A Natural Peace: Evidence for the Abnormality of Violence

Is war an inevitable part of human existence? Is violence woven into the strands of our DNA? Or is it possible that human nature is loving, compassionate, and altruistic? Much ink has been spilled on the question and you can read social science and psychology studies that support the view that civilization is only a thin veneer over a violent natures or that altruism has an evolutionary advantage and is coded into our DNA. Unfortunately, nothing definitive on the question yet, not from the experimental sciences anyway. But I don’t think a definitive answer is all that elusive: If you want to know if humans are violent by nature, look at the face of a child who has been impacted by violence.

I know that mimetic theory (MT), my life’s work, has taken a beating on the subject of human violence. It has been accused of forging an indissoluble link between humanity and violence, though nothing could be further from the truth. Mimetic theory explains how violence became embedded in human culture, indeed how human culture as it is currently constructed relies on a foundation of violence. But MT also clearly illuminates the contingency of our current predicament. In other words, though violence is the beating heart of human culture today, it doesn’t have to be.

The faces of children show us just how foreign to human nature violence actually is. Children shrink from violence. They withdraw inside of themselves and the face they turn outward to the world is one stripped of their personalities. They lose their affect, are unable to smile or respond to overtures from others. I suppose if you think that joyless, lifeless, blank stares are “normal”, then violence can be thought of as essential to normal human functioning. But if you think that children like this are abnormal, in other words, if you think that violence has prevented them from developing normally, then it’s fair to conclude that violence is anathema to human life and therefore cannot be part of our DNA. Violent behavior must be contingent, just one possibility among others in the vast repertoire of human behaviors. One we can opt for or opt out of as we choose. A choice that a careful study of mimetic theory forces us to face.

In her observational studies of young children, Dr. Maria Montessori concluded that normal childhood development was surprisingly peaceful. What she called “normalized” children – children freed from the oppression of adult ideas of what children should be and do – were calm, capable of intense and prolonged periods of concentration, filled with wonder and joy, and overflowed with creativity. They were not violent, angry, anxious or mean. On the contrary, Dr. Montessori explained that “We might say that if love appears, we are within the range of the normal, and if it does not, within the range of the abnormal.”

In fact, I can allow her to interpret the images of children afflicted by violence for us. She called for a “revolution [in childhood education], one in which everything we know today will be transformed. I think of this as the final revolution,” she explained. “Not a revolution of violence, still less of bloodshed, but one from which violence is wholly excluded – for the little child’s psychic productivity is stricken to death by the barest shadow of violence.” Faces stricken to death in the presence of violence are not evidence of the normal human condition.

If war is inevitable, as some believe, then human development will forever be abnormal. We will never truly flourish and discover our way into new cultural forms that do not rely on constant infusions of violence to sustain them. We have been too long slogging through what Dr. Montessori called the “adult period” of human evolution, one that is “characterized by constant outbreak of war.” With her revolution in education, she hoped to usher in “the age of the child… the period in which we will begin to build peace.” If adults dedicate themselves to supporting the normal development of children we may be taking the first step to “organizing humanity for peace”. Social peace and harmony have too long relied on winner takes all wars of domination and defeat. True peace must be grounded in its only true foundation: the natural peace of a normalized humanity.

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11 replies
  1. Marie De Carlo
    Marie De Carlo says:

    Suzanne, you are right, let us follow the teachings of Maria Montessori, and usher in the age of the child,and thus we can also usher in the age of peace, which is what the world needs!!

    Reply
  2. Tom Michael
    Tom Michael says:

    Susan, this essay is wonderful! It is so clear and well developed–and cogent! Girard cited Aristotle as saying that humans have just two instincts: mimesis and harmony, but Girard concentrated on the instinct to imitate. I’ve often thought about the other instinct of harmony. It is obvious to parents of infants who imitate mothers by responding back to them when then verbalize by doing the same thing. It’s rather like a call and response: you sing to me, I sing back. We do it when we sing the Psalms responsively. I sing in choirs, and it is an experience that we love because it ties us together. I believe that this is what love is: a combination of imitation and harmony.

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    • Suzanne Ross
      Suzanne Ross says:

      Wonderful example, Tom. It shows how we can imitate harmoniously! I know that often “mimesis” is used a synonym for violence, but I prefer to separate them. Mimesis, or unconscious imitation, is natural to human life. Violence, however, is not. Mimesis is by nature harmonious, I think. At least that is what I understand Montessori’s work to be revealing.

      Reply
  3. Carol Wimmer
    Carol Wimmer says:

    New to MT as a theory but not to the ideas it espouses. I’m convinced that we must also identify when violence began to be ‘a way of life’ in the unfolding of anthropological history. When we go back to that point in our earthly garden, we will discover a spiritual driver that turned egalitarian behaviors toward hierarchical behaviors. Identifying root causes of our mimesis would go along way in helping people diagnose harmful behaviors/fears and choose healthier thoughts.

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  4. Allen Ray Johnson
    Allen Ray Johnson says:

    “The Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who are like these children,” said Jesus as He gathered them to him. Suzanne, your essay points to that truth.

    Christoph Arnold (Bruderhof) writes, “Our response upon encountering a child must be nothing less than reverence…Reverence is more than just love. It includes an appreciation for the qualities children possess (and which we ourselves have lost), a readiness to rediscover their value and the humility to learn from them.

    As for mimetic theory, violence, and DNA, children grow up into biologically reproducing adults with powerful hormonal sexual drive to pass on their own DNA, according to evolutionary theory. Physical aggression, especially in males, is common in many invertebrate and vertebrate animals during mating seasons. Buck deer get along fine together until the fall rut, and then they fight. It seems to me that much of human anthropology in various societal permutations attempts through ritual and prohibition to control sexually-rooted violence.

    So how do we become like children? In a nuclear-armed, crowded world, the future might well hinge upon that quest.

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    • Suzanne Ross
      Suzanne Ross says:

      Thanks for the beautiful quote from Bruderhof, Allen, and for bringing up evolutionary theory. Montessori was a bit critical of the whole purpose of life being the passing on of our DNA. She said, “The purposes of living creatures in this world cannot surely be only to live, to survive in the struggle for existence… the purpose of living seems to be related rather to the doing of work needed by the environment… as if the living were agents of creation.” She saw a deep connection between all living things and all of creation, an interplay and interdependence, and the purpose of human life for her was revealed by children who engagement with their environment in an act of co-creation. I plan to write more about this in another blog!

      Reply
  5. Carolyn Lucento
    Carolyn Lucento says:

    This article was uplifting and something I really needed to hear. Some points you made I had never seen put into words and the Montessori references were heartwarming. It makes me so glad to have been in the Montessori realm for all these years. Being with little ones has always felt so naturally peaceful to me and your article really puts that in words very eloquently.

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    • Suzanne Ross
      Suzanne Ross says:

      thanks Carolyn. I’ll never forget the first time I observed a Montessori pre-school classroom. I cried for joy, it was so peaceful and the children so welcoming in their quiet way. I wish everyone could see what “normal” childhood behavior is like!

      Reply

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