The philosophy of Conflict
Enemy or Other?
29th December 2023
Conflict is painful. It aims at the opponent’s annihilation, the reduction of the other to ‘nihil’ nothing in Latin. It is a negative event, the negation of the other. Conflict brings out the problem of what ‘not’ means. The elimination of what is before one means their reduction to non-being or to non-existence. Conflict defines both the relation between two groups/individuals and their radical opposition.
Aristotle had defined negation as the denial of the existence of something. (Arist. De Interpretatione 17a25) while Plato had indicated that what is not is ‘other’ than what is. (Sophist 257c-258c). He even coined the word ‘otherness’ (ἑτεροιότης Pl. Prm. 160d)
Conflict is therefore not just the elimination of something opposite, but the engagement with something different. It is the relation between two parties which imagine they are opposite, but which are somehow in relation, a conflictual relation between them. They are not unknown strangers, but enemies. There is a point of contact.
It is for this reason that the Platonist Proclus (412-485) defined the negative as superior. “So then, negations are superior to assertions, and are suitable to those who are being drawn up from what is partial towards the whole” (Proclus, In Parmenidem 1074).
The other allows one to understand oneself better. It is for this reason that Hegel thought that Proclus’ commentary on Plato’s Parmenides was the highest example of ancient dialectic. “The Parmenides of Plato – perhaps the greatest literary product of ancient dialectic – has been taken to be the positive expression of the divine life, the unveiling and disclosing of its inmost truth” (Hegel Phenomenology of Spirit Preface)
Hegel explains that once a ego takes notice of the ‘other’ it creates society formed by many egos, i.e. ‘we’ which have a relation (and even a conflict) with the ‘others’. “Ego that is “we”, a plurality of Egos, and “we” that is a single Ego. Consciousness first finds in self-consciousness — the notion of mind — its turning-point, where it leaves the parti-coloured show of the sensuous immediate, passes from the dark void of the transcendent and remote super-sensuous, and steps into the spiritual daylight of the present.” (Hegel Phenomenology of Spirit 177)
Hegel used these notions of opposition and otherness to develop his master slave relationship. This was the basis of the analysis of class conflict defined by Marx in his Communist Manifesto (1848). The conflict defined according to classes is enshrined in the constitution of the People’s Republic of China (article 1 in all constitutions since 1949)
Proclus, the source of many of these notions, was born in Constantinople in 412 when the city was the capital of the Roman Empire and that old Rome had been plundered by the Goths just two year before. Constantinople (today Istanbul) is at the background of many important conflicts today: Balkans (ex Yugoslavia, and Kosovo), Middle East (Syria, Israel, Gaza/Palestine), North Africa (Libya).
Proclus was the head of Plato’s Academy. He is the most important Byzantine philosopher and the person who formulated the notion of negative and the other which define European thought on conflict. We must turn to Constantinople and Proclus for a philosophy of conflict resolution.