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A Changing Definition of Peace

February 12, 2011

As we see a comeback of the peace sign, audaciously plastered to the front of seemingly every bag and shirt in middle and high-schoolers nowadays, I find myself growing frustrated by this “hemorrhage” of the symbol – not because I’m an opponent of peace, but because the idea of peace seems to have been contorted in the minds of these kids into the new “cool” symbol, degrading the essence and beauty of peace that I value so deeply.

When reading Thomas Hobbes’ The Leviathan, I was troubled by his use of the idea of peace. In chapter thirteen he states that “the passions that incline men to peace, are fear of death.” Fear and death and nothing more. Is this how we contrive our ideas of peace in a contemporary world, so black and white? Merely for self-protection? Hobbes would say yes, since in his mind men are thought to “reap benefit[s]….for their own sakes, and not for love of others” (Hobbes, The Leviathan, Chapter 12).  Perhaps many view peace through this same lens today, but I know I certainly don’t, and am joined with others from around the world:

“Peace means to me the highest quality of people living together. It includes tolerance, acceptance, understanding, dialogue, solidarity, caring, happiness.”
 Daniela, Austria

“Peace is sitting around a fire in the forest during twilight, listening to the silence of the woods, and looking out over a lake and seeing dots of mist floating above it. That’s absolute peace.” 
Hakon, Norway

“Peace, as I perceive it, is an ongoing process which should remain with each and every individual at all times. I do not think that peace is something that one achieves like anyone would achieve success. 
Rather I think peace is more similar to the sun. In other words, it is something no one can do without. Peace is something which should always be part of us.” 
Unika, Nepal

These ideas all hit closer to my interpretation of peace, a more internal peace that is embodied within and not necessarily defined by the occurrence or absence of war. It’s a peace of mind, of body and of spirit that manages to connect us with others on a human level and dismiss war.

Yet, the origin of the peace sign stems from a situation more Hobbesian than my “soul-searching” idea. Our commonly used symbol dates back to only fifty years ago, to the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. As the picture below illustrates, the design of the symbol was borrowed from a British naval procedure using flags to denote either an ‘n’ or ‘d,’ standing for nuclear disarmament. Gerald Holton reflected these naval images onto paper in 1958, and Wallah!: we’re left with our current symbol. In this case, the idea of peace directly reflects Hobbes’ idea on the subject, as a mere opponent of war. So somehow, over those fifty years, our notion of the concept as a society has evolved, digging more into our souls and less into our “fear of death.” We’re left to wonder how Hobbes would react to this change: perhaps shake his head, write it off as liberal arts nonsense or throw out the idea as frivolous rubbish altogether. Nevertheless, the evolution of the concept of peace is intriguing and adds a twist to my immediate condemnation of the current peace sign hemorrhage.


  1. nehajain permalink
    February 12, 2011 1:44 PM

    Great post, Bri! Hobbes’ definition of peace in The Leviathan is something that stood out to me as well. I don’t think I could have articulated this matter any any clearer. I think the word “peace” embodies the ideas of tranquility, harmony, serenity, order, and in the case of war, reconciliation. I agree that the peace sign is a bit misused and the true notion of peace should somehow be instilled in the minds of younger generations.

  2. lernerm permalink
    February 13, 2011 8:42 PM

    Bri, I agree that Hobbes’ definition of peace is incomplete since it doesn’t take into account what could be called “spiritual peace.” However, peace as the antonym of war is the only definition that makes sense in the context of political science. Thinkers such as Hobbes are concerned with the role and structure of government and do not pay much attention to the deeply personal feelings of the citizens who make up the state. This question can best be thought about in relation to Pierre Trudeau’s well-known quote that “There is no place for the government in the bedrooms of the nation.” Political science examines the function of the state and leaves the personal lives of its constituents to other fields of study.

  3. apnash permalink
    February 14, 2011 2:50 PM

    I have to agree with the author, I dislike a negative concept of peace as simply the absence of war. I feel that to define peace in terms of war defeats the purpose and pushes war to the forefront of our minds; it treats war as the natural condition and peace as the interval between them. Whether Hobbes is correct in his assertion that a state of war is our natural condition is beside the point. I believe that if peace were treated as a positive concept, and war the absence thereof that we stand a better chance of actually achieving peace and avoiding war. Our culture is rife with terms of war: intense meetings are held in a “War Room”, people are said to work “in the trenches”, politicians raise money for their “war chest”, and on and on. This is a byproduct of our using war as a benchmark and we will never achieve a true peace until we rewrite the parameters of how it’s measured.

  4. rgrossca permalink
    February 14, 2011 11:52 PM

    Generations pass and I also fear the fact of that the true meaning of the peace symbol is loosing its essence. It almost seems as though, in the decade that we live in, the sign is thrown up for fun and put on the back of t-shirts because “it looks cool.” However, the peace symbol represents something I personally support graciously and full heartedly.
    Peace instills not only happiness, but also good spirits and emotions in society; less fighting and less altercations strand for an obligation to peace. Although I agree the symbol of peace is decomposing as time passes by, I disagree with what the philosopher Hobbes describes peace as, which is, “the passions that incline men to peace, are fear of death.” Just because there is peace does not mean death will stop; therefore the mere fact men are afraid of dying does not incline men to be peaceful. In fact, men don not fear death in my opinion. Shootings, murders, fights all revert to death and are committed by man himself and sometimes are situations that are uncontrollable. Men cling to peace to reproduce the happiness that occurs when violence disappears. When Daniela claims that, ““Peace means to me the highest quality of people living together,” that is true to some extent but if this highest quality of people are not happy then peace is unreachable. In addition, how can someone decide what quality of person someone else is? Be that as it may, I do agree that morals such as tolerance, and caring do instill peace in people, since such people will work together and not act in violent manners.
    Also, another form of peace that is enjoyable is when nothing is happening around you and one feels absolutely satisfied by doing nothing. Sitting in a field looking at the clouds on a nice summer day, going for a nice boat ride on the water with the breeze flowing through your hair, or even how Hakan says in the blog sitting by a camp fire in the forest during a clear night; all these events are peaceful, non violent, and enjoyable. In situations like these, people can incline to peace because of what they are getting out of the situation and the happiness they receive due to their surroundings. Nothing to do strictly with being afraid of death can be connected to peace in any of the aforementioned scenarios.
    As the blog ends, commenting on how this sign evolved, how Hobbes was able to come up with his idea of peace is not very clear to me. Even in a time of war the fear of death is massive, but more importantly the need and want to establish a non-violent outcome between whoever is fighting is what inclines men to peace. Men do not want to fight each other, or try and kill. The majority of men want to stop war. Why create more enemies, when an enemy in life is nothing positive. In addition, just as the blog says, the idea of nuclear disarmament lead to the peace sign. Just because the symbol was related to “the fear of death” does not mean the intellectual interpretation of “peace” is related to fear.
    Coming to a conclusion, it is not applicable to have just one simple definition of what peace means. Just like we have been talking about justice, obligation, political action, and morale, there is never one solid definition, broad themes are always left to subjectivity by the individual.

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