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Michael Bettencourt

War and Peace:  The Solutions of William James     


June 2014

Remember the peace movement? Yeah. My last recollection is New York in 2003 just before the Iraq invasion, part of a string of protests around the world. After that, not much.

We do have a Virgil to help guide us back to a movement for peace: the philosopher William James. In "The Moral Equivalent of War," written in 1910, he staked out the territory any promoter of peace has to cover.

The essay sprang from James' faith that Ameri­can democracy, the "civic genius" of the American people, worked best when each individual felt personally answerable for the social welfare of the country. This social consciousness called for a moral self-governance fed by reasoned debate and clear information, and it was most at risk of being smashed to bits when politicians ("schemers" in James' words) and the media dialed up a war for the national good, blighting the society with a "diseased sensationalism and insincerity."

"The Moral Equivalent of War," then, is James' reasoned argument in favor of world peace. He noted "we are all ready to be savage in some cause" but added that "the difference between a good man and a bad one is the choice of the cause." If peace was the cause, then it would be a peace made through reasoned analysis and proportioned argument, not through (or only through) carbonated emotions. How one gained the peace was as key as the peace one gained.

He starts with what gives war its hook: "War is the strong life; it is life in extremis," making men feel greater than what their mundane lives offered. James goes on to muse: is it possible to enlist these martial virtues in some task other than war, to find a "substitute for war's disciplinary function" and spice up a utopianism that "tastes mawkish and dishwatery to people who still keep a sense for life's bitter flavors"? To James, peace would not "be permanent on this globe" unless nations "pacifically organized [to] preserve some of the elements of the old army-discipline."

What James proposed was to press-gang the country's youth for a term of service in an "army enlisted against Nature," where the "energies and hardihoods" of military service would now be colored by "the morals of civic honor." This army's mission would be to smooth out the inequities in a social order where too many people were at the mercy of chance and poverty. In the process "our gilded youths [would] get the childishness knocked out of them, and come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas." He was very clear that the martial values would be the "enduring cement" of this army and believed that we would get "toughness without callousness, authority with as little criminal cruelty as possible, and painful work done cheerily because the duty is temporary."

In this way he tried to reconcile the war-regime and the peace-regime by grafting the intentions of the latter onto the values of the former.

But his "moral equivalent" did not stop there. The only reason to find a peaceful application of martial values was to disarm the world of the original reasons for having arms in the first place: chaos, indifference, social inequity, starvation, and the challenges of survival. Only then could we disarm ourselves of the arms that make the wars possible.

James was a self-proclaimed liberal, a member of a group he believed always to be in the minority because it was the tempo­rizing intelligence of society. Even though he saw the fault of liberalism to be "its lack of speed and passion," and rued the fact that often a liberal's only audience was posterity, he unequivocally endorsed the "judicial and neutral attitude" of the liberal as a necessary counterbalance and antidote to the "red-blood" party, the party of "animal instinct, jingoism, fun, excitement, bigness."

The lesson of "The Moral Equivalent of War" was offered from this liberal platform and was fired by an intense love of America, "for her youth, her greenness, her plasticity, innocence, good intentions, friends, everything." It is a bracing and generous offer, much like James himself. Would it work in the United States? Who knows? But in the end, as he said, the success or failure of establishing a peaceful world comes down to whether each individual chooses to take up the task. As he said in "The Moral Philosopher and The Moral Life":

    When this challenge comes to us, it is simply our total character and personal genius that are on trial; and if we invoke any so-called philosophy, our choice and use of that also are but revelations of our personal aptitude or incapacity for moral life....The solving not in heaven, neither is it beyond the sea; but the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.

The peace movement is won or lost in the individual hearts of those who profess their beliefs and actions. It will be won if each person keeps his heart full of a love mixed with a gritty savvy about the imperfections of the world. James provides pencil, paper, and impulse for us to sketch out who we are and what compass point we follow in our perilous times.

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Michael Bettencourt is a playwright and essayist.
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June 2014

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