The Fires of August (Part I)

This summer rushing by, one can say with nearly no exaggeration, has shook to the noise of outbursts around the globe, while now the clamor is churning during the very month in which, a century ago, the World War had all at once overtaken everything. The coincidence (if indeed it is one and nothing more nor less than that) thickens the times further, as though they once again were a repellent atmosphere. Out of prudence, many are reflecting upon the current situation more precisely than they otherwise would have done or wanted to do, as a precautionary measure: the contingencies lowering on all sides seem that serious. Hence, with these inklings of war now striking some cohorts of minds, while passing other people entirely by, this August is riven by the worst suspicions; no matter the location, a peculiar tension can be sensed, the tone of them who are exerting themselves to fathom the imminent, before it descends.

The feeling weighing upon the early summer of 1914, to judge by some of the marginalia to the historical record such as the numerous personal testimonies, was excruciating to such a degree that when the war did finally break out, at the beginning of August, the definitive end to the preceding period came as a great relief. The impending inevitability of a looming historical event, generally speaking, has the stature of a myth, but how it happened that such a number did come to assent to it – the importance of comprehending this is itself very difficult to ignore.

Sheer relief contributed something to bringing many to acquiesce: that is one hypothesis. If it seems plausible, then one might want to consider the conditions they found themselves in and to which they sought an end, from the acoustic side. Such an approach could prompt one to consult the notations of sound, whenever they are available, taking them as evidence to be assessed in a minor genre of inquiry, a variety of the aural history people are beginning to talk about.

The voracious war-fires of August 1914 burned on for more than four years. Quite possibly it was the sounds of the battlefields which left the deepest impression upon the soldiers, to judge from what some of the keenest testimonials of life at the front have said, when they are read with attention.

One of these writers in particular evinces great sensitivity to the new aural phenomena. Establishing a literary reputation by his early essays and novels, Ernst Jünger published, four years after the War ended (and two years after his first book, likewise devoted to his wartime experiences, the thereafter frequently revised In Stahlgewittern, had appeared), a collection of vignettes of what it had been like, those unprecedented cumulations he had lived through in medias res: Der Kampf als inneres Erlebnis. In passage upon passage, this distillate of a memoir abounds in noises that would not let themselves be forgotten; and the fields back to which they transported him, these I too shall now plunge through, briefly.

(Needless to say, Jünger was always at best an ambiguous personality, politically speaking. In the midst of the Second World War, the Allies took cognizance of his efforts against the regime in Berlin but remained wary of him and his intentions, as an American memorandum, declassified some thirty years afterwards, makes quite clear.)

The clipped cadence and the syncopes of Jünger’s prose are conspicuous features on the page, and the jostling is significant in its own right; yet I shall attempt to capture neither his tone nor his dithyrambic periods in my paraphrases, although perhaps some of it all will slide in nonetheless. Instead, in what follows, the German passages are included in full, mainly in parentheses.

My aim here is to convey something of his sense of the destructive element in which he and his fellows were immersed – the element whose other side, that is, the unintended constructive effects which he and quite a few others expected would manifest themselves later on, Jünger also took pains to anticipate.

But first, something of the horrors.

Towards the end of the segment he devoted to the sheer horror (“Grauen”) of the battlefields, Jünger recounted verbatim what one of his fellows, evidently a hardened veteran, had told him one night while they together held the watch. Jünger had asked this older soldier what his most horrible Erlebnis had been, and he had replied with a short anecdote, telling it between drags on his cigarette, each casting a red glow upwards over the rest of his face. Soon after the war began his squad had stormed a building which once had housed a bar, broke into the barricaded cellar, set about dispatching – his verb is colorless, but they did it with an animal bitterness, he said – those they found there in the dark, while above them the house already was aflame. Probably set into motion by the heat of the fire, on the ground floor, an orchestrion suddenly began to play, and this, he averred, he never would forget: the untroubled blare of a piece of dance music mixed with the soldiers’ shouts and the last groans of the dying. (“Zu Beginn des Krieges stürmten wir ein Haus, das eine Wirtschaft gewesen war. Wir drangen in den verbarrikadierten Keller und rangen im Dunkel mit tierischer Erbitterung, während über uns das Haus schon brannte. Plötzlich, wohl durch die Glut des Feuers ausgelöst, setzte oben das automatische Spiel eines Orchestrions ein. Ich werde nie vergessen, wie sich in das Gebrüll der Kämpfer und das Röcheln der Sterbenden das unbekümmerte Geschmetter einer Tanzmusik mischte.”)

Amongst his fellows, one may infer, Jünger’s own sensitivity to the acoustic dimension was shared by at least a few others.

Indeed, amidst the conditions of trench warfare, the soldiers had every reason to pay heed to all that they could hear.

When he turned his attention to the corridors cut into the ground by the war (“Der Graben”), his portrayal of them was unadorned. The trenches had frequent occasion to show their real face, whenever the call came and they disgorged their human waves onto the battlefield. (“Da zeigte der Graben sein wahres Gesicht. Alles fiel von ihm, womit der Mensch, der die Verhüllung des Gräßlichen liebt, ihn geschmückt und verziert.”) Then the horror of the trenches was exposed, in a devastation which now revealed itself truly.

Those momentary episodes of actual combat represented the highest point of the war, the extreme of exertion which topped all the horrible things by which human nerves had previously been stretched to the breaking point. First there came a paralyzing second of silence, in which one looked the others in the eye, and then a shout was raised – it was high, sharp, wild, blood-red – a glowing, unforgettable seal burning itself into their brains. This shout ripped the veils away from obscure worlds of feeling they hardly knew were there, and made everyone who heard it rush onwards: to kill or to be killed. (“Das war der Höhepunkt des Krieges, ein Höhepunkt, der alles Grausige, das zuvor die Nerven zerrissen hatte, übergipfelte. Eine lähmende Sekunde der Stille, in der sich die Augen trafen, ging voran. Dann trieb ein Schrei hoch, steil, wild, blutrot, der sich in die Gehirne brannte als glühender, unvergeßlicher Stempel. Dieser Schrei riß Schleier von dunklen, ungeahnten Welten des Gefühls, er zwang jeden, der ihn hörte, vorwärts zu schnellen, um zu töten oder getötet zu werden.”)

That existential decision in its stark simplicity, his essay insists again and again, echoes throughout all subsequent human life, however intricate or hollow the latter may have become, and will frustrate all the attempts to wish it away.

After the War itself ended, another kind of strife commenced: between civilian life as such, and in particular the life of the large cities with all their entertainments, and the soldiers such as Jünger who were returning by degrees to it. Which experience would set the pattern for the others – that was the salient question. The chaos of sheer stimuli in the metropolis on the one side, the intense Rausch they had lived through on the battlefields on the other: between these there was a simple choice to be made. If their Erlebnisse could not grip the masses of people who had had no direct share in them, then the returnees, as a body far fewer in number, would disaccustom themselves of them step by step, as they accommodated themselves to the others. (“Da wir der starken Räusche entwöhnt sind, wurden Macht und Männer uns zum Greuel; Masse und Gleichheit heißen unsere neuen Götter. Kann die Masse nicht werden wie die Wenigen, so sollen die Wenigen doch werden wie die Masse.”) So at least it seemed to Jünger some few years after the War, not without some palpable resentment at the betrayal, not of anything so grandiose as a cause, but simply of the shape the soldiers’ sensoria had assumed during their years at the front, which evidently was demanded of them as a condition of their re-introduction to civilian life. Hence his discontent when, sitting in a cinema, watching the images flit by on the screen, what was conspicuous by its absence, was sound – Geräusch. (“Wie schön geräuschlos da alles gleitet. Man hockt im Polster, und alle Länder, alle Abenteuer schwimmen durchs Hirn, leicht und gestaltig wie ein Opiumtraum.”) No: not succumbing to any such trance, that would have been with him a point d’honneur.

Right in the midst of this strife after the War, trying to hold his ground against the diversions on every side, Jünger’s thoughts turned to that older type of mercenary, the Landsknecht, after whom he entitled this section of his essay, and his latter-day descendants amongst the infantrymen at the front. Embodying itself completely in the Landsknechte, some centuries before and now again, Jünger discerned war in the sheer brutality of its spirit, as though these soldiers were akin to conspicuous beasts of prey or to the most cruel barbarians hailing from the steppes. The spirit in war – free peoples in their civilized state cannot quite live with it, he seems to say, but nor can they live without it, either. A paradox of history which they ignore at their own peril. (Of course, in those earlier times, Jünger did not omit to note, that spirit took on more than one shape, not only flaming up in the Landsknechte but also instilling strength into that other, more refined type, the deliberate warrior more nearly representative of the heroic ideal, who in his conduct sought to uphold some measure of justice amidst the hostilities. Hence the spectators and students of history may well ask themselves, as he framed the question, “ob sich der Lebenswille eines Volkes klarer ausspricht durch eine Schicht von Kämpfern, die Recht und Unrecht zu unterscheiden streben, oder durch eine gesunde, kräftige Rasse, die den Kampf um des Kampfes willen liebt – oder, mit Hegel ausgedrückt, ob der Weltgeist sich durch ein bewußtes oder durch ein unbewußtes Werkzeug am wuchtigsten vertritt.”)

In any event, in the Landsknechte of previous centuries the spirit of war had burned, and it was afire again in the infantrymen of the World War. Completely, according to Jünger, and as such it drove these soldiers up until the limits of what they could possibly sustain – thus did the human mind, Geist, now assert all the power it could over matter. “Die Vollendung,” he insisted, “ist der springende Punkt.” And not merely the salient point: rather more literally, by these operations the spirit of war catalyzed a pointed and sharp transformation in the men at the front. What they underwent was a “Durchdringung bis an die Ränder des Vermögens, Gestaltung des Gegebenen in die eigene Form.”

When they were pushed towards the limits of what they could endure, in full concentration, the element in which these soldiers were immersed, was overwhelmingly acoustic. Here some showed themselves capable of moving fleetly past it all, Jünger wrote, as though striding gracefully along a tightrope stretched out over an abyss, all the fearful raging of everything around them notwithstanding. From every side huge explosions were unleashing terrifying waves of sound, and yet their minds stood firm and they carried on as though all of it were simply a backdrop of mechanical devices or a stage-set, quite insignificant apart from the play they themselves were enacting before it. (“Gerade in Stunden, wo die fürchterliche Wucht der Dinge die Seele weich zu hämmern drohte, fanden sich Männer, die achtlos darüber hinwegtanzten wie über ein Nichts. Und jene einzige Idee, die sich für Männer geziemt: daß die Materie nichts und der Geist alles ist, jene Idee, auf der allein die Größe des Menschen beruht, wurde durch sie ins Paradoxe überspitzt. Da empfand man, daß diese Häufung von Knalleffekten, diese brüllenden Stahlgewitter, mochten sie noch so gierig sich bäumen, doch nur Maschinerie, nur Theaterkulissen waren, die erst Bedeutung erlangten durch das Spiel, das der Mensch vor ihnen spielte.”)

Such a deliberate and actually quite delicate insouciance of mind as this, by which the human fear of matter might be contained – modern industrial society in its furies of construction cannot do without it. There would certainly be room for these aptitudes in it once the War itself ended. (To take one especially obvious example: could the first several generations of skyscrapers ever have been erected otherwise than by workers unaffected by physical fear?)

When Jünger left the zone of these sheer horrors behind him, and turned to consider the War from other angles, he continued to insist that the brutal alternative embodied in war is a inescapable fact of human existence. This is quite clear throughout the pages in which he settled accounts with pacifism (“Pazifismus”).

Quite foolishly and at their own peril did the pacifists imagine themselves to have outgrown the recourse to arms, for everything most worthy about human beings – freedoms, civilizations, self-regulation all included – is maintained by virtue of a basic choice behind which war itself, in the best case, stands as the silent guarantor. As such one would do best to honor it. Igitur qui desiderat pacem, præparet bellum. (“Wohl wurden alle Freiheit, alle Größe und alle Kultur in der Idee, im Stillen geboren, doch nur durch Kriege erhalten, verbreitet oder verloren. Durch Krieg erst werden große Religionen Gut der ganzen Erde, schossen die tüchtigsten Rassen aus dunklen Wurzeln zum Licht, wurden unzählige Sklaven freie Männer. Der Krieg ist ebensowenig eine menschliche Einrichtung wie der Geschlechtstrieb; er ist ein Naturgesetz, deshalb werden wir uns niemals seinem Banne entwinden. Wir dürfen ihn nicht leugnen, sonst wird er uns verschlingen.”) Whoever it was who first remarked, You might not be interested in war, but war is interested in you, may well have cribbed the bon mot from that last sentence.

Honor, however, is always to be paid with a certain fine sense of balance. Adulation of war could render offense to the latter as easily as the attempt to ignore it might come across as a slight. Some explanations of the urge in human beings which drives them towards war are cut entirely too loosely, and even though one might employ them provocatively in debate pour épater les pacifistes, they render frivolous that which actually calls for the most serious thought.

Is it then so surprising that in the pages he dedicated to – rather, against the pacifists, a number of such explanations should have been included, wielded like a muleta before a bull? When one listens closely to them, however, Jünger’s own ironic tone can be detected.

One in particular is frequently cited as evidence against him. In it he stated – but not in his own voice, as I said – that the yearning to destroy is rooted deep in the human being, and makes short work of everything weak. Hence, human weakness is itself an astonishing provocation, and it can elicit great ferocity. This, he remarked, is the very old song of life that devours itself, and which indeed cannot live without killing. (“Die Sucht, zu zerstören, ist tief im menschlichen Wesen verwurzelt; alles Schwache fällt ihr zum Opfer. Was hatten die Peruaner den Spaniern getan? Wer Ohren dafür hat, dem singen die Urwaldkronen, die heute über den Ruinen ihrer Sonnentempel federn, die Antwort. Es ist das Lied vom Leben, das sich selbst verschlingt. Leben heißt töten.”)

But do parse his summary again. What ever did the Incas do to the Spaniards? It was a rhetorical question on Jünger’s part. There is an obvious answer which he had no need to elaborate. Nothing. This single negative unlocks his meaning: the biological ode to human destructiveness he rehearsed in this explanation, was reprised by him from the texts of the nihilists, not least on account of the attention they gave to physical requirements. Whether he himself would ever have whistled it at all seriously, is more than doubtful.

(One should also acknowledge the part evidently played, in the irony of Jünger’s last sentence, by that ambiguous verb, the despair of the translators and of many others as well, “heißen.” – Of course, such a biological conception of the human drive to destroy, is itself quite tenacious. – Some decades afterwards it would be upon just such a basis that Bertrand de Jouvenel was to develop, in his own voice, an account of the natural growth of power in its self-exertion in political affairs. In the light of this theory (Du Pouvoir, bk. V, chap. XII), the relation between the powers of states and the disruptions of revolutions is quite other than it may seem at first, and hence “la rénovation et le renforcement du Pouvoir nous apparaissent comme la véritable fonction historique des révolutions. Qu’on cesse donc d’y saluer des réactions de l’esprit de liberté contre un pouvoir oppresseur. Elles le sont si peu qu’on n’en peut citer aucune qui ait renversé un despote véritable. […] Ils sont morts, ces rois, non de leur tyrannie mais de leur faiblesse. Les peuples dressent l’échafaud non comme la punition morale du despotisme mais comme la sanction biologique de l’impuissance. […] C’est la mollesse qui est détestée. […] Ces révolutions n’ont été qu’en apparence des révolutions contre le Pouvoir. En substance, elles ont donné au Pouvoir une vigueur et un aplomb nouveaux, elles ont ruiné les obstacles qui s’opposaient de longue date à son développement.”)

It was not weakness but courage that the soldiers, on all sides of this new trench warfare, encountered most often. Right in the midst of the hostilities, according to Jünger, substantial hopes were held for amity between the peoples in the period after the War – the amity of reconciliation supported by the strength of that virtue of virtues, courage, as it would live on in the aftermath. Thus considered, in retrospect from some future vantage-point, the hostilities would one day take on the appearance of the squabbling of children who since had laid their differences to rest. (“Es schien nicht undenkbar, daß eines Tages die beste Mannschaft der Völker aus den Gräben steigen würde, aus einem plötzlichen Antrieb, aus einer sittlichen Einsicht heraus, um sich die Hände zu reichen und sich endgültig zu vertragen wie Kinder, die sich lange gestritten haben.”) On a few occasions, this hope was even lent a fleeting shape during those moments when the hostilities were interrupted and soldiers from both sides met bravely and amiably in the no man’s land – for a brief interval, at least. In this section of his essay he told movingly of one such encounter.

The one indispensable trait, for Jünger, was courage. Not only does one have it going into the battle, but it also develops during it and by virtue of it. Hence it is the impetus which can sustain efforts of which the combatants hardly imagined themselves capable beforehand, and in this sense, only what can be fought for with courage is worth possessing at all. (All worthy human striving, accordingly, comprises a strong element of courage and unfolds itself to some degree as though it were a battle. In this universal sense we all have it in us “unsere Sache schärfer und schärfer zu vertreten, und so ist Kampf unsere letzte Vernunft und nur Erkämpftes wahrer Besitz,” a condition which holds true for the highest things as well, for “auch das Beste und Schönste will erst erkämpft werden.”)

Much as when the soldiers in this trench warfare had to muster all their courage to circumvent dangers that frequently manifested themselves in sound first and foremost, so too the paths beaten by courage after the War were often marked out by acoustic signs. The intensification of the sonic dimension as their courage had experienced it, was not lost; they were not willing, at least at first, to let it go. This resolution Jünger addressed in the segment of his essay he devoted to the virtue (“Mut”).

The reconciliation whose prospect had appeared before them in the trenches as a real possibility for the future, came to pass some years later, in the shape of a shared quality of courage. What does the term encompass, in this context? A few characteristics are prominent in Jünger’s account of it.

1. Courage such as theirs brought membership in the select circles which disregarded both the clamor of the urban masses and also what they thought of as the latter’s deceitful softness, instead dedicating themselves with renewed energy to the severe pursuit of their own ideas. The insouciance they had attained in the face of the unheard-of noises of the front, now in effect conferred upon them immunity against the various sonic temptations of the big cities.

2. Moreover, their courage was manifest in their powers of concentration. By it they were prompted always to accord primacy to the goal of their endeavor, whatever it may have been, rather than to descend into a maze of details – all those relating to the means to be employed. This was an attitude in which the mind did indeed assert its power over matter, expressing itself in the definite forms of a language both sublime and forceful, one whose sheer sound was more beautiful and exhilarating than anything they had ever known.

3. This language of their courage, with its own valuations and depths, would be understood only by a few and hence was noble, and for this reason one could take it for a certainty that only the best, the most courageous soldiers, ever would be able to converse with one another in it. Reconciliation was too important a matter not to be conducted in a very selective manner.

(“Und es tut wohl, sich im Kreise jener harten europäischen Sittlichkeit zu fühlen, die über das Geschrei und die Weichheit der Massen hinweg sich immer schärfer in ihren Ideen bestärkt, jener Sittlichkeit, die nicht nach dem fragt, was eingesetzt werden muß, sondern nur nach dem Ziel. Das ist die erhabene Sprache der Macht, die uns schöner und berauschender klingt als alles zuvor, eine Sprache, die ihre eigenen Wertungen und ihre eigene Tiefe besitzt. Und daß diese Sprache nur von wenigen verstanden wird, das macht sie vornehm, und es ist gewiß, daß nur die Besten, das heißt die Mutigsten, sich in ihr werden verständigen können.”)

Courage, in sum, would express itself in the concentration with which they handled their language, pressing it into their minds’ service far more thoroughly than is usually done. Thus expressed, it could be recognized by those who had an equal share of it on the erstwhile enemy’s side, the difference in tongues notwithstanding, and so this virtue would play no small part in fostering the reconciliation they had hoped for in the trenches.

Although the First World War was over, the courage it had engendered lived on, while strife itself assumed other forms, and accordingly this is the point to state plainly how fully Jünger’s thinking, as he was quite aware, had been stamped by four gnomic words: πόλεμος πάντων πατήρ ἐστι, a saying which, when translated quite literally, announces that war is the father of all.

As either a great fire or a great wind – in the introduction to his essay, Jünger compared it to both – the War had melted a world down and cast another in its place. Soldiers who returned hardened from the “storms of steel” at the battlefronts were progeny of the War, and bore its spirit back into the precincts of the peace. Hence some of the precariousness of the latter, quite susceptible to being set aflame again from within.

Not only is war our father, declared Jünger, but our son as well. Thus the soldiers engendered him and he them, and in that fiery workshop they were at once the hot steel and the smith, martyrs of their own deed, driven on by the impetus in themselves. (“Nicht nur unser Vater ist der Krieg, auch unser Sohn. Wir haben ihn gezeugt und er uns. Gehämmerte und Gemeißelte sind wir, aber auch solche, die den Hammer schwingen, den Meißel führen, Schmiede und sprühender Stahl zugleich, Märtyrer eigener Tat, von Trieben Getriebene.” Although each of these literary, all too literary hyperboles deserves to be examined carefully at some length, the present essay is not the place to attempt it.)

Of course, Jünger had reason to invoke Heraclitus, the proponent of the notion that πόλεμος is the progenitor of everything and fire the first of all substances, all the others following as its transformations and returning into it periodically, in cycle upon cycle of “πυρὸς τροπαὶ,” as he wrote (in the words of the thirty-first fragment in Hermann Diels’ edition).

To be sure, caution may be advised especially in this case. According to the account provided by Diogenes Laertius (Lives of Eminent Philosophers (bk. IX, chap. 1, 12), Heraclitus, when once asked why he was silent, replied, So that you can chatter. Only at one’s own risk does one attempt to interpret the remains of his work, as a whole or in part.

The one sentence which inspired Jünger throughout his Kampf als inneres Erlebnis, is evidently figurative in character. Both by reason of the enigma of it, and because it seems so weighty, I shall quote Heraclitus’ statement about πόλεμος in full. (In Diels’ compilation it is the fifty-third fragment.)

“Πόλεμος πάντων μὲν πατήρ ἐστι, πάντων δὲ βασιλεύς, καὶ τοὺς μὲν θεοὺς ἔδειξε τοὺς δὲ ἀνθρώπους, τοὺς μὲν δούλους ἐποίησε τοὺς δὲ ἐλευθέρους.”

War is of all the father, of all the king, and some he sets up as gods, some as human beings, some he considers as slaves, some as free.

None of these determinations is ever decided permanently, for otherwise Heraclitus would not have called this principle by the name he did; and hence the acts – a due weight should be given to each of his two verbs – by which πόλεμος distinguishes every single thing as having this or that standing, cannot last and indeed never do endure for very long. They are established that their status may be overthrown, however high or low it is deemed. The very positions in which it places all those separate things, will of themselves provoke further rounds of strife soon enough!

Πόλεμος is the force throughout the cosmos which keeps it churning from within, and thus in the state of order proper to it, however transient and disorderly its arrangements may appear to be, regarded from this or that position within it. For Heraclitus insisted elsewhere that the cosmos, in its very regularities which occur again and again, makes manifest an order susceptible to being known by the mind, when it heeds the principle within itself which he termed λόγος: so considered, the entire cosmos, appearances notwithstanding, will be eminently logical.

What this λόγος in the human mind is, was posed as a question by Heinrich Blücher during a lecture entitled “Heraclitus and the Metaphysical Tradition.” (A transcript of this lecture, delivered at Bard College on May 10, 1967, may be consulted on the website dedicated to Blücher, where an audio recording is also offered.) He suggested that the term designated the mind as intellect, the inclination to cold objective comprehension which Heraclitus himself was the very first to awaken, not least by his definition of λόγος as its principle. And yet, Blücher also noted, how spirited or indeed fiery the human mind must be, if it is to pursue its own inclination to know, regardless of the consequences! He drew attention to the incomparable courage or bravery by which the Heraclitus who devoted himself unreservedly to his own inquiries could constitute, in effect, the archetype of every scientist. “The fanaticism of detachment becomes visible, metaphysically paving the way for this great capability of man, and for the existence of the whole line of scientists. Only, in science it is but a partial capability, and this is as it should be. Heraclitus was this capability completely. He was, so to speak, a victim of his vision.”

The fanaticism of detachment will prove itself to be a versatile attitude, with a number of possible applications. The author of Der Kampf als inneres Erlebnis, for his part, had experience of several of them.

Yet is it quite so certain that the term “πόλεμος” signifies war or strife in Heraclitus’ fragment and nothing more? Somewhat as with the Latin word “bellum,” the Greek one may also have comprised another meaning.

That in fact it had meant something else as well, Grotius averred in his brief clarifications of the two concepts (De iure belli ac pacis libri tres, bk. I, chap. I, sec. II). After observing that war has often been waged not by states or other public groups but entirely privately, he added a brief etymological remark. “Est enim bellum ex voce veteri duellum, ut duonus quod fuerat factum est bonus, & duis bis. Duellum autem à duobus dictum simili sensu quo pacem unitatem dicimus,” he wrote. “Sic Græcis ex multitudinis significatione πόλεμος : veteribus etiam λύη à dissolutione, quomodo & corporis dissolutio δύη.”

Thus he recalled how the word “bellum” derived from an older, more poetic “duellum,” signifying a fight between two men, much as the Latin noun “bonus,” the good man or the man of honor, earlier had been written “duonus,” in a thought-provoking piece of orthography, and “bis,” twice or twofold, stemmed from “duis.” But then he went on to suggest, more obscurely, that the term “πόλεμος” also meant the many, and just as the word “λύη” signified a dissolution (and hence could designate the consequences of strife within a city), so too did the term “δύη,” pain or woe, refer to the dissolution of whole bodies, that is, the sensation engendered by the loss of their unity as they divided into parts.

If these glosses are borne in mind, then perhaps Heraclitus, with his elusive words, had not pointed solely to war or strife as being the father of all, but, in addition, to the many, or the multitude, or the manifold – whatever these other terms in their turn might be taken as signifying in the context.

However, his readers found Grotius’ terse remarks to be rather less than clear, a perplexity which may be inferred from the efforts of the earliest translators to bring those lines over into French.

The early version by Antoine de Courtin (Le Droit de la guerre et de la paix, published in Paris by Arnould Seneuze in 1687), was not so markedly philological. “L’étymologie même du mot de Guerre en Latin n’y repugne pas : car le mot bellum vient du mot ancien duellum, qui signifie combat, comme de duonus on a fait bonus, & de duis, bis. Or ce duellum ou duel en François a été ainsi appelé du mot de deux, de la même maniere que nous appelons la Paix, union. Les Grecs ont pareillement exprimé la guerre par un terme qui signifie multitude : de même que chez les Anciens on a appelé la sedition d’un mot, qui vaut autant que, dissolution, ou des-union, comme on a signifié la dissolution d’un corps par un mot qui a rapport à deux.” This translation is more legible than the original, and yet it did not really attempt to clarify the reasons behind Grotius’ idea that the word “πόλεμος” signified the many.

Several decades further on, Jean Barbeyrac undertook to explain what Grotius had meant (Le Droit de la guerre, et de la paix, published in Amsterdam by Pierre de Coup in 1724), and in his version, Grotius’ brief remarks were set into a footnote, which the translator expanded upon in a somewhat longer etymological excursus.

“Car Bellum vient du mot ancien Duellum : comme de Duonus, on a fait Bonus ; & de Duis, qui signifioit Deux, on a ensuite formé Bis. Or Duellum étoit dérivé du nombre Duo, & donnoit par là à entendre un différent entre deux personnes ; dans le même sens que nous donnons à la Paix le nom d’unionunitas ) par une raison contraire. C’est ainsi que le terme Grec Πόλεμος, dont on se sert ordinairement pour dire la Guerre, donne dans son origine une idée de multitude. Les anciens Grecs l’exprimoient aussi par le mot de Λύη, qui emporte une Désunion des Esprits : de même qu’ils disoient Δύη, pour exprimer la dissolution des parties du Corps.”

According to Barbeyrac, therefore, the many were signified by the word “πόλεμος” originally not least because that same notion was suggested by the words “λύη” and even “δύη” – but this short explanation itself did not seem especially satisfying, and so he proceeded to delve further into the matter.

To Grotius’ own few sentences, Barbeyrac added the following: “Cette Note est toute tirée du Texte, où ce qu’elle contient ne seroit pas fort agréable à un Lecteur François, & n’est pas au fond de grand usage par rapport au sujet. Notre Auteur, en donnant l’étymologie de Πόλεμος, le fait venir de πολύς. D’autres vont chercher ailleurs l’origine de ce mot, & il ne faut pas s’en étonner. Le pais des Etymologies est fort vaste, & présente bien des routes différentes, où chacun peut se promener à son aise. Il faut néanmoins, en faveur de ceux qui aiment ces sortes de recherches, & pour ne laisser rien à déviner dans les pensées de notre Auteur, dire quelque chose sur les dernières paroles, qui sont ainsi couchées dans l’Original: Veteribus etiam λύη à dissolutione, quomodo & corporis dissolutio δύη. Les Commentateurs sont ici muets, sans en excepter Gronovius, Critique de profession : car il se contente d’expliquer le mot de Δύη par d’autres mots Grecs, où il ne trouve que ce sens, quævis infelicitas ; ce qui ne montre point la raison de l’étymologie de notre Auteur, ni l’application qu’il en fait. On pourroit d’abord s’imaginer qu’il y a faute dans le Texte : & je sai qu’effectivement quelques personnes ont cru qu’il falloit mettre encore ici Λύη. Mais toutes les Editions portent Δύη ; & je crois avoir découvert sûrement ce que notre Auteur veut dire, & ce qui lui a donné lieu de proposer ici l’étymologie de ce mot, qu’il fait venir tacitement de Δύω. Il a pris Δύη dans le sens de λύπη, dolor, que quelques Léxicographes notent : & il a eu dans l’esprit l’étymologie que Platon donne de ce mot Λύπη, qu’il tire de λύω, parce, dit-il, que, quand on souffre de la Douleur, il se fait une dissolution du Corps, c’est-à-dire, des parties du Corps : Ἣ τε Λύπη, ἀπὸ τῆς διαλύσεως τοῦ σώματος ἔοικεν ἐπωνομάσθαι, ἣν ἐν τούτῳ τῷ πάθει ἴσχει τὸ σῶμα. In Cratylo, pag. 419. C. Tom. I. Ed. H. Steph. Notre Auteur, à l’imitation de cet ancien Philosophe, tire Δύη de δύω, par la même raison : car de la séparation des parties du Corps, il s’ensuit que celles qui auparavant ne paroissoient que comme un seul Tout, à cause de leur union, font désormais plus d’un. Les principes de la Vieille Philosophie, dont notre Auteur étoit imbu, lui ont encore aidé à former cette étymologie : car on sait, que, selon ces principes, la Douleur est causée par une solution de continuité.”

So, if Barbeyrac was right, Grotius had tacitly derived the concept “πόλεμος” from the more basic term “πολύς,” many or the many. Furthermore, but somewhat more circuitously, he had drawn the noun “δύη” from the word “δύω,” that is, either two or an emphatic woe is me, for he had associated the concepts “δύη” and “λύπη,” bodily pain, while recalling Plato’s etymology of the latter according to which it came from the verb “λύειν,” to dissolve, with the result that physical distress, whether it was called δύη or λύπη, would indicate that inwardly the body was in some manner splitting apart.

Striking as is the emphasis placed upon the significance of the number two, division, and separation in human life, it does seem to stand at odds with the notion that the term “πόλεμος” might actually mean the many or many.

Perhaps the underlying basis of Grotius’ equation of the words “πολύς” and “πόλεμος” – and the reason why it might deepen the understanding of Heraclitus’ fragment – is an awareness that war is not just one thing, nor even two. Rather, inside war itself, no matter how well-organized the manner in which the battles may be fought on both sides, great strife is brewing, such that it would contain not simply another war, but a whole multitude of other wars, all of which are themselves striving to burst out, so to speak. During a war, then, there will be innumerable conflicts that can easily flare up, and so from it, under certain circumstances, a general conflagration akin to the bellum omnium contra omnes could roar forth. Whoever manages to survive the devastation, would, in one way or another, have emerged with some distinct standing or status, for the time being at least, much as the fragment had suggested.

Precisely from just such a war, or even the eventuality of one, however, certain types of warriors would separate themselves – just as they would hold themselves aloof from any peace which would forget that it had been established by some manner of pact, and foolishly mistake itself for unity.

For these warriors, war itself would matter so much that they could not bear to witness it devolve into anything of either kind. Whether or not Jünger and his cohorts might be accounted amongst this select group, is a question I shall leave open. Much more significant in this connection, it seems to me, is Nietzsche’s appreciation of the old Roman warrior – the duonus, the man of honor who would not have hesitated to defend it in a duellum, and who did not fly before the prospect of pain – in whom he found embodied an admirably noble ideal (Zur Genealogie der Moral, first essay, sec. 5). “Das lateinische bonus glaube ich als ‚den Krieger‘ auslegen zu dürfen: vorausgesetzt, dass ich mit Recht bonus auf ein älteres duonus zurückführe (vergleiche bellum = duellum = duen-lum, worin mir jenes duonus erhalten scheint). Bonus somit als Mann des Zwistes, der Entzweiung (duo), als Kriegsmann: man sieht, was im alten Rom an einem Manne seine ‚Güte‘ ausmachte.”

That such a warrior’s own sense of self would have allowed him to fall for

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori

is quite doubtful. So perhaps war, of everything the father, may engender some good, after all, in the shape of a posture of the mind that is at once wary and independent.