In their classic book Metaphors We Live By (2003), the scholars George Lakoff and Mark Johnson sought to demonstrate that most human speech is expressed as metaphor. Anthropologically, nature is confronted as menacing and mysterious, a source of danger, hostile and threatening, in short, Other. Specifically in the West, nature was disparaged as a force to be tamed, subordinated to the whim of human beings. With the passage of time, gentler forms of nature were accepted if processed as metaphor, especially in literature: the wind whispers, the stars wink, a river wanders, a storm is nasty or wicked, a bird sings.
When human actions are metaphorized, the results are more revealing of human action than of speech. A pertinent example offered by the authors is labeled “Argument is War.” Here is their example:
Your claims are indefensible.
He attacked every weak point in my argument.
His criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his argument.
I’ve never won an argument with him.
You disagree. Okay, shoot.
If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.
He shot down all my arguments.
The authors rightly note that the “Argument Is War” metaphor “is one that we live by in this culture; it structures the actions we perform in arguing.” One might add that other activities such as political debate and sports are often described the same way, with the same war metaphor.
The import of such metaphors is not merely to sanitize speech but to realize the mentality that underlies such a way of speaking. Essentially, we do not speak rationally about issues, we engage in an equivalent of violence and warfare. Is there a way to speak rationally and reciprocally about an issue, or is argument to be retained and sanitized, reduced to nuanced threats of future retaliation? Ultimately, is not arguing ethically untenable since it is a verbal form of war?
Thus, whether engaged in real warfare or merely speaking in a war metaphor, the culture commits violence. The alternative of peace in society and self is to eliminate the metaphor, to change our speech if not our hearts. This may be easier, perhaps, than outright eliminating (or hoping to eliminate) war itself. Silence is a simple and practical basis for peace in one’s life. This is the basis of a pacifism that is eminently practical and non-ideological.
Not to speak in the face of opposition or offense is not so unusual if one looks to the sages of history and considers their behavior in the midst of opposition. Silence is a virtue cultivated by the mindful, but further, it is the appropriate response to violence, coercion, and worldly notions of power. What opposes a universal ethic should collapse of its own untenable state, not requiring a response, a refutation, or a provocation. The beginning of ethics is in silence, and as metaphor shows, ethics resides not in human thought or contrivance but in embracing a receptivity to nature and nature’s way or path. Once nature is followed, nature’s beings — from inanimate to animate, from river, wind, and stars, to trees and birds — become our companions, become providers of insight and reflection.
Kahlil Gibran’s short poem “The Two Hermits” understands this presentation of argument succinctly. Here is the text:
Upon a lonely mountain, there lived two hermits who worshiped God
and loved one another.
Now these two hermits had one earthen bowl, and this was their only
One day an evil spirit entered into the heart of the older hermit
and he came to the younger and said, “It is long that we have
lived together. The time has come for us to part. Let us divide
Then the younger hermit was saddened and he said, “It grieves
me, Brother, that thou shouldst leave me. But if thou must needs
go, so be it,” and he brought the earthen bowl and gave it to him
saying, “We cannot divide it, Brother, let it be thine.”
Then the older hermit said, “Charity I will not accept. I will
take nothing but mine own. It must be divided.”
And the younger one said, “If the bowl be broken, of what use would
it be to thee or to me? If it be thy pleasure let us rather cast
But the older hermit said again, “I will have but justice and mine
own, and I will not trust justice and mine own to vain chance. The
bowl must be divided.”
Then the younger hermit could reason no further and he said, “If
it be indeed thy will, and if even so thou wouldst have it let us
now break the bowl.”
But the face of the older hermit grew exceedingly dark, and he
cried, “O thou cursed coward, thou wouldst not fight.”