General Notions of Nonviolence

Nonviolence is an existing theory and a practice, which has affected the lives of many people in recent times. In a world assailed by violence, injustice, wars and hatred, hopelessness and lack of vision, the greatest and best thing to do is to make a choice in life. An author holds that with choice, "the doubt of personality is dispelled, and the creative self emerges... in it, there is infinite interest in one's own existence... a form of Socratic goodness, integrity and self-knowledge".1

In other words, in the face of a chaotic world, there is need to choose to adopt a value oriented system- a system of nonviolence. Before delving into discussing nonviolence, we shall first briefly discuss violence.

What is Violence / Nonviolence?


Violence is defined as the exertion of any physical force so as to injure or abuse (as in warfare), or in effecting an entrance into a house. Violence is also defined as "injury in the form of revoking, repudiation, distortion, infringement or irreverence to a thing, notion or quality fitly valued or observed".2

The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy distinguishes two forms of violence: Physical and Psychological violence. "Physical violence is the use of force to cause harm or destruction. Psychological violence is the causing of severe mental or emotional harm, as through humiliation, deprivation or brainwashing whether using force or not".3Physical violence may be directed against persons, animals or property thereby causing harm, pain and suffering. Psychological violence applies mostly to persons. It may be understood as the violation of beings worthy of respect.

Violence is criminal, especially when intended. It is an act of injustice. It sows seeds of injustice among people. Violence generates violence. It can never be the best solution to the social, political, cultural, religious crises we may encounter. Violence is a means to an end. For example, the institution of apartheid in South Africa for decades was a form of violence, which generated hatred, injuries, evils, etc. Ipso facto, we generally condemn all forms of violence as immoral, illicit and inadmissible. For Socrates, violence is not the best way to solve problems, even if one is wronged. Violence is a sin against one's parents and a far greater sin against one's own country.

Faced with the violence around the world today, the best alternative is not to repay violence with violence, or go back to the Hobesian "Homo Homini Lupus". In recent times, there has been a dramatic increase in people who have pursued nonviolence as a way of life. They organize symposia, conferences and even write books to help people abandon violence.


Nonviolence is an umbrella term for describing a range of methods for dealing with conflict, which share the common principle, that physical violence, at least against other people is not used. We shall distinguish nonviolence from the following.

1. Peace action, aimed at the abolition of war as an institution and the avoidance or termination of specific wars. Peace movements are primarily reactive to specific threats and disappear at war's end; though some like WAR RESISTERS INTERNATIONAL have survived since the First World War.

2. Social change activism. Not everyone who professes nonviolence is interested in radical social transformation.

3. One of the so-called New Social Movements (NSMs). The wave of transformative collective action in post war Europe and the US. That has addressed new grievances with new sources.

According to Robert Holmes, Nonviolence is "the renunciation of violence in personal social or international affairs. It often includes a commitment (called active nonviolence on nonviolent direct action) actively opposed to violence (and usually evil or injustice as well), by nonviolent means."4

Nonviolence apart from being a method is also a pragmatic ideology of bringing about change in the political, religious and personal sphere of life without the usage of violence. It is the ideal or practice of refraining from violence on grounds of principle. Nonviolence is also defined as a "doctrine of rejecting violence in favour of peaceful tactics as a means of gaining political or social objectives"5

According to Gene Sharp, who is the acclaimed best known writer on nonviolent action, there are different types of nonviolence "Nonresistance, Active reconciliation, Moral resistance, Selective Nonviolence, Passive Resistance, Peaceful Resistance, Nonviolent Direction, Gandhian Nonviolence (Satyagraha), Nonviolent Revolution."6

Some Terms Associated With Nonviolence

here are several terms, which have been used interchangeably with nonviolence. The term nonviolence "did not come into use until the twentieth century... There has been considerable growth in the methods that we now call nonviolent" 7 Nonviolence has been around the world through the centuries though coloured by certain terms, like Pacifism and Civil Disobedience.


It is defined as "opposition to the practice of war."8 It is also "the doctrine that all violence is injustifyable."9 Pacifism opposes not only war between nations but also violent revolution and coercive violence. In the modern era, pacifism has more often been associated with groups working for political ends and dedicated to nonviolent methods of achieving them. It remains a belief that all wars and all forms of violence are wrong. Pacifism therefore holds that war could be, and should be abolished.

There is a central belief at the core of pacifism- a respect for a consequent repugnance towards killing and the evitability of violence. Dovishness or Dovism is an informal term used to describe people to the nonpredatory nature of the dove. It is a form for pacifism. The opposite position is hawkishness or militarism.

Civil Disobedience

This is the refusal to obey unjust laws or decrees. The refusal takes the form of passive resistance. For Civil Disobedience to be valid, it must be nonviolent. John Rawls defines Civil Disobedience as "A public, nonviolent, conscientious, yet political act contrary to law usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law with policies of government."10

People practicing Civil Disobedience break a law because they consider the law unjust and want to call attention to its injustices, hoping to bring about its repeal or amendment. The people are also willing to accept any penalty such as imprisonment for breaking the law. It means the refusal to obey laws using nonviolent means to force concessions from government. It is mostly taken by large number of people against government principles.

Civil Disobedience has brought about important changes in Law and government policies and those who undertake this disobedience do not break the law simply for personal gain. They work with the conviction that "the society governs with laws and decrees promulgated by the ruling government. Some of these laws may disregard the rights of individuals who may feel aggrieved by such obnoxious laws" 11 Individuals who are so affected and moved by conscience have the common good in mind and work with the dictum that "lex injustas non est lex"- "An unjust law is not law."

Civil disobedience makes a distinction between unjust laws, which only apply to a portion of the population, and a just law, which applies, to everyone. Thus Gandhi fought against laws in South Africa that only applied to Indians and Martin Luther King Jr. fought against racist laws that only applied to blacks. Despite this affirmation, we still affirm vehemently that a law can apply to all and still be unjust.

Historical Development of the Philosophy of Nonviolence

The activities of great figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., who used nonviolence, have stirred up the quest to trace the history of nonviolence. It is not however easy to have a comprehensive history of the Philosophy of Nonviolence. This does not negate the fact that nonviolence ideologies have been around the world for a very long time.

Gene Sharp dates back nonviolence ideology to c. 2050 BC when King Bilalama formulated the Eshnunna law code. David McReynolds traces the History of no violence to an expression of the gospel or a variant of the stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. This history can be grouped thus.

Nonviolence in Ancient Oriental Philosophy

Ancient Oriental Philosophy (this phrase is no longer widely used since there is a world of difference between Chinese and Indian thought) has furnished us with a good background of nonviolence. McReynolds attests that Buddhism is a "totally nonviolent philosophy, which despite hardships and persecution spread throughout Asia, finally subduing the Mongols who had so savaged Europe and China."12 Buddhism like other religions is supposed to be a "totally nonviolent philosophy", this does not deny in any way some odds: Sri Lanka was in the midst of a brutal civil war for over 30 years, and the Sinhalese elites who are Buddhist waged a brutal and violent war upon their equally brutal adversaries, the Tamil Tigers (Hindus). In 700BC, Parshva taught nonviolence in India. Confucius also taught Humanistic Ethics.

Nonviolence in Ancient Western Philosophy

Among the ancient philosophers, Socrates distinguished himself as a Nonviolence activist. Scanning through Plato's Dialogues, we read that Socrates had the qualities of a nonviolence activist. His Crito, Euthrypho, Apology, Phaedo, and other Plato's Dialogues trace Socrates' concepts of Justice, approaches to violence, attitude to the truth and Law. These qualify Socrates as a nonviolence activist.

The Socratic way of accepting imprisonment and death showed a great sign of Civil Disobedience. Socrates refused to condone with the evil of the Democratic regime in 406BC and the Oligarchy regime in 404BC. Socrates felt it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of Myths and half myths to the unaffected realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal.

Scanning through the stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, some traces of nonviolence can be deduced. The emperor when teaching compassion for infirmity said in his Meditations.

When anyone does you a wrong, set yourself at once to consider what was the point of view, good or bad, that led him wrong. As soon as you perceive it, you will be sorry for him, not surprised or angry. For your own view of good is either the same as his or something like in kind, and you will make allowance. Or supposing your own view of good and bad has altered, you will find charity for his mistake comes easier.

This attitude of Aurelius presents a basic principle of nonviolence which Gandhi will later expand. That of seeing the good in the other person and treating the person with love.

Early Christian/ Medieval Views

Nonviolence and pacifist elements can be found among early Christians. The Christian gospel with such exhortations as "love thine enemies" and "Blessed are the peacemakers, they shall be called children of God" and other preaching portray nonviolence. Christians, using these, failed to fight during the persecutions of Diocletian- showing a nonviolent spirit. In the medieval era, 'the Anabaptists'14 formed a nonviolent church and a nonviolent Hutterite.

Nonviolence in the 17th, 18th and 19th Century

Within this period, there began a more noticeable institutionalization of nonviolence in the form of religious organizations that survived to the present day. The Quakers in the 17th century fought a painful campaign against English law, forbidding dissenters to meet publicly. Many of them died in the pestilential prisons. They provide one of the early examples of a successful Nonviolence campaign.

Between 1760 and 1775, America faced the nonviolent phase of her revolution. By 1815, peace societies were founded. A prominent figure, David Henry, Thoreau wrote classical works on Civil disobedience and suffered imprisonment. His masterpieces "Resistance to Civil Government" and "Essay on civil Disobedience" remained a sine qua non to any nonviolent activist. Gandhi read it later, after forming his own model of Civil Disobedience.

Nonviolence in the 20th and 21st Century

These centuries record a climax in nonviolence. From 1893-1910, Tolstoy who influenced Gandhi a great deal wrote extensive about love and nonviolence. In 1894, Gandhi helped Indians in South Africa to organize the Natal Indian Congress. From 1901-1917, Russia faced some traces of nonviolent resistance. Gandhi also carried out many campaigns to be explained in Chapter Two. By 1918, Bertrand Russell was imprisoned for pacifist writing. Albert Einstein also took active part in Nonviolence. He was a great admirer of Gandhi and exchanged letters with him. He advised people to refuse military service. The period also witnessed the advent of A. J. Muste and Martin Luther King Jr., great nonviolence activists. Nonviolence movements grew around a number of religious organizations like the Catholic Worker, Pax Christi, etc.

Women also in this period played great roles. Ira Chernus puts it thus; "Women have made huge contributions to the history of nonviolence... throughout most of the history... women were actively organizing, supporting and encouraging nonviolent movements and groups in all sorts of ways" 15 Prominent among the women were Dorothy Day and Barbara Deming. Back here in Nigeria, the Aba Women's riot of October 1929 is a good example of the role of women in nonviolence. Ten thousand women rioted and the demonstrations swept through the Owerri-Calabar districts. (The term riot should not be understood in this case to mean 'violent', they exhibited nonviolence characteristics.) Mrs. Margaret Ekpo has distinguished herself as the doyen of women emancipation. She fought nonviolently for the rights of women in Nigeria. We can also mention the WOZA or Women of Zimbabwe Arise. It is a civic movement in Zimbabwe which was formed in 2002 by Jenni Williams. Here are the objectives of the group:

» Provide women, from all walks of life, with a united voice to speak out on issues affecting their day-to-day lives.

» Empower female leadership that will lead community involvement in pressing for solutions to the current crisis.

» Encourage women to stand up for their rights and freedoms.

They also Lobby and advocate on those issues affecting women and their families. WOZA is supported by Amnesty International. This group is a Ndebele word meaning 'Come forward'. They have so far received many awards. In 2008, WOZA was awarded the Amnesty International Menschenrechtspreis (human rights award) of 2008 by the German chapter of Amnesty International. On November 23, 2009, prominent WOZA member Magodonga Mahlangu and founder Jenni Williams received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. The award was presented by US president Barack Obama.

In many countries around the world, we now hear of peaceful demonstrations, peaceful protest and boycotts. These are all forms of nonviolence action. One of the most recent accounts of nonviolence can be found at the protest by some people in the recent Iraqi-USA war.

The Basic Characteristics and Rules of Nonviolence

Many definitions have been proffered to make the philosophy of Nonviolence well understood. The history has served to give highlights of how nonviolence has been used consciously or unconsciously. We shall now look at the basis of nonviolent action generally and examine the basic rules of a nonviolent activist.

Nonviolent Action

Nonviolent action according to Gene Sharp is a technique by which people who reject passivity and submission, and who see struggle as essential can wage their conflict without violence. Nonviolent action is not an attempt to avoid or ignore conflict. It is one response to the problem of how to act effectively in politics especially how to wield power effectively.16

When Sharp talks of "Conflict without Violence", it should not be concluded that anything without violence is nonviolence. It remains an undeniable fact that the first basic characteristic of nonviolence is the eradication of violence. This is because

In an age when threat to violence is as common as the air we breathe, the prospect of an alternative keeps receding into the archives of by-gone history. In such an age, opting for nonviolence may be considered to be not only foolish and scandalous, but untimely suicidal.17

Again one must understand that nonviolence does not just mean "no violence". This is elaborately described by Bob Irwin and Gordon Faison that:

Nonviolent action is not simply any method of action which is not violent. Broadly speaking, it means taking action that goes beyond normal institutionalized, political methods (voting, lobbying, letter writing, verbal expressions) without injuring opponents. It requires a willingness to take risks and bear suffering without retaliation.18

In accepting suffering, we can reach the religious stage of Kierkegaard, which has its focal point simply in suffering. This helps us put an emphasis on active love

There are generally three main acts of nonviolent action.

1. Nonviolent protest and persuasion.

This is a class of methods, which are mainly symbolic acts of peaceful opposition or of attempted persuasion, extending beyond verbal expressions. These methods include marches, vigils, pickets, the use of posters, street theatre, painting, and protest meetings.

2. Noncooperation.

This is the most common form of nonviolent action and involves deliberate withdrawal of cooperation with the person, activity, institution or regime with which the activists have become engaged in conflict. Political noncooperation includes acts of civil disobedience,- the deliberate, open and peaceful violation of particular laws, decrees, regulations and the like, which are believed to be illegitimate for some reasons. Those who undertake this are faced with this question; must the law be obeyed? These feel that law portrays a great deal of normative personalism, in other words, if a law is unjust, it should not be obeyed. Noncooperation is an effective, noble and valuable means to bring change. Ravindra Kumar insists that this has been used by great men to end atrocities, inhumanities and injustices. It has been used to fight against wrongdoers, tyrants, oppressors, exploiters and unjust persons. One reads the following line from Kumar: "some ancient times great men, leaders of societies, philosophers and reformers have taken the path of non-cooperation to remove obstacles from the way of mutual cooperation. For them, it has been a method of strengthening the process of cooperation"19. These great men, before proposing it to the world, tried it themselves and discovered its strength in according justice and freedom.

3. Nonviolent Intervention

which is the active insertion and disruptive presence of people in the usual processes of social institutions. It includes sit-ins, occupations, and obstructions of business as usual, in offices, the streets and elsewhere. This method poses a direct and immediate challenge than the others.

There are many other characteristics of nonviolent action outlined by Gene Sharp, but these ones outlined satisfy our needs.

Rules Guiding a Nonviolent Person

There are some basic rules, which a person must possess to carry out a successful nonviolence campaign. These are;

» The person using nonviolence will seek to be absolutely open, honest ad truthful.

» The person using nonviolence will seek to overcome fear so as to act not out of weakness but from strength.

» The person using nonviolence will never defame the character of the opponent, but always seek to find what the Quakers call "That of God" in those whom we struggle.

» We shall do our best to love those with whom we are in conflict.

Many feel that 'noninvolvement' is a basic characteristic of nonviolence. Contrary to this, 'noninvolvement' means living in the aesthetic level of existence where one is strictly an observer- a non participant and the whole life is one of the cynical noninvolvement. He who possesses nonviolence has made a choice of life. This is eminent in Mahatma Gandhi's Philosophy of nonviolence.


  1. P. A. OGBONNA, The Chosen Life, Enugu, Asomog Press, 1989, 24.
  2. . Third New International Dictionary, Soringfield Mass; G.E. Merian and Co; 1963, 298.
  3. R. L. HOLMES, "Violence", The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Robert Audi (ed.),Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995, 829.
  4. Ibid
  5. "Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand" Microsoft Encarta R 98, Encyclopedia C, 1993-1997, Microsoft Corporation.
  6. G. SHARP "A Study of the Meaning of Nonviolence", in G. Ramachandran and T.K. Mahadesan (eds.) Gandhi, His Relevance for our Time, Berkeley, World Without War, 1971, 29-54.
  7. B. IRWIN and G. FAISON, Why Nonviolence? Introduction to Nonviolence Theory and Strategy, N. Town, New Society Publishers, 1984, p. 3.
  8. "Pacifism".
  9. "Pacifism".
  10. J. RAWLS, "A Theory of Civil Disobedience" The Philosophy of Law, R. Dworking (ed.), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1977, 81.
  11. 11. O. ECHEKWUBE, Contemporary Ethics: History, Theories and Issues, Lagos, Spero Books Ltd, 1999, 302.
  12. D. MC REYNOLDS, The Philosophy of Nonviolence,, 2000, Part 5.
  13. MARCUS AURELIUS, Meditations,
  14. Anabaptist: Member of a radical movement of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation characterized by adult baptism. Most Anabaptists were pacifists and refused to swear civil oaths. They were expelled from one city after another, and many were martyred.
  15. IRA CHERNUS, American Nonviolence; The History of an Idea
  16. G. SHARP. The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Boston; Porter Sagent, 1973, 64.
  17. J.O. ODEY, Mahatma Gandhi, A profile in Love Peace and Nonviolence, Enugu; Snaap Press, 1996, 236.
  18. B. IRWIN and G. FAISON, Why Nonviolence? 7.
  19. R. KUMAR, Non-Cooperation, Meerut, World Peace Movement Trust, 2009, 11.