Virtue and War

Virtue and War

Pentecost 60

Like many mythologies, the story of Lucretia, wife of Collatinus, is a story about the consequences of human behaviors. Lucretia was a Roman wife of a Roman general. Like the wives of many military persons, she remained at home while her husband went off to defend the Roman monarchy. Prosperity was defined not only by the amount of land within the monarchy but also by the health and reproductive status of its inhabitants. Women were the bearer of future generations and as such, were held to much higher moral standards. They were expected to be pure until marriage and faithful after marriage. To be exiled into the wilds for sexual misconduct was within the power of any Roman magistrate and meant certain death for any woman so punished.

There are several versions of this myth but historical writings also speak of it. It is given as the major cause in the rebellion that removed forever what had been the Roman monarchy and the beginning of a Roman republic. Unlike many myths, this myth involves all humans and the very nature of humanity itself.

The summary of all the myths is that Lucretia is the victim of one of her husband’s fighting comrades. The men returned home after a discussion that had them wondering just how faithful their wives were in their absence. A company of men returned home and most found their wives had not been faithful. Lucretia, however, has been and her husband is overjoyed. One of his companions slips into Lucretia’s bedroom and, overcome by lust, takes her without her consent under by threatening her, committing crimes of a carnal fashion. Lucretia, legend tells, feels forever shamed and takes her own life.

The myth of Lucretia is found in the writings of Roman historian Livy and Greco-Roman historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus. They state her intruder was the son of an Etruscan king and this further inflamed the dissatisfaction of many over the tyrannical rule of the last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. (And yes, that is the man’s real name!) This one act was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, the crime giving reason to the leading families to take action in overthrowing an overbearing king.

For many Lucretia’s story is not a myth but rather a historical legend. There are archaeological indications that such a woman did exist although the time of her life is somewhat in question. What is not in question is that women are often held to higher standards morally than their male counterparts. Her story also brings up interesting debate over virtue and the virtues of war, if there are any.

Military psychologist Lawrence LeShan delved into the virtues and reasons for war in his book , “The Psychology of War: Comprehending Its Mystique and Its Madness”. LeShan believes mankind’s attraction is very similar to his/her attraction to mythology. In fact, LeShan thinks that mankind resorts to war when it views life in the form of a myth. Given ongoing conflicts that have occurred since the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Towers in New York City, his book has found a new audience and was the subject of an article written for “Psychology Today” by Kim Diorio in 2003. sAdly, it is as relevant twelve year later as it was then.

Diorio describes LeShan’s views: “The central premise of LeShan’s book is that societies often engage in war when citizens have shifted into a “mythic” mode of experiencing reality. As defined by psychologist Erik Erikson, mythic thinking divides the world into the good (us) and the evildoers (them). Of course, the person (or nation) viewing the world through a mythic lens always identifies himself as “good”, regardless of the facts, and therein lies the danger.”

LeShan points out that our normal everyday problems diminish when our country is involved in a war. We become something larger than ourselves, fighting what will inevitably become an epic battle. The drama of war attracts us out of our humdrum existence of everyday life.

Diorio continues: “LeShan’s explanation for mankind’s attraction to warfare is directly linked to mythic thought. War is appealing for the same reasons that a mythic take on reality is appealing. When one’s country is fighting an apocalyptic war for survival against evildoers, petty personal problems disappear, social stresses dissolve as people band together, daily life suddenly has gravity and meaning, and decision-making is simple: either you’re helping the war effort or you’re hurting it.”

A century earlier William james wrote an essay entitled “The Moral Equivalent of War”. He also mentioned positive psychological effects of war, things like unifying a nation, a sense of community, and the sacrifice of the soldier and their supporter to work for “the greater good”. James went one step further and stated that war, a horrifying destructive force, tends to ironically make people feel alive. In James’ words, it “redeems life from flat degeneration. Life seems cast upon a higher plane of power.”

The indignities of Lucretia have become the muse and theme of many works of art and literature. The eventual decline of the Roman monarchy into a republic might have occurred at some point but its timing led the way for eventual democracies throughout the world. Some would claim war can also have positive benefits. It brings out human qualities that sometimes are seldom used, things like discipline, courage, self-sacrifice. The act of one group going to rescue or protect another is certainly indicative of unselfishness.

Immediately after the World trade Towers attack, the US President at the time issued a statement in which he described the perpetrators as evil. He reduced the events of that day into a myth – good against evil; them versus us”. BY doing this, he painted an entire religion and nationality with stroke of negativity, describing it and them as “evil”. Certainly this attack was heinous and tragic. It was not just US citizens that were affected, however. The people that died represented almost one hundred nations.

Life cannot be defined by three words: them versus us. Mankind is more complex than that; life has more layers than that. Virtue, those positive traits that provide a foundation of effective and productive behavior, deserves more than that. Mankind can duplicate the beauty of nature in a single stroke of crushed minerals into paint put upon the processed bark of a tree and create a masterpiece oil picture. Mankind can chemically duplicate this image as a photograph and then digitally send it across time and space via the Internet.

Surely we can discover a way of living peacefully. That is the greatest virtue of all.


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