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A Special Supplement: On Violence


When, in Chapter 12 of Pride and Prejudice, Jane and Elizabeth Bennet return from their visit to Netherfield, their foolish sisters Catherine and Lydia have something to tell them of the soldiers garrisoned nearby.

Much had been done and much had been said in the regiment since the preceding Wednesday; several of the officers had dined lately with their uncle, a private had been flogged, and it had actually been hinted that Colonel Foster was going to be married.

What is here used by Jane Austen to bring out the brittleness of understanding and the lack of heart in uneducated young women of the minor gentry was taken as a matter of course even by the victims themselves. Humane officers would sometimes examine a man’s back before ordering a flogging; and if it was unscarred would commute the penalty. They were reluctant to break the man’s skin, just as men of pleasure who would sleep with any attractive woman offering herself would boast that they had never deflowered a virgin. But a man already scarred by the cat was fair game.

The agony, with the back torn open and the salt rubbed into the wounds, must have been indescribable. It was thought to be a sad necessity. Wellington was said in the peninsular campaign to have hanged and flogged the army into order.1 Frederick, Duke of York, a humane man rightly called “the soldier’s best friend,” sent out a confidential circular laying down that regimental courts-martial were not in sentencing to award more than 300 lashes.2

There were, of course, some commanding officers who never ordered the lash, and these were the most successful. One is reminded of old-fashioned boys’ schools in which incompetent masters in flogging their pupils merely increased the tumult that was the occasion for the punishment, whereas others could keep order and excite interest without raising their voices. But in the main those who professed to be shocked by the executions of Louis XVI and his Queen and wept over the September massacres took the flogging of common soldiers as a necessity of war, just as the dark side of that naval tradition represented with such radiance by Collingwood and Nelson was—the phrase is Winston Churchill’s—rum, buggery, and the lash.

In all periods what is taken to be unalterable, a part of the natural order, is not singled out as violence. Violence in the England of the Regency was something that showed itself in the actions of foreign revolutionaries or of poor people firing ricks or smashing machines. The bodily reality of violence used in defense of the social order is scarcely perceived by Catherine and Lydia, whereas we can be sure they would have been horrified by the least rumor of mob violence.

This is a kind of social myopia. It is just as prevalent today. There is no doubt that a murder committed, or believed to have been committed, by young men with long hair and necklaces will be thought to be in some way characteristic of a bizarre exterior and in some way a consequence of it; the vastly greater number of murders committed by criminals conventionally clothed and barbered will scarcely be noticed, so much are such murders a part of the familiar landscape. Mob violence and police violence are equally characteristic of some modern societies. But those who use the former phrase may well avoid the latter; and those who use the latter may be inclined to view even the roughest demonstration as a kind of Quaker meeting groundlessly assaulted by the police.

What counts as violence at a given time is very much a matter of the position and the angle of vision of members of particular social groups. But the difficulties in the way of giving a satisfactory account of the concept of violence are not to be found in the differing attitudes of social groups. Like most concepts employed both for descriptive and for evaluative purposes, violence has a complexity of use that makes it hard to describe it satisfactorily.

We might at first be inclined to guess that there is a necessary connection between the notions of violence and harm. This is borne out by the New English Dictionary’s definition: “the exercise of physical force so as to inflict injury on, or cause damage to, persons or property.” A Martian visitor might be unable to pick out violence if he took it to be a neutral descriptive term. He would be unable to distinguish physical torture from a surgical operation. But it would seem absurd to characterize an appendectomy as a piece of violence, even if for some reason no anaesthetic were given. For a set of actions to fall under the concept of violence it would seem necessary that they should be harmful. Even those who would justify flogging or torture on such grounds as that it is a remedy for vice (in the case of flogging) or necessary to extract information from an enemy (in the case of torture) would not deny that human harm is involved. It would presumably be argued that notwithstanding the harm involved, in these cases, though not in general, violence is justified.

But that flogging or torture is a case of violence means that the practice stands in need of special justification; ordinarily, since harm to human beings is involved, to do that to a man’s body which hurts him or incapacitates him in some respect is wrong; and this is also true of damage to houses, tools, works of art, and so on, that is, to anything that men find useful or delightful. It is also true that even when a particular act of violence would bring about something men might find good we do not think it is necessarily justified. Castration is not justified by the peculiar beauty of the male soprano’s voice; the destruction of a poor man’s house is not justified by the straightness of the highway the destruction makes possible.

But there is another sense of violence, one that comes into the language very early, that has a more specialized descriptive sense and, sometimes, a commendatory sense as well. “Mark me with what violence she first loved the Moor,” says Iago. Here the connection with harm, if it exists, is very obscure. Instead, we have the idea that violence is a characteristic of a natural energy, something that overflows the bounds of institutions and habits, canons of behavior and rules of etiquette. Violence belongs to what is spontaneous and powerful; and since the spontaneity is that of nature (Edmund in Lear is pre-eminently a violent character) it is both something terrible and dangerous and, at the same time, a source of life, sacred, a refreshment.

There are two ways in which a man may lack violence in this sense: by mastering his passions; and by having weak passions. In the former case the working of the passions contributes to the fineness of his temper; in the latter case the weakness of his native energies lowers his value. That the violent processes of nature are sources of strength and creativity, as well as of destruction, gives the idea of violence a certain fascination; for what promises to fortify and enrich our existence promises also to destroy it. We need only think of what is central to so much European literature, the theme of guilty passion, to see the ambiguity of this notion of violence. Those who are possessed by such a passion end as Anna Karenina ends; but those who through fear or lack of opportunity are never so possessed are haunted by the thought that it is just this shattering experience which alone justifies human life.

The violence of that life which pulsates beneath the civilized skin is a source of health. When the violence goes, the man is dead. Of course, violence conceived as belonging to the wild energies of nature may be given an institutional form without losing its sacred and horrific character. Institutionalized violence is most often encountered in the forms of warfare and of other penal activities of the State. In the former case human morality is either transcended or not reached. “The violence of war admits of no distinction” (Johnson, in Rasselas).

Whatever has violence in this sense breaks or goes beyond or disregards rules. There is something of this in many very ordinary expressions: we speak of violent headaches, violent colors, violent emotions, violent storms, violent protestations. The ghost of a norm or a canon is present here, certainly in the case of colors, and violent protestations (often with justification) go beyond the rules of civilized conversation, violent emotions disturb the harmony that has ever since Plato and the Stoics been taken to constitute psychic health. A violent headache may be a metaphorical use; and yet there is that about the intense throbbing that links it with the violence of a torrent or of a confined but untamed animal hurling itself against the bars of its cage.

Violence, then, is centrally tied to the notion of human harm and commonly stands in need of some justification, since it would seem absurd to advocate the harming of human beings. There are cases in which violent actions are a matter of policy and in such cases it may be argued that notwithstanding the harm involved the great good the actions in question are calculated to bring about outweighs the harm. I have given the examples of flogging and torture, two things which belong by convention or edict to most legal systems throughout history.

In our time the most interesting examples are offered by warfare, no longer warfare between states more or less equal in power, but war by great industrial states against very primitive states sustained on a meager scale by industrial states standing outside the conflict. The two obvious examples are the war in Vietnam, where the technical sophistication of the forms of violence used, the poisoning of crops, defoliants, lethal concentrations of CS gas, napalm, fragmentation bombing, and the rest have no historical parallel, and the Israeli war on the Arab states.

I am not here discussing how far such wars are justifiable, and I do not wish to suggest that from all points of view the two cases are parallel. But they are both cases of the kind of violence that vast superiority in technology makes possible. They also tell us that the violence that would mark a war between two or more advanced industrial states is virtually unimaginable; and it is of course widely believed that the prospect of such violence provides a guarantee against the outbreak of a war of this kind. This is a comforting thought for a European or a citizen of the United States, since if it is right it means that he will not be the recipient of this kind of violence.

  1. 1

    The Diary of Sir John Moore edited by J. F. Maurice, 1904, vol. ii, p. 362.

  2. 2

    J. W. Fortescue, A History of the British Army, vol. xi, 1923, p. 28.

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