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.”

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