A Vaccine Against War

If there is such a thing as a vaccine against war, then shouldn’t humans as a species do their best to administer it to everyone? Through her lecture ‘Dead Butchers and Fiendlike Queens’: Why Macbeth Matters More Than Ever, Professor Catharine Stimpson argues that the study of liberal arts is a “vaccine” against war.


The Hertog Scholars Program invited Professor Catharine Stimpson of NYU to lecture at the Macaulay Honors College. I attended because the title of the lecture sounded interesting, but had no idea what to expect. A diverse audience was present, including Dean Kirschner, liberal arts professors, Macaulay students, and even attendees who seemed to have no connection to Macaulay.

Professor Stimpson began by inviting us to follow what she called her “meandering train of thought.” She told us about a history student asking, “What about the beauty of history?” and posed to us the question, “Where’s the beauty in war?” War is tragic in that it destroys not only lives, but also knowledge, progress, and art. She reminded us, however, that war is also generative. We just need to think of the degree to which war gave birth to the arts and technology — the Civil War gave birth to the blues, World War I, and Columbia University’s core curriculum, and World War II to computers and radar.

Professor Stimpson argued that studying the liberal arts inoculates us against the propaganda of war by producing a cognitive moral repulsion and stimulating empathy and compassion with the victims of war. She pointed out that our understanding of war, especially our view of the damage war incurs on civilians, has expanded. No longer can we romanticize war. Those who glorify the military do so because they are not realistic about war, making it all the more important to expose people to the horrors of war through the study of liberal arts. To study war is also to study non-violence and resistance. Thus, plays such as Macbeth are “vaccines” against war.

Why is Macbeth more important now as opposed to other, more violent times? Because of the possibilities.

Today’s weapons easily possess the potential for mass destruction. Globalization means that the stresses, strains, and conflicts that once could have been contained to a region have the capacity to go global. As technology improves, war is steadily becoming more depersonalized. And now, more than ever, individuals have the potential to do large-scale damage.

Macbeth shows audiences the continuous oscillation between love and war, between the beautiful and the bestial, and between knowledge and ignorance. Throughout her captivating and thoroughly engaging lecture, Professor Stimpson kept emphasizing this point of constant oscillation. It’s a wonderful metaphor for describing the way life seems to always be straining against itself. She left us with the question: can we administer a social vaccination against war by spreading knowledge of war’s realities, while acknowledging that war can also cause beauty to be born?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.