William James on “The Moral Equivalent of War”

William James, a committed pacifist, lived through the Civil War and the Spanish-American War and died during the run-up to World War I. In an incredible essay, “The Moral Equivalent of War,” first delivered as a talk at Stanford and later published in 1910, the year of his death, James observes that though everyone would prefer to have the peace issuing forth after the Civil War almost no one would want to eradicate from the human record the bloodiest war to have taken place on American soil, a war pitting brother against brother. Reviewing the history of war in an impressionistic sort of way, James allows himself to be entangled in the knot: war is terrible, cruelty and bloodshed are unconscionable, but what virtues it celebrates are excellent, and life without war is, it seems, impoverished and denigrated. Indeed, the socialists, of whom James is one, do not see what could arise were war to be a thing of the past: softness and squeamishness, the desire for pleasures and comforts, universal inferiority, a lack of vitality. It is not as if war has since disappeared from the lives of many in the developed world, but the ennobling virtues of war surely have, and with such a loss has come the emergence of softness. We have become soft period. What was alluded to has become a reality: “A permanently successful peace-economy cannot be a simple pleasure-economy,” James writes a hundred years ago, and yet it has.

James’s insightful approach is to take seriously the militaristic point of view, entering into it and seeing out of it. He writes approvingly, “Militarism is the great preserver of our ideals of hardihood, and human life with no use for hardihood would be contemptible.” War, he notes, makes men harder, tougher, and it makes a people more cohesive, the bonds uniting them stronger. What is more, so far in human history, the martial virtues and attitudes–courage, ambition, contempt of death, vitality, and intensity among them–have been manifested in war and nowhere else, and he writes that, for military apologists, “No ordeal is comparable to its winnowings.” War tests those involved, showing–and this is no cliche–what men are truly made of.

James’s philosophical problem can now be set forth:

1.) The martial virtues are worth affirming in their own right.

2.) Yet the arena in which the material virtues have historically been affirmed–that is, war–is ugly and horrible.

3.) Life without the martial virtues is “flat degeneration” or, as I would say, “softness.”

Thus, he seeks to answer the question he puts to himself by finding a moral equivalent to war so as to replace the arena of war with some other, peaceable venue and in order to avoid the fate spelled out in 3.). It must be repeated that ours has largely become the a world of “flat degeneration,” a world that James would not have endorsed. In brief, James wants a certain “powerful” or “forceful” pacifism. So far, so good.

I believe what I might term “James’s problem” has not been taken very seriously because his answer is so incredibly daft. The daftness of his reply probably nullified the brilliant articulation of this the right question. He proposes that the moral equivalent of war against men is… war against nature. This proto-Ayn Randian line of thought means taking the human will and pouring it into Industry in order to build monuments such as railroads and skyscrapers celebrating human achievement to the detriment of the biosphere. This is a pity, not least because it has occurred and because it continues to occur, albeit without the fiery spirit behind it.

Other replies also strike me as inadequate. Sports such as hockey, boxing, football, rugby, and UFC do not properly cultivate the right martial virtues and fail to have enough at stake in showing us how something is higher than the fearful and the painful. The candidates other than sport are commerce (merchants with competitive spirits) and politics (statesmen trying to outmaneuver each other). Criticisms of these would demonstrate that they lack the heart.

I believe that the only way available to us today if we do not want to lose the heart, the fire of being a forceful human being is the one that Nietzsche discusses in The Genealogy of Morals. My moral equivalent of war is to have contests with myself, yours to have contests with yourself and not in a mean-spirited sort of way. In such a contest, what is brought home is how fear and pain can be transcended by means of courage. The figure I have in view is the beautiful, robust, vital, cheerful, and joyous martial artist/sage.

All this remains to be shown.