In the teaching yesterday we looked at the emoticon image for peace, being a dove with an olive sprig in its beak. In ancient Greek mythology, the dove and the olive branch were attributes of Eirene the goddess of peace. The olive was also associated with Athena who had given the olive tree as a gift to the city of Athens, though in her case the bird holding the branch was an owl. Because of the generosity of this gift, the gods made Athena the patroness of the city and that is how it acquired its name. Just as Athena’s gift brought prosperity to Athens, so Eirene gives birth to Plautos the god of prosperity. Peace should allow us to prosper. The olive is a very ancient symbol of peace, probably going back to pre-grecian times.
When I was a child, I lived in Cyprus. Cyprus is one of only two countries in the world to have olive branches on its national flag (the other is Eritrea). The olive also appears on the countries shield seal.
I remember that there were olive trees all over the island. Like many of the most beautiful places in the world, Cyprus has seen many conflicts and the island is currently divided into the half that is part of the European Union and the half that is occupied by Turkey. In history it has been occupied by a great many political powers - Phoenicia, Greece, Rome, Venice, the Byzantines, the Crusaders, and so on. When I was there there was a struggle going on for independence from Britain.
So Cyprus can be a place of beauty and peace and also one of war and conflict. Even more strongly than its connection with Eirene, the island is associated with Aphrodite, goddess of love. This seems apt. Love is also associated with both beauty and peace on the one hand and struggle and conflict on the other.
I think that if we are to be truly “impassioned for peace” as it says in the Buddha’s teachings on ‘right speech’ then we have to also be realistic in our appreciation of the importance of war in human history and psychology. People do not go to war out of insanity nor mindlessly. They do so for reasons that seem powerful at the time and war does achieve some things. If we are to have true, deeply established and lasting peace in our communities, it will not be by simply suppressing conflict and ignoring these realities. It will be because we shall have found other less violent ways to achieve what war accomplishes.
One of the most obvious things that a war does is that in many respects it wipes the slate clean and permits a new start. The longer ‘peace’ continues, normally, the more rule-bound, timid and stultified society becomes. It is like the clutter that can accumulate in a house. Every so often one needs a spring clean and a ruthless throwing out session.
Another thing that war achieves is that it creates an arena for heroism in which people take great risks and stretch themselves to their limit. Long periods of ‘peace’ very commonly lead to a society becoming effete and ‘safe’ in a way that takes away most opportunity for anybody to stretch their spirit to its limit and find out what they are really capable of. History is full of examples of societies that became ’soft’ and were then overrun by ruder barbarians from beyond the frontier whose more primitive society had more vigour.
What can we learn from this? That our peacefulness should not be mere quietism, nor should it be a disqualification of risk and adventure; that we need periodic opportunities to go back to basics and restart our lives from principle, rather than from the messy accumulation of comforts and conventions that have grown up over the years.
The Buddha was stridently opposed to ‘accumulation’ seeing it as a barrier to freedom. The ancient Greeks believed in adventure, struggle and heroism and their societies incorporated conflict and debate.
The spiritual life should be as demanding as warfare. We should be at least as vigorous in our commitment to peace as we are to the cause when war breaks out. Only theu will war become redundant. The trouble is that we tend only to stir ourselves when things have reached a bad state. Were we more alive earlier things would go differently.
Here at La Ville au Roi (Eleusis) we are much concerned with creating peaceful community. This is not just a matter of being peaceful individuals. I like to think that there is here scope for people to be fully alive and vibrant and to interact in ways that deploy their whole being, that we can avoid destructive conflict not by suppressing it, but by cultivating a sense of realism about life and human nature.
I do miss my island home. My memories of being there, for all that I lived through a period of violent insurgency, are sweet ones. The reason for this is that I was surrounded by love. The presence of Aphrodite was real for me then and I was formed by it. The presence of Eirene and Aphrodite and the other goddesses continue to be important realities for me to this day. People may find it difficult to understand the attraction of the pagan gods, but the fact is that they are much closer to us than the totally idealised figures that religion often presents us with.
The memory goes with me and inspires my efforts to make Eleusis a little heaven. I hope you will join me, or make some similar effort in a domain of your own so that when we meet we can share our stories and experiences and make a libation to the gods together.