Great heights and depths

By Mathias Maurer, July 2015

A strenuous hike in the Alps. We take a break. I sit with a few friends in front of the mountain hut. We have an overwhelming view of the snow-covered peaks. “That’s awesome,” comments Roger, “like sleeping giants.”

We get underway again. We approach the base of the glacier at a good pace, everyone dwelling on their own thoughts. Tom stops briefly and suddenly asks: “Where does violence actually come from?” Silence. We rope up and continue on our way. A bit later, Roger, out of breath, gasps in response: “From sheer greed for power.” – “Not from being suppressed?”, Tom asks doubtfully. “Comes to the same thing,” says Tom, grinning. “Is there actually such a thing as non-violence? It’s probably a purely human invention,” Tom muses. We continue to climb, our breathing getting heavier. The snow is getting soft, we have to be careful crossing the snow bridges.

Once back on solid ground, Tom adds: “The sociologists Popitz says violence is an option in itself for human action – we just need to look at the world around us to see the truth of that. Violence everywhere: at home, in school, in society – no religion, no government, no laws can protect us from it.” – “Yes, Enzensberger summed it up: only human beings make war on their own species with such enthusiasm,” Roger says.

“You know what...,” Peter, who has been silent so far, chimes in slightly annoyed, “my mentor warned me: ‘Take care that you don’t grab a boy too hard in sports lessons, you’ll be facing a charge before you know it.’ And you mustn’t get too close to girls, shouting is also out and the bullying goes on behind your back. You can’t supervise break without a fight breaking out. Sometimes I feel totally surrounded, a perpetrator behind every bush, everyone a potential victim ... Just one word: abysmal!” We are crossing several crevasses, the conversation falters.

But Roger picks up the thread again: “No, it’s not that simple. You don’t just need a perpetrator, a victim and a witness but also a common definition of what the three consider to be violence. The anthropologist Riches has made that crystal clear in his analysis.”

We start up the ridge. We are now at three thousand metres. It becomes more difficult to keep going, the air is getting thinner. But there is no stopping Tom and he declaims from Adalbert Stifter’s Colourful Stones, following Kant: “We feel the sublime in the way it becomes immersed in souls in all those places where through immeasurably great forces in time or space there is collaboration to work towards a structured and reasonable whole.” The dull rumble of an avalanche responds in the distance.

On the summit. Peter to Tom ironically: “There’s your sublime power. I have to deal with the ordinary one every day and am perpetrator, victim and witness in one.” He breathes deeply and savours the majesty of the mountains.

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