From my Sent folder

I should know better than to predict when a piece will be ready. The one I predicted a few days ago is still in process, and I don’t know how long it’ll take to finish. No matter. For now I’ll follow Alan Jacobs’s occasional practice of posting something he has sent in an email to a friend.

In this case the friend asked me what I thought about William James’s essay “The Moral Equivalent of War”, which argues that cultivating a warlike nature is good and necessary but forging it in actual war is a bad and destructive thing, therefore we should look for outlets that are “morally equivalent” to war, other activities that cultivate the needed characteristics.

If now—and this is my idea—there were, instead of military conscription, a conscription of the whole youthful population, to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature, the injustice would tend to be evened out, and numerous other goods to the commonwealth would follow. The military ideals of hardihood and discipline would be wrought into the growing fiber of the people; no one would remain blind, as the luxurious classes now are blind, to man’s relations to the globe he lives on and to the permanently sour and hard foundations of his higher life. To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clothes-washing, and window-washing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas. They would have paid their blood tax, done their own part in the immemorial human warfare against nature; they would tread the earth more proudly, the women would value them more highly, they would be better fathers and teachers of the following generation.

I love William James, but not his conclusion here. This is what I wrote to my friend.

Your reading program certainly takes you to interesting places! I remembed The Moral Equivalent of War only as Jimmy Carter’s rallying cry to confront and defeat the late 70s energy crisis. I knew he had taken the concept from William James, but had never bothered to go to the source. Thanks for giving me a reason to do that.

I disagree with James’s conclusion. But I also think he is one of the smartest and wisest thinkers ever, and I definitely agree with his instruction to fellow pacifists (among whom I’d count myself):

Pacifists ought to enter more deeply into the aesthetical and ethical point of view of their opponents. Do that first in any controversy, then move the point, and your opponent will follow.

Since I grant that James’s conclusion follows from his assumptions, I had to figure out which one(s) I disagreed with. And I think where James and I diverge is in seeing certain qualities of character as important, even vital to creating the good life:

We must make new energies and hardihoods continue the manliness to which the military mind so faithfully clings. Martial virtues must be the enduring cement; intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command must still remain the rock upon which states are built.

He may be right that states require those qualities of their citizens–but that’s a problem for the state, not the individual. Moreover, the four qualities he mentions above, along with the rest, clash pretty strongly with the Christian virtues, and in some cases are in direct opposition.

James was a man of his time, when the American project was a roaring success and jingoism reached its zenith. I read a book called Imperial San Francisco which looks at the history of that period and makes it clear that Americans were bursting with pride at having conquered a continent and ready to move on to the next one, Asia; the ads and articles cited there urging the public to continue pushing the frontier west into the Eastern hemisphere … well, it curled my hair to read it.

I can see that he was in a peculiar position, having been bred to see those “virtues” as such, civilized enough to know that using war to instill them would lead to global disaster. But I think he was wrong about the virtues we need. The Christian ideal is sufficient.

James would say otherwise, perhaps grant that they are OK but that we need more in order to accomplish civilization. I’m with Chesterton: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” And with Tolstoy: “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

3 thoughts on “From my Sent folder

  1. I’m with Tolstoy. The question is how to get people to realize we need to start with ourselves. I know why I started to think that way but it took a *long* time, too long, really.

    And I absolutely agree re: having people be good citizens is the state’s problem. I *do* think that if the US state is going to fight foreign wars, everyone should be obliged to go, insofar as the current situation, where people whose sons and daughters are well ensconced in universities, business, industry, etc., vote with impunity to send the children of the poor to do their dirty work and then refuse to fund repairs of the damage they cause to those people. But I think that military planners were smart enough to realize that the protests against the Vietnam War would not have been half as severe if not for the draft. Much harder to protest a war when it’s <1 % fighting and they are "all volunteer." (To paraphrase a notorious public figure: "they know what they signed up for.")

  2. The question is how to get people to realize we need to start with ourselves.


    Given that you work with young people, you might be interested in what Jordan Peterson has to say. Peterson gained notoriety by refusing to go along with demands “to use alternative pronouns as requested by trans students or staff”, but he was already very popular with students for his nearly Stoic start-with-yourselves exhortations.

    He’s really very good, but his conclusions flow from work that is extensive and dense. I spent a couple of months devouring it, then finally decided that it was a project I didn’t have time to take on, especially since I already agree with his conclusions.

    But I hope that young people will find it inspiring, because it could lift some of them out of the current miasma. This is a good short look at how he takes things from first principles, and this is a good example of how he brings it home to students: “clean up your room … see if you can stop telling lies …”.

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