100 Years Ago in The Atlantic
"Remarks at the Peace Banquet"
On October 7, 1904, the philosopher and psychologist William James gave a speech before the international World's Peace Congress, in Boston. The text, an excerpt of which appears below, was published in the December 1904 issue of The Atlantic.
From time immemorial wars have been, especially for non-combatants, the supremely thrilling excitement. Heavy and dragging at its end, at its outset every war means an explosion of imaginative energy. The dams of routine burst, and boundless prospects open. The remotest spectators share the fascination. With that awful struggle [the Russo-Japanese War] now in progress on the confines of the world, there is not a man in this room, I suppose, who doesn't buy both an evening and a morning paper, and first of all pounce on the war column.
A deadly listlessness would come over most men's imagination of the future if they could seriously be brought to believe that never again in saecula saeculorum would a war trouble human history. In such a stagnant summer afternoon of a world, where would be the zest or interest?
This is the constitution of human nature which we have to work against. The plain truth is that people want war. They want it anyhow; for itself; and apart from each and every possible consequence. It is the final bouquet of life's fireworks. The born soldiers want it hot and actual. The non-combatants want it in the background, and always as an open possibility, to feed imagination on and keep excitement going. Its clerical and historical defenders fool themselves when they talk as they do about it. What moves them is not the blessing it has won for us, but a vague religious exaltation. War, they feel, is human nature at its uttermost. We are here to do our uttermost. It is a sacrament. Society would rot, they think, without the mystical blood-payment.
[Volume 94, No. 566, page 846]