Sunday, September 8, 2019

Moving on!

For any who may still watch this space. I have left this blog behind to continue elsewhere: <>. Cheers!  --JGM.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Reflections on Identity

I have reflected much in recent years on what it means to work as an academic, to be a teacher. I think the most useful things I teach are not particularly or uniquely mine (languages, some great old poetry and culture that existed before me and will most likely endure after), and I don't want or need to be honored a great deal for them. A good historian, a good storyteller, has some place in decent society, I think, but trying to turn that place into a Distinguished Chair of Royal Astrology with free food for life and junkets around the world is not really ethical.

Academics could use more humility, as a species. I am fortunate--or not, depending on your point of view--in that my own mediocrity and historical circumstance (coming up in a time when too many qualified teachers exist) combine to make humility necessary, and relatively easy, for me. I can enjoy delving as deep as I can into culture that I find fascinating, without the burden of climbing a career ladder that does not exist for me (chasing tenure via publishing and service work, i.e. too many meetings whose greatest accomplishment is to waste time).

Some people seek a kind of personal identity from their career, an identity that tied their life up with being a certain kind of person. I started out in this manner, too, and naively thought that I could be a Mormon academic, i.e. that this identity was not only possible for me, but that it was good. Experience has shown me that I don't really want to be either a Mormon or an academic. If that is all that I am, if I get to the end of my life and can say only that I complied with some basic institutional protocols and had all my paperwork in order, then I will be profoundly sad.

A good friend died recently, and I attended his funeral in a Mormon church (where he was an active member). While I really enjoyed learning more about his very interesting life (cut short too soon by a sudden heart attack), I found the bishop's sermon at the end quite disappointing--an empty series of cliches whose bearing on lived experience was so little that the meeting would have been better served had he chosen to remain silent (as indeed he threatened to do at the beginning of his remarks). This experience confirmed what the past has taught: I cannot go back to being a good Mormon. It just won't happen. I lack the ability to force myself into a headspace where I need to hear remarks like those uttered by this well-meaning bishop without rolling my eyes.

When I first realized that I could not be a good Mormon, I thought perhaps to salvage my usefulness to society by being a good academic. My last decade working in the university has cooled me to that prospect. Most of the jobs I applied to fresh out of grad school are now jobs I would not want. Thank goodness I did not get most of them! While I really enjoy teaching, I have no illusions about being the gatekeeper to any knowledge required for human survival or thriving. Tuition is too expensive. The academic publishing industry is mostly a waste (to which I am grateful not to have contributed much as yet: when and if I do make something, it will never be required reading and I will never be offended that you haven't heard of it). The petty squabbles, the endless bureaucracy, the trading of favors, the snubbing and backbiting, the pretentious institutional claims to omniscience, etc.--all remind me vividly of the worst things I encountered in Mormon churches! I like sharing time with students looking at interesting culture. That we live in a moment wherein this activity affords me a small living is miraculous, a miracle that could always end at any time, and I would retire grateful, not shattered.

So, where do I find my identity? I could look in many places, but the ones that suggest themselves to me are all smaller than established American institutions seem to want. I have no interest in becoming identified with a race or a political party or any other giant mob of people belching smoke about how great they are in some vast process whose workings are inscrutable unless you are Hegel or P. T. Barnum. I love my wife. That is something I identify with, consistently. I love my kids. I love my family--the people I grew up with, and those I have become related to over the years by marriage and other accidents. I love my friends, especially the friends I have who aren't forced to be with me because we work in the same industry or found ourselves enrolled on the records of the same megachurch. The people I have studied jiu-jitsu with are some of my closest adult friends, as many of my closest childhood friends were fellow students of taekwondo. A few Buddhists, too, and the occasional Mormon (in or out of the institutional church) have also shown me personal kindness and interest that I still appreciate. These people are all over every ideological spectrum anyone might construct. They have no single commitment to any one idea or institution that joins us. What I love is their character, as individuals, something that cannot be abstracted away into skill-sets (let alone replaced effectively by mere intelligence, artificial or otherwise). I want to help these people, to spend my life with them, to get better at the things we do together; beyond that, I have no interest. Saving the nation with my vote is as futile to me as saving political science with publication, or saving my soul with an appropriately stodgy ritual. As long as I can have people I trust around me, I don't mind so much how we live. The right people make living in tents--or shoddy, overpriced cardboard boxes like the one I am in right now--just fine. Constant access to electricity and water is nice, but we can even find ways to work around that (especially if we know our local history!).

The real secret to life, I am starting to think, is finding good people and then doing what needs to be done to commit yourself to them, to become a member of some group you can respect that remains intimate enough to respect you back. Eventually, that respect turns to love. Wisdom teaches that I cannot reach the entire world with these goods: they require the kind of intimate, personal investment that will not be mass-produced, globally distributed, profitably monetized. Whatever nonsense the world at large is up to--in the courts, in the churches, in the universities, so many domains of petty gods who imagine they aren't the devil--it will never amount to anything I can love, ever again.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Wilderness Inspiration

These are some quotations that I found particularly thought-provoking as I participated in and reflected upon my experience with the Boulder Outdoor Survival School in southern Utah (24 May-6 June 2015, field course J106). 

"Nature and instruction are closely related.  For instruction remodels man [changes his rhythm or shape], and having remodeled him, it creates his nature" (Democritus, ap. Clem. Strom. 4.151).

"The civilization of nations consists in tempering nature with reason, where nature has the greater part.  Consider all the nations of the ancient world, the Persians at the time of Cyrus, the Greeks, the Romans.  The Romans were never such philosophers as they were when they bowed to barbarism, that is in the time of tyranny.  And likewise, in the preceding years, the Romans had made great progress in philosophy and general knowledge, which was something new for them. We can draw another conclusion from this, which is that the safeguards of a nation's freedom are neither philosophy nor reason, which are now expected to regenerate public affairs, but virtue, illusions, and enthusiasm, in other words nature, from which we are very far removed.  A nation of philosophers would be the most small-minded and cowardly in the world.  Thus, our regeneration will depend on what might be called an ultra-philosophy, which, through a complete and intimate knowledge of things, brings us close again to nature.  And this should be the outcome of the extraordinary enlightenment of this century" (Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone 114-5, ed. Caesar et al).

"And a certain scribe came, and said unto him, Master, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest. And Jesus saith unto him, The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head" (Matthew 8:19-20 KJV).

"And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:20-21 KJV).

"My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence" (John 18:36 KJV).

"To be like the immortals / you need a mind as hard as iron" (Meng Chiao).

"Advancing or retiring, grasping or letting go / people all have their own ways / Heaven and Earth let me be lazy / profit and fame put others to work / gulls sleep on piers with their backs to the sun / swallows build nests above house beams / misled by passion distracted by things / they remain unaware of the Master of Emptiness" (Stonehouse 74).  Bill Porter's comment: "The Master of Emptiness refers to the Buddha, who taught that since all things depend on other things for their existence, they are themselves empty of self-existence, and thus not ultimately real" (78).

"Live without making visits / die neither kind nor just / words include limbs and leaves / thoughts contain lies and betrayals / people who clear a small path / thereby give rise to great deceit / claiming to build a ladder to the clouds / they whittle it into splinters" (Cold Mountain 189).

"The whole Buddhist canon is worthless old paper / seventeen hundred tangled vines / who can see through the mess / one thought is still too many" (Stonehouse 132).

"Letting go means letting everything go / buddhahood has to go too / each thought becomes a demon / each word invites more trouble / survive instead on what karma brings / pass your days in freedom / make the Dharma your practice / lead your ox to the mill" (Stonehouse 181).  Bill Porter's comment: "Buddhists recognize an infinite number of demons, or maras, one for every thought, word, and deed. The purpose of these demons is to obstruct us from understanding the true nature of reality. Dharma is the Buddhist word for what is held to be real, especially the Buddha's teaching. As early as the T'ang and Sung dynasties, Chinese monks used the ox as a metaphor for the untamed mind" (196).

"People ask the way to Cold Mountain / but roads don't reach Cold Mountain / in summer the ice doesn't melt / and the morning fog is too dense / how did someone like me arrive / our minds are not the same / if they were the same / you would be here" (Cold Mountain 16).

"Before the cliffs I sat alone / the moon shone in the sky / but where a thousand shapes appeared / its lantern cast no light / the unobstructed spirit is clear / the empty cave is a mystery / a finger showed me the moon / the moon is the hub of the mind" (Cold Mountain 10).

"Born thirty years ago / I've traveled countless miles / along rivers where the green rushes swayed / to the frontier where the red dust swirled / I've made elixirs and tried to become immortal / I've read the classics and written odes / and now I've retired to Cold Mountain to lie in a stream and wash out my ears" (Cold Mountain 131).

"I have a single cave / a cave with nothing inside / spacious and devoid of dust / full of light that always shines / a meal of plants feeds a frail body / a cloth robe masks a mirage / let your thousand sages appear / I have the primordial Buddha" (Cold Mountain 163).

"Pole your three-winged galleons / ride your thousand-mile stallions / you still won't reach my home / it's called the darkest wild / my cave is on a distant ridge / clouds and thunder last all day / I'm not Master Confucius / I have nothing to convey [var: teach]" (Cold Mountain 29).

"The Dharma realized and taught by the Tathagatha is incomprehensible and inexpressible. It is neither a dharma, nor is it not a dharma" (Diamond Sutra 7).

"Parrots live in western lands / hunters bring them back in nets / courtesans tease them dawn to dusk / somewhere behind palace curtains / they're given a golden cage / but locked away their plumage fades / not like the wild geese and swans / flying up in the clouds" (Cold Mountain 19).

"People search for cloud roads / but cloud roads can't be found / the peaks are high and sheer / the streams are wide and dark / ridges rise in front and back / clouds stretch east and west / I'll tell you where cloud roads are / Cloud roads are in space" (Cold Mountain 255).

"I longed to visit the eastern cliff / countless years until today / I finally grabbed a vine and climbed / but halfway there met mist and wind / the trail was too narrow for clothes / the moss too slick for shoes / I stopped beneath this cinnamon tree / and slept with a cloud for a pillow" (Cold Mountain 9).

"One bottle is cast in gold / another is moulded from clay / take a look at these two / which is bound to endure / knowing these bottles differ / surely you know that karma does too / examine the seeds of rebirth / cultivation begins today" (Cold Mountain 190).

"I saw some trees by the river / more weathered than I can describe / a couple of trunks remained / with thousands of ax-blade scars / their dry yellow leaves had been stripped by the frost / their rotten hearts battered by waves / but this is how habitats are / why blame Heaven and Earth" (Cold Mountain 198).

"Heaven and Earth are heartless / treating creatures like straw dogs / sages are heartless too / they treat people like straw dogs / between Heaven and Earth / how like a bellows / empty but inexhaustible / each stroke produces more / talking only wastes it / better to protect what's inside" (Lao-tzu 5).  Su Ch'e: "Heaven and Earth aren't partial.  They don't kill living things out of cruelty or give birth to them out of kindness.  We do the same when we make straw dogs to use in sacrifices.   We dress them up and put them on the altar, but not because we love them.  And when the ceremony is over, we throw them into the street, but not because we hate them.  This is how sages treat the people."

"A state relies on people / just as a tree depends on soil / if the soil is deep it thrives / if the soil is thin it withers / and if its roots are exposed / its limbs produce no fruit / draining a pond to catch fish / gains only a short-term profit" (Cold Mountain 222).

"True emptiness is clear and always present / masked by delusions for reasons we don't know / how could what is real and what is fake exist apart / flowers bloom and flowers fall when the spring wind blows" (Stonehouse 92).

"Calligraphy unrestrained / physique robust enough / alive a body with limits / dead a ghost with no name / it's been like this since ancient times / what else can you do / join me inside the clouds / I'll teach you magic mushroom songs" (Cold Mountain 25).

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Letter to a Loser

Salve!  Hearing of your recent misfortune (the job you lost, the class you failed, the savings you burned in a hedge fund, etc.), I decided to be kind and compose this letter.  Rather than commiserate with you in the usual maudlin fashion (which certainly has its place), I am going to be frank--for we are very good friends, and I honor our friendship.

I am very happy that Fortune has denied your bid to check out on life.  Over the last few years, I have watched you slowly disintegrate, breaking yourself into pieces (public and private, polished and rough, good and bad) and hawking those pieces in the marketplace.  Up until this moment, you always found a buyer for something, and so you kept excavating--kept digging that hole in your heart a little deeper, searching desperately among your entrails for shiny things to polish and feed to the market.  You felt very nervous about this process, clearly, and there were times when you thought about cashing out--taking a break, doing something else, finding a way to exist that didn't involve betting your livelihood on people's finicky taste for whatever shit you could scrounge to offer them.  You said you would take that break if Opportunity knocked.  Well, she is knocking now--very loudly.

Listen to what she says.  "Look, buddy, I'm going to do you a favor.  I'm going to cut through all the bullshit everyone else in this marketplace will give you--about how you're a wonderful person with some impressive skills and you just have to try harder next time, blah blah--and tell you the truth.  Being a prostitute is no good if you have to beg for clientele.  Trust me on this one: the clients you want are the ones who come begging to you, not the other way round.  Never give your soul to any of the vultures here.  Don't go into a job interview you must ace.  Don't take a class you cannot fail.  Don't bet any money you cannot lose on a hedge fund.  That divine fire that people rave about?  Those 'impressive skills' you spend so much time honing?  At some point these gifts turn against you, becoming the weapons the market uses to destroy you rather than the tools you use to better yourself.  Have you reached that point yet?"

"People are weak, and the Market makes some of you weaker.  It pretends to love you, to want you, to need you, to value you, and so on.  The wise among you know that it is lying, that what it really wants is something impersonal (some quality or value that exists independent of individual personae such as you).  The Market is secretly very happy when there are too many people vying for its limited favors (that will always be limited, by nature): the issue of a room full of eager prostitutes is that the Market always gets well laid, but it cannot sleep with everyone.  It cannot love everyone.  It cannot make everyone its special one-and-only.  What it can do is lie.  The wise are not hurt by its lies, because they have learned not to make their livelihood at the Market.  They are available to take the Market's favors, but they do not require them (as you do).  They are not dependent on the Market (as you are, right now).  The Market is only really good for people who do not need to be there.  Become one of those people.  Until then, stay away from the Market: it will always break you more than it makes you."

Where am I to go? is naturally your next question.  You need a larger perspective than the one you have right now--the close-minded perspective of the narrow Market you have been courting in vain.  Your Market was too little for you, too small and specialized.  You have to find a larger Market (one that allows you access to more clients, more needs, more opportunities to put yourself together without pulling yourself apart).  You have to re-assess your persona.  What do you really need to survive?  Food?  Clothing?  Shelter?  A community to which you can contribute something meaningful?  There are many ways to have these things.  Many poor people have them.  Many losers.  Be the loser you already are: just enjoy it more, and waste less time wishing you could find some other way to lose (e.g. the kind of loss that your petty little Market calls success).

Is it really true that there is no such thing as life without loss?  I think this is true, for we are all mortal.  That means everything we do leads eventually to death (at least as a way-station: even those who embrace immortality do so by making death a gateway gods must pass).  You must learn to love loss, to love yourself as a loser.  You must see that losing contains valuable information, particularly when it is mitigated loss (rather than the total loss you have encountered recently).  Success is a dream, a lie, a fairy-tale that unscrupulous Markets sell to prostitutes that they want to have on the cheap.  It weakens those who pursue it, because they fail to learn from their own loss, and it weakens those who gain it, because they fail to learn from others' loss (and see a false security instead of the volatility that Nature makes).

Since you must lose, make yours a beautiful loss.  Don't lose someone else's game.  Don't let the Market define your loss.  Lose your own way, doing something you believe in.  Instead of cutting yourself apart in desperate hope that someone else will love your guts, cut yourself apart because you already love them.  The best loser is the one who loses his own game, on terms that he has made purposely for himself.  Be that loser.  Vale.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Opium of the People

A missionary-minded friend sent me a link to an evangelical Christian book discussing the Marxist dictum: "Religion is the sob of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world ... the opium of the people."  I cracked the book and had some ideas of my own.
To me the title of this book--Opium or Truth?--begs an important question.  In what way is opium not truth?  Regarding Marxism, I agree with Karl Popper, who called it a modern humanitarian religion (which the Bolsheviks and their ilk practised the way the Holy Inquisition practised Christianity).  So Marxism is just another kind of opium, subject to the same accidents and afflictions that attend the brands it aims to displace in the marketplace of ideas. 

I think the Daodejing is a better book for understanding the world, from the perspective that Life (or God) has given me, than is the Bible.  That does not mean that I resent people reading the Bible (or similar books), only that I don't personally find in it the deep meaning that they do.  I thought I found that meaning, for many years, but I kept searching the world and experiencing new things--and at some point I realized that the Bible is not the only or even the best guide for my life. 

My religion is not primarily about books or beliefs, in the end.  Books and beliefs for me are just tools, means to enable a kind of existence that is bigger than they are, that includes more things.  I need some connection to people, people who don't live on the other side of the world (or in an office building I can never visit in Salt Lake City).  I need some connection to the non-human environment around me that I can believe in (as I cannot believe in the gods I meet in the Old and New Testaments, the way these are commonly interpreted).  I need friends, nature, and service. 

The Bible does not offer me any of that.  In fact, it seems to take that away, when churches founded around it want to spend all their time talking about the Bible, instead of living what I see as a holy life.  I understand Jesus differently today than I once did.  I think his message was likely a bit different from what many people seem to think.  He did not write anything.  He did not command people to write.  He came to fulfil the Law: so why are we still reading it?  The Old Testament is done, gone, a curio--no different to Christ, in my mind, than the Epic of Gilgamesh.  The New Testament is not really much better: somewhere in the midst of miracle tales, sectarian rants, and pseudo-philosophical speculation (not to mention the straight-up insanity known as the Book of Revelation: that is some strong opium there, maybe LSD), the basic Christian message of universal love and political renunciation ("my kingdom is not of this world") gets buried and lost, so lost that hardly anyone finds it (especially not the people who spend their entire lives bloviating about the secret meaning of the impossible riddles we find in Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, or the Book of Revelation).

I know you love the Bible.  It allows you to build a coherent life, one in which you get some kind of regular access to whatever it is that you need to be a good person (relating well to God, to yourself, and to the rest of us).  That is great.  Not all of us can have that the same way.  I don't want to take your life away and replace it with mine.  I am not sure that reading the Daodejing would improve your life.  I don't know precisely what it is that you need to live well.  I leave the negotiation of that problem to you and God (without any definitive idea myself of what that means: deity is a mystery for me, a mystery that people don't understand--especially not when they think it is clearly visible in some book like the Bible).  I rejoice when you are happy in your religion.  I am sad when you are sad.  I am here to help you in any way I can. But I cannot share your faith anymore than I can share your mind or body.  We are not the same--similar though we might be, much as we might share (in terms of inheritance, of culture, of history and experience). 

If I were to identify myself as a practising Christian, a thing which could happen, I would not make the Bible central to my Christianity.  What appeals to me in Christianity is not the Bible, but the renunciation of attachment--to the world and its ideas, including all the worldly ideas in the Bible (which is a very worldly book, in my experience, one that includes reading many books).  I could see myself becoming some kind of Orthodox (probably not Catholic) hermit, monk, or recluse--retiring from life to pray, sing, and grow a nice garden someplace remote, with a cave or cell I might inhabit peacefully (with or without a Bible: I don't particularly care).  At this point in my life, this option is not really a good one.  I have a family to look after, and the Christian traditions that surround me are not really friendly to contemplative approaches that eschew theology.  Instead, everyone wants to debate the Bible, to establish orthodoxy, to get the sacraments right, to make the kingdom of heaven come down to earth so that we can all see it the same way, in the same things.  I really dislike this vision of religion, of Christianity.  It is not my religion.  It really never was, not even when I was a good Mormon.  I did not want to impose faith on people; I was not interested in convincing or converting folks against their will.  I just wanted to understand myself better, myself and the mystery I know as God.  That is all I have ever wanted.  I am still pursuing my quest; I have just left behind the conviction that it must lead me to active affiliation with religion that is not mine--with life whose integrity I cannot know and embody for myself. 

We don't all react the same way to the same opium.  When the truth sets us free, we don't all use our freedom the same way, to do the same things.  This too is part of the mystery we call God.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Commentary on Sex

A friend pointed me to this article, which inspired a small rant on sex.

Good grief. I simply don't understand the "sex is violence" meme. That is not how I see it--and I find those experiences, all vicarious for me since I have never been party to violent sex, the opposite of inspiring. Unless the point was to make me want to avoid intercourse (and maybe fight someone, or least punch something).

The idea that one could have sex without any emotional hang-ups is similarly ludicrous to me. I just don't get it. There is no way I find myself in the position of not caring what happens to someone I know that way. So I don't understand the "sex is meaningless fun" meme, either. I do not think of myself as particularly prudish (though I certainly was that way at one point in my life). Even when I was a prude, that prudishness was something I aspired to apply primarily to myself (sometimes pretty harshly) rather than to others (whom it was never my place to judge). Getting married was very helpful when it came to defeating the negative aspects of this prudishness where these existed (primarily as reflections of self-loathing on my part); but that did not make sex meaningless for me, something that didn't particularly matter or connect me with other people (as people). More like the opposite: I became more acutely aware that people matter, that one cannot relate effectively to caricatures or stereotypes, that real love-making is about building people rather than breaking them.

Breaking people isn't even fun, from my perspective. If I were offered the chance to have sex without natural consequences, without emotions--I would not want it. The same way I wouldn't want to eat 'food products' deprived of all their nutritious value. The prospect of being allowed to eat meals of empty foodstuffs constantly (or ingest endless rounds of cheap alcohol or another 'fun' drug) would not make me happy. I would not choose it. In the same way, I would not choose to have sex without any emotional consequences, without any kind of relationship existing outside the particular expression of love that sex is. Eating one breakfast means not eating another one, at some point. Making love with one person means not making love to someone else. We cannot relate equally to all human beings. We cannot love all alike (unless we deliberately isolate ourselves from the kind of particular relationships that are familial, becoming monks and nuns, who are often celibate--not because they are prudes, but because they recognize the consequences of sex and seek to avoid them, to cultivate goods that sex obviates or negates). I think there are people for whom non-monogamy works better than it will work for others. But even these folks must recognize some limits, some boundaries beyond which they do not pass--unless they want to dissolve their relationships (and that will be hard, often really devastating, even if the relationship in question is a bad one).

We used to advise people to "think of the children" when letting their romantic fancies roam. We might also advise them to think of their spouse(s), who will always have (strong) feelings about the integrity of their relationship. We might even advise them to think of themselves, as beings incapable of transcending the need for human companionship that is more than momentary, that has more than sex to sustain it. To me it seems that the fetishization of sex, its reduction to the most important activity in romantic relationships, has impaired our ability (collectively anyway) to recognize that other things are at least as important, that sex without those things is not really worth much.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Why Do Wealth and Peace Exist?

A friend asked this question, and I wrote an answer.

Wealth exists because we invented agriculture, which gave us year-round access to stores of food from which some people can exclude others. This is why poverty exists, too, incidentally. I see wealth and poverty as two aspects of the same thing: scarcity. Foraging societies (like the Hadza in Africa) don't have the artificial scarcity that we civilized folk have, because every individual (including even fairly small children) knows how to go out into the bush and get food, shelter, and friendship (the basics we all need for survival: they don't call this wealth; it is simply life).

Peace exists when depopulation (from disease, famine, or war) gives agricultural societies breathing space to grow their wealth without having to protect it from other people. I see peace and war as fundamentally the same thing, complementary expressions of agricultural demographics. When foraging societies settle down to live in villages and cities, they become more fertile (producing more people in less time: this is peace--e.g. the Ara Pacis in ancient Rome, with pictures of motherhood on it). More humans (the outcome of greater fertility) means we need more stuff (wealth). Since we are sedentary and can only get wealth by access to land that we own (fence and work extensively)--we have to go out of our native habitat (overcrowded and overworked as it is) and occupy other land (virgin land). Eventually, we encounter other people--and the outcome of that meeting becomes war (not just the feuds of individual hunters and clans, which transcend agricultural society, but the organized genocide that is civilized war: we don't want mere revenge or justice or whatever; we want your land, and its wealth).

Mercantilism and colonialism (or in their latest guise, globalization) allow us to enjoy peace and war, poverty and wealth, simultaneously. I send troops to Peter's land to take it or its wealth for me, and then sell that wealth on a "free" market to Paul, who has no idea that his diamonds come from the death of child-soldiers abroad. Poverty and war are outsourced to the frontier of civilization, so that the rich urban center can enjoy wealth and peace. To quote one of my favorite historians on the essence of peace: Auferre, trucidare, rapere falsis nominibus imperium; atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.  

In sum: wealth and peace exist because somewhere someone died (often miserably and involuntarily, sometimes voluntarily or otherwise nobly).