Why don't we learn from history?

Part III: War and peace

B. H. Liddell Hart (1895-1970)


The desire for power

History shows that a main hindrance to real progress is the ever-popular myth of the “great man.” While “greatness” may perhaps be used in a comparative sense, if even then referring more to particular qualities than to the embodied sum, the “great man” is a clay idol whose pedestal has been built up by the natural human desire to look up to someone, but whose form has been carved by men who have not yet outgrown the desire to be regarded, or to picture themselves, as great men.

Many of those who gain power under present systems have much that is good in them. Few are without some good in them. But to keep their power it is easier, and seems safer, to appeal to the lowest common denominator of the people—to instinct rather than to reason, to interest rather than to right, to expediency rather than to principle. It sounds practical and may thus command respect where to speak of ideals might only arouse distrust. But in practice there is nothing more difficult than to discover where expediencey lies—it is apt to lead from one expedient to another, in a vicious circle through endless knots.

The shortsightedness of expediency

We learn from history that expediency has rarely proved expedient. Yet today perhaps more than ever the statesmen of all countries talk the language of expediency—almost as if they are afraid to label themselves “unpractical” by referring to principles. They are especially fond of emphasizing the need for “realism.” This attitude would be sound if it implied a sense of the lessons really taught by history. It is unrealistic, for example, to underrate the force of idealism. It is unrealistic, also, to ignore military principles and conditions in taking political steps or making promises. And realism should be combined with foresight—to see one or two moves ahead.

The strength of British policy has been its adaptability to circumstances as they arise; its weakness, that the circumstances (which are usually difficulties) could have been forestalled through forethought. A reflection suggested by the last hundred years of history, especially the history of our affairs in the Mediterranean, is that British policy has been best, not only in spirit but in effect, when it has come nearest to being honest. The counterpull of Britain's moral impulses and material interests produced an amazing series of somersaults in British relations with Turkey. We repeatedly sought to cultivate the Sultan as a counterpoise to French or Russian ambitions in the Near East and as often were driven to take action against him because his behavior to his subjects shocked our sense of justice as well as our sentiments.

In the light of those hundred years of history and their sequel, the use of our national gift for compromise may not seem altogether happy. Such delicate adjustment, to be truly effective, requires a Machiavelli—and the Englishman is not Machiavellian. He can never rid himself of moral scruples sufficiently to fill the part. Thus he is always and inevitably handicapped in an amoral competition, whether in duplicity or blood and iron. Realization of this inherent “weakness” suggests that Britain might find it better to be more consistently moral. At any rate the experiment has yet to be tried.

On the other hand, there is plenty of experience to show the dilemmas and dangers into which Britain's maladjustment of morality and materialism has landed her. While we complacently counted on the Turks' gratitude, they did not forget the unreliability of our attitude. And by throwing the weight of our influence on the side of the Sultan and his effete palace clique against the movement of the young Turks toward reform, we not only forfeited our influence in restraining their excesses, but cold-shouldered them into the embrace of Germany.

How diferently the affairs of the world would go—with a little more decency, a little more honesty, a little more thought! Thought-attempting, above all—to see a few moves ahead and realize the dangers of condoning evil. We try to play the old diplomatic game, yet cannot hope to play it successfully—because we have acquired scruples from which the old-style exponent of realpolitik is free, not yet having grown up as far.

One can understand the point of view of the man who goes in for unabashed “piracy”—and seeks his own profit regardless of others. He may draw his profit, although unconsciously his loss far exceeds it, because he is deadening his own soul. But one cannot see sense, even of so shortsighted a kind, in those who maintain any standards of decency in private life yet advocate, or at least countenance, the law of the jungle in public and international affairs. More illogical still are those who talk of patriotic self-sacrifice and of its spiritual sublimity while preaching pure selfishness in world affairs.

What is the use of anyone sacrificing himself to preserve the country unless in the hope, and with the idea, of providing a chance to continue its spiritual progress—toward becoming a better country? Otherwise he is merely helping to preserve the husk—saving the form but not the soul. Only a perverse patriotism is capable of such hopeless folly.

What is the value of patriotism if it means no more than a cat's devotion to its own fireside rather than to human beings? And, like the cat, such a “patriot” is apt to get burned when the house catches fire.

The importance of keeping promises

Civilization is built on the practice of keeping promises. It may not sound a high attainment, but if trust in its observance be shaken the whole structure cracks and sinks. Any constructive effort and all human relations—personal, political, and commercial—depend on being able to depend on promises.

This truth has a reflection on the question of collective security among nations and on the lessons of history in regard to that subject. In the years before the war the charge was constantly brought that its supporters were courting the risk of war by their exaggerated repsect for covenants. Although they may have been fools in disregarding the conditions necessary for the effective fulfillment of pledges, they at least showed themselves men of honor and, in a long view, of more fundamental common sense than those who argued that we should give aggressors a free hand so long as they left us alone. History has shown, repeatedly, that the hope of buying safety in this way is the greatest of delusions.

The importance of care about making promises

It is immoral to make promises that one cannot in practice fulfill—in the sense that the recipient expects. On that ground, in 1939 I questioned the underlying morality of the Polish Guarantee, as well as its practicality. If the Poles had realized the military inability of Britain and France to save them from defeat, and of what such defeat would mean to them individually and collectively, it is unlikely that they would have shown such stubborn opposition to Germany's originally modest demands—for Danzig and a passage through the Corridor. Since it was obvious to me that they were bound to lose these points, and much more in the event of a conflict, it seemed to me wrong on our part to make promises that were bound to encourage false hopes.

It also seemed to me that any such promises were the most certain way to produce war—because of the inevitable provocativeness of guaranteeing, at such a moment of tension, an area which we had hitherto treated as outside our sphere of interest; because of the manifest temptation which the guarantee offered, to a military-minded people like the Germans, to show how fatuously impractical our guarantee was; and because of its natural effect in stiffening the attitude of a people, the Poles, who had always shown themselves exceptionally intractable in negotiating a reasonable settlement of any issue.

An historian could not help seeing certain parallels between the long-standing aspect of the Polish-German situation and that between Britain and the Boer Republics forty years earlier—and remembering the effect on us of the attempts of the other European powers to induce or coerce us into negotiating a settlement with the Boers. If our own reaction then had been so violent, it could hardly be expected that the reaction of a nation filled with an even more bellicose spirit would be less violent—especially as the attempt to compel negotiation was backed by an actual promise of making war if Poland felt moved to resist the German conditions.

It is worth recalling that Gladstone, than whom no one was more emphatic in condemning aggression, defined, for Queen Victoria's enlightenment, a series of guiding principles for British foreign policy when he first became Prime Minister in 1869. The circumstances then, before collective security had been organized, were broadly similar to those of 1939, when it had been in effect dissolved.

Among the introductory remarks, which are still relevant and not only, nor now primarily, to England, he said: “Though Europe never saw England faint away, we know at what cost of internal danger to all the institutions of the country she fought her way to the perilous eminence on which she undoubtedly stood in 1815…. Is England so uplifted in strength above every other nation that she can with prudence advertise herself as ready to undertake the general redress of wrongs? Would not the consequences of such professions and promises be either the premature exhaustion of her means, or a collapse in the day of performance?”

The principles he laid down were “That England should keep entire in her own hands the means of estimating her own obligations; … that she should not narrow her own liberty of choice by declarations made to other Powers … of which they would claim to be at least joint interpreters; … that, come what may, it is better for her to promise too little than too much; that she should not encourage the weak by giving expectations of aid to resist the strong, but should rather seek to deter the strong by firm but moderate language, from aggressions on the weak.”

The germs of war

Such pitfalls of policy are closely related to the causes of war itself. Sympathies and antipathies, interests and loyalties, cloud the vision. And this kind of short-sight is apt to produce short temper.

As a light on the processes by which wars are manufactured and detonated, there is nothing more illuminating than a study of the fifty years of history preceding 1914. The vital influences are to be detected not in the formal documents compiled by rulers, ministers, and generals but in their marginal notes and verbal asides. Here are revealed their instinctive prejudices, lack of interest in truth for its own sake, and indifference to the exactness of statement and reception which is a safeguard against dangerous misunderstanding.

I have come to think that accuracy, in the deepest sense, is the basic virtue—the foundation of understanding, supporting the promise of progress. The cause of most troubles can be traced to excess; the failure to check them to deficiency; their prevention lies in moderation. So in the case of troubles that develop from spoken or written communication, their cause can be traced to overstatement, their maintenance to understatement, while their prevention lies in exact statement. It applies to private as well as to public life.

Sweeping judgements, malicious gossip, inaccurate statements which spread a misleading impression—these are symptoms of the moral and mental recklessness that gives rise to war. Studying their effect, one is led to see that the germs of war lie within ourselves—not in economics, politics, or religion as such. How can we hope to rid the world of war until we have cured ourselves of the originating causes?

How the germs work

These germs are most virulent among those who direct the affairs of nations. The atmosphere of power, and activity in the pursuit of power, inflame them. The way they work can be clearly traced in examining the origins and course of World War I. While economic factors formed a predisposing cause, the deeper and more decisive factors lay in human nature—its possessiveness, competitiveness, vanity, and pugnacity, all of which were fomented by the dishonesty which breeds inaccuracy.

Throughout the twenty-five years preceding that war, one of the most significant symptoms can be seen in the Kaiser's vanity and the effect on it of his curiously mingled affection and jealousy toward England. Understanding of his composition enables us to see how his worst tendencies were often sharpened by the snubs that Edward VII was disposed to administer to his nephew.

When one comes to the fateful weeks preceding the outbreak of war, one sees how great was the part played in the Governments of both Austria and Russia by resentment at past humiliations and the fear of any fresh “loss of face.” Both of those Governments, and their foreign ministers in particular, were all too ready to bring misery upon millions rather than swallow their injured pride. And in the crucial opening phase of the crisis, the Austrian Government was prompted to take up a position from which it could not easily climb down, by the encouragement which the Kaiser gave it to take vigorous action.

The irony of history, and the absurdity of the factors that determine it, was never more clearly shown than at that moment. The crisis arose out of the murder of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by a handful of young Slavs who had sought and received help from a Serbian secret society known as the “Black Hand.” They murdered the one man of influence in Austria who was potentially their friend and might have fulfilled their hopes.

The Austrian Government, while quite pleased at his removal, used it as an excuse for curbing Serbia. The Kaiser's initial support of their high-handed treatment of Serbia seems to have been inspired by his royal indignation that royal blood should have been shed, together with his fear that if he advised moderation he would be reproached with weakness. When he saw war actually in sight he tried to back down—but it was then too late. And the Austrian Government, in turn, was afraid that if showed hesitation it might subsequently forfeit Germany's support. So it hastily declared war on Serbia, regardless of the risks of bringing on a general war.

The threat to Serbia was an affront to Russia, whose Government regarded that Slav country as its protégé. Having already been assured of France's support, the Russian Government now decided to mobilize its forces on the Austrian frontier. But the military then intervened with the argument that it was technically impracticable to carry out such a partial mobilization, and they insisted on a general mobilization—embracing the German frontier also.

The military, with their “military reasons,” now to all intents took charge everywhere. The German General Staff, which had been privately inciting the Austrian General Staff to exploit the situation, was now able to use the Russian mobilization as a means to overcome the Kaiser's belated caution. Arguing that the military situation was more favorable than it might be later, they succeeded in securing a declaration of war against Russia. That in turn involved war with France—not merely because France was Russia's ally but because the German military plan had been framed to meet the case of war with both countries simultaneously and was so inflexible in design that it could not be modified without disrupting it. So, despite the feeble protests of the Kaiser and his chancellor, war was declared on France as well as on Russia.

As the long-standing German military plan had been designed to circumvent the French frontier fortresses by going through Belgium, the violation of her neutrality involved Britain, as one of its guarantors—cutting the “Gordian knot” of the triangle into which we had got by exchanging our traditional policy of isolation for a semi-detached arrangement with France that was, in turn, complicated by the way the General Staff had made detailed transport arangements with the French General Staff behind the Cabinet's back.

The war we were drawn stumblingly into was, on our side, a striking example of the drawbacks of entering into vague commitments without thinking out the implications and the military problems. It was, on the other side, a glaring example of the folly of allowing the purely military mind to frame hard-and-fast plans, on technical grounds, without regard to wiser considerations—political, economic and moral. As a result, when the original military plan went wrong, Germany found herself in a hole from which she could not extricate herself.

How the germs persist

Similar influences wrecked every good chance of bringing the war to an end, on satisfactory terms, before all the countries were exhausted. In 1917, the peace party in Germany gained an ascendancy over the Kaiser and were prepared not only to withdraw from all the conquered territory but actually to cede all but a fraction of Alsace-Lorraine to France—in other words, to give her as much as she actually gained in the end without further sacrifice of life.

As was later disclosed by Lord Esher, the prospect was frustrated, and the British Government kept in the dark about it, by M. Ribot's petty-minded resentment that the approach had been made through M. Briand. “The underlying motive was jealousy on the part of the [French] Foreign Minister and Foreign Office.” When the facts subsequently became known, they caused the fall of M. Ribot. But by that time the Kaiser had been thrown back into the arms of the war party by the repulse of the offer.

Similarly, when the new Emperor of Austria tried to break away from Germany and make peace, his advance was rebuffed and a splendid opportunity lost—because it ran contrary to the inordinate ambitions of Signor Sonnino, the Italian Foreign Minister, and those of M. Poincaré in France. The overture was hidden both from our Government and the American and was skillfully wrecked by the mean expedient of letting the Germans know what the Austrian Emperor was proposing, thus giving him away to his unwanted partner.

On that side, the personal wrangles and wire-pulling were just as common and constant. Nothing more illuminating has been written than the reflection to which General Hoffmann, perhaps the ablest brain in the German High Command, was brought by his experience of watching the tug of war between the Falkenhayn faction and the Hindenburg-Ludendorff faction. His reflection is worth quoting:

When one gets a close view of influential people—their bad relations with each other, their conflicting ambitions, all the slander and the hatred—one must always bear in mind that it is certainly much worse on the other side, among the French, English, and Russians, or one might well be nervous…. The race for power and personal positions seems to destroy all men's characters. I believe that the only creature who can keep his honor is a man living on his own estate; he has no need to intrigue and struggle—for it is no good intriguing for fine weather.

Any history of war which treats only of its strategic and political course is merely a picture of the surface. The personal currents run deeper and may have a deeper influence on the outcome. Well might Hoffman remark: “For the first time in my life I have seen ‘History’ at close quarters, and I now know that its actual process is very different to what is presented to posterity.”

We learn from history that war breeds war. That is natural. The atmosphere of war stimulates all varieties of the bellicose bacilli, and these tend to find favorable conditions in the aftermath—in what, with unconscious irony, is usually described as the restoration of peace.

Conditions are especially favorable to their renewal in the aftermath of a long and exhausting war and most of all in a war which ends with the appearance of a definite victory for one of the belligerent sides. For then, those who belong to the defeated side naturally tend to put the blame for all their troubles upon the victors and thus upon the simple fact of defeat instead of upon their own folly. They feel that if they had won they would have avoided any ill-effects.

The illusion of victory

We learn from history that complete victory has never been completed by the result that the victors always anticipate—a good and lasting peace. For victory has always sown the seeds of a fresh war, because victory breeds among the vanquished a desire for vindication and vengeance and because victory raises fresh rivals. In the case of a victory gained by an alliance, the most common case, this is a most common sequel. It seems to be the natural result of the removal of a strong third-party check.

The first lesson has always been recognized when passions cool. The second is not so obvious, so that it may be worth amplification. A too complete victory inevitably complicates the problem of making a just and wise peace settlement. Where there is no longer the counterbalance of an opposing force to control the appetites of the victors, there is no check on the conflict of views and interests between the parties to the alliance. The divergence is then apt to become so acute as to turn the comradeship of common danger into the hospitality of mutual dissatisfaction—so that the ally of one war becomes the enemy in the next.

Victory in the true sense implies that the state of peace, and of one's people, is better after the war than before. Victory in this sense is possible only if a quick result can be gained or if a long effort can be economically proportioned to the national resources. The end must be adjusted to the means. It is wiser to run risks of war for the sake of preserving peace than to run risks of exhaustion in war for the sake of finishing with victory—a conclusion that runs counter to custom but is supported by experience. Indeed, deepening study of past experience leads to the conclusion that nations might often have come nearer to their object by taking advantage of a lull in the struggle to discuss a settlement than by pursuing the war with the aim of “victory.”

Where the two sides are too evenly matched to offer a reasonable chance of early success to either, the statesman is wise who can learn something from the psychology of strategy. It is an elementary principle of strategy that, if you find your opponent in a strong position costly to force, you should leave him a line of retreat—as the quickest way of loosening his resistance. It should, equally, be a principle of policy, especially in war, to provide your opponent with a ladder by which he can climb down.

The importance of moderation

We learn from history that after any long war the survivors are apt to reach common agreement that there has been no real victor but only common losers. War is profitable only if victory is quickly gained. Only an aggressor can hope to gain a quick victory. If he is frustrated, the war is bound to be long, and mutually ruinous, unless it is brought to an end by mutual agreement.

Since an aggressor goes to war for gain, he is apt to be the more ready of the two sides to seek peace by agreement. The aggressed side is usually more inclined to seek vengeance through the pursuit of victory—even though all experience has shown that victory is a mirage in the desert created by a long war. This desire for vengeance is natural but far-reachingly self-injurious. And even if it be fulfilled, it merely sets up a fresh cycle of revenge-seeking. Hence any wise statesman should be disposed to consider the possibility of ending the war by agreement as soon as it is clear that the war will otherwise be a prolonged one.

The side that has suffered aggression would be unwise to bid for peace lest its bid be taken as a sign of weakness or fear. But it would be wise to listen to any bid that the enemy makes. Even if the initial proposals are not good enough, once an opposing Government has started bidding it is easily led to improve its offers. And this is the best way to loosen its hold on its troops and people, who naturally tend to desire peace—so long as they can regain it without being conquered—when they find that the prospect of a cheap victory is fading. By contrast, the will to fight always tends to become stronger among the people who have been attacked, so that is easier to make them hold out in any negotiation for terms that are satisfying.

The history of ancient Greece showed that, in a democracy, emotion dominates reason to a greater extent than in any other political system, thus giving freer rein to the passions which sweep a state into war and prevent it getting out—at any point short of the exhaustion and destruction of one or other of the opposing sides. Democracy is a system which puts a brake on preparation for war, aggressive or defensive, but it is not one that conduces to the limitation of warfare or the prospects of a good peace. No political system more easily becomes out of control when passions are aroused. These defects have been multiplied in modern democracies, since their great extension of size and their vast electorate produce a much larger volume of emotional pressure.

History should have taught the statesman that there is no practical halfway house between a peace of complete subjugation and a peace of true moderation. History also shows that the former is apt to involve the victor in endless difficulties, unless it is carried so far as to amount to extermination, which is not practicable. The latter requires a settlement so reasonable that the losers will not only accept it but see the advantages of maintaining it in their own interests.

Wellington's best contribution to the future of Europe, after victory was gained, was in the making of the peace settlement with France. In the occupation of the conquered country he was as intent to protect the people from ill-usage as he had been when that policy had been a means to smooth the path of his invasion. He did all he could to curb the revengeful excesses of his allies—even to the point of posting a British sentry on the Pont de Jena in Paris to hinder Blücher from blowing it up—while insisting that his own army must set an example of gentleness, courtesy, and restraint.

When it came to drawing up the peace terms, he threw all his influence against the demand of Prussia and the other German states that France should be dismembered and compelled to pay a huge indemnity, to compensate their sufferings and safeguard their security. He realized with uncommon clarity the unwisdom of immoderation and the fundamental insecurity of a peace based upon oppression. The outcome justified his policy of moderation.

It was because he really understood war that he became so good at securing peace. He was the least militaristic of soldiers and free from the lust of glory. It was because he saw the value of peace that he became so unbeatable in war. For he kept the end in view, instead of falling in love with the means. Unlike Napoleon, he was not infected by the romance of war, which generates illusions and self-deceptions. That was how Napoleon had failed and Wellington prevailed.

It is a recurrent illusion in history that the enemy of the time is essentially different, in the sense of being more evil, than any in the past. It is remarkable to see how not only the impression but the phrases repeat themselves. And even historians are apt to lose their balance when they turn from the past to the problems of their own time. The eminent historian Stubbs, writing in 1860, when Britain feared an invasion by Napoleon III, asked why “the English and the Germans have always been the peace-loving nations of history” (an extremely unhistorical remark in both cases). He answered his own question—“Because France shows herself today as she has been throughout the course of a thousand years, aggressive, unscrupulous, false.”

There is a widespread feeling in the West that no “coexistence” compromise is really possible, or likely to last, with the Communist regimes of Russia and China—and that these will continue to exploit opportunities and grab more gains wherever they can. That feeling has much justification in experience and in knowledge of totalitarian trends. But the more right it is, the more vital that Western statesmen in taking countermeasures should bear in mind a long-standing lesson of police experience—that “a burglar doesn't commit murder unless he is cornered.” It is as true of the community of nations as of any smaller one.

On the other hand, tension is almost bound to relax eventually if war is postponed long enough. This has happened often before in history, for situations change. They never remain static. But it is always dangerous to be too dynamic, and impatient, in trying to force the pace. A war-charged situation can change only two ways. It is bound to become better, eventually, if war is avoided without surrender.

The illusion of treaties

One of the clear lessons that history teaches is that no agreement between Governments has had any stability beyond their recognition that it is in their own interests to continue to adhere to it. I cannot conceive that any serious student of history would be impressed by such a hollow phrase as “the sanctity of treaties.”

We must face the fact that international relations are governed by interests and not by moral principles. Then it can be seen that the validity of treaties depends on mutual convenience. This can provide an effective guarantee. While there is no security in negotiating from weakness, there is a better prospect in any negotiation where it is clear that the strength of both sides is closely balanced. For in that case any settlement is based on a mutual recognition that the prospects of a one-sided victory would be incommensurate with the prospects of mutual exhaustion and of the consequent subject of both parties subsequently to the interests of third parties who are standing outside the struggle or participating to only a limited extent.

The Romans coined the maxim “If you wish for peace, prepare for war.” But the many wars they fought, and the endless series since their day, show that there was a fallacy in the argument—or that it was too simply put, without sufficient thought. As Calvin Coolidge caustically remarked after World War I: “No nation ever had an army large enough to guarantee it against attack in time of peace, or ensure it victory in time of war.”

In studying how wars have broken out I was led to suggest, after World War I, that a truer maxim would be “If you wish for peace, understand war.” That conclusion was reinforced by World War II and its sequel. It signposts a road to peace that is more hopeful than building plans—which have so often proved “castles in the air.”

Any plan for peace is apt to be not only futile but dangerous. Like most planning, unless of a mainly material kind, it breaks down through disregard of human nature. Worse still, the higher the hopes that are built on such a plan, the more likely that their collapse may precipitate war.

There is no panacea for peace that can be written out in a formula like a doctor's prescription. But one can set down a series of practical points—elementary principles drawn from the sum of human experience in all times. Study war and learn from its history. Keep strong, if possible. In any case, keep cool. Have unlimited patience. Never corner an opponent and always assist him to save his face. Put yourself in his shoes—so as to see things through his eyes. Avoid self-righteousness like the devil—nothing is so self-blinding. Cure yourself of two commonly fatal delusions—the idea of victory and the idea that war cannot be limited.

These points were all made, explicitly or implicitly, in the earliest known book on the problems of war and peace—Sun Tzu's, about 500 B.C. The many wars, mostly futile, that have occurred since then show how little the nations have learned from history. But the lesson has been more deeply engraved. And now, since the development of the H-bomb, the only hope of survival, for either side, rests on careful maintenance of these eight pillars of policy.

The dilemma of the intellectual

Neither intellectuals nor their critics appear to recognize the inherent dilemma of the thinking man and its inevitability. The dilemma should be faced, for it is a natural part of the growth of any human mind.

An intellectual ought to realize the extent to which the world is shaped by human emotions, emotions uncontrolled by reason—his thinking must have been shallow, and his observation narrow, if he fails to realize that. Having once learned to think and to use reason as a guide, however, he cannot possibly float with the current of popular emotion and fluctuate with its violent changes unless he himself ceases to think or is deliberately false to his own thought. And in the latter case it is likely that he will commit intellectual suicide, gradually, “by the death of a thousand cuts.”

A deeper diagnosis of the malady from which left-wing intellectuals have suffered in the past might suggest that their troubles have come not from following reason too far but from not following it far enough—to realize the general power of unreason. Many of them also seem to have suffered from failing to apply reason internally as well as externally—through not using it for the control of their own emotions. In that way, they unwittingly helped to get this country into the mess of the last war and then found themselves in an intellectual mess as a result.

In one of the more penetrating criticisms written on this subject, George Orwell expressed a profound truth in saying that “the energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions.” He referred to the deep-seated and dynamic power of “racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war.” There are powerful emotions beyond these, however. The energy of the intellectual himself springs from an emotion: love of truth—the desire for wider knowledge and understanding. That emotion has done quite a lot to shape the world, as a study of world history amply shows. In the thinking man that source of energy dries up only when he ceases to believe in the guiding power of thought and allows himself to become merely a vehicle for the prevailing popular emotions of the moment.

Bertrand Russell remarked in 1964 that the “task of persuading governments and populations of the disasters of nuclear war had been very largely accomplished” and went on to say that it had been “accomplished by a combination of methods of agitation.” If there is one thing that seems to be clear, it is that such methods have had very little effect compared with the effect of logical argument in converting the mind of the military leadership to a realization that nuclear war is futile and suicidal.

History bears witness to the vital part that the “prophets” have played in human progress, which is evidence of the ultimate practical value of expressing unreservedly the truth as one sees it. Yet it also becomes clear that the acceptance and spreading of their vision has always depended on another class of men—“leaders” who had to be philosophical strategists, striking a compromise between truth and men's receptivity to it. Their effect has often depended as much on their own limitations in perceiving the truth as on their practical wisdom in proclaiming it.

The prophets must be stoned; that is their lot and the test of their self-fulfillment. A leader who is stoned, however, may merely prove that he has failed in his function through a deficiency of wisdom or through confusing his function with that of a prophet. Time alone can tell whether the effect of such a sacrifice redeems the apparent failure as a leader that does honor to him as a man. At the least, he avoids the more common fault of leaders—that of sacrificing the truth to expediency without ultimate advantage to the cause. For whoever habitually suppresses the truth in the interests of tact will produce a deformity from the womb of his thought.

Is there a practical way of combining progress toward the attainment of truth with progress toward its acceptance? A possible solution of the problem is suggested by reflection on strategic principles—which point to the importance of maintaining an object consistently and, also, of pursuing it in a way adapted to circumstances.

Opposition to the truth is inevitable, especially if it takes the form of a new idea, but the degree of resistance can be diminished—by giving thought not only to the aim but to the method of approach. Avoid a frontal attack on a long-established position; instead, seek to turn it by a flank movement, so that a more penetrable side is exposed to the thrust of truth. But in any such indirect approach, take care not to diverge from the truth—for nothing is more fatal to its real advancement than to lapse into untruth.

The meaning of these reflections may be made clearer by illustration from one's own experience. Looking back on the stages by which various fresh ideas gained acceptance, it can be seen that the process was eased when they could be presented not as something radically new but as the revival in modern terms of a time-honored principle or practice that had been forgotten. This required not deception but care to trace the connection—since “there is nothing new under the sun.”

A notable example was the way that the opposition to mechanization was diminished by showing that the mobile armored vehicle—the fast-moving tank—was fundamentally the heir of the armored horseman and thus the natural means of reviving the decisive role which cavalry had played in past ages.

The limitations of conformity

Even among great scholars there is no more unhistorical fallacy than that, in order to command, you must learn to obey. A more temperamentally insubordinate lot than the outstanding soldiers and sailors of the past could scarcely be found—in England one has only to think of Wolfe and Wellington, Nelson and Dundonald; in France, Napoleon's marshals in this respect at least were worthy of their master.

Robert E. Lee's conduct at West Point was so immaculate that he had not a single offense recorded against him, while he became known among his fellows as the “Marble Model.” What a contrast this offers to the experience of Sherman and Grant, who were both often unbearably irked by the petty restrictions and often kicked over the traces. For Sherman, even when looking back upon it when he had risen to be commanding general of the United States Army, sarcastically wrote: “Then, as now, neatness in dress and form, with a strict conformity to the rules, were the qualifications for office, and I suppose I was not found to excel in any of these.” As for Grant, when a cadet he fervently prayed for the success of a bill to abolish the institution so that he might be released from its constant vexations!

Comparing their youthful record with Lee's, any student of psychology would be inclined to predict that they had more promise of being successful commanders in later life if given the chance. Also that, if either were to be pitted against him in war's grim test, they were more likely to come out on top.

A model boy rarely goes far, and even when he does he is apt to falter when severely tested. A boy who conforms immaculately to school rules is not likely to grow into a man who will conquer by breaking the stereotyped professional rules of his time—as conquest has most often been achieved. Still less does it imply the development of the wide views necessary in a man who is not merely a troop commander but the strategic adviser of his Government. The wonderful thing about Lee's generalship is not his legendary genius but the way he rose above his handicaps—handicaps that were internal even more than external.

The problem of force

The more I have reflected on the experience of history the more I have come to see the instability of solutions achieved by force and to suspect even those instances where force has had the appearance of resolving difficulties. But the question remains whether we can afford to eliminate force in the world as it is without risking the loss of such ground as reason has gained.

Beyond this is the doubt whether we should be able to eliminate it even if we had the strength of mind to take such a risk. For weaker minds will cling to this protection and by so doing spoil the possible effectiveness of non-resistance. Is there any way out of the dilemma?

There is at least one solution that has yet to be tried—that the masters of force should be those who have mastered all desire to employ it. That solution is an extension of what Bernard Shaw expressed in Major Barbara: that wars would continue until the makers of gunpowder became professors of Greek—and he here had Gilbert Murray in mind—or the professors of Greek became the makers of gunpowder. And this, in turn, was derived from Plato's conclusion that the affairs of mankind would never go right until either the rulers became philosophers or the philosophers became the rulers.

If armed forces were controlled by men who have become convinced of the wrongness of using force there would be the nearest approach to a safe assurance against its abuse. Such men might also come closest to efficiency in its use, should the enemies of civilation compel this. For the more complex that war becomes the more its efficient direction depends on understanding its properties and effects; and the deeper the study of modern war is carried the stronger grows the conviction of its futility.

The problem of limiting war

Can war be limited? Logic says, “No. War is the sphere of violence and it would be illogical to hesitate in using any extreme of violence that can help you to win the war.”

History replies, “Such logic makes nonsense. You go to war to win the peace, not just for the sake of fighting. Extremes of violence may frustrate your purpose, so that victory becomes a boomerang. Moreover, it is a matter of historical fact that war has been limited in many ways.”

Read Julius Caesar's own account of his campaigns in Gaul, and you may realize that Hitler was quite a gentle man compared with that much praised missionary of Roman civilization who is revered by so many students of the classic. But the Romans at their worst were mild compared with our own ancestors, and the ancestors of all the Western European nations, during the Dark Ages that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire—and the Pax Romana. It was the habit of the Saxons and the Franks to slay everyone in their path—men, women, and children—and to indulge in the most reckless destruction of towns and crops.

It is important to understand how the “total warfare” of those times came to be modified and gradually humanized. It is a story of “ups and downs”—but far more up than down.

The first influence in the rescue of humanity was the Christian Church. Even before it converted the pagan conquerors of the West, it often succeeded in restraining their savagery by exploiting their superstitions. One of its most notable efforts was the two-branched “truce of God.” The Pax Dei introduced in the tenth century sought to insure immunity for non-combatants and their property. It was followed by the Treuga Dei, which sought to limit the number of days on which fighting could take place by establishing periods of truce.

A wider reinforcement came from the Code of Chivalry. This seems to have been of Arabic origin. Here it has to be admitted that the followers of Mohammed were much quicker than the followers of Christ, in the West, to develop humane habits—although Mohammed himself had shown much more of the Old Testament spirit revealed in Moses. Contact with the East, however, helped to foster the growth of chivalry in the West. That code, for all its faults, helped to humanize warfare—by formalizing it.

Economic factors also helped. The custom of releasing prisoners in exchange for a ransom may have depended more on a profit motive than on a sense of chivalrous behavior, but was essentially good sense—it worked for good. At first it applied only to those who could afford to pay a ransom. But the habit grew, as habits do, and gave rise to a general custom of sparing the lives of the defeated. That was an immense step forward.

This increasing habit of limitation was aided by the spread of mercenary soldiers—that is, professional soldiers. First, these came to realize the mutual benefit of restraint in dealing with one another. Then their employers came to realize the mutual benefit of curbing their tendency to plunder the civilian population on either side.

Unhappily, a severe setback came from the Wars of Religion, which arose from the Reformation. The split in the Church broke up its moral authority, while turning it from a restraining influence into an impelling agent. It heated the fires of hatred and inflamed the passions of war. The climax of this period was the Thirty Years' War, when more than half the population of the German states perished, directly or indirectly, from the war.

Yet the savagery of such warfare was not so great as it had been in the Dark Ages. Moreover, this excess of violence produced a widespread revulsion—which, in turn, led to a great advance, greater than ever before. To proceed to extremes in war might be logical, but it was not reasonable.

Another important influence was the growth of more formal and courteous manners in social life. This code of manners spread into the field of international relations. These two factors, reason and manners, saved civilization when it was on the verge of collapse. Men came to feel that behavior mattered more than belief, and customs more than creeds, in making earthly life tolerable and human relations workable.

The improvement made during the eighteenth century in the customs of war, and in reducing its evils, forms one of the great achievements of civilization. It opened up a prospect that the progressive limitation of war, by formalization, might lead to its elimination. The improvement was helped by the fact that there was no radical change in the means of warfare during this period. For experience suggests that an increase of savagery in warfare is apt to follow new developments—technical or political—which unsettle the existing order.

The bad effect of a big political change was shown at the end of the eighteenth century, when the code of limitations on violence in war was broken down by the French Revolution. But the wars of the French Revolution never, at their worst, became so terrible as the religious wars of the seventeenth century. And the restoration of civilization was helped by the wise moderation of the peace terms imposed on France after the fall of Napoleon—thanks largely to England's influence, as represented by Wellington and Castlereagh. The best testimony to it was that half a century passed before there was another serious war in Europe.

The nineteenth century saw, on the whole, a continuance of the trend toward humane limitations in warfare. This was registered in the Geneva conventions of 1864 and 1906, which dealt mainly with the protection of the wounded, and the Hague conventions of 1899 and 1907, which covered a wider field.

Civil wars have tended toward the worst excesses and the nineteenth century saw a significant extension of such conflicts.

The American Civil War was the first in which the railway, the steamship, and telegraphy were important factors, and these new instruments had revolutionary effects on strategy. Another important change came from the growth of population and the trend toward centralization—both being the products of a growing industrialization. The sum effect was to increase the economic target, and also the moral target, while making both more vulnerable. This in turn increased the incentive to strike at the sources of the opponent's armed power instead of striking at its shield—the armed forces.

This was the first war between modern democracies, and Sherman saw very clearly that the resisting power of a democracy depends even more on the strength of the people's will than on the strength of its armies. His strategy was ably fitted to fulfill the primary aim of his grand strategy. His unchecked march through the heart of the South, destroying its resources, was the most effective way to create and spread a sense of helplessness that would undermine the will to continue the war.

The havoc that Sherman's march produced in the opponent's back areas left a legacy of bitterness in later years that has recoiled on Sherman's historical reputation. But it is questionable whether that bitterness or the impoverishment of the South would have been prolonged, or grave, if the peace settlement had not been dominated by the vindictiveness of the Northern extremists who gained the upper hand after Lincoln's assassination. For Sherman himself bore in mind the need of moderation in making peace. That was shown in the generous terms of the agreement he drafted for the surrender of Johnston's army—an offer for which he was violently denounced by the Government in Washington. Moreover, he persistently pressed the importance, for the future of the forcibly reunited nation, of reconciling the conquered section by good treatment and helping its recovery.

The humane progress of war was now to be endangered by three factors. One was the survival of conscription. Another was the growth of a new theory of war which embodied all the most dangerous features of revolutionary and Napoleonic practice. That theory was evolved in Prussia—by Clausewitz. Pursuing logic to the extreme, he argued that moderation had no place in war: “War is an act of violence pursued to the utmost.” As his thinking proceeded he came to realize the fallacy of such logic. Unfortunately, he died before he could revise his writings—and his disciples remembered only his extreme starting point. A further dangerous factor was also developing—the terrific scientific improvement in the weapons of war.

Under the combined influence of these factors the 1914–1918 war started in a bad way—and went from bad to worse. The ill-effects of the war were deepened by the nature of the peace settlement. Any people whose spirit was not permanently broken would have striven to evade such crippling and humiliating terms. The prospects were made worse by the state of exhaustion and chaos to which Europe was reduced by the time the peace was made and by the general degeneration of standards produced by the years of unlimited violence.

The first effect was seen before World War II began in the more complete organization of the people for the service of the state. The second effect was seen in the more drastic, and often atrocious, treatment of conquered populations during that war.

On the military side, in contrast, the level of behavior was better in a number of respects than in World War I. Even at its worst it never fell back to the pre-eighteenth century level. The armies in general continued to observe many of the rules contained in the established code of war. Indeed, military atrocities seem to have been fewer than in World War I.

Unfortunately, such a gain for civilization was offset by the development of new weapons for which no clear limitations had been though out—and no code of rules established in time. As a result the immense growth of air power led to a sweeping disregard for humane limitations on its action, in carrying out bombardment from the air. This produced an extent of devastation, and in many areas a degradation of living conditions, worse than anything seen since the Thirty Years' War. Indeed, in the destruction of cities, the record of World War II exceeds anything since the campaigns of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane.

“Total warfare,” such as we have known it hitherto, is not compatible with the atomic age. Total warfare implies that the aim, the effort, and the degree of violence are unlimited. An unlimited war waged with atomic power would make worse than nonsense; it would be mutually suicidal. The most likely form of conflict for the next generation is what I call “subversive war.” Otherwise it can only be some other form of “limited” warfare.

The problem of disarmament

“Disarmament” was a late starter in the race, at snail's pace, for international security following World War I. After protracted preliminary discussions the World Disarmament Conference finally assembled at Geneva in 1932. A few months before it opened, Japan had tentatively started on its long course of aggression in the Far East.

In the second year after the end of World War II, there was a revival of the project. Disarmament suddenly came to the fore in the proceedings of the United Nations although there had been no mention of it in the agenda when the General Assembly met in New York in the autumn of 1946.

The revival came in an indirect way, arising out of a Soviet proposal for a census of the troops which each nation was maintaining abroad. This led at first merely to a series of wrangles. But it led on to an unexpected resolution for a general reduction of armaments, and then, surprisingly, to acceptance of international inspection in principle—which had previously been opposed as an infringement of national sovereignty. A partial implementation of this principle was reached in the Kennedy-Khrushchev Test Ban Treaty.

Experience shows that a basic flaw, though not the most obvious one, in any scheme of international security or disarmament has been the difficulty of reconciling the view of the expert advisers. Conferences have repeatedly been spun out by the technical pulls and counterpulls, until the prospect of agreement wore thin and the political temper became frayed. That is hardly surprising.

To take the opinion of generals, admirals, or air marshals on the deeper problems of war, as distinct from its executive technique, is like consulting your local pharmacist about the treatment of a deep-seated disease. However skilled in compounding drugs, it is not their concert to study the causes and consequences of the disease, nor the psychology of the sufferers.

While experience has shown the insecurity of international plans for the prevention of war, earlier experience shows that it is possible to develop an international habit of observing limitations, from a shrewd realization that mutual restraint is beneficial to self-interest in the long run. The more that warfare is “formalized” the less damaging it proves. Past efforts in this direction have had more success than is commonly appreciated.

War between independent states which acknowledge no superior sovereignty has a basic likeness to a fight between individual men. In the process of restricting such murderous fights, the judicial combat of the early Middle Ages served a useful purpose until such time as the authority of the state was wide enough and strong enough to enforce a judgment by law. The formal rules of judicial combat came to be respected long before “individual warfare” was effectively abolished in favor of a judicial decision by legal process. The value of such rules was aptly summed up in Montesquieu's Esprit des Lois, where he remarks that, just as many wise things are conducted in a very foolish manner, so some foolish things have been conducted in a very wise manner.

When the authority of Church and State was shaken by the disruptive conflicts of the later Middle Ages, individual warfare was revived in the guise of dueling. In sixteenth-century Italy, its dangers were curbed by such a multiplication of rules that it faded out—formality gradually producing nullity. Elsewhere, especially in France, the duel had a longer run, but it can be seen that its increasing formalization was an important factor in assisting the efforts of law, reason, and humane feeling to suppress the practice. Even at the worst, the custom of the duel provided a regulated outlet for violent feelings which checked a more rampant revival of individual killing.

In a similar way, the wars between the Italian city-states of the Renaissance period, and the greater ones between the European nation-states of the eighteenth century, not only bore witness to human pugnacity but provided evidence of the possibility of regulating it. They were an outlet for the aggressive instincts and for the types of men who are naturally combative, while keeping their violence within bounds—to the benefit of civilization. Such warfare may have been more of a necessity than idealists would care to recognize, but in limiting the evil they served a better purpose than is generally realized.

The problem of irregular warfare

The prospects for disarmament or for formal restrictions on war have become increasingly complicated by the development of irregular warfare in different forms throughout the world—guerrilla fighting, “subversion,” and “resistance.”

Guerrilla warfare has become a much greater feature in the conflicts of this century than ever before, and only in this century did it come to receive more than slight attention in Western military theory—although armed action by irregular forces often occurred in earlier times. Clausewitz in his monumental work On War devoted one short chapter to the matter, and that came near the end of the thirty chapters of his Book VI, which dealt with the various aspects of “defense.” Treating the subject of “arming the people” as a defensive measure against an invader, he formulated the basic conditions of success, and the limitations, but did not discuss the political problems involved. Nor did he make more than slight reference to the Spanish popular resistance to Napoleon's armies, which was the most striking example of guerrilla action in the wars of his time—and brought the term into military usage.

A wider and more profound treatment of the subject came, a century later, in T. E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom. His masterly formulation of the theory of guerrilla warfare focused on its offensive value and was the product of his combined experience and reflection during the Arab Revolt against the Turks, both as a struggle for independence and as part of the Allied campaign against Turkey. That outlying campaign in the Middle East was the only one in World War I where guerrilla action exerted an important influence. In the European theaters of war it played no significant part.

In World War II, however, guerrilla warfare became so widespread as to be an almost universal feature. It developed in all the European countries that were occupied by the Germans and most of the Far Eastern countries occupied by the Japanese. Its growth can be trade largely to the deep impression that Lawrence had made, especially on Churchill's mind. After the Germans had overrun France in 1940 and left Britain isolated, it became part of Churchill's war policy to utilize guerrilla warfare as a counter-weapon. The success of such Resistance movies varied. The most effective was in Yugoslavia by the Communist Partisans under Tito's leadership.

Meanwhile, however, a more extensive and prolonged guerrilla war had been waged in the Far East since the 1920s by the Chinese Communists, in whose leadership Mao Tse-tung played an increasingly dominant part.

Since then the combination of guerrilla and subversive war has been pursued with spreading success in neighboring areas of Southeast Asia and also in other parts of the world—in Africa, starting with Algeria; in Cyprus; on the other side of the Atlantic in Cuba; and now, once again, in the Middle East. Campaigns of this kind are the more likely to continue because it is the only kind of war that fits the conditions of the modern age, while being at the same time well suited to take advantage of social discomfort, racial ferment and nationalistic fervor.

Two of the most significant and influential modern treatises on the subject are Mao Tse-tung's farseeing epistle Yu Chi Chan, produced in 1937, when the Japanese advance into China developed, and Che Guevara's 1960 manual, a textbook synthesis of the methods applied and experience gained in the Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro.

As to the role of “resistance,” the armed Resistance forces undoubtedly imposed a considerable strain on the Germans during World War II. But when these back-area campaigns are analyzed, it would seem that their effect was largely in proportion to the extent to which they were combined with the operations of a strong regular army that was engaging the enemy's front and drawing off his reserves. They rarely became more than a nuisance unless they coincided with the fact, or imminent threat, of a powerful offensive that absorbed the enemy's main attention.

At other times they were less effective than widespread passive resistance—and brought far more harm to the people of their own country. They provoked reprisals much severer than the injury inflicted on the enemy. They afforded his troops the opportunity for violent action that is always a relief to the nerves of a garrison in an unfriendly country. The material damage that the guerrillas produced directly, and indirectly in the course of reprisals, caused much suffering among their own people and ultimately became a handicap on recovery after liberation. But the heaviest handicap of all, and the most lasting one, was of a moral kind.

The habit of violence takes much deeper root in irregular warfare than it does in regular warfare. In the latter it is counteracted by the habit of obedience to constituted authority, whereas the former makes a virtue of defying authority and violating rules. It becomes very difficult to rebuild a country, and a stable state, on such an undermined foundation.

A realization of the dangerous aftermath of guerrilla warfare came to me in reflection on Lawrence's campaigns in Arabia and our discussions on the subject. My book on these campaigns, and exposition of the theory of guerrilla warfare, was taken as a guide by numerous leaders of commando units and resistance movements in the last war. But I was beginning to have doubts—not of its immediate efficacy but of its long-term effects. It seemed that they could be traced, like a thread running through the persisting troubles that we, as the Turks' successors, were suffering in the same area where Lawrence had spread the Arab Revolt.

These doubts were deepened when re-examining the military history of the Peninsula War, a century earlier, and reflecting on the subsequent history of Spain. In that war, Napoleon's defeat of the Spanish regular armies was counterbalanced by the success of the guerrilla bands that replaced them. As a popular uprising against a foreign conquerer, it was one of the most effective on record. It did more than Wellington's victories to loosen Napoleon's grip on Spain and undermine his power. But it did not bring peace to liberated Spain. For it was followed by an epidemic of armed revolutions that continued in quick succession for half a century—and broke out again in this century.

It is not too late to learn from the experience of history. However tempting the idea may seem of replying to our opponents' “camouflaged war” activities by counteroffensive moves of the same kind, it would be wiser to devise and pursue a counterstrategy of a more subtle and farseeing kind.

The problem of world order

For the prevention of war, the obvious solution is a world federation, to which all the nations would agree to surrender their absolute sovereignty—their present claim to be final judge of their own policy in all respects and in any disagreement which affects their interest.

Regrettable as it may seem to the idealist, the experience of history provides little warrant for the belief that real progress, and the freedom that makes progress possible, lies in unification. For where unification has been able to establish unity of ideas it has usually ended in uniformity, paralyzing the growth of new ideas. And where the unification has merely brought about an artificial or imposed unity, its irksomeness has led through discord to disruption.

Vitality springs from diversity—which makes for real progress so long as there is mutual toleration, based on the recognition that worse may come from an attempt to suppress differences than from acceptance of them. For this reason the kind of peace that makes progress possible is best assured by mutual checks created by a balance of forces—alike in the sphere of internal politics and of international relations. In the international sphere, the “balance of power” was a sound theory so long as the balance was preserved. But the frequency with which the “balance of power” or, as now described, “the balance of terror” has become unbalanced, thereby precipitating war, has produced a growing urge to find a more stable solution—either by fusion or federation.

Federation is the more hopeful method, since it embodies the life-giving principle of cooperation, whereas unification represents the principle of monopoly. And any monopoly of power leads to ever-repeated demonstration of the historical truth epitomized in Lord Acton's famous dictum “All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” From that danger even a federation is not immune, so that the greatest care should be taken to ensure the mutual checks and balancing factors necessary to correct the natural effect of constitutional unity.

Federation has proved effective in preserving peace among different nationalities in successively large groupings. Where it has been adopted it has stood the test of crises. Although the United States of America is the most commonly quoted evidence of its success, the Swiss Confederation is in some ways a more remarkable case. It is painfully clear, however, that the idea of world federation has no practical chance of acceptance in the near future.

The problem of world faith

As a historian of our own times, I have had only too much chance to observe how legends spring up around living figures—and how the acts and words of any leader or prophet become encrusted with stories that have no foundation in fact. The greater the personal devotion they inspire, the deeper the crust becomes. If this process takes place under modern conditions, where there are so many fact-finding checks, how much more likely that it occurred in a period where an historical sense had hardly developed and checks were lacking.

As a student of ancient history, moreover, I was only too well aware that the idea of a scrupulous fidelity to facts was uncommon even in the writers of history in the ancient world. Most of them were concerned mainly to bring out a new lesson. While scrupulousness about historical facts would have been a new idea to them it would have seemed almost irrelevant to religious teachers. The gospels were compiled as a basis for religious instruction and worship—not for the service of history. That is an essential difference of purpose which cannot be overlooked.

The oldest gospel manuscripts belong to the fourth century A.D. They are copies of copies so that there was an immensely long interval during which copyists might alter the original text to fit the religious ideas of their own generation. Biblical scholars have to base themselves on nothing more definite than tradition in ascribing the origin of the earliest written gospels to the second half of the first century A.D. If they are correct in their deductions—which is really speculation—there is still no means of telling how much they were altered by editing in the course of three hundred years—a period that abounded in controversy and schisms in the Church.

Even on the most hopeful estimate there was still an interval of a generation during which the disciples' memories were in oral circulation—more than long enough for any memory to be colored and altered by emotional retrospect, as well as by subsequent circumstances. For we have to remember that the disciples were preaching their faith in the face of doubt and opposition. They were an exception to all experience if they did not tend to “improve” their Master's sayings and acts in order to meet criticism and carry conviction.

At the same time Christian doctrine was itself in evolution, with consequent effect on its textbooks. I can understand, but consider extremely unreasonable, that thinking men should continue to believe in the same myths and dogmatic conventions that developed in the extremely superstitious mental atmosphere of the Levantine-Roman world two thousand years ago, in a creed that was defined as a result of the most appalling political “wire-pulling” and imposed by the despotic power of a couple of credulous and superstitious Roman emperors, who were mainly concerned with acquiring the best “magic” to help their ambitions for power.

I have found in dealing with men of fine character that if they are devout and orthodox Christians one cannot depend on their word as well as if they are not. The good man who is a good churchman is apt to subordinate truth to what he thinks will prove good. That is not surprising, for anyone who had a keen taste for truth would find it difficult to swallow as historical fact much that he does without difficulty. His fervent belief seems to make him insensitive to the point of being credulous.

Many Christian scholars will admit in one breath of the impossibility of bringing to light the historical Jesus, yet speak in their next breath of the incidents in the Gospel narrative just as if they were factually true. That capacity shows insensitivity to the flavor of different shades of truth.

The Church has created, and continues to create, needless and endless difficulties for itself by the excessive emphasis that it has given to the historical aspect of Christianity. If it were only willing to present the Christian story as spiritual truth, these difficulties could be overcome—while its progress would be all the better assured. For it could thus do more to bring out the sense of continuous revelation and evolution, teaching mankind to look forward rather than backward, as it has done to a perhaps excessive extent.

The Old Testament is interesting and valuable when treated as a study of the evolution of religious ideas. As an exposition of religion, for incorporation in our services, much of it is barbarous and debasing. Even the New Testament's presentation of God often falls below good standards.

The sands of history form an uncertain foundation on which to establish a creed composed of factual statements. We can rest broad conclusions on these sands, but if we pin our faith to details they are liable to be washed away by the incoming sea of knowledge, and faith may crumble. If we rest on the the broad truth of experience, we become more conscious of, and better able to breathe in, the spirit that moves above the ground level of consciousness. That is the breath of life.

I will state very simply how I came to find evidence of God that was convincing to reason. It was that an unworldly current of goodness has been maintained, and proved insuppressible, in a world where evil flourishes and selfishness has obvious advantages. By human standards there is no sense in self-sacrifice and helping others at one's own expense. Yet that unselfish motive has been manifested in innumerable cases. Can it be explained save by the presence of a higher source of inspiration?

The best of men have been conscious of being no more than windows through which comes a light that is not of their own making but like spiritual sunshine. Or to put it another way, they are merely receiving sets tuned in to the wave length of a spiritual “radio” transmission. They can dust their window panes. They can improve their receptivity. But they are aware that the Source is outside, far beyond their ken.

All this is only a modern way of expressing the “truth beyond human understanding” which the compilers of the gospels tried to convey by describing the incoming of the Holy Spirit in terms of his descent in the shape of a dove. Man's “pictures” of God vary; His inspiration is constant. Ideas of God, and forms of belief, naturally differ and change. For these develop in our minds—and our limited human minds are not capable of understanding His boundless mind. But we can feel God with less difficulty—because we do not formulate anything, as we are bound to do in thinking. His spirit can thus touch ours in a more direct way, and we get a purer breath of it.

I believe we were given minds to think—to search for the truth behind conventions and myths. I like to think that the gift came from a personal God, in the deepest sense of the term, and think that the investment of this creative force with a higher form of personality is more reasonable than to regard it as purely blind materialism.

We are given minds to use, and there can be no better use for them than religious thinking. But we should humbly recognize there may be different paths and feel in sympathy with all other travelers. The difficulties that arise in religious doctrine and history too often drive thoughtful people into a state of no belief. But for my own part I have found that the difficulties tend to disappear if one remembers that such doctrine and history was compiled by human interpreters, humanly liable to mistakes.

Once that is realized it does not matter if science and history show that many of their statements are not factually true. The vital quality is the spiritual truth, not the material facts. Doubts of these become unimportant if one regards the Bible not as historical record in the ordinary human sense but as divine parable on the grand scale. The Church feared that faith could not survive the shock if the book of Genesis was shown to be factually incorrect. By its reluctance to admit the possibility, it did more to shake faith in itself than in religion. Looking back now, its fears seem as excessive as its arguments seem ludicrous. Yet it now shows the same fear of admitting that much of the New Testament may be non-historical.

If we profess to believe in the Holy Spirit, we should have sufficient faith to rely on that guidance in the evolution of religious ideas. The further I have gone in study and thought the more I have become impressed by the convergence, as distinct from the coincidence, of all the great religious and philosophical thinkers on their uppermost levels. To put it another way, it seems to me that the spiritual development of humanity as a whole is like a pyramid, or a mountain peak, where all angles of ascent tend to converge the higher they climb.

On the one hand this convergent tendency, and the remarkable degree of agreement that is to be found on the higher levels, appears to me the strongest argument from experience that morality is absolute and not merely relative and that religious faith is not a delusion. On the other hand, it seems to me the most encouraging assurance of further progress—if only those who pursue spiritual truth can be brought to recognise their essential community of spirit and learn to make the most of the points where they agree, instead of persistently stressing their differences and emphasizing their exclusiveness.

The difficulty of achieving such a spiritual commonwealth is obvious, while the danger to civilization is imminent. Time looks perilously short. It may thus seem unrealistic to pin any hopes of averting world disaster to a revival of religion—even of this wider scope. We have to remember, too, that religion has been an intense spiritual force only for the few. For the many, it has been mainly influential as a mold of thought and behavior. Yet from this very reflection comes the gleam of a reasonable hope. A partial change in thought and behavior would mean less than a spiritual transformation, but it might suffice to gain a breathing space for the peoples to recover their balance and for religion to gain a deeper hold.

History justifies such moderate hopes. Twice already our civilization in the West has been rescued by the revival of a code that was based on moral values. The cult of chivalry did quite as much as the efforts of the Church to bring Europe out of the Dark Ages. The second time was after the catastrophic wars of the seventeenth century—which were nourished by the violence of religious passions, following the split in the Church. A sense of the fatal consequences grew and produced a habit of restraint.

The same truth has been realized, and more systematically applied on the other side of the world from the sixth century B.C., when Confucius and his followers helped to save Chinese civilization and give it a new lease on life unparalleled in length by teaching a gospel of good manners. We in the West might learn much from the Confucian wisdom in emphasizing, and cultivating, good habits—as well as good hearts. Confucianism perceived the close and reciprocal relationship of good manners and good morals.

Manners are apt to be regarded as a surface polish. That is a superficial view. They arise from an inward control. A fresh realization of their importance is needed in the world today, and their revival might prove the salvation of civilization. For only manners in the deeper sense—of mutual restraint for mutual security—can control the risk that outbursts of temper over political and social issues may lead to mutual destruction in the atomic age.

In its emphasis on the need for a “change of heart,” Christianity has been apt to underrate the value of a change of habit. With hearts, a temporary change is easier than with habits, but a profound and permanent change is far more difficult. In demanding so complete a change, Christianity has called for more than the mass of its adherents were capable of achieving—as the record shows. An emotional impulse has too often passed muster as a spiritual transformation. So long as faith was maintained, the Church has been content with too little in the way of “works.” The possible has been neglected in favor of the ideal.

Confucianism was humanly wiser. It recognized, and applied, better than Christianity the truth of experience that was epitomized in Aristotle's observation that “Men acquire a particular quality by constantly acting in a particular way.” At the same time the Chinese themselves seem to have found that Confucianism “was not enough.” Hence the appeal of Buddhism and Taoism there, often in combination with Confucianism. They provided a more spiritual element that mankind wanted.

The West has tended to emphasive the virtue of the positive—“whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” The East has emphasized the virtue of the negative—“do not unto others what you would not they should do unto you.” Both the positive and the negative are essential. The world needs a better balance in applying the “Golden Rule”—which all religions have in common. All faiths can make their contribution to the working out of God's purpose.


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Copyright (c) 1971 by Lady Kathleen Sullivan Liddell Hart

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