25 Lessons from the History of Nonviolence

Posted by on Jun 16, 2011 in Random Thoughts | 8 comments

My last post, Mental Peacebuilding, referenced Mark Kurlansky’s book Nonviolence the Twenty Five Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea. At the end of the book he enumerates these 25 lessons in an easy to read manner. These are lessons about violence and nonviolence he has pulled from the pages of history as patterns reemerging continuously throughout centuries of narratives. They are strategically named lessons, and not patterns, because there is an assumption we need to learn from them and not just skim over them and then promptly forget their message. The implications of each are numerous and vast and learning from them to ultimately change our behavior may seem impossible, but don’t be discouraged and keep reading until the end.

The Twenty Five Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea

1) There is no proactive word for nonviolence.
2) Nations that build military forces as deterrents will eventually use them.
3) Practitioners of nonviolence are seen as enemies of the state.
4) Once a state takes over religion, the religion loses its nonviolent teachings.
5) A rebel can be defanged and co-opted by making him a saint after he is dead.
6) Somewhere behind every war there are always a few founding lies.
7) A propaganda machine promoting hatred always has a war waiting in the wings.
8) People who go to war start to resemble their enemy.
9) A conflict between a violent and nonviolent force is a moral argument. If the violent side can provoke the nonviolent side into violence, then the violent side has won.
10) The problem lies not in the nature of man but in the nature of power.
11) The longer the war lasts, the less popular it becomes.
12) The state imagines it is impotent without a military because it cannot conceive of power without force.
13) It is often not the largest but the best organized and most articulate group that prevails.
14) All debate momentarily ends with an “enforced silence” once the first shots are fired.
15) A shooting war is not necessary to overthrow an established power but is used to consolidate the revolution itself.
16) Violence does not resolve. It always leads to more violence.
17) Warfare produces peace activists. A group of veterans is a likely place to find peace activists.
18) People motivated by fear do not act well.
19) While it is perfectly feasible to convince a people faced with brutal repression to rise up in a suicidal attack on their oppressor, it is almost impossible to convince them to meet deadly violence with nonviolent resistance.
20) Wars do not have to be sold to the general public if they can be carried out by an all volunteer professional military.
21) Once you start the business of killing, you just get “deeper and deeper,” without limits.
22) Violence always comes with a supposedly rational explanation – which is only dismissed as irrational if the violence fails.
23) Violence is a virus that infects and takes over.
24) The miracle is that despite all of society’s promotion of warfare, most soldiers find warfare to be a wrenching departure from their own moral values.
25) The hard work of beginning a movement to end war had already been done.

“The early 20th century French novelist Anatole France wrote: “War will only disappear only when men shall take no part whatever in violence and shall be ready to suffer every persecution that their abstention will bring them. It is the only way to abolish war.” As William Penn said in the 17th century, “Somebody must begin it.” One of the greatest lessons of history is that somebody already has.”


  1. Hi Ali,

    #20 is very interesting. Especially in light of #11, I do not think this is entirely true. Wars do need to be sold on a regular basis. The problem lies not in a volunteer force, but in the country’s cultural basis. It is a country’s culture that defines whether it goes to war or not.


    • Hi Jeremy,

      Thanks for the comment! It is true that wars need to be sold to some extent in the United States, however the argument can be made that selling a war eventually becomes a formality. Ultimately, the government decides to enter into a war, regardless of its popularity or whether the people actually want to engage in it. We unfortunately don’t make these decisions and can express our disagreement, but at some point a war doesn’t need to be sold anymore because it is inevitable. An existing volunteer army allows for minimal marketing because this group of people is trained to just follow orders and be ready to fight any war. They have no choice about whether or not they want to participate and make popular dissent against the war virtually negligible.

      Also, Kurlansky is discussing these historical lessons in a global context. Selling wars is really only a relevant concept in a functioning democracy, where the general population has a say in governmental matters and popular approval matters. Unfortunately, most of the world does not enjoy our type of democracy or any democracy at all, making selling a war in many countries irrelevant. These leaders don’t care what their citizens think about anything and don’t seek popular approval on any level. Consequently, they don’t need to sell a war to anyone and can just engage in this destructive phenomenon at any time they wish, especially if an existing army makes this possible.

  2. Excellent article, thanks for putting this together.
    Your answer to the question above:
    “Selling wars is really only a relevant concept in a functioning democracy, where the general population has a say in governmental matters and popular approval matters”

    We don’t have a functioning democracy in the UK or US, its only the illusion of one.
    They sell war to us, by using fear of terrorism. The powers that be, run the media companies so its easier for them to push fear down our throats 24/7 365. Its now a machine, a propoganda machine, we are told we are in danger from foreign lands, so we must go there before the come here…lol..

    So the governments don’t really need to sell anything to us anymore, as the media machine takes care of it for them. Keeping us in fear is the best way for them to do as they please.
    The media is just as guilty in the promotion of the war.

  3. Welcome to Critical Peace Zen! I agree with you about the fear mongering media, but isn’t it also true that the media takes it cues, to some extent, from the government?

    Also, a functioning democracy is not equivalent to a perfect democracy, which arguably can not realistically exist in countries with our sizable populations. While our forms of democracy in the U.S. and the U.K. are decidedly far from perfect, they actually work pretty well in comparison to the numerous other countries in the world who can not say the same thing about their governments. For example, Bosnia’s government is organized in a democratic fashion, but leadership only rotates between 3 people every 8 months. Fortunately, this is not the case in the U.S. or the U.K.

  4. Thanks for posting this, it is so important. I heard this book on CD last week and was looking for this list. I’ve been part of a peace play called The Invitation, and the play’s dialog is all from the speeches of Nobel Peace Laureates.
    #1. Martin Luther King Jr. “soul force”–maybe a good name?
    #2. Betty Williams: “Men must not only end war, they must begin to have the courage not even to prepare for war.”
    #3. Albert Schweitzer, Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, Shirin Ebadi–all enemies of the state at one time or another.

    Also I recently read Jesus for President, which gives amazing examples of creative nonviolence throughout history into modern times, and goes together well with History of a Dangerous Idea. And the story of Buddha converting the “mad murderer” Angulimala, which was part of a lesson I just taught. So from all that, I’m getting a clearer picture of what NON-violence actually positively IS. So what I’m getting is that it’s being a witness to truth (original meaning of martyr- witness). It’s proving by example that a human being can be more–more compassionate, more creative, more integrous, and showing a violent person he or she can be something greater. Then the person who’s doing harm can’t escape looking at themselves in the mirror set up by the nonviolent person’s example, and that example can bust the illusion of disconnection and help save the violence-doer from violence. It really does expose truth, the truth that everyone is connected and naturally creative, and it exposes the lie of separateness and human destructiveness. In my view. Thanks for the opportunity to share that.

  5. Being a witness to the truth that “I am a human being like you, I am not a separate object.”

    • Hi Jonathan,

      Sorry for the delayed response. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment on this post. I loved Kurlansky’s book and am happy to hear about another one that conveys a similar message. Your play sounds interesting. Where is it showing? Also, how many speeches are in the play? I would love to read them and perhaps post them on Critical Peace. I wish more people took the time to read these types of things and reflect on nonviolence.

      • Oops, I guess I out-delayed you Ali, this is pretty late.

        There are 8 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speeches used in the play (which is an AMAZING play), given by Albert Schweitzer, Linus Pauling, Ava Myrdal, Shirin Ebadi, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Betty Williams, Martin Luther King Jr.

        The Invitation will be performed July 21 and September 14 at 7:30 pm at the Peace Dome at the College of Metaphysics near Windyville, Missouri. I know it will be performed in Louisville Kentucky sometime this year also.


        Yes. I’m glad I took the time to read these types of things. There’s so many great heroic peace people to give inspiration, it’s a good replacement for violent heroes.

        Peace to you

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