Giving Peace a Chance — For Real This Time (Part III)

(Follow-up to Part II)

Having examined a variety of sources on alleged pacifistic successes of first-millennium popes, the facts are ambiguous at best and antithetical to our hopes at worst.

As the legend goes, Pope Leo the Great stopped Attila the Hun’s siege of Rome merely by going to meet the military leader, warning him of the intercession of Saints Paul and Peter that might befall him if he carried out the attack, and leaving Attila fearful and unwilling to defy divine power. The Encyclopedia Britannica, paraphrased here, provides context to the story that would lead even one taking it at face value to the conclusion that more pressing factors dissuaded Attila than an appeal to mercy. The Hun army was already exhausted at the time, particularly after the Battle of Châlons, and Rome’s recent famine made it an unworthy investment for plundering. Ancient historian Don Keko concurs, adding that Rome had already suffered an attack that satiated the Huns with gold, about twenty years before Pope Leo’s meeting. If papal words of peace did anything to defend Rome, they piggybacked on circumstance and took place at a suboptimal time — why not attempt diplomacy during the Huns’ first pillage?

Gregory the Great fares little better. To be sure, his many charitable contributions can be granted, even ignoring for the sake of relevance the violent measures he endorsed for conversion of heretics (a moral error in a person’s character, however egregious, says nothing about the nature of pacifism itself). These sources nonetheless admit that Gregory’s peace with the Lombards, the act of peaceful resistance in question, was “on-and-off” and “fragile.” I could belabor the details, but even if we could demonstrate this to be an indisputable example of effective peacemaking, the theory of pacifism as a consistently powerful force for conflict resolution without the level of violence typical warfare demands would require more than a single exhibit. That, if nothing else, is what we can take from this admittedly sparse day of research: one case does not a reliable theory make, and stories purported to support an ideology may have a more complex history that nullifies their validity as evidence for that ideology. This only scratches the surface, as I have not begun to touch the matter of nuclear weapons, which deserves a post unto itself.

The promised digression on Martin Luther King may or may not come soon. Again, the arms race warrants discussion in this series as well, and it’s likely that I will postpone updates to Giving Peace a Chance until after more extensive reading and thought than is feasible within a few days, or even weeks. I didn’t expect to solve the problem of world peace willy-nilly, yet I hope these posts so far have underscored the importance of patience, meticulousness, and acceptance of uncertainty in the enterprise of applied ethics. Anyone who tries to sell you the answer to this debate in a sentence or in a single anecdote is, I am sure we can agree in our sober moments, being too rash. That does not mean we cannot make progress at all, but it does remind us to take each part of the whole endeavor — in this case, determining whether nonviolent conflict resolution on large international scales is almost always the best option — as proportionally significant.

If you have any resources to recommend on this subject, such as books or documentaries, feel free to suggest them in a comment.