The Roots of Violence

by E.F. Schumacher
First printed in Resurgence, Vol 7, No 6, Jan-Feb 1977

Let us try to find the roots of violence. Some people, of course, consider it sufficient to point to original sin. If there were not something profoundly unsatisfactory about human nature, history would not be such a record of crime, culminating in the threat of total extermination as a ‘deterrent.’ This unsatisfactoriness is no doubt a compound of moral weakness, normally called sin, and intellectual weakness, normally called ignorance. To put all the blame on Sin betrays considerable intellectual weakness, and to put all the blame on ignorance betrays a lack of candour which can only be due to considerable moral weakness. However that may be, all this is too general for our purpose.

As we are a compound of mind and body, we may not go far wrong by looking for the roots of violence both in the body and in the mind. In fact, this is exactly what traditional moral philosophy has always done. In the West, we had the teaching of the Seven Deadly Sins, which were made up of three ‘warm’ sins and three ‘cold’ ones, while the seventh, acedia or Sloth, is neither hot nor cold. As Dorothy Sayers put it, “in the world it calls itself Tolerance; but in hell it is called Despair… It is the sin which believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for.” No deep roots of violence here.

Among the three ‘warm’ sins – luxuria which we call Lust, gula which we call Gluttony, and ire which we call Wrath – there are undoubtedly deep roots of violence to be found in ire. The ‘warm’ sins arise primarily from the body, from the ‘heart’ if you like, and there violence tends to be counterbalanced or checked by strong emotional forces like pity, mercy, and a liability to get tired and disgusted. In the present phase of modern civilization, these warm-hearted sins are not a great threat, not are they taken seriously, but merely considered somewhat vulgar.

It is different with the ‘cold’ sins. They are not generally thought of as sins at all, but as admirable or at least perfectly normal traits of character. The three ‘cold’ sins, arising from the mind, are called avaritia or Covetousness, invidia or Envy, and superbia or Pride. The roots of violence grow in all three, and there is little, if anything, in the natural dispositions of the mind to counteract or check their force.

The old teaching of the Deadly Sins recognizes that the violence that stems from the heart tends quickly to find its limits: it is checked by other powerful emotions; while the violence that stems from the mind is capable of becoming unlimited and transgressing all bounds. From this it may be deduced that a civilization which glorifies the mind at the expense of the heart is in constant danger of slipping into limitless violence; while a civilization which glorified the heart at the expense of the mind would be in danger of sporadic brutalities without rhyme or reason.

There can be no doubt that our civilization claims as its greatest achievement the ‘objectivity’ of its thought, which as led, for all to see, to the most astonishing achievements of science and technology. This capability of the mind, called ‘objectivity,’ ┬ádepends on the rejection and suppression of all emotional forces other than the desire to solve the problem at hand. This is sometimes called a desire for truth or the “irresistible need to explore” (Bronowski), but whatever it may be called, it is cold, detached heartless, efficient, and relentless. Pure objectivity is possible only when Reason operates outside the control of the heart. It can then ask any question without a shudder; it can treat any matter of investigation as an object alone, not as anything that feels, that has a sense of feeling of itself. Working through the mind alone, you can study a blind man ‘objectively’ and describe him as if he were a mechanical puppet – which is also blind; working through the heart you might shut your own eyes in an attempt to get the feeling of blindness yourself, subjectively.

The violence that stems from the mind, from the three ‘cold’ sins, has the power of objectivity, untrammeled by an subjective participation with the experience of the violated. It is like signing a death warrant or launching an inter-continental missile: the more ‘objectively’ it is done, the easier it is. It comes out of pure thought.

Thought is much lighter, freer and swifter than action. We are capable of thinking actions which we would never perform. The logical sequence from thought to speech to action is a sequence of increasing incarnation or substantialisation, a movement from mind to body, or from ‘cold’ to ‘warm,’ from invisible to visible, or, we can also say, from objectivity to subjectivity. With the individual person, there is always the chance, even the likelihood, that the heart or body, that is to say his subjectivity, will control and inhibit the extravagances of his mind, his thought, his objectivity. But when there is an organization and specialization, this chain is broken: No. 1 has the idea; No. 2 gives the order; No. 3 carries it out. If No. 3’s action is one of detestable violence, who is to blame? Who is responsible? Of course, all three are responsible but in descending order.

Yet, modern civilization, pragmatic, positivist, and objective, can see and appreciate only the visible, and guilt seems to be distributed in ascending order. No. 3, the person of action, is the guilty one – the others have only thought and talked.

We therefore like to thing of Eichmann as a monster, and then discover him to be very ordinary indeed, a meek little man, trained in objectivity; a man who has no ‘warm’ vices that move him to violence; a man who couldn’t hurt a fly. His actions were not controlled by the heart, but by some very simple rules of the mind – rules of objectivity untrammeled by emotion, like a computer programmed a certain way.

The Eichmann phenomenon demonstrates that detached, objective thought, always liable to error, opens the door to unlimited violence because it eliminates the countervailing power of the heart. A civilization which deprecates the heart, which idolizes objectivity in the form of scientism, positivism, and rationalism, which bases its entire education on the notion that decisions must be taken without interference from the emotions, inevitable exposes itself to the dangers of unlimited violence.

This trait of modern civilization can be traced through all fields of human activity. Take economics and the pursuit of ‘higher living standards.’ All promptings of the heart are dismissed as sentimentality and lack of realism: to think of people rather than of profit is ‘uneconomic.’ To take the future as seriously as we are naturally inclined to take the present is being discouraged by the theory of ‘discounted cash flow’ which systematically devalues the future. Hence the unlimited exploitation and despoliation of Nature – a perverse implementation of the words “take no thought of tomorrow.”

When the violence of economic strivings comes from the ‘warm’ sins of Lust, Gluttony or Wrath, that is to say, mainly from the body – or the heart – it carries within itself a self-limiting principal and is capable of saying Enough. But when it comes from the ‘cold’ sins of Covetousness, Envy, and Pride, that is to say, mainly from the mind, trained in objectivity, there is no self-limiting principal, no idea of Enough: the sky is the limit. The higher the level of wealth already attained, the greater the fanaticism for further ‘growth.’

Conquest of Nature and of Space; the ‘irresistible need to explore’; unlimited economic expansion; etc. – these are the concepts of violence. The concepts of non-violence would be Reverence for Life; religious ‘Praise’; humility; measure, in the sense of knowing where to stop; and an irresistible need for justice. The former derives from minds unchecked by the heart; the latter derive from hearts that are strong enough to control the mind.

The violence that is in the process of destroying the world is the cold, calculating, detached, heartless, and relentless violence that springs from over-extended minds working out of control of under-developed hearts. A person who does not feel his thoughts but merely entertains them, who has trained the objectivity of his mind at the expense of the subjectivity of his heart, is capable of limitless violence while never losing his temper, never falling into the ‘warm’ sins of Lust, Gluttony or Wrath. He shakes his head in sorrow or contempt over the vulgarity and irrationality of people who are still so underdeveloped that they fall into warm-hearted sins. He is supremely rational; for him, the only certainty is his own death, and, objectively seen, his own death is equivalent to the disappearance of the world. He stands at the pinnacle of egocentricity and potential violence. Pure reason can worship only itself, and only the heart can conceive the idea of sacrifice.

Modern civilization can survive only if it begins again to educate the heart, which is the source of Wisdom; for modern human beings are now far too clever to be able to survive without wisdom.