Para Bellum

Igitur quī dēsīderat pācem, præparet bellum.

Vegetius, Epitoma De Re Militari, Book III preface

It’s always a surprise how little we truly know about what we think we know, which only makes sense: You don’t get very far if you begin on the presumption that you’re wrong. Proceeding on invalid, partial, incorrect, or incomplete information is a survival trait. There is no practicable method for knowing everything you’ll need to know before you begin, so instead humanity has learned to persevere against the impossible, adapting on the fly. It is at once a marvelous talent and terrifyingly dangerous flaw.

Whether fortunately or not, this also carries with it a caveat: When reality doesn’t meet our preconceptions, we often can fail to recognize what to an uncommitted outside perspective would be obvious errors on our part. Because all of life has trained us to resist correction if we wish to persevere, we tend to automatically reject recognition when we’ve been mistaken, sometimes going so far as to alter reality to fit our preconceptions.

Even when we do accept an error, this triggers in us an automatic rejection not merely of our former perspective but also of the willingness to continue, this time on a properly corrected path. Note that this reaction is involuntary; it’s how our brains are constructed, and requires training to overcome. Thus does one of our greatest strengths carry within it the seeds of its own weakness, and often an inevitable urge to self-destruction.

The title of this article is “Para Bellum”, from the Latin adage “Si vis pacem, para bellum.” This is widely known and broadly quoted; it has entered the language as a truism. And yet, the original, in Vegetius, was penned centuries after the fall of Rome and significantly differs from that which is broadly misquoted today. The modern version carries with it the implication that peace can be brought about through force as long as one is sufficiently prepared; the ancient, that because war is inevitable, the only way to survive it long enough to see peace is to become a fervent student. The doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction was founded on a grammatical error in an unproven axiom.

It is commonly said today that the modern politico-economic system is broken, that we “can’t vote our way out of fascism”, that democracy is either dead or in mortal peril, and in these and a thousand other ways that violent revolution is inevitable. We’re told that the two-party system will never permit the rise of a third party, that a vote cast against the chosen candidate is a vote for their opponent, and many other absurdisms that pass for wisdom. Precisely this much is true: So long as we accept these statements, no peaceful change is possible.

Put simply: To make meaningful change happen, we must first reject the common wisdom, and that’s something that comes hard for humans because we’re not built to change our minds easily. After that we must do something almost as difficult — we must persevere in the face of our previous incorrectness, sure in our revised certainty, until that change which we need has been brought about.

Democrats and Republicans alike tell us that this fall we’re battling for the soul of our country. Curiously, they’re both right; the error lies in the implication that we’re ever not. President Biden warned us of the dangers of Republican extremism in an official speech, counseling his political opponents to select moderate candidates; this would ring less falsely if the present Democratic Party machine were not actively supporting the MAGA-est, Trump-most among their opponents with tens of millions of donated dollars worth of targeted ad campaigns on the theory that extremists are easily defeated.

Any unaligned moderate observing dispassionately would view these goings-on and conclude that, yes, many of the Republicans are anti-Liberty, anti-freedom, even anti-American — but that Democrats are anything but democratic, working overtly to stack the deck before the elections while condemning anyone who calls them on it as a conspiracy theorist. The dueling national partisan machines can clearly not be trusted to serve any interests but their own.

The solution is obvious: support mavericks, independent candidates, and third parties, particularly the Forward Party. Locally, work for open primaries and ranked-choice ballots.

If you don’t agree, stop a moment and consider: Perhaps it’s just that you don’t like to admit it when you’re wrong.

Not to worry. It’s only human.

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