Paul Bäumer’s Plato-nic Conundrum: The Battle for Morality on the Western Front

By Tatum Koby

Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” portrays the horrors and moral dilemmas faced by soldiers during World War I. In examining the morality of killing in the context of war, Plato’s philosophical ideas can shed light on the ethical dimensions of Paul Baümer’s experiences. This essay aims to evaluate the morality of killing others during World War I, drawing upon Plato’s philosophies, as well as specific quotes from the novel.

Plato, a famous ancient Greek philosopher, emphasized the importance of justice and peace in society. Plato’s dialogue, “The Republic,” highlights the ideal state as one governed by philosopher-kings who possess wisdom and moral virtue. In Remarque’s novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, the brutal nature of World War I is depicted through Paul Baümer’s perspective. The dehumanizing effects of warfare and the constant threat to one’s life challenge the soldiers’ sense of morality. Paul and his comrades are confronted with the grim reality of killing their fellow human beings, leading to moral conflicts and existential dilemmas. Applying Plato’s Theory of Forms to the morality of killing, Plato would argue that the act of taking another’s life contradicts the inherent value of human existence. Plato believed in the immortality of the soul and the importance of cultivating virtues, including wisdom, temperance, courage, and justice.

In “All Quiet on the Western Front,” Paul Baümer has internal conflict with the moral implications of killing. He grapples with the notion that the enemy soldiers he is fighting were once individuals with families, dreams, and aspirations. Paul’s introspective thoughts reflect his internal conflict: “I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow” (Remarque, p. 11). These lines emphasize Paul’s realization of the brutality and futility of war, as well as his growing awareness of the moral implications of taking lives.

Plato posited that the soul consists of three parts: reason, spirit, and desire. Reason governs wisdom, spirit embodies courage, and desire encompasses our appetites and passions. Applying this to the moral evaluation of killing, Plato would argue that acting on desires or spirit alone without the guidance of reason leads to moral disarray. The chaotic nature of war disrupts the harmony of the soldiers’ souls, challenging their capacity to reason and make moral judgments. As the war continues, Paul’s moral compass begins to deteriorate. The atrocities he witnesses, the loss of his comrades, and the constant threat to his own life corrode his sense of morality. The following quote exemplifies Paul’s moral decay: “Do you know what it means to be awakened at night by a revolver shot? When every muscle, every nerve is quivering, ready, struggling against the terror of the dark, not to cry out?… That is war” (Remarque, p. 30). Paul’s experience highlights the dehumanizing effect of war on individuals, undermining their ability to maintain moral integrity.

Paul’s reflections on the nature of war and the dehumanization it entails reveal his inner turmoil. As he witnesses the suffering and death around him, he questions the value and purpose of the killing: “We see men go on living with their faces blown away; we see soldiers run with their two feet cut off, they stagger on their splintered stumps into the next shell-hole; a lance-corporal crawls a mile and a half on his hands dragging his smashed knee after him…” (Remarque, p. 113).

These vivid descriptions expose the gruesome reality of war and its destructive impact on human life. Plato’s Theory of Forms, which emphasizes the inherent value of human existence, would denounce the killing of fellow beings as a violation of the sanctity of life. “Only the dead have seen the end of war,” is a direct quote from Plato which supports Paul’s internal thoughts of the men in the war fighting for things they did not personally do. He questioned Germany’s reasons for making them fight when the soldiers had no idea who decided who the enemies were. Body after body, the men dropped like flies only to have a gruesome death surrounded by strangers in a disgusting trench. As Germany became weaker and weaker, the soldiers got increasingly younger and were constantly running from death before experiencing real emotions. Most had never experienced true love, happiness, the joy of having a family, and more. In the outside world, these men would still be considered kids but at war, they were treated as men and were expected to give their lives away without a second thought.

Expanding on Plato’s beliefs, he once said “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.” This saying is reflected by Paul’s morals when he begins to have compassion and sympathy for the men who are supposed to be called the “enemy.” Similar to Plato explaining that every person you encounter has personal battles of their own, Paul says “We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death”  (Remarque, p. 213). Looking through the enemy soldier’s pockets, Paul finds a picture of a woman and a little girl and begins to feel regret and despair because he knows he stole the life away from the man, as well as the two girls in the picture. Instead of seeing them as the enemy, Paul is one of the few people that are not blinded by the war and sees them as real people.

As Paul’s experiences accumulate, his moral compass begins to falter. He becomes desensitized to violence, viewing the enemy soldiers as mere targets rather than fellow human beings. Plato’s philosophy would interpret this as a degradation of Paul’s soul, where the spirit or desire for survival dominates over reason and compassion. Paul’s inner conflict is exemplified in the following lines: “We see men living with their skulls blown open; we see soldiers run with their two feet cut off; but we never see the courage, or the endurance, or the soldierly intelligence” (Remarque, p. 113). Paul’s frustration with the romanticized conceptions of bravery and heroism in war is reflected in these lines. Instead, he questions the true measure of courage and intelligence in the face of such horrors.

In conclusion, Plato’s philosophical ideas offer valuable insights into the evaluation of the morality of killing others during World War I as depicted in “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Through his emphasis on justice, the immorality of killing, and the tripartite soul, Plato sheds light on Paul Baümer’s moral struggles and the ethical dimensions of war. The novel serves as a touching reminder of the dehumanizing effects of war and the profound impact it has on individuals’ moral integrity. By examining Paul’s journey through Plato’s philosophical lens, we gain a deeper understanding of the moral complexities,  including compassion for the enemy, faced by soldiers during times of conflict.

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