Humanity – language, conflict, and violence – part three

If something repeatable within a human relationship precedes the outbreak of violence, what is it exactly? Viewed with a cold eye, the violence creating conditions should be deemed morally more problematic than violence itself. However, we don’t hear the call, and protest, against ‘the violence creating conditions’ as often as we can hear one against violence.  

 Suggested Reading Conflict Background GCCT

By Dražen Pehar

4. Language-based violence, language as a collective body, Isocratic tradition, and Aristotle’s “ho apolis 

A dediscoursifying language user is deemed violent even when he does not view himself as such. Often, he is experienced, or taken, as a passive-aggressive. But, generally, it is impossible to undermine the process of communication through some verbal, but immoral strategies, without being seen as a potentially dangerous individual. That is simply the way in which people relate to those who break promises without explanation, or to those who commit contradictions, or who assume a view of theoretical, descriptive, or hypothetical propositions regardless of the procedures of argumentation. In contrast, if you are ethical against the others in the sense of the respect of the moral-discursive matrix of language, you are likely to be singled out as a civilized party, as an individual with whom one can coexist or cooperate, especially within the context of just norms, conventions, and laws. Of course, the relationship has to be symmetrical and mutual.

It is important to understand immediately that, when we speak about violence that is language-based, we address a very specific and tangible phenomenon. It’s not the item to which, in the late 20th century, a couple of postmodernists have referred as ‘violent performances’ or the discursive construction of ‘we-they’ distinction.[1] The phenomenon is mundane and includes straightforward processes such as lying, promise-breaking, incoherence, disregard of argument or reason, semantic imputation. In all those processes we witness a real act of violence, but, for strange and superficial reasons, the phenomena are generally not categorized as such.[2]  

For instance, there is no obstacle to defining the act of lying as a cause of bodily harm, in a very exact sense in which people address the act when they use quotidian idioms on ‘lies that mislead,’ or ‘throw dust in eyes’, or ‘cloud our judgment’, or ‘blindfold us;’ or, when, in the Latin, they refer to ‘deceptio’ which is rooted in a verb which, when translated into the English, means ‘to ensnare.’ What does the kind of harm involve? The answer is simple: the lies tend to diminish the capacity of perception in the victim of a lie. Where a person should be endowed with an additional pair of eyes, by getting some verbally transmitted information, s/he gets a blindfold since the producer of the lie uses language in such a fashion. One who receives a truth from his or her interlocutor also gains a better sight in the sense of being enabled verbally to see some stuff that s/he would not otherwise see. Based on many experiences of such a positive kind, one forms the habit of embracing the other people’s propositions with full confidence, often unreflectively, and that is how it should be. This is useful to him or her as s/he receives additional information to those s/he assembles by her, or his, own vision. It is for such a purpose that language is preserved in the community and passed on from a generation to the next.

Then a liar occurs, a deceiver, one who exploits such conditions for his own benefit, but at the expense of his or her victim. S/he gives to the victim an image that misleads the latter, which implies a benefit to the liar/deceiver. In other words, the victim is ensnared, from which the ‘hunter-liar’ alone gets a benefit. The process obviously involves a harm inflicted on the body of the victim. The liar produces in the victim the condition of which we can state the following: it would be better for the victim to get nothing (meaning, information-wise from the outside, from a source that is not her own eyes) than to get whatever s/he gets from the liar, which means that the victim’s body is more functional when it is left to itself than when it is steered by a lie; hence, the liar decreases the functional capability of the victim’s body.      

On some occasions, when the lie results in a severe loss (for instance, to one’s bank-account), or even death, we clearly see that, in totality, a severe bodily harm was inflicted. Of course, a bodily harm is also inflicted in the sense that the liar causes the loss of confidence throughout the community, and thus weakens the connection between some, perhaps even many, bodies. In the Iliad (9.312-13) Achilles stated that, “those who have one thing in their mind, and another in their words, are to me as hateful as the gates of Hades.” Hence, Achilles stated actually that, to him, being a liar is as detestable (literally in Greek “ehthros”= as enemy), and harmful, as death itself.

Such facts concerning the acts of lying; or concerning ‘disregard of the reasons when it is normal to accept some’ taken as ‘the act of playing deaf to the interlocutor’ in violation of the interlocutor’s need; or the act of semantic imputation as ‘the kind of verbal acting opposed to the acting of a moral spokesperson’, that is, ‘the mouth and ears of community’; have motivated me to propose a hypothesis on language as a medium of the collective body-making. When language operates in accordance with moral-discursive values, it creates a collective body in the following sense: truths enable us to see through the eyes of the other people; the adherence to meanings enables us to hear and understand accurately the propositions produced by the other people; the respect/upholding of promises enables us to coordinate the work of our own ‘hands’ with those of the other people; while the respect and in-account-taking of reasons enable us to resolve our disagreements, or to overcome some doubts concerning the status of our claims, thus enabling us also to endorse the other human in his or her entirety as a discursive co-creator of a collective body.

In all those aspects, it is through the moral and functional operation of language that each of us becomes, in terms of bodily capacities, richer and more powerful than s/he would be if born as a lone individual on an isolated island, without the capacity to understand or share language. Language enables us to exchange and multiply our individual bodily capabilities (of perception, expression, and acting); it is a key function which our honest i.e. moral discursive communication with the others serves.[3]

Therefore, now we can finally see where rests the difference between a violent language, or a violence-producing language, and non-violent one as one that serves the good of a community. The former diminishes, and hinders, our bodily capacities; the latter strengthens and multiplies them. The former produces an undesirable and unsustainable type of social interaction between individual bodies, whereas the latter produces a desirable and viable type of such interaction. And, the latter also orders normatively the relationships between individual bodies, and defines and sustains the values that must be co-implemented in order for us to preserve the inter-body relationships.  

A violent language that causes a bodily harm can be illuminated only through the concept of an exploitation of a body by another body, where a gain in one necessarily means a loss in the other. Had it originally served such a purpose only, language would have probably gone extinct over a relatively short period of evolutionary history. This implies that lying, and similar abuses of language, serve a derived, a parasitic, function.[4] Lying, of course, is parasitic upon the fact of trust. The same applies to the institution of promise, and treaty-making or the law as a collective promise. When one society produces an overly huge amount of lies, the very act of lying becomes decreasingly possible due to the fact that all lies are conditioned on the prevalence of trust and confidence within a society, which too many lies naturally undermine.

Obviously, after too many bodily harms caused by a violent language, dediscoursification is a natural result: language, and thus the capacity of mutual understanding, becomes inefficient, while the parties witness the emergence of a relationship we can name “a natural distrust between competing bodies that are unconnectable through language; the assumption of a natural guard of ‘the defense against a liar.’” In other words, in such a condition violence has already begun.

To my knowledge, the theory of language as a medium of collective body-making is not part of a tradition. However, the image that lies at its foundation appeared long ago in classical Greece, and was preserved through the period of European humanism, and passed on to the modern era through Hobbes. We find it, in a mildly parodied form, in Lucian of Samosata in his famous sketch Heracles (who is in fact, as the Gallic personification of oratory, known under the name of Ogmios).[5] It is Lucian’s image of an elderly Hercules, or ‘Ogmios’ as the Gauls call him, who leads along a group of followers enchanted by his language: in the sketch they are depicted as having their ears tied to Heracles’ tongue by delicate leashes made of gold and amber. The followers follow gently and automatically, hence, the crowd is presented as a synchronized and compact whole. This sketch was later illustrated in Alciato’s emblemata that contain some messages on key concepts of humanistic education, as used to educate the European elite and aristocracy of the 16th and 17th century;[6] some of the emblemata were originally produced in Latin language (In 1506 Erasmus of Rotterdam published a first Latin rendering of Lucian’s exercise), and then translated in French, German, Italian, and Spanish.

It is important to keep in mind two facts: first, the very image exerted a considerable influence on the political thought of modern Europe through Hobbes who envisaged Leviathan’s single body composed of many individual bodies after the paradigm he found in Lucian; secondly, Alciato’s emblems pass a key message through the image of Lucian’s Heracles: eloquence/rhetoric is superior to strength (Lat. eloquentia fortitudine praestantior) – the humanity grows and evolves, and achieves progress, through laws, language, and education, not through wars or violence; in concrete application, this also implies that conflicts need to be resolved by negotiations, by an exchange of verbal arguments and a search for a mot juste, not by force or violence (the message is inscribed below the image as a part of the emblems).     

And yet, neither the image nor the message is Lucian’s own invention. We find similar ideas in Plato’s contemporary, Isocrates, in his famous eulogy to Logos, To Nicocles, and also in his Antidosis.[7] Isocrates recovered a pre-sophistic view of human language as a key benefactor to mankind. As he emphasized, language is at the basis of human institutions since it serves to introduce the human sense of some distinctions that we don’t find in the rest of animal kingdom, and that are of pivotal meaning to the human communities such as cities: just-unjust, beautiful-repellent, convenient-inconvenient, right-crooked….It is through our language that we debate and deliberate, and resolve our disputes, simply by an exchange of argument; furthermore, especially in the form of legislation, language cancels the natural inequalities in power and enables human beings to found and preserve cities as structures that rest on justice, knowledge-transmission, traditions, and moral-legal-political education and upbringing of the younger generation.  

Mind, too, as the capacity to learn and form concepts and hypotheses, or construct theories and deal intellectually with the social and natural worlds, is a consequence of the use of language. Isocratic approach is clearly discernible in Aelius Aristides as well, a representative of the Second Sophistic from the 2nd century AD. However, the fact that the famous paragraphs of Aristotle’s Politics (Book I, on the human being as zoon logon echon) are a direct successor, and part, of Isocratic vision, remains insufficiently emphasized.

In fact, having read and understood the part,[8] we come to the following conclusions: Aristotle designates the antipode of ‘the citizen’ as ho apolis, one who is without a city – i.e. ‘non-citizen.’ Aristotle here also uses the counter-paradigm to explain the paradigm, that is, to present to the reader the founding prerequisites that enable a human being to become a part of political community. Hence, ho apolis is one who cannot co-live with the other individuals within a sustainable community, a city.[9] He falls outside the scope of such a frame. Why? First, as Homer put it, ho apolis is “without the brethren, or laws, and without a seat/settlement (afretor, athemistos, anestios).” In other words, s/he is not only without a city, s/he also lacks the crucial aspects of sociality. Secondly, s/he is also an animal worse than other animals. Aristotle seriously points to the fact that ho apolis has some desires that are, if compared to the desires of other human beings, perverted; this concerns not only the desire for food, which is excessive in the kind of human being, but also the sexual desire: it seems that, in him, the unnaturally intensified desires do not serve a normal, human purpose, i.e. more general properties of humanity, such as the need to procreate, but they serve exclusively him as an individual.

One needs to add two further factors to the story: ho apolis does not care about justice, but, according to Aristotle, s/he possesses weapons by which s/he imposes his or her unjust decisions; despite the fact that his or her decisions undermine the unity of the city, s/he imposes those by the fear-generating tools. Finally, since the key mark of humanity is zoon logon echon, in the sense of language as a medium through which the sense of justice is preserved, and in the sense of argumentation in support of the making of sustainable relations within the city, ho apolis is like the other animals in the sense that, in him or her, language does not serve such purposes; his or her language is simply a means of emotive expression as in the non-political animals such as cattle or sheep. All in all, this means that the ‘non-citizen’ is marked by the absence of language that can be valid for the entire city, which is why s/he can protect the injustice only by the force of arms in order to gratify his or her perverted, and self-feeding, lust.  

Hence, essentially, as Aristotle put it at the very start of his account of ho apolis, the latter is one who naturally, inherently, generates the state of war and seeks such a state. S/he is naturally violent in terms of his or her attitude to language, with his or her lack of Logos as a specific kind of language-use: one the aim of which is to create or reveal justice; not to serve individual purposes or be imposed by weapons (hopla), which can gather only an assembly of non-human animals that do not choose, or narratively organize, their association.

We have already met such a kind of ‘non-citizen’: for instance, in the person of King Adrastus in relation to Polynices at Argos; of Eteocles again in relation to Polynices, of Sparta in relation to Athens (and the other way around); also in the person of Madeleine Albright in relation to Milošević as well as to the Serbs who Milošević represented; of Creon from the Antigone by Sophocles, and of the British Crown in relation to the American colonies before the war of independence, and of the American slave-holding states in relation to the slavery-free states before the outbreak of the American Civil war, etc. etc. Partly, too, all those examples also point to the Isocratic tradition within which a kind of language is critically, and sharply, distinguished from violence, while the human nature is expressed and affirmed predominantly through such a kind.

The discursive relation presented by the visual scheme above (in Part Two) is clearly connected too with all those embodiments of ‘non-citizen’, esp. their aspect that relates to, or involves, violence. The scheme clearly outlines a contradiction that can be easily fixed, but one party blocks solution as s/he lacks the sense of the discourse-mediated making of collective body; i.e. as s/he is characterized, as Aristotle put it, by a ‘perversion of human desire’ that causes harm both to herself and her neighbors through blinding others with her lies and invalid arguments, or through silencing others with her mistakes, prejudices, and unreasonable, but irrevocable decisions supported by ‘the force of arms.’ As the aforementioned section of the Phoenician Women by Euripides clearly attests, such a relationship can even be embraced, and supported and rationalized, but this does not make it less violent or less dangerous. From the angle of this section, Isocratic tradition should be, in such a sense, troubled primarily by the fact that the relationship is not human, nor it reflects the real capabilities of human beings, despite the fact that, on the superficial glance, it appears to involve human-like creatures.         

Lessons and conclusions 

Now we arrive at the point where we can assemble the key conclusions of this analysis. First, now we probably see in a clearer light the kind of language as it is without violence, the kind that is really addressed by  the following idioms: „X prefers violence over language“, or „conflicts need to be resolved not by violence, or force, but by negotiation, argumentation, the human dialogue and language.“

Secondly, the key part of “the fall into violence” takes place in language. It is a kind of violence that is produced by a language in relation to some specific individuals, and that takes the shape of a direct bodily harm that causes the interruption of a sustainable kind of relationship between individual bodies. “Non-citizen” does not have to use weapons for a violence to be applied. S/he acts primarily on the minds of the others and on language as a collective-body maker. Think of the relations as presented in the visual scheme from Part Two. How violence further develops, and in what direction – this depends on many other factors. However, as soon as one witnesses ‘a violent language’, that is, the language that dediscoursifies the relationship between two discourse-users, one also witnesses a problematic, tense, and partially violent relationship; one witnesses a period of barbarism and the prevention of the possibility of the rule of law including the contract-, or treaty-making.

Thirdly, it is important to realize timely that both violence and language are parts of a single human nature. It is a nature as a process, not a fixed property such as giraffe’s long neck. Assuming that language is a ‘secondary nature’, a kind of super-structure founded on individual human bodies, we also need to assume that the nature is fragile and insecure. Such kind of nature can happen to act against itself. Hence, this is the key reason why I think that the notion of ‘violence’ needs to be taken in a wider sense than is usually done. Violence is generally viewed as a noisy process, aggressive, potentially deadly; however, often it is quiet, insidious, and hardly visible; and it has nothing to do with the blood, or starvation, or murder. Often it is in fact promoted as part of ‘high culture’, in philosophical seminars, as part of ‘science’ and ‘art’, often even takes the form of law-enforcement or judicial decision-making. Often, it has the form of self-deception, inner insecurity, or pathology, or endorsement of something without proof, ‘ideology’ that goes without saying, but in a wrong way….

Fourthly, what we see as the transformation of a violent language into more tangible forms of violence should not be described as ‘preference of violence over language’ as a conflict-resolving means. In fact, the parties involved do not make a conscious choice; hence, they do not really form a preference. As soon as a viable discourse is ‘removed’ through being poisoned by dediscoursifying kinds of communication, you will witness silence, or the belief that language is inefficient and that the consultations, laws, advice (any discursive form) are unlikely to be of help. And that is what is most problematic at the time of outbreak of, for instance, armed violence. We do not see its end because we do not see the most elementary forms of human trust: whatever expression is made by the other, we see it as a deception, an insult, or an enemy’s shouting. Of course, the process may last for a brief, but also a longer period of time.[10]

One can here ask an important question: does Isocratic tradition imply too high, or unrealistic, criteria?

I do not think that the very question is based on realistic assumptions. First, some norms pertaining to the use of language, such as the norm of the stability of meaning, or of truth and argumentation, are built into us through the process of language-learning. Of course, sometimes it is unclear where the truth lies, or who has got a more persuasive argument on her side. However, this does not mean that the norms concerned are not valid; it only means that, in a specific condition, we can be unclear about the best way of implementing the norms.

Furthermore, the respect of norms is not really the key aspect of Isocratic tradition. Hence, I suggest that the respect does not secure the most important part of the shield against violence. The matters are in fact much simpler, much less demanding, and thus more realistic. Assuming that the key norms are simply internalized as part of the process of language-learning, one additional key virtue is required for us to remain faithful to Isocratic tradition, and avoid the fall into violence or barbarism: the source of the virtue is in meta-linguality, our capacity to discuss on language by a meta-language. Meta-linguality enables one to self-correct, which means that the linguistic capacity is underlined by the sense of self-reflection, or critical self-examination: one endowed with such a virtue can easily correct oneself, meaning that one is also very much aware of her or his own fallibility and corrigibility. Imagine now that the virtue is promoted across a society, as a social virtue; imagine thus that a society attempts to identify and remove the conditions as exemplified by the aforementioned visual scheme, the situation of ‘Polynices’ slavery at Argos.’ In such a sense, the adherence to Isocratic tradition does not involve too high, or unrealistic, criteria.[11] This further means that ‘being a human’, within the tradition, is not an especially demanding feature.

The preceding considerations should remind us of a simple fact: the facts of corrigibility and fallibility pertain to our bodies; our bodies are fallible and imperfect. A liar simply exploits the fact. Now, directly related to lying, one can also inadvertently misinform one, but language, through meta-linguality, enables us to correct the error and distinguish the cases in which one deliberately misinforms from those in which one commits an accidental error. In such a sense, it is important to be able to avoid a quick surrender to the state of despair. Solutions can be found more often than we regularly assume.  Also, sometimes one may become aware of really good reasons not to fulfill one’s promise, and a meta-lingual discussion should determine when it is indeed the case, and when it is not. At times our human body becomes unable to deliver as promised, and at times we recognize some insurmountable obstacles to our fulfillment of our promises only too late. Hence, our mental capacities and language do not only serve to produce truths, they also serve to correct untruths, and to distinguish pardonable discursive violations from the unpardonable ones. Sometimes, a corrected misunderstanding will even serve as a means of violence-, or conflict-prevention. 

I do not subscribe to dualism. The above presented idea on language as a collective body generator is proposed in a fully naturalist cast. It is about our bodies, together with their imperfections, that tend to associate and interact with each other.[12] In the view presented here, language is foundational, and our bodies are even violent mutually only due to the conditions that are, in a major part, produced by language. It is clear to me that the issues related to water-consumption, oil access control, and the sale of military technology, are important as well. However, the issue of trust to another human being is foundational one, and trust is built, or undermined, through the agreements, the sharing of our stories, and communication, hence generally in the medium of discourse. 

As I see it, the key problem cannot be reduced to the practice of overt, physical violence, or the existence of ho apolis. They will for long remain one major part of social and human environment. This is so despite the fact that violence is not an argument of any kind. Simply, violence changes something, and humans tend to respond to violence by more violence, “vis ad vim.” As to the more insidious, and persistent, forms of violence, they are transmitted, and enabled, by language. However, we cannot respond to violent forms of language by the equivalent means. For instance, a liar is typically immune to lies.

Also, one cannot overcome a lie by a lie, or a sophism by a sophism. You overcome it by a truth and a valid form of argument. Hence, in this sense, the key forms of violence in human societies actually tend to produce language constantly, and produce it in a non-violent, to the society friendly form. This brings us to the key fact: human interaction, either violent or not, aims spontaneously at least at the indirect affirmation of language as a medium of collective body-making. Therefore, Aristotle and Isocrates endowed us with an accurate image of human nature. Now, the key fact points also to the key problem as I see it: how to find and maintain the balance between the sense of one’s own corrigibility, which is fully open to the feedback by the others, on the one hand, and the capacity/gift to create a common and viable language as part of compromise and resolution of the social-moral-legal-political disputes on the other? 

Dražen Pehar, Croatian-Bosnian scholar, and public commentator, is the author of Peace as War: Bosnia and Herzegovina, post-Dayton (CEU Press 2019), and a bilingual Alija Izetbegovic and the War in Bosnia and Herzegovina (HKD Napredak/Mostar 2011); his PhD with a thesis on diplomatic ambiguity is in politics and international relations from SPIRE (2006), Keele University. He contributed to TransConflict on numerous occasions, esp. in 2012, 2016, and 2017.


  1. For ‘violent performances’, see Campbell, David (1998), National Deconstruction, Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, pp. 26-7, who here draws considerably on Derrida’s brief exercise ‘Declarations of Independence’; for the discursive construction of ‘we-they’ (or the in-group-out-group) distinction, see Hodges, Adam (2015), “War Discourse”, The International Encyclopedia of Language and Social Interaction, ed. Karen Tracey:     
  2. However, some theorists come close to categorizing them as such; see, for example, Bok, Sissela (1999), Lying, New York: Vintage Books, p. 18.
  3. In a couple of places I found a few propositions that I like to read as very rudimentary embryos of the theory: for instance, here is how Geoffrey Miller (2001, Mating Mind, New York: Anchor Books, p. 342) imagines the last thought of a dying Pleistocene mammoth killed by a hunting group of our human ancestors: “I am extinguished by a bunch of little bodies that weave themselves, through that odd squeaking [language], into one great body with dozens of eyes, dozens of arms, and one lethal will“; in their Web of Belief (1978, New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 2nd edition, p. 50), Quine and Ullian state as follows: „Two basic ways in which language serves us are these: as a means of getting others to do what we want them to, and as a means of learning from others what we want to know. In the one way it affords us, vicariously, more hands to work with; in the other, more eyes to see with.“ And, finally, here is one proposition put forward by Fiona Cowie: “Two heads are really better than one, and the only way you can reliably link those heads is via language.” (In “Symposium on J-L. Dessalles’s Why we Talk (OUP, 2007): Precis by J.-L. Dessalles; commentaries by E. Machery, F. Cowie, and J. Alexander, Replies by J.-L. Dessalles”. Biology and Philosophy 25: 851–901, p. 887).  
  4. See, for example, Oesch, Nathan (2016), „Deception as a Derived Function of Language“, Frontiers in Psychology 7; published online 27 Sept, DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01485:
  5. Lucian (1961) Works in Eight Volumes (vol. I), with an English Translation by A.M. Harmon, London, Cambridge Mass.: Heinemann and Harvard University Press, pp. 62-71 (bilingual, Greek-English text)
  6. See, for instance,; from the website  Alciato at Glasgow: 
  7. Isocrates (1929), Works in Three Volumes (Vol. II), with an English translation by George Norlin, London and New York: Heinemann, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, Antidosis 253-257, pp. 326-329.
  8. I here present the famous part of the Politics I, 1253a, according to the edition of W.D. Ross (Oxford 1957), as published at the Perseus Digital Library:
  9. This, however, does not mean that ho apolis actually lives always outside of a city; often he may not only live in a city, but also perform an important institutional role in it.
  10. Of course, I am aware that here I do not present a fully developed theory of violence; however, the perspective to which I am personally very inclined is presented in Hans Toch (1992), Violent Men, Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association (revised edition); I explained how Toch’s theory feeds my theory of dediscoursification in Pehar, D. (2016), “Toch and violent men”, TransConflict, 5 February: .  
  11. Or, perhaps metalinguality and self-reflection are indeed not as undemanding requirements as I would like them to be (?)
  12. We should also note here that, according to the model, there is no difference, or competition, between morality and power: the collective body cannot be formed through discourse without discourse-ethics or the communication ethos (I prefer the latter term to avoid the impression of philosophizing à la some 20th century German philosophers who have, in my view, done disservice to the idea).

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