Desires Made Known. An Examination of 19th and 20th Century European Attitudes Towards Conflict and Competition

Essay, 2017

8 Pages, Grade: 4.00


Interpretation #1: “In the 19th and 20th centuries, Western ideas about conflict and com­petition became more violent. Whereas earlier thinkers had written about competition in terms of economic success or failure, the values and assumptions of later writers led them automatically towards battles to the death.”

Initial Questions for Thesis Development

- What was the perceived domain of conflict and competition for earlier thinkers and how does this domain appear to change over time?
- Is it possible that tendencies towards violence were similar in their frequency throughout west­ern history, but just utilized different mediums of expression as time passed?
- If western ideas towards competition actually did become markedly more violent in general, what causes might this be attributed to?
- How might dominant worldviews have altered conceptions, interpretations, and applications of competition by influencing the foregrounding and values of the writers who subscribed to them?

Investigating the array of the radical changes throughout western society from the Middle Ages to the 19th and 20th Centuries may be an exercise that proves intimidating in both its mag­nitude and complexity. Within the sometimes hazy of dynamism of this practice, however, pat­terns and enduring themes permeate the progress of the historical narrative in a fashion that yields new insight. Two of the most compelling phenomena of western history whose relation­ship may be in question are the activities of both competition and violence. Although a cursory analysis may suggest that western ideas about competition became more violent during the 19th century, a better explanation for the apparent increase in emphasis on violence by writers is that the domain in which societies expressed their already violently competitive tendencies gradually began to expand so that the already intimate connection between violence and competition be­came more explicitly recognized by intellectuals eager to express competition in the context of nationalism and militarism.

In order to argue for the continuity of violently competitive tendencies from the middle ages and the Renaissance into the 19th and 20th centuries, it is first necessary to establish that violence and competition were, in fact, intimately linked for intellectuals and laypeople alike prior to the 19th century. Evidence indicating that competition was viewed as often violent by early westerners may be more easily demonstrated by showing that violence was often seen as competitive. With roots reaching as far back as the classical gladiatorial bloodsport and its wide­spread popularity in ancient Rome described by Pliny the Elder, competitive violence motivated by desire for entertainment, projection of power, and establishment of domination extended into the Middle Ages and well into the Renaissance through societal institutions such as the medieval tournament and dueling. In France, during the reign of Henry IV from 1553 to 1610, Charles Mackay writes that more than 4,000 French duelists lost their lives in a single, eighteen-year pe­riod.[1] The violence and danger inherent in popular medieval recreational competitions such as jousting is epitomized by the death of King Henry II of France in 1559, described by Richard Cavendish as an occasion in which, “the lance struck the king's helmet and a long splinter pierced Henry's eye and penetrated his brain.”[2] Although the deaths that resulted from violently competitive activities were not necessarily glorified as they may have been for early 20th century authors such as Roosevelt, the fact that intentional injuries and fatalities were viewed as an ac­ceptable, or at least tolerated, part of competition appears to indicate a conceptual closeness be­tween the two ideas for westerners prior to the 19th Century.[3]

Explaining why intellectuals during the 19th and early 20th centuries may be better viewed as expounding upon an already intimately amalgamated conception of competition and violence rather than becoming more violent in their ideas themselves raises the question of why it would be that such an expansion of competitive violence did not seem occur earlier in the writ­ings of dominant Medieval and Renaissance intellectuals. The seeming disparity between the competitiveness of violence for many who have practiced it and the rarity or even lack of atten­tion that military competition is given by many medieval or Renaissance intellectuals may be reconciled through consideration of the dominant importance of religion and feudalism in shap­ing how violence was perceived. The hegemony with which religious and feudalistic notions of overriding meaning and importance were ascribed to combat and warfare may be observed in the writings of intellectuals such as Thomas Aquinas, who states that the three conditions for a just war in the Summa Theologica are the permission of a sovereign as evidenced by scripture, a just cause, and the intention of forwarding good, as opposed to evil.[4] Notably, the pursuit of glory or some form of competition is not mentioned in this consideration, presumably because competi­tion through conflict for its own sake was not viewed as a morally legitimate ground for engag­ing in war. In a more feudal conception, John of Salisbury writes of soldiers as, “corresponding to the hands,” in the short amount of attention he gives to military conflict.[5] In both authors, the paramount intellectual value and importance ascribed to religious and feudal frameworks for un­derstanding military conflict serves to obscure or at least crowd out discussion of other possible motivations for conflict outside of the obligatory normative prescriptions of feudalism and Chris­tian ethics. The vacuum thus created by the intellectual absence of preeminent religious or feudal views by comparison in the 19th and early 20th century may be thought to then partly explain why it is that intellectuals were then able to investigate and more greatly incorporate preexisting violent and competitive motivations into their understanding of conflict.

Discussion of a vacuum left by receding religious and feudal influences on western thought and how it may have facilitated the expansion of violent competition as an integral part of intellectual thought towards conflict raises the question of how more newly dominant para­digms of thought such as nationalism and militarism may have related to this trend. From analy­sis of 19th and 20th century writers more enamored with violent competition, an identifiable shift in communication and thought towards more secular and nationalistic views of society may be seen to utilize notions of violent competition and its romanticization as a vehicle for more ef­fectively communicating the ideological appeal of national and military sentiment.


[1] Mackay, Charles. Extraordinary Popular Delusions: And the Madness of Crowds. New York: Noonday, 1974. p 666.

[2] Cavendish, Richard. "JULY 10 1559: Henry II of France Dies of Tournament Wounds." History Today 59, no. 7 (July 2009): 12.

[3] Roosevelt, Theodore. The Great Adventure. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1918. p 1.

[4] Thomas, and T. Gilby. Summa Theologica. London: Blackfriars, 1964. Q. 40

[5] John of Salisbury, The Statesman’s Book, in Baumer, Franklin L. Main Currents of Western Thought; Readings in Western European Intellectual History from the Middle Ages to the Present. New York: Knopf, 1952.

Excerpt out of 8 pages


Desires Made Known. An Examination of 19th and 20th Century European Attitudes Towards Conflict and Competition
Indiana University  (College of Arts and Sciences - Hutton Honors College)
HON-H326 Ideas and Conflicts in Modern Culture
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
440 KB
European, History, Conflict, War, Competition, Dueling, Feudalism, Imperialism, Militarism, Jousting, Attitudes, Violence
Quote paper
Seth Carter (Author), 2017, Desires Made Known. An Examination of 19th and 20th Century European Attitudes Towards Conflict and Competition, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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