Resisting Evil, V: The Fundamental Things of Life

Instead of plunging headlong into the tedious history of self-defense legislation, let us rather begin (as Plato or John Locke might) by imagining a state of society in which there is no legitimate authority or, at least, no legal power to protect the innocent or punish the guilty.  We do not have to dig into the ethnographic accounts of such violent peoples as the Ifugao of the Philippines or the Yanamano of South America.  The Celtic, Slavic, and Germanic peoples of Europe provide a rich record of violent periods in which self-help and vengeance were a normal means of protection and punishment, while the frontier history of the United States is a fertile source for gaudy tales of self-defense and collective vengeance.  

To get down to the bedrock question of individual violence, we need look no farther than to the records of the Germanic and Scandinavian peoples who are ancestors to so many people living today in Western Europe and North America.  No literature speaks so movingly of the horrors and the pleasures of violence as the Icelandic sagas.  Njal's Saga, written in the late 13th century, concerns a blood-feud that began in the early 10th century and ended about 1020.  Gunnar Hamundarson, one of the heroes, dies an outlaw, but even in his cairn his spirit sings out to his son, Hogni, of the pleasures of a life well-spent:      

Hogni's generous father     

Rich in daring exploits,     

Who so lavishly gave battle      

Distributing wounds gladly,     

Claims that his helmet,     

Towering like an oak-tree     

In the forest of battle,     

He would rather die than yield,     

Much rather die than yield.           

Icelandic violence was a brutal necessity of life, but, as Gunnar makes clear, it could also be a source of honor and joy.  Along with feeding to sustain life, and copulating to propagate it, man's other greatest need--and pleasure--is fighting.  Men who cannot go to war will spend their time watching boxing matches and football games that mimic combat, and, if violence were taken out of films and television, it would leave only sex to attract young male audiences.      

Copulating, eating, and fighting, however different their objects and techniques, share a number of qualities.  In men, at least, sexual desire and aggression are triggered by the same hormones, and all three activities are rooted in complex physiological processes that result in a general sense of euphoria and well-being.  If there are any activities to which we might be entitled to claim a natural right, it is these three basic activities that create, sustain, and defend life, though from both the classical and Christian points of view, it is better to look on them as natural duties.  All three are circumscribed by custom and precedent, and social rules dictate what and how one may eat, with whom and when one can sleep, and whom one can strike or kill.       

In simple societies most of the rules are implicit or, at least, informal.  No one posts a notice declaring the tribe's totem animal to be “taboo.”  One learns such things by hearsay or during the period of initiation.  In the passage of time, formal laws are passed, declaring what everyone already knew, that eating pork or sleeping with sister or assaulting father is wrong.  As the power of the rulers grows, however, they are tempted to make more and more laws restricting natural activities.  Theocratic societies and religious cults become obsessed with sexual purity and may forbid--or require--a variety of specific acts.  The demand for ritual purity may also lead to complex dietary restrictions, as among the ancient Jews and the modern Americans who brand tobacco, distilled spirits, red meat, and high performance automobiles as unclean.      

So long as regulations do not absolutely interfere with the discharge of our natural duties, the meddling of shamans and augurs, politicians and social workers can be regarded more as an annoyance than as tyranny.  What difference does it make, ultimately, if I eat pork or beef, so long as I can eat meat?  Of what am I deprived, when marriage with deceased wife's sister is forbidden, if I am still free to marry?

  Governments and cults, however, can and do go farther.  A religious cult may demand and enforce total abstinence from sex, and the governments of China and India, in order to limit population, have forced men to be sterilized and compelled mothers to abort girl children.  Communist regimes have interfered in food production to the point of causing mass starvation.  Whether famine was the intent or merely a byproduct of faulty economic theory is irrelevant.  When a state drastically curtails our ability to satisfy these basic human needs, it is depriving us of the power to provide for natural necessities, of what the Declaration of Independence refers to optimistically as "inalienable rights," among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Since, according to this pleasant but unprovable hypothesis, governments are instituted to secure these rights, "whenever any form of government [whether monarchical or democratic] becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it."

The government of George III really did very little to interfere with the natural rights of the Americans.  The King and his ministers did not order arbitrary execution.   Although an act that transferred jurisdiction, in cases involving a soldier who killed a civilian, from provincial courts to England came to be known as “the murder act,” this was a piece of understandable hyperbole among the Americans.  While the liberties of a few New Englanders were abridged, the British crack-down was a justifiable response to illegal and treasonous acts.  More fundamentally, the government did not—in contrast to modern governments—interfere in marriage and child rearing or food production.  In fact, it was the Americans, once they were separated from Britain, who set about revolutionizing marriage customs.  

The King's government did, however, attempt to curtail the right of self-defense, and when royal troops marched on Lexington to seize the weapons of the militiamen, it made war almost inevitable.  It is in the interest of even legitimate governments to limit potential threats to the stability of a regime, and many have taken steps to limit violent means of self-defense. In 18th century England, as we shall see, the Crown restricted dueling, brawling, and some armed acts of self-defense, though it did not apply stricter standards—far from it—to Britain's American subjects than to Englishmen in Britain.  

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

2 Responses

  1. Roger McGrath says:

    Tom notes the efforts of the British Crown to monopolize acts of violence even in self-defense. In England there was a requirement for a British subject to retreat “to the wall” before he could fight back and kill in self-defense. Only if a person was unable to flee, would he be justified in doing battle. All conflict should be adjudicated in court. The “duty to retreat” was long established in English common law by the 18th century. Probably because of the influence of the frontier on the American colonists and the growing number of Scotch-Irish and Irish settlers by the time of the American revolution, a tradition of “no duty to retreat” was developing in the colonies. The no duty to retreat tradition became predominate during the 19th century and contributed greatly to getting Andrew Jackson elected President. An American was expected to fight with fists, knives, or guns and, if the fight resulted in death, then so be it. A common declaration of an American male was “I’ll die before I’ll run.”

  2. Thomas Fleming says:

    That is certainly the current mainstream opinion here in the states as given by WM Brown in a book that is both biased and misinformed. In an upcoming installment of this series, I shall be dismantling his argument as fallacious, tendentious, and probably mendacious. He is certainly correct in the general statement that in many cases–EXCLUDING FELONIOUS ASSAULT–and intended victim was expected (though not always required) to prove a good-faith commitment to avoiding homicide, and it is true that this was a residue of Norman tyranny. Our frontier trouble-makers were typically from the Celtic fringe–Scotland, Northern Ireland, Northern England, where the Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and Norse traditions died more slowly.

    But the English have always been a practical and level-headed people who find what we now call work-arounds. For example, we are often given a list of dozens of crimes the merited the death penalty, but the haters of our ancestors do not bother to point out that in most cases, the alternative was exile–an excellent method for getting rid of petty thieves, pickpockets, coney-catchers et al, although, alas, too many of them ended up in the New World. When we get to that point in the argument I am expecting Prof McGrath to weigh in heavily.