The Ordeal of This Generation

by Gilbert Murray. New York: Harper & Bros. 1929. 276 pp. $3.00.
THIS eminent scholar who wrote a mettlesome book on the Homeric question without once losing his temper here becomes the statesman who can write a peaceable book about world peace. An avowed militarist would experience the surprise of finding in these pages his own case better stated than he could state it himself and its difficulties faced with such candor that
when the opposing arguments do begin one can imagine even a hardened army man thinking, ‘I don’t agree with this, but it’s so!’ In the past ten years, when so many people of the thinking class have gone away and forgotten the League of Nations, Professor Murray has labored for it (and in it) unceasingly. The man who can translate Euripides into English verse and reestablish Greek drama on the modern stage can probably think of plenty of things he would rather do than drudge over the technicalities of international affairs; but the Greek scholar remembers his Thucydides and the collapse of a civilization, and has cheerfully shouldered his share of the task of preventing a similar catastrophe to our own. ‘Thucydides,’ when speaking of Professor Murray, is shorthand for a knowledge of history which makes him one of the few who are genuinely qualified to speak in terms of ages, cultures, and civilizations, and he does so with a succinctness which enables him to say in a page, sometimes in a sentence, as much as many authors say in a volume.
Even if one cared nothing about the League, even if references in the daily press to its achievements did not smite one with twinges of conscience for being so ignorant of its processes (an ignorance which this volume goes far to dispel). Professor Murray’s book would still be worth not only that rapid first reading which the ease and distinction of its workmanship make such a pleasure, but also careful rereading of those chapters in which nineteenth-century civilization and the present world-situation are so brilliantly orchestrated. He establishes the position of the nineteenth as one of the great centuries, with one fatal flaw — independent national sovereignties, His reply to its most formidable critics, the radicals of its own day and of ours, is that, be the faults of capitalism what they may, an imperfect order is preferable to no order at all, and that only where some semblance of order exists can the finer values be cultivated. His position with respect to war and peace is that no longer is defeat the danger — the danger is war itself.
‘Can war be abolished? Is it not rooted in human nature? Is not man a fighting animal? Or rather, is not strife an essential in life itself? Such questions all miss the essential point. It is not proposed to abolish the struggle for existence, or angry passions, or any particular constituent of human nature; not even folly. It is proposed to abolish a certain method of political action which has become too expensive, too painful, too dangerous, and too futile. . . . There is no change to be made in human nature, only a change in machinery and habits.’
There is something dramatic in the very existence of this book. Vitally written and having to do with the most vital question of our time, it is by a professor of Greek, a subject than which, to the popular conception, nothing could be more remote from practical affairs. Yet throughout a lifetime Professor Murray has made that subject throb with the issues of contemporary life. In this volume one thinks of him as one of the great Athenians, who, having lived through the first Peloponnesian War and perceiving the deadliness of its threat to Hellenic civilization, set himself diligently and at severe sacrifice during the Peace of Nicias to prevent that second Peloponnesian War which did precipitate its wreck. May Professor Murray’s generous and heroic labors meet with a happier issue.