Peace! Who doesn’t want it? (Well, lots of people, apparently.)

More to the present point: in what ways have I shown a preference for peace, and what’s the peace story for me now?

When I was sixteen, I spent the summer at a Quaker work camp on the Cherokee reservation in North Carolina. It was the most beautiful place you can imagine. For years thereafter, I would dream that I was approaching nearer and nearer to the Smoky Mountains, but then (my dreams having often a tragic cast) fail to touch them. In my dream, it would have been like touching home.

We hoed tobacco, picked long rows of beans and helped drag the timber up the mountain for a house for a widow woman. (Hope she got somebody to build it for her, after we left.) Our main task was to build many outhouses – that the Indians declined to pick up for their family backyards. I was told later that the outhouses sat on our site for many years and may be there still, in a ruined state.

In the mornings, we’d have Quaker meditation, sitting alongside a clear mountain stream.   The spirit often prompted Warren, our boys’ counselor, to speak or read a poem. Warren was a vegetarian, celibate and a pacifist. We kids wrote songs about him.


My God I’ve got celibacy!

There goes my sex life

Right into the next life!

 Nevertheless, I came home a pacifist and celibate. The latter required no change whatsoever in my private life, but the former was a deeper thing.

The very young are no dumber than the rest of us – just a bit different. What was I thinking then? I was thinking about purity. I wanted urgently not to be compromised by the well-advertised pressures of adult life. I loved Gandhi, whose words and actions appeared to coincide. This though I knew that he had laughingly acknowledged the truth of a remark from one sharp-tongued supporter:

It takes a lot of money to keep Gandhi living in poverty.

I did see the point of that joke, but I believed that if enough people renounced violence in their hearts, the external obstacles would crumble. How? Thoughts were powerful. Everything social and political had begun as a thought. Good thoughts could cause the results of corrupt or compromised thoughts to exfoliate down and dwindle to nothing.

What changed my mind? Not my parents’ ridicule or the eye rolling “there goes Abbie again” of my pals. Nor even my own impure thoughts, which only increased my admiration for saints like Dorothy Day of The Catholic Worker movement.

It was an experience during my Fulbright year in Paris. I was walking alone on the Isle St. Louis when a gang or band of tough, raunchy young French males surrounded me.

 Voulez-vous que j’appelle la police!

I said sternly, which caused them – God knows why, since there was not a flic in sight – to fade away.

Some girls might focus on their narrow escape, but my mind went immediately to the theoretical plane.

Oh, I realized. I guess I’m not a pacifist.

What makes for peace in the world? Will compassion, kindness or mercy suffice? Can anything bring peace and love and light to this conflict-torn place we call the world? I cannot speak about the end of history, or even where it’s going. I just have no current information on that one.

But “in the interim,” which seems to be where we are, some sayings of the rabbis seem to me a propos:

Justice without mercy is cruelty. 

Mercy without justice is promiscuity. 

Whoever is kind to the cruel 

will be cruel to the kind.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
This entry was posted in Action, Culture, Desire, Ethics, Evil, Femininity, Freedom, Guilt and Innocence, History, history of ideas, life and death struggle, Love, Memoir, Peace, Political Movements, Power, Psychology, relationships, Roles, Sexuality, Social Conventions, Suffering, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Woman, War, Work and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply