionate relationships, as well as for closeness, unity, and socializing with others.
Thanatos (Death Drive): This drive aims for the destruction and disintegration of the living being. Both drives are in constant internal and external conflict, and the eruption of violence is attributed to the human’s loss of instinctual brakes on their aggression. Hence, violence is connected to a direct threat targeting the existence of humanity, particularly when living in a primitive society not governed by organized laws.
The innate aspect of violence has been replaced by societal constraints and the possibility of control. This is a perspective agreed upon by social contract philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes, and others. They viewed violence in human history as a condition of the distinctive natural state, asserting that the transition from the state of nature to civil society brought about a significant change in human behavior. In this transition, justice replaced the natural illusion in human behavior, and his actions gained a refinement that was lacking before. At that point, right replaced desire. (1)
The myth of aggression and fierce animal violence in humans, aimed at ensuring continuity and survival, has been dismantled. However, the same factors that elevated humans above all living beings have placed them in a precarious situation, transforming their violence from instinctive animal violence to rational violence—making humans rational animals. This was elucidated by the ethologist Konrad Lorenz, who considered human violence as a result of two primary factors:
Direct Threat as an Instinctive Response: In a primitive society not governed by organized laws regulating aggression, the direct threat becomes an automatic instinct.
Fight Enthusiasm Linked to the Need for Belonging: This develops in humans as a regulated instinctual response that encompasses various issues. It includes a sense of threat to the community, the presence of an external enemy as a source of threat, an increase in the number of community members, and an image of a hero or leader around whom the community rallies. In this context, the community exercises its violence as an emotional response not subject to logical or rational persuasion. (2)
Most of the perspectives that involve fundamental principles in explaining violence as a natural and essential aspect of humans emphasize:
Firstly, that primitive violence associated with a threat to human existence cannot be rational in a society governed by organized laws.
Secondly, instinctual violence takes on a social dimension. Humans, as “social beings,” have natural ties to the family and then to society in its comprehensive form according to Marx. This has led to the distinction between individual violence directed towards oneself, such as suicide, and interpersonal violence, represented by various forms of attacks ranging from the family to crimes. Also, there is collective violence linked to historical, economic, and social development.
Thirdly, human violence varies in its criteria and judgment based on the prevailing culture due to the interconnection between culture and society. Since culture establishes a common unit grounded in diverse systems such as heritage, knowledge, and work, manifestations of violence differ from one society to another. However, overall, they are based on the denial of the other through violence.
Fourthly, contemporary violence in civilization is “conscious and directed.” There is no existence of gratuitous, arbitrary, or primitive violence, as recently presented by the phenomenological school in the study of violence as a pattern, similar to other behavioral patterns. Destruction and killing are outcomes of relational disasters, applicable to forms of individual material violence in crime and collective violence in wars. (3)
Violence and the Legitimacy Need
Violence acquired its legitimacy throughout human history through various ideas that laid the foundation for the emergence of human societies. These ideas transitioned from harnessing and controlling nature to harnessing humans themselves, accompanied by the growth of the instinct for control, which accompanied the search for stability.
There is ample evidence of the outbreak of wars and conflicts, recorded in cave paintings and conveyed through myths, which serve as the primary narrative for human history. Myth represents the comprehensive discourse that surrounds the world. Humans, through their interpretations and justifications, present evidence of the growth, development, and legitimation of the phenomenon of violence for the natural economic benefits discovered over time. This became especially prominent after the importance of agriculture discovery or due to differences in religious beliefs accompanying the inability to explain natural phenomena out of fear. It could also be attributed to variations in lifestyle, the absence of evolving communal norms, and the eventual production of laws and systems during historical periods. The myths summarized this as a result of the connection between the social life fundamental functions, sacred religion, religious practices, and the interactive activities and exchanges individuals engage in their daily lives, including political and economic activities. All of these aspects constitute the fundamental basis for legitimizing violence to this day.
Myths of the Gods and the Founding Legitimacy of Violence in History
The myth has played a role in covering the early journeys of primitive societies in knowledge, explaining phenomena, and seeking answers, forming a means for humans to explore the roots of the past and early historical records. Myths, as conveyed through the ages, have been instrumental in shaping human exploration of their origins and recording historical events, often attributing them to the gods ‘governance.
The evolution accompanying the human journey, transitioning from a biological animal being to a cultural and civilized being, utilized language as a symbolic tool for expression and communication. It involved the construction of familial and social structures, accompanied by the adoption of countless beliefs, deities, and rituals associated with them. The mythological forces that anthropomorphized nature represented gods and divine wills, contributing to the emergence of “sacred authority.”
Fear became the primary basis for the emergence of gods, with the idea that each tribe might have its deity ensuring its members’ survival. All societies claim affiliation with a living heritage, a system of central values, supported by collective memory that creates a cognitive framework providing explanations and analyses for all surrounding phenomena.
Most societies cannot completely relinquish the centralized authority located outside themselves to maintain the supremacy and legitimacy of governing powers.
Gods have contributed to violence’s transition from its primitive stage to its legitimized and regulated form, and the connection between humans and violence occurred through their alliance with the gods responsible for their lives. The gods witnessed a series of developments:
Firstly, violence shifted from being primarily survival-based to becoming a lofty and sublime violence carried out by gods contending with each other as an expression of control, power, revenge, and the dichotomy of good and evil. For example, Zeus retaliates against his father Cronus, leading to war among the Olympian gods. In ancient Egypt, the god Osiris was killed by his brother Set, and in Sumer, the god Enlil was assassinated by Anki. This is how the Greeks, Egyptians, and Mesopotamians portrayed these mythological events.
Everyone needed the gods, and thus, violent gods emerged—gods of war and killing who sanctioned the law but lived above it when implementing it because they could affirm their liberation from it. (7) Religious transcendence marks the beginning of humanity’s transition from a state of nature, where animal existence prevails, to a state of culture and civilization that distinguishes human existence.
Secondly, the rituals establishment marked the beginning of humanity’s transition in their interaction with the gods from basic needs to averting danger, natural disasters, and seeking protection through performing rituals that ensured their interests and the gods’ interests in averting harm. The sacred is a double-edged power—it both gives life and takes it away simultaneously. (8) Appeasing the gods, demonstrating loyalty, and obedience was carried out by offering sacred sacrifices, including women and children. This practice entrenched rituals of bloodshed, with the god Moloch being one of the most notorious examples. Moloch was worshipped by ancient Middle Eastern societies such as the Phoenicians, Hebrews, and Carthaginians, and is mentioned in the Bible as a bloodthirsty deity. (9)
The ritual act of offering human sacrifices to appease a savage deity and presenting obedience in exchange for the community’s salvation from his wrath gave violence its legitimacy as a trade-off for peace. It linked the fate of the community to the victim and the deity, both possessing sacred power capable of altering the community’s conditions. (10) This practice persisted by substituting human sacrifices with animal sacrifices, which played the same role in enacting the fundamental realities of violence. (11)
Justice and Law as the Legitimacy of Violence
Humans transitioned from “the jungle law ” and rule by force to competition and the strongest dominance, which established the idea that “power creates and protects rights.” The powerful have the right to ownership of things (earth’s resources, women, etc.), and they have the right to revenge and punishment for any aggression. This system made justice dependent on violent acts of killing and vengeance, a concept that still exists in some societies to this day.
The force law did not contradict the emergence of gods, who established another type in the collective imagination, namely “reward, and punishment” as a celestial arrangement for the community that began to form with agricultural societies, marking the beginning of civilizations. The destructive forces of nature served as a collective punishment for the deviation or ignorance of the community about the desires of the gods. The offering of human sacrifices to appease the gods, in the hope of reward and salvation, gained more opportunities with the emergence of priests and magicians. They played a role in shaping social behaviour standards to escape the punishment of the gods. What the gods prohibit is considered a polluted matter that reaches all members of the community. This gave rise to concepts like “Sheol” in Mesopotamian civilization and “Tartarus” in Greece, representing underworld realms awaiting wrongdoers, solidifying the legitimacy of justice through murder.
Plato: “In Tartarus, anyone who steals from sacred places, commits unlawful murder, or engages in similar actions will not be able to ascend from there.” (12)
So, this justice was not merciful, just like the gods who were not innocent in their destructive practices or acceptance of sacrifices, but rather “conscious” of the power of violence. From the curse of the gods and its impact, there was a transition to the application of strict punitive laws amid a “sacred violent” legal system overseen by agents such as temple priests and ruling kings in the name of the divine. This is exemplified by Hammurabi, who established the oldest written legal code dating back to 1790 BCE in the civilization of Mesopotamia, built on “retributive justice” linked to the principle of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” The spirit of revenge and retribution still underlies many judicial punishments to this day. (13)
The Phenomenon of Violence Evolution
“Attaining a high level of civilization was necessary for humans/animals to perceive those differences between ‘good/evil, negligence/responsibility! The guilty deserve punishment because they could act differently.” – Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900)
The first transition to civilization emerged with the formation of civilizations and the accompanying shift of the gods to indirect rule. The gods became owners of vast lands, and estates belonged to their temples, managed by priesthood, similar to religious endowments in our present era. As rulers of cities, the gods became responsible for their political, social, and economic interests, with their “primitive democracy.” They gathered in “Nippur” under the leadership of Anu and Enlil (Mesopotamia), on Mount Olympus in “Thalia” led by Zeus (Ancient Greece), and in “On/Heliopolis” where the assembly led by Ra met (Ancient Egypt). They selected princes and kings, determining the fates of cities and rulers, deciding who would fall and who would rise.
“One feels oneself to be more than merely human when one can impose oneself and make others instruments obeying one’s will, giving him an unparalleled pleasure.” – Sartre.
This authority formed as a result of an exceptional circumstance imposed by social necessity. The more powerful the authority and its connection to the gods, the more it represents a social construct that responds to the necessities of the community for its survival and continuity. The leader is not superior to his human counterparts but is distinct from them in nature, qualities, and status, attributes acquired not through acquisition but through selection. The popular sentiment elevated the concept of authority to a level of sanctity.
Despite violence and legitimacy being on opposite sides, they, even to this day, find their legitimacy based on rights, law, and justice, relying on factors that give them legal legitimacy such as power, control, and authority.
Legitimacy of Violence (Authority)
“A society of sheep must in time beget a government of wolves.” – Bertrand de Jouvenel.
The word “authority” has often been used synonymously with violence. However, this does not fully apply to the most oppressive form of authority (the rule of the master over slaves who outnumber him), as this is not based solely on the tools of coercion (“violence”) but on the superior organization of power (organizing solidarity among the masters). It has never happened that a government has strengthened its authority based solely on the tools of violence. Even totalitarian rule, which relies on torture as a fundamental means of governance, requires a foundation of authority (secret police, informant networks). (18)
This confirms what Plato said: “Tyrannical systems seek to weaken individuals’ control systems, authority, and will in order to control their actions. At the same time, they strengthen violent control systems, represented by their oppressive apparatus, to work on corrupting society.” So, those who do not find support do not have sufficient power to use violence successfully.
“Power comes from the barrel of a gun” as Mao Zedong stated
From a political perspective, it can be said that the most effective leadership emanates from the barrel of a gun, resulting in the most complete forms of obedience. As for what cannot arise from the barrel of a gun, it is considered authority. The exercise of political power is intricately linked to the organization of violence, a concept that only makes sense when we consider the law as a complement to an ancient conception of divine commandments that emerged with Judaism and Christianity, asserting: “The relationship between command and obedience suffices to describe the essence of the law.”21
Violence as a Necessity to Avoid Greater Violence (Capability and Power)
The legitimacy of violence, according to Max Weber, is associated with the existence of the state, which adopts rational institutional features. Weber considers that the elevation to the level of rational effectiveness liberated from genetic and traditional considerations, and its adaptation according to a method that grants legitimate norms and systems capable of strengthening and developing organizations, makes violence justified as long as the state system requires it. According to Weber, the legitimacy of violence in the state relies on three foundations: the traditional authority of the past, which is the authority of customs and traditions; charismatic authority; and legal authority upon which the state is founded. In this way, the state’s ability to manage violence, as embraced by Marx, is seen as “the state being an instrument of oppression owned by the ruling class,” and the political body of states, their laws, and institutions being oppressive superstructures, expressions of underlying violence.23
The ability to manage violence becomes particularly evident in Machiavelli’s book “The Prince,” where he advises that a ruler should be both a fox and a lion simultaneously, emphasizing the idea that “the end justifies the means” (24). This principle extends beyond political power to justify various forms of violence, often accompanied by force, in revolutions and wars aimed at achieving political goals.
The reality of war continues to represent the ancient persistence of politics through violence, and even the slightest act of violence can lead to catastrophic results. The political arena remains narrow and unproductive in resolving conflicts where armed forces decide, based on their sovereignty, to resort to weapons to settle disputes that cannot be resolved otherwise. Or when a state considers itself above the law, either domestically or internationally, asserting its right to intervene in another country for reasons that some may deem trivial, as the United States did in Iraq.
The truth presented by wars and conflicts is that violence is inherent. When violence emerges openly, people are divided into two groups: the first willingly immerse themselves in it with enthusiasm, and the second tries to counter its increasing influence by using violence as a deterrent. Both groups participate in its triumph.
The statement by Friedrich Nietzsche seems foundational for the recurring cycles of violence experienced by humanity: “Love peace as a means of renewing wars, and the best peace is the one that extends its duration. I do not recommend peace to you but triumph. Let your work be a struggle, and let your peace be triumphant.”
Immersion in the Culture of Violence
(You may spend your life thinking you are defending your ideas, only to discover that you are defending the ideas they planted in your mind.) – Bertrand Russell. (26)
Violence often derives its legitimacy from the social, economic, and political functions it performs, considering it a condition for the preservation of ethics in human society. The practice of violence is directly related to accepting this violence, a strong desire for obedience, and compliance with the rule exercised by an individual or authority. This includes submitting to the majority’s democratic rule without relying on any legal limits, the “consumptive” economic development for profit accumulation and its continuation, submission to religious authority represented by religious leaders, or adherence to the system of traditions and customs established in society and linked to ethical standards (violence against the weak, violence against women, etc.). All of these require the response and acceptance of the other party to the violence practiced against it, the “submission instinct” inherent in human psychology, similar to the desire for domination.
Although the rule of law limits unconditional obedience, it remains present on several fronts within the “symbolic character” that immerses individuals and societies as a whole (developed and backward) in a culture of violence practiced against them, contributing to its reinforcement. This type of violence is not explicit like direct physical violence but is hidden under the masks of the ordinary, traditions, narratives, and discourses deeply rooted in people’s minds. Prominent examples include divisions such as (East, and West), and labels like “Third World countries,” “developing countries,” and “underdeveloped countries,” which represent value judgments symbolizing the progress and superiority of Western societies and the submission of these countries to its control.
Symbolic violence often manifests in values, emotions, ethics, and culture. It relies on symbols (language, images, signs, meanings) as tools for control and dominance, aiming to subjugate those it targets. This is done to create a desired and planned human reality, consolidating it and contributing to the participation of both the victim and the oppressor in the same perceptions and assumptions. Examples include male dominance, ideological control (political and religious), the reproduction of norms, class and family normalization, and other intellectual issues. All utopias are tools of conflict, used by groups to challenge the legitimacy of opposing authorities, competing without any reference giving legitimacy to other authorities, but rather conflicting with them (27).
This applies to religious “sacred” conflicts in all their forms, from conflicts over legitimacy to the struggle for the true religion, ending with conflicts between sects and doctrines that shift between silent symbolic conflict and overt material conflict. This forms a path for one of the most dangerous types of violence, which will be highlighted later in an independent and complementary research. The foundational violence in human history has submerged people in the grip of violence, intensifying when supported by religious sanctity to become a sword hanging over their necks in defense of the sacred or in attacks carried out in its name.
Man, by virtue of his separation from primitive models and his fall due to his sin, cannot protect himself except through the “legitimization of violence” and its management by moving from primitive instincts to mythical, transcendent, and contemporary utilitarian models. This transition has led humans to draw from violence the foundations of their lives and the establishment of their future. They govern the closure of the circle of violence because there is no existence of violence that ends violence once and for all, and no war that ends all wars. The non-violence sought by humanity has only been a fragile principle in existential matters. The creed of “Ahimsa,” promoted by Gandhi, was nothing more than a tactic to create more ethical indignation and victimization. Humanity, governed by violence, remains distant from inventing nonviolent traditions and establishing peace rules unaffected by politics or deviated from their true meaning by the interests of nations.
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