There’s a type of person who will tell you that life is a war, or at least, that we should approach it as if it were. Maybe you know such a person. Maybe they’re some sort of military-styled weekend warrior who buys anything with the word ‘tactical’ on it. Maybe they’re a real estate agent who spends a bit too much time at the gym and identifies a little too much with Hollywood’s version of the Spartans. Maybe they’re an influencer aiming to sell you their secrets for ‘success’ in business or romance. Maybe they’re a parent who’s constantly giving their children pep talks about the need to be the best and leave the other kids in their wake, whether in sports or in smarts.
Whatever the arena, these ‘life is war’ folks see everyone else as a competitor, every interaction as a battle to be won or lost, every moment of work or play as a fight for resources. As for actual war, they’ll probably tell you that armed conflict is inevitable, an inescapable part of life we must be constantly ready for. But is it? Is life, from the workplace to geopolitics, really an interminable struggle of all against all?
Two philosophers who grappled with the relationship of life and war were Emmanuel Levinas (1905-1995) and Knud Ejler Løgstrup (1905-1981). There are important differences between the two: Levinas’ work is heavily informed by his Jewish heritage while Løgstrup is as much a Lutheran theologian as a philosopher; Levinas writes in the somewhat florid French of mid-century philosophers while Løgstrup’s Danish prose is deceptively unadorned. Yet despite apparently having never met or directly influenced each other, their work runs in uncanny parallel – as, in part, did their lives.
Levinas, born in Lithuania, became a naturalised French citizen in 1939 and joined the French army. When the Germans invaded the following year, he was taken as a prisoner of war for the next five years. Though life was harder for Jewish prisoners than others, his POW status at least kept him out of the extermination camps, whereas several members of his family were murdered by the Nazis.
When the Nazis invaded Denmark, Løgstrup, then a parish priest turned newly appointed professor of ethics at the University of Aarhus, became involved with one of the major resistance groups. Risking torture and execution, he acted as a courier and allowed his house to be used for clandestine radio transmissions. Eventually, things got too hot and Løgstrup was forced into hiding for the final eighteen months of the war.
When it was all over, both philosophers turned their attention to the question of what the war had meant for shared human life. For Levinas, the Holocaust was a decisive event in the history of ethics that posed a frightening question: how is morality even possible after the death camps? Meanwhile, Løgstrup continued to ruminate on how occupation, and the paranoia and suspicion it engenders, was so corrosive to the trust and mutuality on which human life depends.
Both thinkers trace the source of ethics back to our experience of encountering other people. For Levinas, ethics begins with the ‘face’ of the other, the face that is a portal to a whole other, unknowable world, and which appears before us making a stark plea: Don’t kill me. For Løgstrup too, we find the other person in our power, and that fact alone reveals to us “the ethical demand”: to act for their sake instead of our own.
Yet interestingly, both philosophers have very different ontological understandings of the relationship between life and war. For Løgstrup, war is an aberration. In the normal run of things, we simply trust the people around us by default. We meet strangers with the tacit understanding that they mean us well – or at least mean us no harm – and only become suspicious of people when evidence of their untrustworthiness begins to mount up. This default trust is not naivety, but the foundation for any successful community or society. What Løgstrup later calls the “sovereign expressions of life” – phenomena like trust, openness of speech, and compassion – can only play their part in helping life to flourish in a community where people know they can rely on each other.
War, on the other hand, does not just kill people; it attacks the very ‘roots’ of life, of the interpersonal and communal trust on which we build our lives. We are no longer able to trust our neighbours, who may well be induced or coerced to inform on us at any time. People, in a very real sense, cannot live like this. Those who attack the basis of life itself like this must be fought against, even in ways that would never be acceptable or even thinkable in peacetime. War is thus a state of exception, a temporary emergency that endangers the web of trust and mutual support that humans rely upon – and that therefore justifies extraordinary, extra-ethical action to restore the moral order.
For Levinas, by contrast, war is, in a sense, part of our everyday way of being. Not literal warfare, necessarily, but a form of war more insidious and harder to escape: we’re always calculating what other people will do in a zero-sum game of profit and loss. Those who study military history do so in order to infer, from the battles of the past, what moves a future opponent will make and how to counteract them. This way of encountering others treats people as mechanisms that behave in predictable ways – just as the marketer does who studies which brand messages make you more likely to buy a product, or the negotiator who zeroes in on your weaknesses or fears in order to get themselves the best deal.
Yet even in actual war, humans sometimes act in ways that disrupt that self-contained sphere of calculation and prediction. Battles don’t always go the way military doctrine says they should – because people can surprise you. They act in ways that frustrate the deterministic logic of self-interest. These are the moments, says Levinas, when ethics breaks into life from the outside. We act selflessly, out of mercy, or take a risk in showing the other our vulnerability.
In his recollections of fighting in the Spanish civil war, George Orwell famously describes passing up the chance to shoot an enemy soldier who was running along while holding his trousers up with both hands: “I had come here to shoot at ‘Fascists’; but a man who is holding up his trousers isn’t a ‘Fascist’, he is visibly a fellow-creature, similar to yourself, and you don’t feel like shooting at him.” Orwell was no sentimentalist, and he was under no illusions about what it takes to defeat fascism. According to the internal logic of warfare, there is no question that he should shoot the running man. But something has broken into this moment from outside and opened it up. Levinas speaks of the ‘nudity’ of the face of the other, its defencelessness. So understood, Orwell is here confronted on the battlefield by overlapping senses of nudity, and responds with mercy. His opponent is no longer an enemy to manipulate or destroy, but a being whose vulnerability demands our receptivity and care.
For Løgstrup, war threatens ethical life, and that gives us a reason to push back against those who would impose it upon us. For Levinas, it’s ethics that threatens life-as-war. Yet both thinkers are, in a deeper sense, saying the same thing: concern for others should lead us to resist the remorseless logic of exploitation, and surrender instead to openness and mercy. Neither thinker was naïve enough to think that conflict could be avoided in life. But both had seen enough of violence and misery to know that if life is a war, then it’s one where war itself is our enemy.