War and the Humanities


By DR. MONROE E. DEUTSCH, Vice-President and Provost of the University of California

Delivered at the Institute of World Affairs, Riverside, California, December 8, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 207-210.

PRECISELY how the subject assigned me is to be defined, I am not certain. I doubt very much whether the term humanities in the title was intended to apply merely to the Greek and Latin classics. Nor am I convinced that the definition which the dictionary gives us is satisfactory: "The branches of polite learning regarded as primarily conductive to culture; especially the ancient classics and belles-lettres; sometimes secular, as distinguished from theological learning." That definition with its polite learning and belles-lettres is redolent of an age far removed from ours—and not only in time. Since accordingly this definition is evidently of the past, I asked myself: "Why not go back to the language which gave us the term, namely the Latin?" There I found humanitas thus defined: "Mental cultivation befitting a man, liberal education, good breeding, elegance of manner or language, refinement." Here you have an assortment of meanings which should enable you to find easily and readily the one which fits your particular purpose, whatever it may be. I doubt if in the present subject it was war and good breeding or war and elegance of manners or language that was implied. Our answer in each of these cases would simply be in the words of Thackeray in Vanity Fair: "they go not together." If we accept the definition liberal education, we have been given a broad expanse over which to gallop. And since the preceding speakers on this program have dealt respectively with religion, science and ethics, I see no reason why I should not let the term cover whatever falls outside their realm and at any rate include not merely letters but art and music as well.

In 1916 Alan Seeger, American youth of very great promise, fell fighting in the Foreign Legion of France; he left us a poem which is identified with his name and is, as it were, his monument, "a monument more enduring than bronze."

"I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling share
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.
"It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath—
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.
"God knows 'twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear—
But I've a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous."

That poem of beauty was forged on the anvil of war, heated hot by the fire of emotion. War begot and nourished it to be a treasure to succeeding generations.

But we need not think that it has been only in our own day that war inspired great literary achievements. Do you recall the speech of Pericles over the Athenians who died in the war with Sparta, as narrated by Thucidydes? It is one of the world's great documents, particularly timely today because of its picture of the democratic ideal. Let me read you a brief portion of it, referring to death in battle:

". . . Such a death as these men died gives proof enough of manly courage, whether as first revealing it or as affording its final confirmation. Ay, even in the case of those who in other ways fell short of goodness, it is but right that the valor with which they fought for their country should be set before all else; for they have blotted out evil with good and have bestowed a greater benefit by their service to the state than they have done harm by their private lives. . . . And then, when the moment of combat came, thinking it better to defend themselves and suffer death rather than to yield and save their lives, they fled, indeed, from the shameful word of dishonor, but with life and limb stood stoutly to their task and in the brief instant ordained by fate, at the crowning moment not of fear but of glory, they passed away."

We need however go neither to the battle-ground of ancient Greece nor the poppy-covered fields of Flanders for illustrations of the inspiration war has given to great works of literature.

May I remind you of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, which grew from the soil of that blood-soaked Pennsylvania valley. And his words did indeed eloquently remind men then and thereafter of their responsibility "to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain."

Literature abounds in illustrations of the influence of war upon it. What of Kipling? And do you recall Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade? To go back centuries, the Iliad and the major portion of the Aeneid are devoted to battles.

Music and song too have been inspired by war and its heroism. Examples widely differing from each other that at once come to one's mind are Schumann's Two Grenadiers and The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Painting and sculpture throughout the ages have owed much to war. Think of Velasquez and in more recent times Meissonier. The Pergamum frieze allegorically represented human battles; the Winged Victory of Samothrace commemorated a fight at sea. The Arch of Triumph in Paris and Trajan's Column in Rome were alike the outcome of war. And many, many are the statues of military leaders which great art has embellished. Verrochio's Bartolommeo Colleone and centuries later St. Gaudens' memorial to Robert Gould Shaw before the State House in Boston are well-known examples.

Indeed had religious and military themes been taken from artists of the past, it would have left them sadly bereft.

Shall we then, after making up the long, long list of works of letters, music and art that have sprung from war, conclude that war stimulates the humanities and in and of itself is from that point of view of value to mankind? On the other hand, war has also inspired works of letters that are devoted to the single purpose of tearing from it the glamor which most often surrounds it, and depicting all its horror, suffering, muck and grime. Such a book as Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front is an example. Doubtless after the present holocaust is ended, we shall have a series of similar works. And this is a side of war that must never be forgotten; unfortunately it does not tell the whole story.

But to recur to what war has produced both in literature and art, is it not a fact that it is not war itself but the emotions called forth by it to which these works are due? First and foremost, men only fight and can only fight and risk their lives if they are struggling for what they believe is a noble cause. It is in defense of their country, for liberty, for democracy, for the greatness of their people, for the future of their children and their grandchildren that they submit to the filth, the suffering, the mutilation and the death that war brings.

Aside from this, does not the hazard of death for any reason whatsoever cause men's minds, as it were, to rise far above their wonted level? Life recedes as the earth from an airplane, and one is in a higher and a nobler atmosphere. Read for example the heroic words of Captain Scott when he and his men faced the approach of death at the South Pole. Moreover there are few nobler utterances of mankind than the words of Socrates when death by the hemlock had been voted him:

"Wherefore, O judges, be of good cheer about death and know of a certainty, that no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death. He and his are not neglected by the gods. . . .

"The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways—I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows."

I believe therefore that it is not essentially from war that these great works spring, but partly from the cause which the war represents to the poet, the writer of songs, the artist. Above all does a great emotional outpouring come from the fact that it is within Death's shadow that the warrior is standing—on the threshold between the world of the living and the world of the dead.

Pathetic it would be to think that war with all its horrors and sufferings is justified by such poems or works of art as those I have mentioned.

We cannot forget that an Alan Seegar died at 28 years, a Rupert Brooke at 27 years, that Franz Marc, the German painter, fell aged 36 at Verdun. Indeed since it is youth that is first called to don the uniform and youth has had so pitifully short a time to do more than learn the rudiments of painting or composition, so short a time to become known for its achievements, we may be assured that many of those who would have become distinguished men of letters and able artists wore the soldier's or sailor's uniform in the World War—and a large number of them must have been either among the ten million who lost their lives in the struggle or the twenty million who came from it maimed or mutilated physically or mentally, or both.

It must not be forgotten that artists do not enter the service as engineers or chemists or in non-military fields. They are not often executives or mechanically minded; so their call is to a private's lot.

No one can ever tell how many great works of art and letters were lost when a youth here, a youth there, fell dead or dying on the battlefield.

You understand, I am sure, that I am not minimizing the loss of the man—or the grief caused his family—or that I am seeking to select these young men from among the millions of others who died. However, the theme assigned, War and the Humanities, forces us at this time to direct our attention to the destruction and loss of literary and artistic works.

But the wars of which you and I have been thinking are of the past—even though as recent a past as 1914 and 1918. Today war has not only become more deadly and more horrible; it endangers everything and everyone within the flying range of aerial bombers. The words of Sophocles are far from the whole truth: "War loves to seek its victims in the young." Mutilation and death hover not only over the battlefield but over every city and hamlet of the nations at war. Westminister Abbey and St. Paul's Cathedral are not safe; nor are the great galleries of Florence or the libraries of Milan, Louvain, or Paris. What man has wrought through the centuries and encased in magnificent works of architecture, unique manuscripts, beautiful pictures, yes universities, must if possible be hidden in burrows in the ground—or they are not safe. Our entire cultural inheritance may be wiped out—if the war continues on and on, and destruction becomes ever more intense. And so too not only the young artists in uniform may be cut off—but those of every age, even as Sibelius, in Finland, are equally endangered by death from the skies, though far from the battlefield.

Man's military inventions may well destroy all else that man has wrought in the centuries.

It must also be remembered that the humanities can only live if they are passed on from generation to generation. When war comes, the usual point of view is that everything must be swept away that does not directly minister to it. Chemistry, engineering, medicine—these have an obvious relation to the struggle. But literature, art, music, history (save for current events), languages (save for a practical use of those of the peoples engaged)—all tend to be pushed into the background. Many of us still recall vividly the Students Army Training Corps established in so many of our universities during the World War. This was an attempt to serve two masters—education and training for warfare. We see that in reality it emphasized "systematic and standard methods of training . . . for more effective service in the armed forces of the United States" and "education to meet the special and technical needs of the service." I wonder how much opportunity a young man in that corps would have had to study Latin or Art or Ancient History or even perhaps English Literature.

War by its very nature—when men are battling for life and for what they are convinced are great causes—relegates the humanities to the realm of the non-useful and directs all its strength to the means to wage a successful struggle. As President Roosevelt put it trenchantly in his address at Arlington Cemetery on November 11 of this year: "The sword drove learning into hiding."

Here too then war is inimical to the humanities.

Granted all that has been said, shall we then conclude that as far as they are concerned, every war is an evil—and participation in it should be resisted?

That of course we cannot say—indeed if mankind shrank from hardship and death, I wonder whether the humanities would not shrink with them.

But today above all when the cause of intellectual freedom is being trampled under foot by a nation once great, we see clearly that it is better that some works of literature and art never come into being, even—dreadful and tragic as it certainly is—some of their makers perish on the battlefield or beneath the bombs from the skies, than yield mankind to amental strait-jacket, an intellectual concentration camp. War is baleful to the humanities—but infinitely more baleful is the totalitarian regime. It hobbles the mind of youth, drives out its great souls or destroys them, even rejoices in the fire in which the works of its master intellects are consumed to a crisp. If such a regime continues its path of victory, darker ages than the world has ever seen will ensue.

War is an evil—yes, a horror—and the effect on the humanities is to be taken into account. But there are greater evils—infinitely greater evils. War involves death—but what a different world we should have, if men had not been willing to face physical destruction for a great and noble cause—for religion, for freedom of thought, for freedom of the body and the mind! Harmful as the effects of war have been on mankind, infinitely worse would it have been, if mankind, to avoid it, had made a Munich of every crisis. In our own land what would Washington and Lincoln have had to say of that?

Indeed such yielding would inevitably have its effect on man and all his works. Courage is a noble virtue: think how much would have to be expunged from history—yes and literature and art—if deeds springing from that great virtue were to be eliminated from it.

You will, I am sure, not misunderstand me. I am not urging that men be subjected to suffering and death that these virtues may be developed or great works produced. But I do urge that suffering and struggle (where the cause is a worthy one) should not be shunned for the sake of saving a work of art or one capable of producing it. That very act would, I am convinced, dam the stream of art, as it would likewise weaken man's character and subject him to the even direr sufferings that those whose God is force, would impose. In this sense let me remind you of Goethe's lines:

"Who ne'er his bread in sorrow ate,
Who ne'er the weary midnight hours
Weeping on his bed hath sate,
He knows ye not, ye Heavenly Powers."

And in an even more general sense Shakespeare wrote:

"Sweet are the uses of adversity
Which like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head."

J. M. Barrie said it infinitely better than I can in his rectorial address at St. Andrews University, published under the title: "Courage."

"I am," said he, "far from implying that even worse things than war may not come to a State. There are circumstances in which nothing can so well become a land, as I think this land proved when the late war did break out and there was but one thing to do. There is a form of anaemia that is more rotting than even an unjust war. The end will indeed have come to our courage and to us when we are afraid in dire mischance to refer the final appeal to the arbitrament of arms. I suppose all the lusty of our race, alive and dead, join hands on that.

'And he is dead who will not fight;
And who dies fighting has increase'."

All this is not vague generalization nor of the past. We see the tragedy before our very eyes. As Thomas Mann has so truly said concerning Munich: "The peoples' fear of war and yearning for peace were exploited." And what has it brought them? Chamberlain could have told you and Daladier. Of what avail was the sacrifice of that magnificent democracy, Czechoslovakia? Its own people would, Iam sure, have chosen war with all it involves to the living death which today is theirs.

From wars have sprung death and mutilation—but also some of the greatest of human blessings. Listen to Richard Hovey:*

"The guns that spoke at Lexington
Knew not that God was planning then
The trumpet word of Jefferson
To bugle forth the rights of men.
"To them that wept and cursed Bull Run,
What was it but despair and shame?
Who saw behind the cloud the sun?
Who knew that God was in the flame?
"Had not defeat upon defeat,
Disaster on disaster come,
The slave's emancipated feet
Had never marched behind the drum."

Must then mankind always look forward to the recurrence again and again of wars with all their horrors and sufferings, and be compelled to face them in order to escape a worse fate and to maintain the advances that civilization has made? Must the things that humanize life be throttled (yes, destroyed) that mankind may live in freedom?

Yes, they must—until mankind becomes sane and just and unselfish—until the peoples under wise leadership resolve to find a better, a far better, way to solve conflicts and then abide by their resolves. Even as within our own land we see how hard it is to teach states and groups to be willing to subordinate their advantage to that of the nation as a whole, we should not be blind to the difficulties in creating and maintaining that point of view among the peoples of the world.

How burning with life are the questions which Woodrow Wilson asked in 1918! Even more poignant are they today than they were then. Is the world weakly to succumb until the rule of force becomes universal, and tyranny and persecution tread under foot all mankind, or shall we not, with the intelligence which has made power our servant in the mechanical world and the kindliness that has made aid to those in need and suffering a normal duty of mankind, devise a world in which these things shall not be?

Let me now read Woodrow Wilson's queries, and in your minds apply them to this world of today:

"Shall the military power of any nation or group of nations be suffered to determine the fortunes of peoples over whom they have no right to rule except the right of force?

"Shall strong nations be free to wrong weak nations and make them subject to their purpose and interest?

"Shall peoples be ruled and dominated, even in their own internal affairs, by arbitrary and irresponsible force or by their own will and choice?

"Shall there be a common standard of right and privilege for all peoples and nations or shall the strong do as they will and the weak suffer without redress?

"Shall the assertion of right be haphazard and by casual alliance or shall there be a common concert to oblige the observance of common rights?"

Perhaps however the horrors of our present war and its destructiveness, together with the certainty that unless an end is reached, such wars will constantly recur with horrors ever increasing, may finally lead mankind to the path of sanity and justice. This must be our fervent hope.

Until that time we know that Mars will with fiendish glee fling his bombs on structures of beauty that mankind has treasured for centuries, on collections of precious books thatpreserve the noblest utterances of the world's great men, on universities in which learning is passed on from generation to generation, on art galleries in which the choicest works of painting and sculpture throughout the ages have been gathered to rejoice the eye and inspire the soul of mankind, on gallant young men in uniform whose hearts are full of music and song and whose minds are full of wisdom, ready to be sent forth for men's enlightenment and joy, and on men and women far from any battlefield who in the quiet of their homes have devoted themselves to the humanities—on all these will destruction be hurled. The humanities will share the fate of humanity, until justice and peace together sit upon the seats of despots, kings and presidents. Till that day the humanities must, like the humblest and most utilitarian of man's works and like men and women, learn to suffer—preferring their own destruction, if need be, to destruction of the things that justify their existence. Why write books if the victor is merely to destroy them in a bonfire? Why preserve universities if the victor converts them into things that bear no semblance to universities?

And the memory of those who through the ages have held their lives as little compared with the ideals for which they sacrificed them, is among mankind's noblest heritages. They live on and on—in the radiant beauty of the youth in which they died. A Joan of Arc, a Nathan Hale,—they have blessed mankind by the precious offering which they made. And in our minds, though unspoken, are the names of those who in the cause of religion bore the cross of sacrifice.

And so war does indeed wreck and ruin the humanities. But if the cause is a noble one, they must no more shrink from the test than the humblest man. And from the destruction will, we pray, spring a freedom that will ensure to future generations a pursuit of the arts and sciences, secure from the mailed fist of dictators.

As "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church," so the blood of the humanities may become the soil of freedom.

But let no one underestimate the frightful, the overwhelming tragedy of war. And that tragedy is intensified a millionfold if at its end despite the sacrifices the world has not advanced one whit toward a life of freedom and of peace. Philip Gibbs in his work Now It Can Be Told, written in August 1919, says with truth and with a pathos infinitely heightened by the events of our time:

"It is only by that hope that one may look back upon the war with anything but despair. All the lives of those boys whom I saw go marching up the roads of France and Flanders to the fields of death, so splendid, so lovely in their youth, will have been laid down in vain if by their sacrifice the world is not uplifted to some plane a little higher than the barbarity which was let loose in Europe. They will have been betrayed if the agony they suffered is forgotten and 'thewar to end war' leads to preparations for new, more monstrous conflict."

Not one word of comment is required; the stark facts speak for themselves.

Yet barbarous as war is, never for a moment forget the barbarism which by force has overwhelmed peoples too weak to resist or overthrown them with the callousness of a lightning bolt.

When however the war is ended, let us not repeat the tragic errors of the past and thereby sow the seeds for another and still more monstrous struggle but two decades in the future. A new world order based on a new world spirit must ensue—or these dead too will have died in vain.

How far-sighted was that great South African statesman, General Smuts, who said when the Treaty of Versailles was completed:

"I have signed the treaty, not because I consider it a satisfactory document, but because it is imperatively necessary to close the war. We have not yet achieved the real peace to which our peoples are looking. The work of making peace will only begin after a definite halt has been called to the destructive passions that have been devastating Europe for nearly five years. The promise of the new life, the victory for the great human ideals for which the peoples have shed their blood and their treasure without stint, the fulfillment of their aspirations towards a new international order are not written in this Treaty, and will not be written in treaties. A new heart must be given, not only to our enemies but to ourselves. A new spirit of generosity and humanity, born in the hearts of the peoples in this great hour of common suffering and sorrow, can alone heal the wounds inflicted on the body of Christendom." These were the truly prophetic words of General Smuts.

A new spirit? Yes, a spirit wholly alien to that which has dominated the aggressor nations, a spirit which will cause the abandonment of the onward march of force, a spirit which will once more accept the individual as of first importance—not the state—a spirit which will renounce persecution, robbery and banishment of unoffending minorities. When that spirit fills the hearts of those who have trampled so much of Western Europe under foot, then let the words of General Smuts sink into the hearts of every one of the peoples engaged in struggling against them and likewise of each nation, like our own, that is neutral in the battle but is watching eagerly and anxiously for the triumph of the free spirit.

Then let us cast hatred from our souls and seek to deal justly and fairly with the problems that face all mankind.

Till that day the humanities should realize that their fate is bound up with the defense of the human spirit and be willing to make that "costly sacrifice upon the altar of freedom."

* Unmanifest Destiny.