Moral Law Is the Only Sovereign


By NICHOLAS MURRAY BUTLER, President, Columbia University Delivered at the Opening of the 189th Year of Columbia University, September 23, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 60-61.

THE opening of a new year of ambition and of effort calls for our re-dedication to Alma Mater's ideal of Scholarship and Service. We must widen and deepen our knowledge, strengthen our habit of reflection and make constantly increasing application of what we know and think to the service of our fellow men, in order to give them aid in the solution of the problems which face them. Important and controlling as these conditions would be in an hour when peaceful civilization was pursuing its course of normal development, they become infinitely more so at this hour when the whole world is engaged in the most gigantic military struggle which history records. All of the ordinary ambitions and occupations of man's normal life pass into the background, and the call is urgent for us to devote ourselves primarily—and well-nigh exclusively—to bringing this barbarous conflict to an end, before it shall have wholly destroyed or imprisoned the fundamental principles upon which our free and liberal civilization rests, and must rest.

Great as is the responsibility to be borne by the older generation, the responsibility which faces the youth of today is greater still. They, and not their elders, will have to wrestle with the grave problems of a world which must be reconstructed so as to strengthen and protect the underlying principles of freedom and liberal thought. It is the fate of these which is now hanging in the balance. First must come victory and then a world so organized and so strengthened as not only to establish peace, but to protect permanent peace. If it be said that permanent peace is impossible so long as human nature itself remains imperfect, then the answer is that the world problem in this respect is identical with the national problem of putting an adequate police force at the disposal of the government so that those who violate the principles upon which it rests or attack its order shall be treated as criminals and promptly arrested and punished. These are the underlying facts and conditions which must be faced by the youth of today and tomorrow in order that their task may be successfully accomplished. That youth must prepare itself for life on the basis first of an historic liberal education and second on that of definite preparation for a chosen form of occupation and public service. It is the duty and the privilege of Columbia College to offer this liberal education. It is the duty and the privilege of the University faculties to give this definite preparation for a specific form of the intellectual life.

As years pass, and their history is written in new and strange forms, it is increasingly evident that a knowledge of human nature must under-lie and shape all really useful forms of public service. It is human nature, shaped and often tempest-tossed by conflicting interests, ambitions and ideals, which must be understood and measured if one's public service is to be both practical and lasting in its effects. Those conflicts of motives, of passions, and of interests which write the story of an individual human life are precisely those conflicts of motives, of passions, and of interests which write the story of a nation or a race. It is humanity which offers to the world its problems and it is to humanity that the world can and must look for the solution of those problems. Deep down in the heart of every human being lies the motive for self-protection and self-interest. This is both natural and necessary. Before he can render any public service, a human being must find the physical existence possible with reasonable security and comfort. Trouble begins when this essential and primary motive combats the motive of human service and puts that motive so far in the background that it almost ceases to exist. This conflict of motives is recorded in the life of nations precisely as it is recorded in the private life of individual human beings. This is the everlasting conflict, as I pointed out at our University Commencement of 1939, and it shows no sign of abating.

We are told that an independent nation and its government are sovereign. This is a legal formula—and no more than that. As a matter of fact, no people and no government can be sovereign while immorality continues to exist in the world. It is the moral law which is sovereign—and only that. This is true of nations and their governments as well as of individuals. History amply proves that nations and governments, which assume and proclaim their sovereignty, have been and are just as immoral as individuals. The world certainly needs straight thinking in respect to this fundamental matter. A government which signs its name to a solemn pact pledging itself to certain definite policies, and then promptly renounces and denounces that pact, is not exercising sovereignty. It is performing a profoundly immoral and disgraceful act. The world of tomorrow must be so ordered and organized as to deal with acts of this kind, recording and revealing national and governmental immorality, precisely as acts of individual immorality are dealt with by local, state and national governments themselves.

It is in the understanding and application of these fundamental principles, and only so, that an orderly and peaceful world can take the place of the astounding war of highly organized cruelty and murder upon which we look today, and with the results of which the youth of today and tomorrow will have to deal.