The Origins of Peace

Peace has been with us through many different civilizations and cultures for a long time as various concepts- and it is only relatively recently that the idea of Peace as we conceive of it really starts to become the definition. There are many reasons for this- but mostly our current American concept of Peace is evolved directly from Globalization and the last two World Wars. I am referencing only the American concept of Peace because it is the only one I am truly intimately familiar with and because it is also the main inspiration for the Peace Corps which is the real target of the blog posts

In general, the concept of Peace has evolved, it originated from a need to call the time period of when the people of a certain group were not actively at war with another group. Hence- most definitions in the beginning are simply- anti-war and indeed as we will see- Peace has had a difficult time ever being defined without the context or connotation of war.

Take for example Shakespeare:

What, drawn, and talk of Peace? I hate the word, as I hate hell… and thee. -Tybalt; Romeo and Juliet

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more’ Or close the wall up with our English dead! In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man As modest stillness and humility: But when the blast of war blows in our ears, Then imitate the action of the tiger.- Henry V (1599) Act 3, Sc 1, L 1

Shakespeare is classic, but let’s go even further back to the beginning- I think that in order for us to understand the context of Peace since it’s origin comes from War- we should understand also a bit about War.

The English word war derives from the 11th-century Old English words wyrre and werre, from Old French werre (also guerre as in modern French), in turn from the Frankish *werra, ultimately deriving from the Proto-Germanic *werzō ‘mixture, confusion’. The word is related to the Old Saxon werranOld High German werran, and the German verwirren, meaning “to confuse”, “to perplex”, and “to bring into confusion”.[4]

Thus, if War originally meant confusion then Peace should mean clarity?

The original root goes back even further than War- it goes to the root work Pag which means to fasten/bind together. (From PIE root- Pag)

I love this definition of Peace. That idea that things are bound and bolted and glued together makes me think of teamwork, effective merging of diverse pieces to make something work, to accomplish a task or to increase the strength of the overall machine. I really love this original definition because for me- it speaks more of a truth than it does in current contexts.

Let’s follow the “evolution” of Peace through various cultures and languages:

  • In English Peace replaced the Olde English Frid/Sibb which also meant “happiness”
  • In Latin- Pacem- “Compact, agreement, tranquility, absence of war”
  • Interestingly- growing up in Catholic churches I often mistook PAX as the Latin translation of peace, but in fact it has a different connotation- PAX literally means Kiss of Peace refers to a section of Mass when the Priest kissed a tablet, also came to mean the crucifix.
  • In Hebrew “Shalom”- Harmony, wholeness, prosperity, welfare, tranquility
  • In Greek “Eirene”- Completeness, Success, Fulfillment, wholeness, Security, well being
  • In 11th Century Anglo-French “Pes” meaning “Reconciliation, Silence, Agreement”
  • In 1300- “Quiet” as in absence or cessation of war or hostility
  • From about 1300 until the recent year- this concept of Peace existed in the forefront of most civilizations. It wasn’t until 1960 that a new definition started to arise- a definition that wasn’t literally defined with the word “war”.

In 1960 America became familiar with a new idea of World Peace- the idea of freedom, peace, happiness.

The current definition of Peace is Freedom from Civil Disorder, and after the Vietnam war- buttons were made that defined Peace as “The Absence of War is not Peace.”

Now that we have a good understanding of the Etymology of peace, lets look into the historical context for what different civilizations and cultures have used to define Peace.

Peace has meant many different things over the past 2k+ years so it is important to not limit it to simply what our generation thinks of as Peace.

Greek Goddess Eirene

For example, the Greeks had Eirene- the Goddess of Peace, she is generally pictured with some Olive leaves about her (we will touch on this significance a bit later but it’s important to note here). Eirene can be translated to our modern English as the word Serene- meaning that the concept of Peace here can be interpreted as Serene- but as the definition of Peace evolved- we needed to develop a new word.

The official definition of Peace only mentions as security or absence of disorder. Therefore it is defined by the absence of something rather than a state naturally occurring.

Here are some further definitions of Peace from the Merriam Webster website:

Peace noun \ ˈpēs  \Definition of peace

  1. a state of tranquility or quiet: such as
    1. Freedom from civil disturbance: Peace and order were finally restored in the town.
    2. a state of security or order within a community provided for by law or custom breach of the peace
  2. freedom from disquieting or oppressive thoughts or emotions: I have been in perfect peace and contentment
  3. harmony in personal relations: The sisters are at peace with each other.
  4. a state or period of mutual concord between governments: There was a peace of 50 years before war broke out again.
  5. a pact or agreement to end hostilities between those who have been at war or in a state of enmity
  6. used interjectionally to ask for silence or calm or as a greeting or farewell
  7. at peace: in a state of concord or tranquility: The problem was settled, and his mind was at peace

While these are all various relevant definitions of Peace and the concept- for the Peace Corps, I think it is important to look to our first Director – Sargent Shriver who really set the course of what the agency would become and what the mission of our work is. For me, this definition of Peace is the most beautiful one that I have come across.

We should note that here Shriver does not define it as the absence of something but rather as a commonalty among ALL human beings. This gives us insight into the Agency’s notion of Peace- something that involves all human beings working together- not just those who happen to exist in the absence of war.

It is something that reaches back to the original concept of PAG- to fasten and bind together- that we are all in this together and Peace is the attempt of us to work together for a unified common goal that benefits all of us. For me, this is the point of the Agency and the mission of the Peace Corps- to work specifically towards a Peace that is not simply the absence of war- but rather ongoing difficult work that requires respect, deference and dedication to achieve.

Now that we have a good understanding of the history of the word Peace, we will be looking into symbols that have been embraced by our current culture as emblems and logos of Peace in the next blog post.

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