John Gittings: The Glorious Art of Peace

The author of The Glorious Art of Peace says history is usually studied and written from the perspective of war, and can look very different when viewed from the perspective of peace. The author John Gittings was part of the UK’s nuclear disarmament movement and an editor and writer for The Guardian. He’s also associate editor of The Oxford International Encyclopaedia of Peace. Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Gittings from The Browser:

Your book tours us through peace “from the Iliad to Iraq.” What core point did you most want to get across with it?

What I wanted to get across is that there is more than one perspective from which one can look at history. A lot of our history has been written from the perspective of war, and the moment you start looking at it from the perspective of peace, you get very different answers. That is why I began with “The Iliad,” because most people would regard it as a tale of war and not of peace.

You wanted to draw particular attention to Book 18 – why?

I would say, first of all, that throughout “The Iliad” there is a counter-narrative of lost opportunities for peace. Obviously, if peace had been achieved there would have been no Trojan war or it would have come to an end sooner. But Homer reminds us from time to time that there were alternatives. There’s a very remarkable scene in book two, near the beginning, when the entire Greek army, misunderstanding a speech by their commander Agamemnon, turns on its heels and runs to the boats, hoping to go back home. Homer is telling us that the rank and file were not bent on fighting to the end. The gods, on that occasion, intervene to stop the Greek army from sailing away. Even the wily Odysseus is unable to stop his men from launching their boats.

Book 18 is significant because it describes the making of a new shield for Achilles, who had withdrawn from battle. His friend Patroclus had borrowed his armor in his place and been killed, and his armor had been seized by the Trojans. So Achilles needed a new suit of armor, which was made for him by the heavenly blacksmith Hephaestus. If you read other accounts of Greek warriors, what you put on your shield is invariably something to frighten the enemy – a Gorgon’s head or a serpent or a wild lion. Homer instead describes a set of images on Achilles’ shield, almost all of which are concerned with peace not war – including young men and women dancing, laborers in the field bringing in the harvest grapes or plowing the fields, and a council in which a case is arbitrated by peaceful means. This assembly of images, in my view, is designed to tell us that there is, or should be, a peaceful alternative to war.

So Homer, or whoever wrote “The Iliad,” had a peace agenda?

This is also an example of the passages in Homer which lead me to believe he was a single individual, because if it was stitched together from epic material then a scene such as the above would not appear – there would be stock images of a much more conventional shield instead. Homer, like Shakespeare, encompassed all humanity in his work, and in “The Iliad” he encompasses peace as well as war. A number of Homeric scholars have pointed out that the text, as we have it, is divided roughly into three thirds. The central third is almost entirely concerned with war and fighting. But the first third, where the plot is developed, is very different, and so is the final third. So the subject matter of “The Iliad” is war, but the feelings and emotions of the people concerned are much more complex.

Read the whole interview.

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