Emerson delivered his optimistic speech on War in March of 1838 in Boston. I am not certain who his audience was, nor if the speech was given on an occasion so I am unable to put it in any context for you.
Emerson tends to take a moral evolutionary view of humanity. As we become more civilized and take better control of our reason on an individual and public scale, we move towards becoming the fully divine creatures that we are, partaking in the mind of God. Each generation is supposed to build upon the one that came before. Emerson’s view on war falls right in line with his thinking.
In the distant past, in the infancy of society, war was a needful thing. To those who had the might went the food supply and the shelter. And blended in with this was religion as well, for every society had its war gods. Aside from ensuring the future of the tribe or society, at least in the short-term, war also does other things:
War educates the senses, calls into action the will, perfects the physical constitution, brings men into such swift and close collision in critical moments that man measures man. On its own scale, on the virtues it loves, it endures no counterfeit, but shakes the whole society, until every atom falls into the place its specific gravity assigns it. It presently finds the value of good sense and of foresight, and Ulysses takes rank next to Achilles.
The victor of the war also gets new territory and gets to spread its arts and values. Emerson assumes those arts and values are better than what the conquered people had, implying that the more civilized always win in battle against the more savage.
The history of humanity, Emerson remarks, appears to be a history of war. But, “It is the ignorant and childish part of mankind that is the fighting part.” As such, it is plain, believes Emerson, that war “is a juvenile and temporary state.” When societies begin to trade with one another, they are forced to recognize the humanity in others, that this person with whom you are trading also laughs and loves and grieves. And so, because of this, Emerson also sees history as a “record of the mitigation and decline of war.” While this whole idea of trade mitigating war is, to a certain extent true, I think that trade has also played a large role in wars and still does (oil anyone?).
While Emerson saw war as being on the wane, he also saw that the doctrine of war still had the power. But, he says, “all things have an end, and so has this.” He believed that the idea of peace itself was the beginning of a new epoch. He thought that the idea of peace would spread, and once it became a general idea there would be no way to stop it:
Revolutions go not backward. The star once risen, though only one man in the hemisphere has yet seen its upper limb in the horizon, will mount and mount, until it becomes visible to other men, to multitudes, and climbs the zenith of all eyes. And so, it is not a great matter how long men refuse to believe the advent of peace: war is on its last legs; and a universal peace is as sure as is the prevalence of civilization over barbarism, of liberal governments over feudal forms. The question for us is only, How soon?
Emerson carefully avoids proposing a definite date or time period. He only suggests that in spite of appearances, the revolution has already begin. It was a thought that built the war-establishment, and therefore it is a thought that will establish peace. if you think that thought–ideas–can’t change the world, then you aren’t paying attention. Why look what the ideas of popular education, temperance, anti-slavery have done and are doing. They have gone from ideas to movements to institutions–abstractions that have become embodied and shaped the minds of many people. And so as more and more people turn toward peace in their thoughts, the external world will begin to reflect it; the men-of-war will “rot ashore” and “the arms rust.”
To those who ask if one should stick to the principle of non-resistance if he is attacked and robbed and his family murdered, Emerson declares that the people who ask this question are only considering half the picture. They see the person of peace only as passive, they do not consider his activity. No one ever embraces the doctrine of peace for the purpose of being “plundered and slain.” In fact, those who embrace peace are less likely to suffer from violence:
If you have a nation of men who have risen to that height of moral cultivation that they will not declare war or carry arms, for they have not so much madness left in their brains, you have a nation of lovers, of benefactors, of true, great, and able, men. Let me know more of that nation; I shall not find them defenceless, with idle hands springing at their sides. I shall find them men of love, honor, and truth; men of an immense industry; men whose influence is felt to the end of the earth; men whose very look and voice carry the sentence of honor and shame; and all forces yield to their energy and persuasion. Whenever we see the doctrine of peace embraced by a nation, we may be assured it will not be one that invites injury; but one, on the contrary, which has a friend in the bottom of the heart of every man, even of the violent and the base; one against which no weapon can prosper; one which is looked upon as the asylum of the human race, and has the tears and the blessings of mankind.
Peace will not come through politics, Emerson believed. Nor will it come by legislation or organizing, manifestos, or newspapers. Peace is “not carried by public opinion, but by private opinion, by private conviction, by private, dear and earnest love.” Emerson has a good point there. Only by changing who we are as individuals will we be able to change who we are as a society. We must practice peace in our daily lives–in our homes, neighborhoods and workplaces, before we can practice peace as a society.
“The cause of peace is not the cause of cowardice,” asserts Emerson. I think he is right about that. It takes courage to face your enemy without a gun in your hand. You will have to talk truthfully, your ideas will be challenged, you both will have to change. You both will have to stand up against the currents that will try to push you toward war. Someone may have to admit she was wrong. And that’s just the beginning. It takes just as much courage to keep going:
If peace is to be maintained, it must be by brave men, who have come up to the same height as the hero, namely, the will to carry their life in their hand, and stake it at any instant for their principle, but who have gone one step beyond the hero, and will not seek another man’s life; men who have, by their intellectual insight, or else by their moral elevation, attained such a perception of their own intrinsic worth, that they do not think property or their own body a sufficient good to be saved by such dereliction of principle as treating a man like a sheep
Being thoroughly American and with the country in 1838 still very new, Emerson believes it is America who will show the ways of peace to the rest of the world. We’ve not done a very good job of it I’m afraid, especially of late. Still, I am hopeful that maybe someday we will get it right, not only as a country, but as human beings. As Emerson concludes, “Shall it be War, or shall it be Peace?”
Next week’s Emerson: The Fugitive Slave Law