previous next

Chapter 14: a disturbed christmas

Once more this last Christmas-day the choirs sang of peace on earth and good — will to men. Then the guests at the Christmas dinner discussed with various. opinions the possibilities and the ethics of war. Even now it seems we are not ready to give ourselves wholly to the works of peace. How dependent is our action, and even our moral standard, upon the circumstances of the time! All agree in denouncing the Sultan and his Kurds and Bashi-Bazouks, but we forget that these hardened offenders do nothing more than was habitually done, less than two centuries ago, by the foremost religious order of all Christendom — the Knights of St. John, first consecrated at Jerusalem to charity, humility, and chastity. Through the whole of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the city of Valetta, on the island of Malta, was a [104] mere slave-mart, supplied by the plundering war-ships of the knights with Turkish slaves --men, women, and children. They attacked every vessel in the Mediterranean which bore the Turkish flag, tore down every mosque on the shores, plundered every village, killing every one whom they did not carry off. Their records, which were carefully kept, show that they carried off from the city of Mondon alone no less than eight hundred Turkish matrons and maidens to be kept as concubines or sold as slaves.1 Till within a hundred years this life continued, all being called a Christian work, and being only gradually humanized as they drove the Turks from the seas. The Sultan of to-day is only a belated Knight of St. John fighting on the other side.

Thus when we long after peace we still have to recognize that events and conditions are often too strong for us. It was a curious combination of circumstances the other day when the very ladies who had argued that if woman suffrage prevailed there would be no more wars, were the very first persons to call on the United States to go to war with Turkey. As many wars are perhaps brought on by [105] the sense of justice and the impulses of humanity as by any other cause. When these high motives are set against the love of peace, which shall prevail? On which side do the angels really sing? Again, it is easy to urge the gospel of arbitration for the whole world; but suppose, as occasionally happens, that a nation refuses to arbitrate. What then? Or suppose, as has sometimes happened, that a nation refuses to accept the result of arbitration when announced. What is to be done? The answer is that such a case will not be likely to occur. But suppose it does. Can we wholly dispense with force? I have known many persons who were non — resistants, or thought they were, but I have known only one among them who could meet squarely the question what he would do if a drunken man or a villain should come into his house and assault his wife or daughter. That one exception was the late William Lloyd Garrison, whom I heard say in public, without a moment's hesitation, when asked the question, that he would offer no physical resistance even in such a case. I honored his moral courage, but wondered if when it came to the point he would live up to his principles. If he would not, nobody would. Perhaps it

105 [106] would have been better if he had made to such a question that more guarded and very noble answer once made by Dr. Channing: “What I would do in the hour of trial may be doubtful; what I ought to do is plain. What I desire to do is known to the Searcher of all Hearts.”

It is a rash thing to say, as is sometimes said even by the clergy, that the spirit of commerce is destined to supersede that of war. For commerce is itself not so very remote from war, much of it being warfare almost undisguised. On a given occasion it may take a higher tone than war; at other times a lower. The chief obstacle to the abolition of the slave-trade in England was found in the Liverpool merchants; and humanity has often to fight its way over commerce. But of course the pure spirit of religion is another thing, and we must never falter in the belief that the human race is gradually drawing nearer towards peace. Probably none know the horrors of war so well as those who have been in the midst of it. Dulce bellum inexpertis, says the terse Latin motto-“War is sweet to those who have never tried it.” Yet it has shown to soldiers also its brighter side --not merely its carnage, but its mutual [107] self-devotion, its patient endurance, its loyalty to home and country. An American judge, son of an American poet, and himself a soldier in youth, has lately given an address on “The soldier's faith,” which, while itself somewhat overstated doubtless, has been harshly, almost brutally, attacked as glorifying only the lower side of our nature. Yet all that he said was but little more than was said during our civil war by Emerson, the calmest and least combative of philosophers. He, too, saw the curious fact that while war is in itself barbarous, yet it partly counterbalances this evil by bringing out certain virtues which in calmer and commercial times are less prominent. Some vocations exhibit them; the fireman, the policeman, the sailor, the railway engineer, may show them, as do often the wife and mother; but none of these on a scale so conspicuous and irresistible as in the conflict of war. Emerson's conclusion is, “Certain it is that never before since I read newspapers has the morale played so large a part in them as now” --that is, early in the civil war.

He had written in his journal long before, in 1850: “Yes, the terror and repudiation of war . . . may be a form of materialism . . . [108] and show that all that engages you is what happens to men's bodies.” When the war itself comes he writes: “The Divine order pays the country for the sacrifices it has made, and makes, in the war. War ennobles the country; searches it; fires it; acquaints it with its resources; turns it away from false alliances, vain hopes, and theatric attitude; puts it on its mettle — in ourselves our safety must be sought; gives it scope and object; concentrates history into a year; invents means; systematizes everything. We began the war in vast confusion; when we end it all will be system.” 2 There is nothing in Judge Holmes's oration which goes quite so far as this. Yet this is the writer whom Matthew Arnold, denying him the name of poet and philosopher, proclaimed as “the friend and comforter of those who would live in the spirit.”

We are left in the conclusion that there are two aspects of everything, and that good comes sometimes of things evil. Read the one poem which has made Bayard Taylor's name immortal, “A song of the camp,” and consider the peculiar beauty and pathos of [109] this flower of human love in the midst of cannon. War might well seem what Horace Bushnell called it, “the devil's play,” but for these loftier aspects. We must never quite lose sight of Emerson's fine lines:

Though love repine and reason chafe,
There came a voice without reply-
'Tis man's perdition to be safe
When for the truth he ought to die.


1 Ballou's Malta, p. 281.

2 Emerson in Concord, by his son, p. 89.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Sort places alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a place to search for it in this document.
Valletta (Malta) (1)
United States (United States) (1)
Turquie (Turkey) (1)
Melita (Malta) (1)
Concord, N. H. (New Hampshire, United States) (1)

Download Pleiades ancient places geospacial dataset for this text.

hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
Emerson (4)
Bayard Taylor (1)
Mary J. Holmes (1)
Channing (1)
Horace Bushnell (1)
Ballou (1)
Matthew Arnold (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1896 AD (1)
1850 AD (1)
December 25th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: