1.  Harmony: Unity, Multiplicity, Conflict

A standard reply to someone full of praise for harmony in the social and economic world might simply go like this: „What exactly do you mean by ‚harmony’?“ There is a standard reply to that standard question: harmony means an interplay of different persons to the effect that the result is a unity out of multiplicity. Unfortunately, this definition fits perfectly to a platoon of soldiers marching in perfect unison. Again, a standard reply to this objection is ready at hand: in harmony the participants shouldn´t give up their individual contributions but the result should originate in the combined efforts of each and every person concerned, and these persons should work together not in conflict but … what? – in harmony? To cut a long discussion short: the standard definition amounts to this: harmony is a state of cooperation without conflict by creating unity out of multiplicity. What´s wrong with that? To find that out let us take advice from a very old resource and shed some new light upon it.

  1. The Father of all Things

The Greek philosopher Heraklitus once wrote: „pólemos pánton patér“. Prussian generals found a rather peculiar translation for this dictum: „War is the father of all things.“ Never mind Prussian generals when it comes to translating ancient Greek. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger went to great lengths in making better sense out of Heraklitus´ statement. According to his interpretation we have to understand „pólemos“ in the sense of „differentiation“ or „difference“ or even „analysis“ (for German readers: he wrote „Auseinandersetzung“ which is to be taken in a literal sense, not simply as „conflict“ but as „separating“, „breaking up“ or „dividing“ and „distinguishing“).

Again, we cut a long discussion short: „pólemos“ means nothing else but the emergence of varying, distinct and individual things out of a – real or imagined – state of unity. In the social world, „pólemos“ accordingly is the origin of the existence of individual persons out of a social body as a unity. Individuality here means: persons have different interests, wishes, ideas and thoughts about what is good and bad, right and wrong, true and false, and why should unity be better than multiplicity?

Now we are very close to understanding why „pólemos“ of all things is said to be the „father of all things“. The original emerging of distinctions is the father of language (if the ideas and thoughts in our brains would be identical between different persons there would be no basis for talking to each other – why communicating if we already know what other persons think?) and therefore of culture, of society, and of the state with its institutions that enable different persons to live together. The original emerging of distinctions is the father of the principle of economy, too, which begins with the exchange of goods and services, which process, again, presupposes that different persons value the same things in a different way making it useful to barter one for another in a way that both persons experience a higher state of satisfaction.

In short, all we think, believe and know today, together with the way we live together and cooperate in society, in the state, and in the economy, is the result of a development based on individual persons with conflicting opinions as well as with conflicting interests, desires and wishes. We talk to each other, we negotiate, we discuss, we have arguments and compromise for the better or for the worse but usually in a viable way. Thus Heraklitus´ dictum amounts to this: the state of conflict is the natural state among human beings, and it suggests a good reason for this: because we are persons exactly by differing from each other regarding desires, thoughts, feelings, views, in short, regarding the vantage points from which we take different perspectives on the world.

  1. From Harmony to Politeness

In contrast to what Heraklitus called the „father of all things“ the addicts to harmony look at competing and cooperating with a suspicious eye. This suspicion stems from a double-bind situation: on the one hand the addict knows about persons as individuals with their own desires, thoughts and views, on the other hand he feels obliged to view this truth as something that ought not to exist.

Must we linger in this situation? I´d like to suggest another way of managing cooperation and competition without giving up the idea of distinctions – between persons, ideas, wishes and desires – in society and economy. There is a very old concept regarding our behavior in society that might show us the way how to avoid the delusive idea of harmony and come to terms with conflict without such a mirage. It is hidden in the well-known idea of politeness or of how to behave in a civil manner. This idea is not limited to a certain culture or religion or nation or language. However, here I have to add a caveat for my German readers: please do not translate these terms with the misleading words ‚Höflichkeit’ or ‚höflich’, because they imply negative connotations with mere formal rules of behavior. Please read on to see why the English terms are far better suited to express what I mean.

The terms ‚to be polite’ and ‚to be civil’ stem from the Greek and the Roman way of describing the appropriate behavior for persons living as citizens in a society and in a state of free men and women – as a ‚cives’ in a ‚polis’, to mix the Roman and the Greek terms. There is no harmony included in these ideas. They rather express the necessity of respecting and esteeming other persons as of equal worth and therefore as possessing the same rights for participating in politics and for living unharmed and in freedom – until proven otherwise on the basis of laws given by the people and for the people.

Obviously this is a rough sketch of the foundations of the republican as well as the democratic political system. But there is something more to it than just the political dimension. Being polite (behave and act as a member of a ‚polis’) and being civil (behave and act as a citizen) are ideas that are at the same time describing the appropriate behavior in situations of conflict. But they don´t imply any idea of harmony. Likewise, they don´t come as a revival of an ideal of unity instead of multiplicity coming back in through the back door.

  1. The Principle of Politeness

Maybe we should have a closer look at politeness as an appropriate way of living with conflicts. This perspective was introduced about 200 years ago by the German playwright Friedrich Schiller with his law of politeness (though he used the expression ‚the good tone’). The First Law of politeness is: „Spare other persons` freedom!“, to put it differently: „Be easy on other persons´ freedom!“.

We can very easily connect a modern sociological and/or psychological concept of politeness to this idea of a philosopher and playwright. It is called the ‚face-saving’-perspective. Seen from this perspective saving one´s own face and allowing other persons to do so accordingly is a condition for successful acting in a communicative way. It means avoiding face-threatening acts whereever possible – even in conflict situations. A good if very general description of such a principle might be the following by R. Lakoff: „Don´t impose. Give options. Make A feel good.“ The long and the short of this principle is: „Act in conflict situations in a way that your competitors and collaborators don´t lose face!“

Making sure that other persons don`t lose face in handling conflict situations is a social concept. It is a social concept (1) because it refers to situations of cooperating and competing, and (2) because it concerns a person´s reputation and standing in society. But since the ways other persons regard and esteem us are at least a vital part of our self-esteem and of the way we are aware of ourselves, this social concept includes the individual as a social self as well. The advantage over the concept of harmony is in its ability to give way to protecting individuality and multiplicity whereas harmony focuses on unity without multiplicity thereby denying and even destroying individuality as well.

  1. Stop Seeking Harmony and Learn how to Handle Conflicts

Emphasizing the concept of harmony generally is nothing else but a trick to lure us into denying or ignoring the natural state of difference between persons. Disregarding this difference is tantamount to paying no attention to a person´s individuality. This trick mainly consists of pretending the difference could be resolved by living and working together like the different voices in an orchestra, in other words: the trick is to use a wrong metaphor. In emphasizing harmony in human life and cooperation this false analogy is being exploited to deny the individuality of a person, its being rightfully distinct from other persons, and the natural state of conflict among cooperating and competing persons. The concept of harmony is fundamentally wrong because it allows the strive for unity to come back through the back door in spite of our knowledge about the precedence of multiplicity in human life.

Economy is all about scarce resources and about exchanging goods and services between different persons without a universal harmony determining how they ought value the things they want to exchange in order to get other things they want. In economy there is no preordained superstructure like the composer in the false analogy between human cooperation and musical harmony. We shouldn´t view this as a cause for lamentation and grievance. It is the basis of our freedom as individual persons. We shouldn´t complain about the existence of conflict, rather we should be worried about the non-existence of appropriate methods of living with conflicts. Living in a state of conflict is simply another expression for living with other human beings whose very essence is living as individuals in a society with other individuals.

What really matters in cooperating among persons with different interests, feelings, thoughts, and different world-views, is the ability to handle conflict situations without resolving those differences in a fake unity. The concept of harmony usually is an instrument for giving persons the illusion of preserving the individual in unity whereas in reality in the name of harmony multiplicity and individuality are destroyed and only a thin façade of both is kept to maintain the mirage. This leads us away from a civilised and polite way of handling conflict situations without threatening another person´s face.

What we need is not the strive for harmony but the acceptance of conflict and the capability of resolving, tolerating and in many cases enduring conflict situations.


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Dr. Georg Römpp studied Economics, Political Science and Philosophy. After earning a doctor´s degree in philosophy and publishing numerous articles in philosophical journals in Germany and the U.S. he started a career as a freelance writer. Among his most recent books are „Das Anti-Glücksbuch“ (2012), „Nietzsche leicht gemacht“ (2013), „Wozu die Kunst?“ (2014), and „Jürgen Habermas leicht gemacht“ (forthcoming - autumn 2015). See www.georgroempp.de for further details.