Non-Attack of the 120,000-Foot Man

August 8th, 2009

This is a syndicated post, originally from Austro-Athenian Empire.

Today on LRC, Laurence Vance quotes the following passage from Vicesimus Knox’s 1800 essay “On the Folly and Wickedness of War”:

The calamities attendant on a state of war seem to have prevented the mind of man from viewing it in the light of an absurdity, and an object of ridicule as well as pity. But if we could suppose a superior Being capable of beholding us, miserable mortals, without compassion, there is, I think, very little doubt but the variety of military manœuvres and formalities, the pride, pomp, and circumstance of war, and all the ingenious contrivances for the glorious purposes of mutual destruction, which seem to constitute the business of many whole kingdoms, would furnish him with an entertainment like that which is received by us from the exhibition of a farce or puppet-show. …

Knox and Voltaire

Knox and Voltaire

The causes of war are for the most part such as must disgrace an animal pretending to rationality. Two poor mortals take offence at each other, without any reason, or with the very bad one of wishing for an opportunity of aggrandizing themselves, by making reciprocal depredations. The creatures of the court, and the leading men of the nation, who are usually under the influence of the court, resolve (for it is their interest) to support their royal master, and are never at a loss to invent some colourable pretence for engaging the nation in the horrors of war. Taxes of the most burthensome kind are levied, soldiers are collected so as to leave a paucity of husbandmen, reviews and encampments succeed, and at last a hundred thousand men meet on a plain, and coolly shed each others blood, without the smallest personal animosity, or the shadow of a provocation. The kings, in the mean time, and the grandees, who have employed these poor innocent victims to shoot bullets at each other’s heads, remain quietly at home, and amuse themselves, in the intervals of balls, hunting schemes, and pleasures of every species, with reading at the fire side, over a cup of chocolate, the dispatches from the army, and the news in the Extraordinary Gazette.

(Read the rest.)

I can’t help wondering whether Knox’s idea of viewing petty human warfare from a superior cosmic standpoint might have been inspired by Voltaire’s 1752 novella Micromégas, in which a 120,000-foot giant from outer space comes to Earth and learns from a friendly philosopher what all the anthill scurrying at his feet is about:

“[A]t this very moment there are 100,000 fools of our species who wear hats, slaying 100,000 fellow creatures who wear turbans, or being massacred by them, and over almost all of Earth such practices have been going on from time immemorial.”

The Sirian shuddered, and asked what could cause such horrible quarrels between those miserable little creatures.

Micromegas“The dispute concerns a lump of clay,” said the philosopher, “no bigger than your heel. Not that a single one of those millions of men who get their throats cut has the slightest interest in this clod of earth. The only point in question is whether it shall belong to a certain man who is called Sultan, or another who, I know not why, is called Cæsar. Neither has seen, or is ever likely to see, the little corner of ground which is the bone of contention; and hardly one of those animals, who are cutting each other’s throats has ever seen the animal for whom they fight so desperately.”

“Ah! wretched creatures!” exclaimed the Sirian with indignation; “Can anyone imagine such frantic ferocity! I should like to take two or three steps, and stamp upon the whole swarm of these ridiculous assassins.”

“No need,” answered the philosopher; “they are working hard enough to destroy themselves. I assure you, at the end of 10 years, not a hundredth part of those wretches will be left; even if they had never drawn the sword, famine, fatigue, or intemperance will sweep them almost all away. Besides, it is not they who deserve punishment, but rather those armchair barbarians, who from the privacy of their cabinets, and during the process of digestion, command the massacre of a million men, and afterward ordain a solemn thanksgiving to God.”

[Read the original at Austro-Athenian Empire (2009-08-08)...]