Holistic Peace

by Dr Garreth Thomson, contributor to and supporter of the SoH Forum

How can spiritual peacefulness be expressed in the stormy world of political-economics? What kinds of systemic social changes are needed for us to live as peaceful spiritual beings? How can contemporary political-economics be reframed by ancient spiritual traditions? The concept of peace is central to such questions. ‘Peace’ is core to all spiritual traditions; but it is also indispensable in international relations and in reconceiving democracy and economic justice. It also is central to personal relationships. ‘Peace’ is potentially a bridge from the spiritual to the relational to the political-economic. The global human family needs political-economic translations of spiritually and ethically attuned understandings of what it means to be human. Spirituality needs structural social expression. Peace must be central to this endeavor.  Peace cannot be fully a condition of the soul unless it is also a condition of the society in which we live.

Part of the problem is that we don’t usually understand peace in a holistic way that can hold together all the various relevant fields of study. The relevant discussions and dialogues are fragmented; writings about spiritual peace and international relations, and about peaceful economics and relationships – they can  be  more integrated around a unified idea of peace at the core.

Such reflections have been at the heart of the work of the Guerrand-Hermes Foundation for Peace. Wanting to move the discussion forward, we have tried to articulate our understanding in a couple of books, Understanding Peace Holistically (Peter Lang, 2020) and Happiness, Flourishing and the Good Life (Routledge 2020). Sorry to say, in this short article, I can only give you a fleeting glimpse of the first book. I will briefly unravel some threads about positive peacefulness in the spiritual, in relationships and in political-economic systems. Sorry that it is a little compact, but here goes.


The endeavor will need to meet certain conditions. First, the best answer to these challenges lies in the insight that peace isn’t only the absence of war and violence, or even less the absence of conflict. These are negative conceptions of peace. Peacefulness is a positive concept, not merely the absence of something else. Second, the value of peacefulness is not solely instrumental, but also intrinsic. Peacefulness is valuable not only because of its beneficial results, but also because of what it is. Third, peace is more than a feeling because it matters what the cause of peaceful feelings is. The mission means that there is more to peace than negative and instrumental conceptions suggest, and we need to find out what that more consists in.


At the core of psychological peacefulness is how one self-identifies. One’s relationships with oneself depend intimately on this self-identification, and peacefulness requires that this is spiritual. To explain this idea, we need to fuse three notions.

First, being more peaceful requires that a person self-identifies with something that is not turbulent and divisive. Insofar one self-identifies with contingencies, one will not transcend the conflicts generated by such contingencies. This suggests that we are peaceful insofar as we align our basic self-identifications with the nature of the self that is doing the self-identification. Peacefulness requires that we self-identify in ways that are aligned with what we most profoundly are.

This is where spirituality comes in. Psychological peacefulness is spiritual insofar as the nature of the self that is doing the self-identification is spiritual. Of course, different traditions will understand this broad idea in various ways. For example, in some traditions, the self is transcendent; in others, it is empty; in others, a reflection of the divine. Of course, we needn’t adjudicate this diversity of views by pushing for one specific view.

The general idea reveals how inner positive peace expresses itself as outer manifestations. For example, suppose that, fundamentally, we are persons. This means that inner positive peace requires that we self-identify as such. And this has an outer expression: it means that any such self-identification will include or embrace all other persons. It won’t set up an antagonism with other persons. In this way, inner positive peace has an external manifestation as outer positive peace. Any self-identification that sets-up an antagonism between ‘us vs them’ among persons won’t be peaceful. It wouldn’t be aligned with the reality that one is a person. In brief, it others the ‘them’ by misidentifying the ‘us’. It is unpeaceful on both sides of the ‘us vs them’ divide.

The second idea is that conscious beings are valuable in a non-derivative way. For a person’s life to be peaceful, she must appreciate the value of her life appropriately: to feel and perceive herself directly as valuable. Psychological peacefulness involves self-identification that connects fully to this value. This is a fundamental form of self-respect or self-love, which does not depend on what one does or has done.

Third, positive psychological peacefulness is a constitutive element of well-being, and as such, it is intrinsically valuable. For instance, it is an inescapable aspect of our way of being that we are an I. To take pleasure in one’s consciousness is to have appreciative reflexive self-consciousness. It is to feel happy in being an I in its simplest and most immediate form. We might call this ‘joyful inner peace’. This is one way in which positive peacefulness is constitutive of well-being


Suppose that positive psychological peacefulness consists in self-identification consistent with one’s status as a person of non-instrumental value. A parallel conclusion applies to one’s relationships with other people, and this point illuminates what positive peace is in relationships. Just as I am a being of non-instrumental value, so too equally are other people. Insofar as we have positive peace in our relationships, both parties will appreciate and treat the other person as such.

All people are equally real and that a positively peaceful connection to others in a relationship involves a realization of this reality. This recognition is opposed by a feature of lived experience, namely that others can feel and be perceived as less real. We sometimes struggle to come to terms with the reality of another person, even those who close to us. Friends who are far away often feel less real than ones who are nearby. This is a kind of epistemological asymmetry, and it expresses itself in the denial that others have intentions aimed at the good. We tend to attribute bad intentions to others in ways that we don’t do to ourselves when we don’t take seriously the reality of the psychological lives of others. When we fall prey to the asymmetry, we violate the principle of equal reality. Insofar as we do so, we succumb to the childish illusion that I am more real and more important than others. This illusion amounts to the incapacity to appreciate and to come to terms with reality that transcends the egocentric perspective of experience. This includes the incapacity to see a situation from the point of view of the other, including to understand and appreciate the good that he or she wills or desires. Thus, one way to affirm peacefulness in one’s relationships is to respect that others’ intentions are aimed at some good.


How can political-economic structures be inherently peaceful? Social structures are the ways the relevant institutions are organized in relation to each other, as defined by a set of principles. So, for example, the economic structure is the relations between institutions such as companies, banks, investment firms and the central bank centered around the principles and purposes of, say, profit and growth. So, when we characterize positive peace as applied to political-economic structures, we cannot reduce it to individual peacefulness. Instead, we would need to identify the relevant principles of peacefulness (such as cooperation and synergy), and how these might shape the institutions, such as the nation-state or the corporation.

Currently, much international politics is framed around a set of principles. The main one is that international system consists of sovereign and self-interested nation states, which have certain rights. This is a modern adaptation of a grim picture painted by Hobbes and later by Kant. This idea implies that the natural condition of states is one of war, even if the war is not explicit. It also implies that the morality of international relations consists only in a contract that defines an association or federation that limits the ways in which nations may pursue their self-interest. Fundamentally, they cannot infringe the rights of other states.

Sadly, Hobbes’ bleak portrayal seems to in fact accurately characterize many aspects of the arena of international politics. Indeed, the idea of national sovereignty seems to imply that each national political unit is like an individual, both self-interested and autonomous.  This understanding of international politics has a grave shortcoming. Purely self-interested nation-states would have no reason to abide by contracts, treaties and other forms of promise except insofar as doing so would serve their self-interest.

If we want to discover the nature of positive peace as applied to the international structures, we must re-examine these initial assumptions. When one conceives international political peace only negatively, as the absence of war, then the idea of peaceful relations between countries becomes reduced to agreement or charter that sets limits to what countries can do in the pursuit of national self-interest. It simply tries to ban overt violence. Essentially, this is what much of the UN charter does. Like just war theory, it assumes a negative conception of peace, which only forbids countries from certain kinds of self–interested actions. It only places caps. Such a framework conceives of the international as an arena in which countries compete for advantage, and to which the only answer is self-imposed regulations.

As well as being limited, this negative conception of international peace implodes. It faces an irresolvable dilemma: the contract or treaty needs to be enforced, but the national sovereignty conditions that lead to the need for it disallow such enforcement. Simply put, there can’t be a boss, but enforcement requires that there is one. This implies that institutions built only on a negative conception of peace face an inescapable problem. A system based on such principles will have an inherent tendency to be drawn into war. The assumption that the international is an arena in which sovereign nations compete for advantage is inherently unpeaceful. The fact that this conception faces such an irresolvable dilemma constitutes an argument against it.

For these reasons, we need to go back to the drawing-board. Institutions within a system based on a positive conception of peacefulness might fare better. Much better than rules against violence is the absence of the need for them. The negative view of peace overlooks the idea that nation-states do have positive obligations to each other. It ignores the idea that we also have the obligation to ascend to a new level, and to form transnational (democratically accountable) organizations for the benefit of all peoples irrespective of their nationality. It is in this possibility that we can understand positive peacefulness.

We could sketch an alternative picture of international relations based on the idea of positive peacefulness. What does it take for an international political system to be positively peaceful? We could outline some of the principles necessary and, then we can describe the kinds of practices and institutions that are needed to embody those principles. The same approach can be applied to economics.

For example, all people are non-derivatively valuable, and equally so. The first part of this sentence implies that any political or economic system that fails to treat people as such, for instance, by instrumentalizing, marginalizing or oppressing them, will ipso facto not be peaceful. The second part of the sentence indicates that any political system that fails to treat them as of equal value will fail to be peaceful. It would do so, for example, if it treated some people as inferior or of lesser value. This principle also rules out double standards, where, for example, powerful countries break the rules that they expect other countries to abide by.

Dr Garrett Thomson           
CEO and Research Director of the Guerrand-Hermès Foundation for Peace. He is also Compton Professor of Philosophy at the College of Wooster. He is the author, co-author, or co-editor of 21 books, including works on well-being, needs, education and peace.

We asked Dr Garrett Thomson to give us a glimpse into the writings of the the book Understanding Peace HolisticallyFrom the Spiritual to the Political which he co-wrote together with Dr Scherto Gill.  In the book they build up a theory of peace from the spiritual to the relational and communal towards the socio-political. They also identify key principles that characterise international and institutional processes that nurture peace.

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