Thoughts on the New Year

“In spite of ourselves, we begin to feel a pricking distrust of our former ideals. The world is changing. We wonder if the goal of the world is changing too.”

Nineteen-fifteen! In twenty centuries this is the most desperate New Year! This is the pinnacle to which our slow ascent has led. Since the very beginnings of history, men have believed that the fullness of time held some solution for the curse of war. The Romans sought to bring to birth by conquest a world held in place by universal law; but the god Terminus marked a last bound to conquest. The Holy Roman Empire aspired to a world united through common fealty to a single suzerain, until the vassals proved stronger than the master. The universal church dreamed a nobler dream, of faith, infinite and indivisible, locking the nations into one; but spiritual ties snapped at the clash of interests, and the credits of Heaven were discounted for cash. As the centuries went by and the world doubled, trebled, and quadrupled in size and diversity, the idea of some all-embracing principle, relating the parts each to each, grew ever vaguer and still more vague, until the staging of the Napoleonic drama gave the peoples of Europe some new sense of a world-federation. When the curtain was rung down on that great play one hundred years ago, disunion and new war were once again organized by Metternich and his fellow architects.

For a time that chaos seemed absolute. Then, from a new quarter, light broke. The most materialistic of the centuries offered a new solution, and what neither conquest nor federation nor yet religion could accomplish seemed possible through transportation, industry, and trade. It is hard for us to realize that on that yesterday, shortly before Victoria mounted the British throne, Sir Robert Peel, summoned post-haste from Rome, found that the journey took him as many days as it had taken Labienus eighteen hundred years before. Then, of a sudden, distances were annihilated by steam, and time was cut in fractions. People traveled in their neighbors’ countries, learned their neighbors’ languages, read their neighbors’ books. Machinery increased a thousandfold the possibilities of manufacture, and the workers, driven by the machines which they themselves had built, thinking to control them, toiled ever more steadily, turning out mightier masses of goods for delivery to other nations, satisfying old wants and creating new ones never dreamed of before. Step by step with well-being, comfort, and luxury, marched the dependence of one nation upon another. The new science of political economy set itself up as priest and prophet of the Age of Enlightenment.

As the century wore on, men—in the Anglo-Saxon world at least—persuaded themselves that at length a generation had arisen which looked actualities in the face, which could be neither obsessed by idealism nor misled by sentiment, which treated mysticism with deserved contempt, and, rating self-interest at its proper value, interpreted that interest in material terms. It was plain enough to the intelligent why earlier attempts to tie the world together had failed. Conquest, law, and religion could not bind it, but rent, interest, and profits were stronger than they; and, in a world close knit by business, trade, and manufacture, a world wherein the welfare of one country is part and parcel of the prosperity of all, wars must become commercially unprofitable, and, like all bad business, they must die.

Then came our own generation. Our heads were not so hard and our hearts were softer. tHe pendulum of materialism had swung too far. We distrusted many of the arguments of our fathers. We saw that the economic theories of thirty years before were working ill, and we were suspicious that the hopes built upon them were no better than their foundation. We began to rewrite our books on political economy. The atmosphere grew charged with misty substitutes for religion, with windy humanitarianism and wraiths of international benevolence. We welcomed the idea of a brotherhood of nations, held together by bonds of friendship. The parliament of man was no longer a trope; it was fast becoming a political platform.

Now it all sounds like a sardonic jest, but, at the time, it seemed a glorious reality. And the amazing part of it as that behind the vision there was a fabric. The characteristic forces of our civilization were actually ranged in support of the comity of nations. The most distinctive of them, Socialism, in its every Protean phase,  proclaimed unalterable hostility to war. In the creed of the orthodox Socialists the war on war was no less fundamental a tenet than the war on capital. Herr Bebel was not the only leader of European eminence to proclaim that the power of international Socialism had already rendered war impossible without its consent; while among more moderate members of the party and radicals of socialistic tendencies, the belief was widespread that internationalism marked the grave of war. At the other pole of society, opinion was not far different. Capitalists are timid by profession, but the great bankers of every country made common cause against a common enemy. The power of the money-changers of London, Paris, and Frankfort grew yearly more self-conscious. It was the veto of credit in 1911 which forbade a world-war over Morocco, and the dealers in exchange meant to make that veto perpetual. Finally, betwixt socialist and capitalist, the vast mass of well-intentioned men hailed pacifism as the very capstone of the temple of social reform wherein they were accustomed to worship. Peace societies wove their spiders’ webs over the whole Western world. The bells were set ringing to usher in a thousand years of peace.

Then came the 28th of June. A man and woman were struck down in a hill town of Bosnia. It was the pistol-shot which started the race to Hell. Events tumbled one another down like nine-pins, and, in the opening days of August, men by the million were marched to slaughter. The swiftness of itw as paralyzing. An avalanche starts slowly. This world-destruction was an explosion. The solid earth had been mined. We had watched the sappers at work as children watch the stage, and thought that they were acting.

Since then life has been unreal—made up of legends and of nightmares. There is nothing to hold on to. Not only have the bonds of the nations snapped, but the material of which those bonds were forged is gone. Public law, common friendship, commerce, the international struggle against poverty, crime and disease, all, all are gone. The whole common denominator of civilization has been swept away. We are all involved. Every possession of the intellect and spirit seems powerless to aid. Philosophy, which insulates her lovers from the world’s passion; literature, breaker of barriers and sovereign relief from prejudice; science, servant of all mankind; Christianity, the religion of universal love, are impotent. Eucken, Bergson, Haeckel, Frederic Harrison, idealists and materialists, alike preach war and hate. Maeterlinck, Hauptmann, Anatole France, Wells, join the pack. Science is divided against itself, and in the churches of seven nations the same God is petitioned by his children to destroy their brethren.

Whichever way we look, all seems in dissolution, and, to each one of us, the most disrupting thought, I think, is not that war to the death exists on a scale undreamed of in human history, but rather the revelation of our own hearts and spirits as we feel the innermost fibres of our being throb like the strings of a violin to the music of battle. A few of us, more imaginative or more neurotic than the rest, see the blood and sicken at the stench; but the great majority, earnestly as we deprecate, keenly as we detest the cruelty of it, still hear within ourselves a half-formed, unuttered response to this supreme trial of human nature. Some primal instinct, elder brother of the soul, untaught by love or pity, goes thrilling through us. Neither reason nor habit can prevail against it. In spite of ourselves, we begin to feel a pricking distrust of our former ideals. The world is changing. We wonder if the goal of the world is changing too.

This is the revelation of the war. The ideals of peace permeated our whole thought. They were the foundation of all our plans for the upbuilding of society. Without them Christianity is a distorted thing. We have our easy thinkers and who find no difficulty in divorcing their religion from their lives, and our optimists whose Christianity, absorbing opposite ideas as hospitably as the Roman Pantheon welcomed alien gods, lets them quote a disconnected phrase or two from their Testaments to prove to their own satisfaction that war and the Christian religion are readily reconciled. But the whole tenor of Christ’s thoughts, his indifference to patriotism, his unconcern with public matters, his passionate individualism, his intense preoccupation with spiritual things, give us proof absolute; and few candid Christians will seek reconcilement between hate, which is the spirit of war, and love, which is the spirit of Christ. Rather they will take comfort in the blandishment of a faith which vaguely whispers that, as love increases, one day wars will cease. Yet as these search their hearts to-day, they find that virtues they did not know as Christian are slipping almost insensibly into their ideals.

Here in America the overwhelming majority of us thank God that England did not fail to join the war. She went in to help Belgium, to be sure, and that holy cause soothes her misgivings; but behind the occasion it was, as we all know, the solemn urge of self-preservation which drove her to battle. Who is there, think you, but the fanatic or the fool, who would maintain that Belgium is not right in taking arms rather than in suffering wrong? Here is a contrast set upon a hill. Christ’s command is to suffer all, rather than do injury to another. And here in Belgium every consideration of comfort, peace, and prosperity, every argument of material well-being, bade this Catholic people follow his injunction. For once, Christianity and worldly wisdom gave the same counsel. But what Christian or worldly-wise man is there who does not know that Belgium’s answer is Belgium’s glory? What stranger will ever step upon her shores again without a tightening at the throat and the sense of warm blood rushing to his heart?

Let me be candid. I will not say in the practice, for in any real sense we do not practice Christianity, but in that ideal of Christianity which some saints and many sinners pray that we may some day approximate, that ideal presenting the happiest possibilities which ever made the stuff of human dreams, there is the bread of life, but not its wine. That heady potion which makes us forget all peace, all charity, all love for our fellow men in a blinding, passionate eagerness to test the strength of our own souls, is presented to us by neither church nor creed. This is the cup which war holds out. It is the only utter renunciation offered to multitudes in the world to-day. With all its brutality, all its horror, with all the hideous nightmares in its train, war alone demands the uttermost, the last breath of effort, the last pang of suffering. The very sweep and rush of it prevent men from counting the cost. It kills thrift and prudence. It slaughters care and happiness. It destroys all rights. It acknowledges only duty. In the ages of Faith and Ignorance, when the religion of Christ was most passionately preached, the final instinct of human nature metamorphosed Christianity into War.

The dear remembrance of his dying Lord gave to each Crusader his perfect opportunity. The instinct was just, however perverse its application, and as civilization advanced and the crudities of faith were sloughed off one by one, Christianity was robbed of its intensest passion. And now, as we look about us in this world-welter, gripped by the most piercing emotions of our lives, we are conscious that these agonizing nations find in the very extremity of their anguish some sense of the mighty fulfilling of destiny some dazzling illumination of the value of unworldly things.

An argument not unrelated to the matter I speak of has grown notorious in recent days. Foreshadowed by Herder and by Fichte, armed with the barbed apothegms of Nietzsche, Treitschke and his school have formulated for the Germanic nations a new gospel, strong in its appeal wherein Christianity is weakest. Doctrines which a year ago would have seemed to us Americans monstrous beyond belief, we now debate with the fascination which children feel for fire. In the relentless rationalism of Delbrück and Bernhardi they are still repellent enough, but as we read them in the eloquent pleading of Professor Cramb’s remarkable book1 and realize how they may be applied to the development of a people for whom we feel affection and kinship, they seem to lose their horror. The amorphous Teutonic conception of a state which lives apart from the men and women who make it, seems to us a rather preposterous fiction; and the perversion of the fundamental Christian idea of self-sacrifice for something nobler than one’s self into the naked theory that, since the state is the highest human conception, to it all citizens must sacrifice their individuality and collective happiness, while the state itself, being superior to all moral considerations, need follow but its own interest, is still to most of us a Devil’s lie. But the nobler idea that patriotism offers to its lovers a Religion of Valor, which promises nothing but demands all, strikes a lofty chord in spite of its pagan ring. To call this a religion may yet seem a travesty of sacred things, but is the organ peal of the Christian Church more thrilling than its exultant trumpet-call?

Long since the prophet of our American generation declared that war would not be suffered to go unless we found some moral equivalent to take its place. Dare we not add that Christianity itself must go unless some spiritual equivalent of war lend it new edge and weight and power? The passing centuries have bestowed on man’s existence nothing which can overbalance the monstrous growth of materialism. If life means anything, it means a struggle to make the spiritual more real than the actual; to-day the very stuff of life is actuality. Only some huge catastrophe like war makes the world about us seem unreal. Then as in a vision the solid earth dissolves. Beyond it we catch some glimpse of what is and must be permanent.

The truth is that modern life and modern thought have compassed an unnatural evolution. We have sought to invert ancient ideals, and the minds of men revolt. Look freshly at the contrast. Peace calls men to comfort and refreshment, to freedom from danger, and rest from fear. War points the way to toil and suffering, to strange new gropings in the mysterious paths of pain, to struggle, and victory, and death. The more toilsome the way, the more difficult the goal, the stronger the lure must be to ardent spirits. It is the desperate alternative which grips mind and heart and spirit.

Must it be ever so? Are our civilization and our religion, bound inextricably as they are with all the things which make life dear to us, to be deprived forever of life’s last incentive? Christianity may so believe to-day, but Christ did not. Violence. He hated. It is transitory and must fail, but the passive unresistance of the body, while the emancipated mind and spirit pursue their undeviating course, against this He knew no earthly power can prevail; and his chiefest saints, St. Francis, George Fox, and their unconquerable train, have never ceased to preach and to believe it. Complete self-sacrifice has been their perfect victory.

But turn to the complete example. How supreme the contrast between his bodily meekness and the triumphing valor of his martial spirit. For Christ, the war of the soul was no figure of speech. Agony and bloody sweat came over Him not because He feared Gethsemane, but because He wrestled with temptation. No virile feeling which ever roused warrior or patriot was absent from his soul. He fought, and He died fighting. When the street preacher of the Salvation Army calls up the Devil, horned and hoofed, into his presence, and then attacks him with clenched fists and shouts of battle, he is making to his audience the supreme appeal. Cannot we, to whom such illusion is but childishness, spiritualize that recourse, and, when need calls, spend, like the race of conquerors, the last reserve of our soul’s energy? Only thus can we meet the final argument of war. Only thus can we win the last desire of the brave and good—Peace with Honor.

  1. Germany and England, by the late Professor Cramb, has been mistakenly advertised as a reply to Bernhardi. As careful readers must realize, the author’s views are not unsympathetic with Bernhardi’s, although their application is the reverse of that made by the philosophic Chief of the General Staff. — The Author