Developed for the Dayton International Peace Museum, Dayton, Ohio, for their 2015 Peace Heroes Walk as The Little Book of Peace Heroes.
The Most Difficult Art Form
Imagine if your city had a high school with a 100 percent illiterate student population. Would this high school, where not even one student knows how to read, gain local media attention? Actually, it would probably gain national media attention. Today our society recognizes illiteracy as a problem, because we understand that reading is the foundation of education. Furthermore, just trying to navigate through the modern world without the ability to read signs, menus, e-mails, and the Internet puts us at a major disadvantage in the struggle to succeed at life.
But imagine traveling back in time three thousand years. This was around the era when the Trojan War between the Greeks and Trojans took place. In Homer’s depiction of the Trojan War, known as the Iliad, none of the characters know how to read. The Greek and Trojan societies are almost completely illiterate.[i] Not even kings such as Agamemnon and Priam know how to read.
A better term to describe these ancient illiterate societies is “preliterate,” because they did not yet understand why literacy was an essential step in their society’s evolution. Imagine trying to convince the ancient Greeks and Trojans in the Iliad that they should learn how to read. This would be a seemingly impossible task, because they had no reference point to understand why reading is important.
Today we know reading is important, because there is a reason why American slave owners made it illegal to teach slaves to read. And there is a reason why dictators ban books and the Nazis burned books. To oppress any large group of people in a society, a system must first oppress their minds, and reading offers us a way out of ignorance. Literacy also made it possible for humanity to organize ideas in new ways, allowing us to create intellectual disciplines such as science, history, philosophy, psychology, biology, and much more.[ii] Science is one of many subjects that cannot exist without literacy.
What if our society is being held back by another form of illiteracy, which most of us today are not aware of, similar to the ancient Greeks and Trojans who were not aware of the importance of reading? In what way is our modern society illiterate? To understand this, we must first recognize the most difficult art form.
There are many challenging art forms. To play the violin well, a person must get training. Sports are also art forms that require people to hone their craft, but to play any sport at a high level, we must be trained. If a person wants to write, paint, sculpt, practice martial arts, or make films to the best of their ability, training is also critical. But what is the most difficult form of art? What art form is far more challenging than playing any instrument or sport? The art of living.
Living is certainly an art form. The Roman philosopher Seneca explained: “There exists no more difficult art than living . . . throughout the whole of life, one must continue to learn to live and, what will amaze you even more, throughout life one must learn to die.”[iii]
Essential Life Skills
Just as we must learn any art form, we must also learn how to live. But unlike other art forms, the art of living transforms us into both the sculptor and the sculpture. We are the artist and our life is the masterpiece. [iv] As a child I was never taught the art of living. For example, I was never taught how to overcome fear. Wouldn’t this be an incredibly useful thing to know? In fact, overcoming fear is one of the most important life skills we can have. Nor was I ever taught how to calm myself and other people down. This is another essential life skill.
As a child I was never taught the many essential life skills that are part of the art of living. I was never taught how to resolve conflict, make the most of adversity, listen deeply, focus my mind, inspire people to overcome seemingly impossible tasks, lead from a foundation of respect rather than intimidation, develop empathy, be a good friend, have a healthy relationship, challenge injustice, be happy, find purpose and meaning in life, develop my sense of self-awareness so that I can critique myself honestly, and help humanity create a more peaceful and just world.
Some children learn these skills from their parents, but many parents do not know how to listen well or handle conflict without yelling, causing children to learn bad habits. When people watch cable news, reality shows, and other forms of media entertainment, how often do they see someone who listens well and resolves conflict calmly and respectfully? More people in our society are taught to resolve conflict through aggression than through the power of respect.
Imagine if you watched a basketball game, but nobody on either team had ever been properly taught how to play basketball. It would be a mess. Imagine if you listened to an orchestra play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, but nobody in the orchestra had been taught how to play their instruments. It would also be a mess. Since living is far more complicated than playing basketball or Beethoven, when our society is filled with people who have not been taught the art of living, life becomes a lot messier than it needs to be. Living will always be somewhat messy because it is the most difficult art form, but when we are trained in the art of living we gain the tools to prevent unnecessary conflict, violence, misunderstanding, suffering, and trauma. And we become empowered to solve these and other problems when they arise.
Preliterate in Peace
The art of living requires us to understand what it means to be human, because the art of living works with the medium of our shared humanity, just as painting works with color and music works with sound. The art of living also requires us to learn the art of waging peace, because peace is the process and product of living well. Instead of saying our society is illiterate in peace, a more accurate phrase is “preliterate in peace.” Three thousand years ago, there were many brilliant Greeks and Trojans who did not understand the importance of becoming literate in reading. And today, there are many brilliant people in our society who do not yet understand the importance of becoming literate in living well, waging peace, and our shared humanity.
Because environmental destruction, nuclear weapons, and war can drive humanity extinct, this new kind of literacy I am describing is necessary for human survival. Just as people today recognize that illiteracy in reading is a serious problem, we must create a future where people recognize that illiteracy in the art of living and the art of waging peace is also a serious problem. To take their society to the next level, a civilization such as the ancient Greeks had to prioritize literacy. To take our global society to the next level, we must prioritize literacy in living well, waging peace, and our shared humanity.
The 2009 U.S. Army Sustainability Report lists several threats to national security, which include severe income disparity, poverty, and climate change. The U.S. Army Sustainability Report states: “The Army is facing several global challenges to sustainability that create a volatile security environment with an increased potential for conflict . . . Globalization’s increased interdependence and connectivity has led to greater disparities in wealth, which foster conditions that can lead to conflict . . . Population growth and poverty; the poor in fast-growing urban areas are especially vulnerable to antigovernment and radical ideologies . . . Climate change and natural disasters strain already limited resources, increasing the potential for humanitarian crises and population migrations.”32
When the U.S. Army says that “greater disparities in wealth . . . poverty . . . and climate change” are dangerous, these were among the same concerns expressed by the Occupy movement. When the U.S. Army and Occupy movement agree on something, I think we should pay attention. However, none of these problems can be solved by a single country. In addition, none of these problems can be solved by waging war. During the twenty-first century, protecting our national security requires us to develop the skills necessary to work together as a global community. During the twenty-first century, protecting our national security also requires us to develop the skills necessary to create a new vision of global security.
Many people who learn the art of living and the art of waging peace may not use these skills to participate in a paradigm-shifting global movement, just as many people today who have learned a written language may not read paradigm-shifting books. Many people today use reading simply for e-mails, the Internet, signs, menus, and articles. In a similar way, many people in the future may use the art of living and the art of waging peace simply to better their relationships, become happier, gain more purpose and meaning in their lives, and resolve conflicts with their friends, family, coworkers, and strangers. Every ounce of peace adds to the wellbeing of our broader human community. When we know more about the art of living, which includes understanding how our human vulnerabilities can be exploited by written and visual propaganda, we also become harder to manipulate.
What Is a Peace Hero?
Why must we learn the art of living? Why aren’t we born with all the knowledge necessary to live well? The reason is because our brains are so complex. An oak tree knows how to be an oak tree. It doesn’t need a mentor or role model to guide it. A caterpillar knows how to turn into a butterfly and thrive in the world. It doesn’t have to take a class or read a manual. But human beings, more than any other species on the planet, must learn to be what we are. We must learn to be human. This is why children in every culture need role models and mentors to guide them, such as parents, teachers, community members, or even religious icons such as Jesus and Buddha. This is why people in every culture need an ideal to strive toward, an ideal that represents our highest human potential.
In our culture, this ideal is known as the “hero.” In ancient Greece, heroes were not moral, but exceptional. The Greek heroes included Achilles, Odysseus, and the greatest Greek hero of them all, Heracles (better known by his Latin name, Hercules). Achilles was the mightiest warrior alive, Odysseus was a brilliant tactician and talented speaker as well as a powerful warrior, and Heracles was the strongest man in the world.
Unlike the ancient Greek heroes, the “peace hero” is not admired for being physically exceptional, but morally exceptional. Peace heroes such as Jesus, Buddha, Lao-tzu, many Jewish Prophets, Lucretia Mott, Mahatma Gandhi, Helen Keller, Martin Luther King Jr., Wangari Matthai, Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Malala Yousafzai, and many others are not exceptional killers like Achilles or exceptionally strong like Heracles, but exceptionally moral in the ways humanity must emulate if we are going to survive during our fragile future.
One of the early peace heroes was Socrates. Socrates, similar to later peace heroes such as Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, St. Francis of Assisi, General Smedley Butler, and Leo Tolstoy, had been in the military. Socrates went from being courageous on the battlefield to courageously challenging injustice in his society, replacing the weapons of war with the weapon of truth. Historian James A. Colaiaco tells us: “Socrates carried out his mission without fear of death. But he contradicted the traditional notion of the hero . . . For him, vengeance is unjust, and honor is won only in the pursuit of moral virtue, even at the expense of violating the values of the community. The new hero that Socrates represented was not one who excelled on the battlefield or one who surrendered his life unthinkingly to the polis [city-state], but one who remained steadfast in his commitment to justice.”[v]
A peace hero is not something we are, but an ideal we reflect in our daily lives. Honoring peace heroes lifts up this ideal higher so that more people can see this vision of what it means to be human, a vision that humanity needs to survive during our fragile future. One characteristic peace heroes all share in common is that they reject vengeance. Could you imagine Jesus, Buddha, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, or Malala Yousafzai embracing vengeance? If they did, they would not be the people we admire. Instead of embracing vengeance, peace heroes promote justice.
Another characteristic peace heroes have in common is that they understand our interconnectedness, and how their work is built on the efforts of countless others. As a result, people who reflect the peace hero ideal are often embarrassed when anyone praises them as heroes. Frederick Douglass, who dedicated his life to ending slavery and furthering women’s rights, said: “We never feel more ashamed of our humble efforts in the cause of emancipation than when we contrast them with the silent, unobserved and unapplauded efforts of those women through whose constant and persevering endeavors this annual [anti-slavery] exhibition is given to the American public.”[vi]
Commenting on the unsung heroes of peace and justice, Albert Schweitzer said, “The sum of these [actions from people who aren’t famous], however, is a thousand times stronger than the acts of those who receive wide public recognition. The latter, compared to the former, are like the foam on the waves of a deep ocean.”[vii]
Protecting Our Fragile Future
There are many concepts of what it means to be a hero, because people can be admired as heroes not because they possess exceptional moral virtue, but exceptional wealth, ruthlessness, or cunning. Which heroic ideal we admire will shape our future. If our society idolizes heroes who embrace vengeance and violence, our political system, way of viewing the world, and approach to solving problems will reflect this. If our society studies heroes who promote peace and justice, our vision will be expanded, allowing us to see new possibilities for solving problems and being human that we did not notice before, but were there all along, waiting to be discovered.
Through literacy in the art of living, the art of waging peace, and our shared humanity, we will become empowered to reflect the ideal of the peace hero, solve our most serious human problems, and protect our fragile future. Through this new kind of literacy, human beings three thousand years from now may look back on us the way we look back on people living during the Trojan War. Because our modern problems threaten human survival, this new kind of literacy can help us ensure that three thousand years from now humanity will still exist.
Paul K. Chappell serves as the Peace Leadership Director for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. He graduated from West Point in 2002, was deployed to Iraq, and left active duty in November 2009 as a Captain. He is the author of the Road to Peace series, a seven-book series about waging peace, ending war, the art of living, and what it means to be human. The first four published books in this series are Will War Ever End?, The End of War, Peaceful Revolution, and The Art of Waging Peace. Lecturing across the country and internationally, he also teaches college courses and workshops on Peace Leadership. He grew up in Alabama, the son of a half-black and half-white father who fought in the Korean and Vietnam wars, and a Korean mother. Growing up in a violent household, Chappell has sought answers to the issues of war and peace, rage and trauma, and vision, purpose, and hope. His website is www.peacefulrevolution.com.
[i] There is one possible reference to writing in the Iliad. In his introduction to the Robert Fagles translation of the Iliad, Bernard Knox says, “In Book 6 [of the Iliad], Glaucus tells the story of his grandfather Bellerophon. Proetus, king of Argos, sent him off with a message to the king of Lycia, Proteus’ father-in-law; it instructed the king to kill the bearer. ‘[He] gave him tokens, / murderous signs, scratched in a folded tablet . . .’” This reference is so vague that it is unclear whether these “murderous signs” were part of a written alphabet. Whether these scratched markings represented a written alphabet rather or just coded symbols, they seemed so mysterious that they are described by characters in the Iliad as signs and scratches.
[ii] Classical Mythology, Lecture 1, The Teaching Company, DVD. In the first lecture, professor Elizabeth Vandiver discusses how literacy makes intellectual disciplines possible.
[iii] Erich Fromm, The Sane Society (New York: Rinehart & Co., 1959), xiv.
[iv] In his book Man for Himself, Erich Fromm discusses living as an art. I first heard this idea from Erich Fromm and Seneca.
[v] James A. Colaiaco, Socrates Against Athens (New York: Routledge, 2001), 133.
[vi] Philip S. Foner, ed., Frederick Douglass on Women’s Rights (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1992), 11.
[vii] Albert Schweitzer, Out of My Life and Thought, trans. Antje Bultmann Lemke (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1998), 90.