AskDefine | Define pacifist

Dictionary Definition

pacifist adj : opposed to war [syn: pacifist(a), pacifistic, dovish] n : someone opposed to violence as a means of settling disputes [syn: pacificist, disarmer]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. One who loves, supports, or favours peace; one who is pro-peace.
  2. One who avoids violence.
  3. One who opposes violence and is anti-war.
    • 2004: Chris Wallace, Character: Profiles in Presidential Courage
      No matter what pacifist "flubdubs and flapdoodle mollycoddles" might say, the President [Teddy Roosevelt] knew that if there were a general war then America could well be drawn into it.
  4. One who is pro-peace but supports war and the use of violence.
    • 1917: H. G. Wells, War and the Future
      ''Of course, we are all pacifists nowadays [...] most of the people I meet, and most of the people I met on my journey, are pacifists like myself who want to make peace by beating the armed man until he gives in and admits the error of his ways, disarming him and reorganising the world for the forcible suppression of military adventures in the future.''

Related terms


one who loves, supports, or favours peace
one who avoids violence
one who opposes violence and is anti-war
one who is pro-peace but supports war and the use of violence

Extensive Definition

Pacifism is the opposition to war or violence as a means of settling disputes or gaining advantage. Pacifism covers a spectrum of views ranging from the belief that international disputes can and should be peacefully resolved; to calls for the abolition of the institutions of the military and war; to opposition to any organization of society through governmental force (anarchist or libertarian pacifism); to rejection of the use of physical violence to obtain political, economic or social goals; to the condemnation of force except in cases where it is absolutely necessary to advance the cause of peace (pacificism); to opposition to violence under any circumstance, including defense of self and others.
Pacifism may be based on moral principles (a deontological view) or pragmatism (a consequentialist view). Principled pacifism holds that at some point along the spectrum from war to interpersonal physical violence, such violence becomes morally wrong. Pragmatic pacifism holds that the costs of war and inter-personal violence are so substantial that better ways of resolving disputes must be found. Pacifists in general reject theories of Just War.
Pacifists follow principles of nonviolence, believing that non-violent action is morally superior and/or pragmatically most effective. Some pacifists, however, support physical violence for emergency defense of self or others. Others support destruction of property in such emergencies or for conducting symbolic acts of resistance like pouring red paint to represent blood on the outside of military recruiting offices or entering air force bases and hammering on military aircraft. However, part of the pacifist belief system is taking responsibility for one's actions by submitting to arrest and using a trial to publicize opposition to war and other forms of violence.
Dove or dovish are informal terms used, especially in politics, for people who prefer to avoid war or prefer war as a last resort. The terms refer to the story of Noah's Ark in which the dove came to symbolize the hope of salvation and peace. Similarly, in common parlance, the opposite of a dove is a hawk or war hawk.

Early history

Advocacy of pacifism can be found far back in history and literature. Compassion for all life, human and nonhuman, is central to Jainism, founded by Mahavira 599527 BCE. This doctrine values human life as a unique opportunity to reach enlightenment and regards the killing of any person, no matter what crime he may have committed, as unimaginably abhorrent.
In Ancient Greece, however, pacifism seems not to have existed except as a broad moral guideline against violence between individuals. No philosophical program of rejecting violence between states, or rejecting all forms of violence, seems to have existed. Aristophanes, in his play Lysistrata, does create the scenario of an Athenian women's anti-war sex strike during the Peloponnesian War of 431–404 BCE, and the play has gained an international reputation for its anti-war message. Nevertheless, it is both fictional and comical, and though it offers a pragmatic opposition to the destructiveness of war, its message seems to stem from frustration with the existing conflict (then in its twentieth year) rather than from a philosophical position against violence or war. Equally fictional is the nonviolent protest of Hegetorides of Thasos.
The Moriori, of the Chatham Islands, practiced pacifism by order of their ancestor Nunuku-whenua. This enabled the Moriori to preserve what limited resources they had in their harsh climate, avoiding waste through warfare. In turn, this almost led to their complete annihilation in 1835 by invading Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Tama Māori from the Taranaki region of the North Island of New Zealand. The invading Māori killed, enslaved and cannibalised the Moriori.
Throughout history, many have understood Jesus of Nazareth to have been a pacifist, drawing on his Sermon on the Mount (see Christian pacifism). In the sermon Jesus stated that one should "not resist an evildoer" and promoted his turn the other cheek philosophy. "If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well... Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you." The New Testament story is of Jesus, besides preaching these words, surrendering himself freely to an enemy intent on having him killed and proscribing his followers from defending him.
There are those, however, who deny that Jesus was a pacifist However, beginning with the Roman emperor Constantine I in the 4th century A.D., the church not only began to be integrated into the rest of society, but to assume positions of power and authority. The strict practice of pacifism began to be viewed as impractical and even irresponsible when Christians could use such power to confront evil and injustice. Early church leaders such as Augustine and later Thomas Aquinas justified the use of arms as a last resort in the protection of innocent life from attack and injustice, what now often is called Just War Theory.

Modern history

Beginning in the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation gave rise to a variety of new Christian sects, including the historic peace churches. Foremost among them were the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Amish, Mennonites and Church of the Brethren. After its founding by Quaker pacifist William Penn, Quaker-controlled colonial Pennsylvania employed an anti-militarist public policy. Unlike residents of many of the colonies, Quakers chose to trade peacefully with the Indians, including for land. The colonial province was, for the 75 years from 1681 to 1756, essentially unarmed and experienced little or no warfare in that period.
Bohemian Bernard Bolzano (1781–1848) taught about the social waste of militarism and the needlessness of war. He urged a total reform of the educational, social, and economic systems that would direct the nation's interests toward peace rather than toward armed conflict between nations.
Leo Tolstoy was another fervent advocate of pacifism. In one of his latter works The Kingdom of God is Within You, Tolstoy provides a detailed history, account and defense of pacifism. The book was a major early influence on Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869–1948) and the two engaged in regular correspondence while Gandhi was active in South Africa.
In Aotearoa aka New Zealand during the latter half of the 19th century British colonists used many tactics to confiscate land from the indigenous Ma-ori, including warfare. One Ma-ori leader, Te Whiti-o-Rongomai, inspired warriors to stand up for their rights without using weapons, which had led to defeat in the past. He convinced 2000 Ma-oris to welcome battle-hardened British soldiers into their village and even offered food and drink. He allowed himself and his people to be arrested without resistance for opposing land confiscation. He is remembered as a great leader because the “passive resistance” he practiced prevented British massacres and even protected far more land than violent resistance. Mohandas K. Gandhi was a major political and spiritual leader of India, and of the Indian independence movement. Grateful Indians christened him with the title “Mahatma” or “Great Soul.” He was the pioneer of a brand of nonviolence (or ahimsa) which he called satyagraha -- translated literally as "truth force". This was the resistance of tyranny through civil disobedience that was not only nonviolent, but sought to change the heart of the opponent. He contrasted this with duragraha - “resistant force” - which merely sought to change behavior with stubborn protest.
During his thirty year leadership of the Indian Independence Movement from 1917 to 1947 Gandhi led dozens of nonviolent campaigns, spent over seven years in British prisons, and fasted nearly to the death on several occasions to obtain British compliance with a demand or to stop inter-communal violence. His efforts helped lead India to independence in 1947, and inspired movements for civil rights and freedom worldwide.
There was strong anti-war sentiment in Western Europe during the 19th century. Many socialist groups and movements were antimilitarist, arguing that war by its nature was a type of governmental coercion of the working class for the benefit of capitalist elites. French socialist pacifist leader Jean Jaurès's assassination on July 31, 1914 was followed by the socialist Second International's dissolution into chauvinism and militarism as international socialist groups supported their respective nations in war. Nevertheless many groups protested that war, including the traditional peace churches, the Woman's Peace Party which was organized in 1915 and led by noted reformer Jane Addams and the International Committee of Women for Permanent Peace (ICWPP), also organized in 1915. Other groups included the American Union Against Militarism, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and the American Friends Service Committee. Jeanette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress, was another fierce advocate of pacifism, the only person to vote no to America's entrance into both World Wars.
In the aftermath of World War I there was a great revulsion against war, leading to the formation of more peace groups like War Resisters' International and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.
The Spanish Civil War proved a major test for international pacifism, and the heroic work of pacifist organisations and individuals in that arena has been largely ignored or forgotten by historians, overshadowed by the memory of the International Brigades and other militaristic interventions.
With the start of World War II, pacifist and anti-war sentiment declined in nations affected by war. Even the communist-controlled American Peace Mobilization reversed its anti-war activism once Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, mainstream isolationist groups like the America First Committee, declined, though many smaller religious and socialist groups continued their opposition to war. Bertrand Russell argued that the necessity of defeating Adolf Hitler and the Nazis was a unique circumstance where war was not the worst of the possible evils; he called his position relative pacifism. H. G. Wells, who had claimed after the armistice ending World War I that the British had suffered more from the war than they would have from submission to Germany, urged in 1941 a large-scale British offensive on the continent of Europe to combat Hitler and Nazism. Similarly Albert Einstein wrote: "'I loathe all armies and any kind of violence; yet I'm firmly convinced that at present these hateful weapons offer the only effective protection."
Conscientious objectors and war tax resisters were active in both World War I and World War II. The United States government did allow sincere objectors to serve in noncombatant military roles. However, those draft resisters who refused any cooperation with the war effort often spent much of each war in federal prisons. During World War II pacifist leaders like Dorothy Day and Ammon Hennacy of the Catholic Worker Movement urged young Americans not to enlist in military service.
Martin Luther King, Jr (1929 - 1968), a Baptist minister, lead the American civil rights movement which successfully used Gandhian nonviolent resistance to repeal laws enforcing racial segregation and work for integration of schools, businesses and government. In 1957 his wife Coretta Scott King, Albert Schweitzer, Dr. Benjamin Spock and others formed the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (now Peace Action) to resist the nuclear arms race. In 1958 British activists formed the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament with Bertrand Russell as its president.
In 1960, Thich Nhat Hanh came to the U.S. to study comparative religion at Princeton University, and subsequently was appointed lecturer in Buddhism at Columbia University. Thich Nhat Hanh had written a letter to Martin Luther King in 1965 entitled: “Searching for the Enemy of Man” and during his 1966 stay in the U.S. met with King and urged him to publicly denounce the Vietnam War. King gave his famous speech at the Riverside Church in New York City in 1967, his first to publicly question the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Pacifism and religion

Pacifist social movements in Buddhism

Buddhist Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is a nonviolent pro-democracy activist and leader of the National League for Democracy in Myanmar (Burma). A devout Buddhist, Suu Kyi won the Rafto Prize and the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 1990 and in 1991 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her peaceful and non-violent struggle under a repressive military dictatorship. One of her best known speeches is the "Freedom From Fear" speech, which begins "It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it."


Further reading

  • Bennett, Scott H. Radical Pacifism: The War Resisters League and Gandhian Nonviolence in America, 1915-1963 (New York: Syracuse Univ. Press, 2003).
  • Bennett, Scott H., ed. Army GI, Pacifist CO: The World War II Letters of Fank and Albert Dietrich (New York: Fordham Univ. Press, 2005).
  • True, Michael, "Justice Seekers, Peace Makers: 32 Portraits in Courage", 1985. ISBN 0-89622-212-8
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