Conflict throughout history: Following the changing thread

From time immemorial, mankind has been in conflict with one another. And from time immemorial, mankind has desired to not be. Every loss of human life is a slight against us, and as death is the affliction of life, so life designates the necessity of death. Throughout history, philosophers have mused on the nature of conflict, and over time our basic understanding of conflict itself has evolved. Originally conflict for philosophy was a basic tenet of the physical and spiritual life, almost as if conflict was matter that had been woven into the universe. It was part of everything, plants, animals, rain, even the shadows cast from the sun. Today, our understanding of conflict is an intensely personal struggle, a struggle that many theorists are framing as a methodology for not only self-development, but a necessary requirement for a stronger society.

​        Heraclitus and Han Feizi claimed that conflict was woven into the universe and was part of everything, including all human relationships. However, much of the early theory of conflict states that it should be used by political or economic factions as a mechanism for development. Han Feizi, especially, believed that conflict was so prevalent between people that the only way to manage a society was to use conflict as an arbiter. Plato and Aristotle believed that conflict was a mechanism that should be used by the elite to either control followers (Plato) or as a defense mechanism to protect ones’ sovereign power from the masses (Aristotle). Augustine taught that conflict was endemic within each person as a mechanism of self-support, that with the acquisition of reason and knowledge self-conflict was tempered. Both Machiavelli and Hobbes believed that conflict was a mechanism for stability, although Machiavelli wrote that conflict should be used in order to generate social stability, while Hobbes believed that civil society was a passive effect of two forces in conflict.

​        Malthus stated that conflict was proportional to the population, and with an increase in population conflict would inevitably increase, being one of the first theorists to propose that science was related to social development rather than as mechanism for the securing of power. Smith continued this line of reasoning, by stating that within each person conflict was necessary as they drove themselves to self-interest. Finally, Darwin cemented the absolute nature of conflict by turning it from a mechanism of political machinations, to a science of observation in the eternal between between survival and growth. In general, discussions of conflict pre-Darwin characterized it primarily as a political or economic tool for stability, which kings, princes, lords, and intellectual leaders could use in order to establish themselves. However, after Darwin the study of conflict entered into a discussion of social and cultural scientific observation.

​        In the modern era of sociology, Gumplowicz expanded on the Darwinian concept of conflict by expanding the science to a study of not only natural and physical conflict but societal. Essentially, Gumplowicz transformed the study of conflict by tying the nature of his new science directly with context, claiming that conflict is the key force behind social and cultural evolution. Pareto, following the contextual relevance of Gumplowicz, stated that conflict (more particularly, revolutionary movements) was the key to national evolution, when one group of elites eventually replaced the old regime. Madison went into even more detail by cementing a system of checks and balances that not only utilized the conflict within political organizations, but fastened the conflict together, believing that the inherent conflict within the varying cultures of politics would create boundless progress and eventual stability.

​        Sumner, however, gave conflict a personal quality by claiming (in an eerily similar but non-sacred fashion as Aquinas) that only through the individual struggle against rivals, antagonists, and displacement, would people truly define themselves. Sumner personalized the nature of conflict. Whereas pre-Darwin conflict was seen as a mechanism or tool used by the powerful, post-Darwin conflict became a set of skills that people or factions could adopt in order to transform themselves, turning weaknesses into strengths. Ward built on Sumner’s ideas by claiming that the personal growth and stability of conflict was actually a function of social efficiency and relational stability (those being the end goals). Finally, Parsons entered into the debate and strongly stated that conflict had an ideal state which one could progress towards. While Parsons claimed that this ideal state was one free of deviance, other thinkers such as Mills and Dahrendorf criticized Parsons. Mills that that the equilibrium theory (conflict being counter-actions towards deviance) was actually self-destructive, as it served only as a defense of privilege rather than as an offense against oppression. Dahrendorf went so far as to state that the ideal state to work towards was actually deviance and abnormality, while equilibrium was the actual conflict of the age. Dahrendorf believed that change was a creative force which shattered the status quo (or equilibrium theory), and hence the true conflict of the age was the battle of progressing past old ideas into the new.

​        Perhaps it is oversimplification to arrange all of history within a few paragraphs. However, something has changed in the nature of conflict. There is truth to the adage that there is nothing new under the sun, but there is also truth in the capacity of self-improvement through constant reassessment and rebuilding. We are vessels of conflict: when we are born, we come bawling out of our mother’s womb; when we die we lay on our beds, gasping for that last breath of air. Our lives are defined by struggle, and our moments of glory are struggle in victory. Why should we seek to take that away? Why run away from conflict? Why not run toward it?

​        We are also creatures of sorrow and pain, and seek peace. While conflict may define who we are, we can never allow conflict to guide our hand, only understand it. Leaders who use conflict knowingly in order to create chaos where there is order are monsters, no matter their good intentions or selfish machinations. Love is the ultimate arbiter of conflict, because love is a concept that stands between two foes and offers warmth. Yet in our organizational models, where does love come into play? How can leaders truly love their followers without risking their own weaknesses? How can leaders show weakness for the purpose of gifting themselves without losing their organizations?

​        The evolution of conflict throughout history I have mentioned makes some starting claims. The first is that pre-Darwin, many thinkers believed that conflict existed as a tool or mechanism which was requisite in the field of politics and economics, which if used could propel people to change outwardly. The second is that post-Darwin, conflict became a set of skills that cultures, nations, governments, and eventually people could adopt into order to self-develop. Today, conflict continues to transform, and I foresee the future of conflict as being an intensely personal quest. Many thinkers teach conflict not as warring ideas between two parties, but as trainable skills for self-development. Scholars believe today that “conflict potential” is something that can be maximized for inter-personal growth. There are also many scholars today that teach about role specialization in organizations, not only as a way of complementing strengths but as a way of creating value networks that challenge one another. Conflict resolution and avoidance have been replaced by the science of conflict management, a way of looking at conflict that shows the ultimate potential of inter-cultural issues so that both cultures in the end can be maximized.