A coward believes he will ever live
A coward believes he will ever live
if he keep him safe from strife:
but old age leaves him not long in peace
though spears may spare his life.
There is a very popular maxim which has been bandied about over the last century or so which states that “violence never solves anything.” The idea is that violence is an inherently bad and immoral thing, and one which should be avoided at all costs. This slogan has been used to demonize and villify the very concept of violence, and is often drilled into the heads of children by parents and schoolteachers. Some of the more extreme proponents of the maxim vehemently oppose any bit of culture which they view as promoting violence, in any way, and their influence has affected everything from children’s cartoon shows to university student regulations, and more.
The claim that “violence never solves anything” is patently stupid.
The American science-fiction author, Robert A. Heinlein, wrote one of the most beautifully succinct and entirely accurate rebuttals to this erroneous maxim that I have ever read. In his incredibly popular novel, Starship Troopers, a history teacher is relating an account of battle when a student chimes in by saying that her mother had always taught her violence never solves anything. The teacher then replied:
Anyone who clings to the historically untrue and thoroughly immoral doctrine that violence never settles anything I would advise to conjure up the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler could referee and the jury might well be the Dodo, the Great Auk, and the Passenger Pigeon. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and their freedoms.
This is the essence of the sixteenth stanza of the Hávamál. The coward believes that avoiding violence makes it so that he can live forever. However, it does not take overly long for old age to begin correcting him of such a false view. Avoiding strife doesn’t give you a peaceful life. On the contrary, the coward worries so greatly about trying to avoid such problems that they do not truly know peace. However, the spear can rescue a man from this fate. Knowledge of violence and its methods can allay a man’s fears and spare him a life of worry and fret. Peace is not the absence of violence. Peace is the absence of aggression.
This is certainly not to say that I believe violence is always justified as a means to solving issues. However, there are many scenarios where most people will agree that violence is the most expedient, efficient, and morally just solution. If I see a rabid dog bearing down on a child, violent interdiction is not only an appropriate response, but it may be the best possible response. Violence is not just an offensive tactic. It is impossible to defend oneself from violence without first understanding violence.
As a martial artist, Hávamál 16 rings extremely true. Some of my closest friends are people that try to break my joints and strangle me into unconsciousness, every single day. We are violent people. We attack each other, systematically attempting to dominate one another by strength of force and knowledge of the methods of violence. However, we are also loving, caring, morally upright people. We do not attack each other for the goal of doing harm. Quite the contrary, we try to break each other down for the purposes of building ourselves stronger. Violence makes us better people.
Do not let anyone tell you that violence never solves anything. Violence can save your life, in many more ways than you might realize.