Moral Perspectives


By HENRY T. MOORE, President, Skid more College

Convocation Address, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, N. Y., (undated, assigned October 15), 1943

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. X, pp. 93-95.

AS this is the first time that Skidmore has held its convocation exercises on Sunday night I should like to begin my remarks with a Biblical text, two verses from the thirty-seventh Psalm: "I have seen the wicked in great power and spreading himself like a green bay tree. Yet he passed away and lo, he was not. I sought him but he could not be found."

Nineteen hundred and forty-three is no usual year in which to be opening college. Already the men's colleges have been virtually converted into military camps, and there is no campus which is not now vividly aware of the national need and of the national background of men in uniform, of ships that are moving down the ways, and of bombers taking off for the other side. Yet 1943 will, I am sure, go down as one of the great years in education, for it is a year in which history will have reaffirmed some of the ancient truths which were in grave danger of being obscured if not forgotten.

One of the most conspicuous examples of this changing moral perspective is to be found in the reappraisal of the hapless Benito Mussolini. How few years ago it was that authors and columnists were writing books and articles about this great leader who was making the Italian trains run on time. Early in the 1930's I remember hearing a well known British journalist say of Hitler, who was then just rising to power, that he was very shrewd, but he was not to be compared with Mussolini. As he put it: "Hitler isn't in the same street with Mussolini." This was, of course, prior to Ethiopia, prior to the famous stab in the back and the battles of North Africa and Sicily. But the most essential fact about Mussolini even then was that he was a lying murderer. All of the scorching denunciations that Winston Churchill was later to apply so eloquently were already applicable to his character and his deeds, and yet so glittering a front was he able to maintain that even as late as June 10, 1940, the date of his most dastardly act, a New York Times correspondent wrote of his balcony speech: "Never did he appear more dominating, more sure of himself, never was his voice so clear and strong. Who can forget the words bespoke? 'Fighters of land, sea and air. Blackshirts of the devolution. We take to the field against the plutocratic and reactionary democracies.'" We who have been privileged to be alive in 1943 have seen the mills of the gods grinding at such an accelerated pace that we could actually watch the wheels go round and see how exceedingly fine was the sawdust into which this fake Caesar was to be pulverized. It is a great privilege to have lived through this breaking up of giants with feet of clay. It has been an even greater privilege to have seen the incredible triumph of heroic spirit against what seemed to be hopeless odds. The head of the British OWI, Chester S. Williams, says that during the darkest days of the blitz of Britain two kinds of posters wereput in factories, homes, and schools. One kind showed agrimy worker gripping the hands of fellow workers; the other showed a strong-faced woman with outstretched arms, each hand clasping the hand of another person. In each case the poster bore the legend, "It all depends on me." It was in the spirit of this slogan that the unbreakable Britons faced up to their darkest hour; now miraculously they ride the skies high above Berlin, and the end is not yet.

Have we learned in our day the age-old lesson that whatever in this world is false carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction, and that whatever is genuine has within it hidden springs of unsuspected power? There are fortunately a number of straws to show that the winds of doctrine are blowing in a better direction. Our own OWI, impressed by the failure of the Axis propaganda by falsification, has said: "Our news must be authentic because the honor and integrity of the United States are at stake. If we he then America is a liar." Our OWI has, of course, its own human weaknesses, but this declaration puts it at the opposite pole from the principles of Mein Kampf, as set forth by Hitler and practised by Dr. Goebbels. In our about face from propaganda as a kind of verbal poison gas shall we go the whole way and insist that fundamental decency and straight dealing are the only tolerable basis of life in its smallest details? The inducements were never so powerful. We have seen crookedness set up on the most colossal scale of all time, and defended by what looked like bulletproof organization; and we have then seen that even this powerful establishment somehow kept calling forth more and more opposing forces until finally its enemies were too many and too strong. As we look back on it all now it is hard not to believe that its doom has always been sealed, that sooner or later the career of every Goliath must end surprisingly at the hands of some new David. Our 1943 perspective therefore points to ethics as the core subject of every curriculum, an ethics which, like the British war poster, puts the greatest emphasis on individual character, personal loyalty, and a sense of one's own responsibility. Gone is the cock-sure faith that a given ideology, a given system of government, can bring welfare to unworthy citizens. We are now more tempted to say that given the right kind of citizens almost any form of government can be made to work, and given the wrong kind of citizens no conceivable form of government can possibly work. The slogan of the war poster, "It all depends on me," bids fair to give us in peace time what William James has called the moral equivalent of war.

There are many kinds of yardstick by which we might estimate the extent of our recoil from the ethics of Nazism. For us of the adult generation the memory of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin is still green. We can still recall the terrific embarrassment of the Nazis when American negroes began running away with the principal track events under the very eyes of the Führer. And then followed in the official German press the most extraordinary insult ever delivered to guest athletes anywhere in the world. Said the Volkische Beobachter in effect: "It is all right for Germans to applaud these United States negroes if they realize that they are not Americans, but Africans, and that they are not human beings, but animals." We are instantly shocked by the monstrous evil of these words, but let us not forget that this is simply the doctrine of the white man's burden pitched to a lunatic degree. Let us not forget that England's leading liberal of the 19th century, John Stuart Mill, could readily excuse the vicious racial discrimination of his empire in this day: "Despotism," he said, "is a legitimate form of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end is their improvement." How far have we moved away from the superior assumptions of the whole doctrine of the white man's burden? Far enough to give up extraterritoriality in China,-and that is a most hopeful sign—but by no means far enough to give up our own Jim Crowism. Nineteen hundred and forty-three poses the question of race relations more sharply than any year since the Civil War. The very fact that war needs have opened the doors of industry to both negro men and women on an unprecedented scale has aroused new jealousies and fears that make for extreme tension. The hoodlums of both races can easily turn this tension into riot. The responsibility of every thinking person is all the greater to use every means in his power to create sympathetic understandings and mutual appreciation. Nobel prize winner Pearl Buck has set the college women of America a magnificent example in this matter in her recent book, What America Means to Me. And Pearl Buck, it is interesting to note, stresses the point that this is first of all a question of your ethics and mine, and only secondarily a matter of economics and politics. No amount of tinkering with economic conditions can set it right unless we start by changing our system of personal values and our fundamental sense of justice.

I referred a moment ago to William James' "Moral Equivalent of War." It seems to me that as we stand tonight between the present war and the coming peace the second great question after the undoing of Nazi ethics is the holding fast to the moral equivalent of war. We need even as we begin our academic pursuits to keep in full sight that realm of soldier's discipline in which every landing must be made exactly on the beam, in which the slightest malpractice or failure of loyalty may result in multiple tragedy. This summer a newspaper correspondent who was fortunate enough to catch General Montgomery in one of his few idle moments asked him what had most to do with the success of his troops in North Africa. He replied to the effect that it was the close coordination of every element in his forces, the tight knitting together of the air and ground forces into one hundred per cent cooperation with each other and among themselves. Then he went on to add that he had brought the Eighth Army to believe that failure was simply inconceivable for them, and in order to keep giving that belief a real basis he insisted on limiting each operation to exactly what he was sure they could accomplish. He refused ever to be hurried a day before he was ready or to undertake anything that was even slightly beyond his resources.

Perfect cooperation, perfect confidence, wisely selected tasks, and the habit of unbroken success! What an ideal to take over from the military to the academic campus! And what a contrast with Britain's dismal failure at Gallipoli in the last war when the navy, the army, the air force each improvised its separate program and each paid for its rugged individualism with a frightful waste of valuable lives. Total war has taught the democracies that even freedom must be relative to the occasion if men are to survive. The principle is less obvious, but no less real, in time of peace. The true welfare of every dormitory and every department of this campus depends on how cooperatively we can each exercise the freedoms which are so characteristic of this college, freedoms which make the Atlantic Charter seem very meager and niggardly by comparison.

There is many a leaf from the military book which might well find its way into the academic library. Our army of citizen soldiers has brought us frequent occasions for pride this year, but none more than in their contribution toward revaluing hate as a human instrument. In the early dark days when the Allies were on the receiving end of nearly all the atrocities the question was much debated by arm chair strategists as to whether hate was not indispensable for the successful waging of war. But now to just the extent that our military stock has risen, our battle-wise soldiers have been helping us to see hate for the primitive, stupid, and merely destructive thing that it is. A reporter who talkedwith the combat crews of the U. S. Eighth Air Force in England said: "Persons in the United States who have ever tried to whip up a feverish hatred for the Germans as a necessary weapon in winning the war would be greatly shocked at the dispassionate and impersonal way in which the Americans look on their Nazi opponents." In a similar vein General Montgomery said, "How I would like to talk with Rommel after the war is over. How interesting it would be to trace over the maps and ask Rommel why he had done thus and so and tell him why I had done what I did." One of our sergeants in the Southwest Pacific with a talent for poetry introspects his mood versus the Japanese in the following lines:

I fight neither for destiny nor fame
Nor money, nor the evasion of youth.
Mine's not the battle of man against brother,
Nor wresting from the wicked Shield of Truth.
These are the trappings of men far wiser;
My reason is direct and simple as the rain.
In my hand I hold what was once a plow-share;
Perhaps some spring I can set it to earth again.

These men are all ready to destroy what needs to be destroyed, to kill whoever needs to be killed, and to risk their own lives in the process; but in spite of the tremendous slaughter, yes, even because of the tremendous slaughter, there is evidence of a growing conviction in every sensible head that hate offers nothing but the worst of possible solutions to every social problem. The epitome of this growing mood was expressed by a former minister in the Czech cabinet who has recently asked what he most wanted to sec happen in the post-war world, and replied simply: "I want to go home."

As we turn our eyes from scenes of battle and look homeward to the domestic front we see heartening signs that the entire population has captured at least some of the moral equivalent of war. It was Booker T. Washington who said: "No nation can truly prosper until it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling the soil as in writing a poem." A difficult truth for subway commuters and anaemic scholars to accept, but one that is deeply grounded in the nature of man and the earth. In the summer just past men and women in the suburbs of every city in the United States have found their way back to this more robust view. All through the corn belt, groups of high school girls have been in the fields detasseling the hybrid seed corn and doing other similar tasks, singing war songs as they worked, and winning the admiration of veteran farm hands for their new skill so quickly acquired. I am happy to think how many of you who are before me tonight have in some fashion put your hand to the plow this summer and have not turned back. I am reminded of that meaningful Greek myth which described the contest between Hercules and the giant Antaeus who was the son of Earth. Hercules had been all-conquering in his other wrestling matches, but he was having a very difficult time with Antaeus. Then he remembered that Antaeus was invincible only so long as he kept his feet in contact with Mother Earth. By a trick play he caught him with his feet slightly off the ground and quickly dispatched him. America in the years up to 1943 had reached a stage in its industrial development when it was a question how large a per cent of its population was getting just a bit up in the air, many with their eyes on the stars perhaps, but with feet not quite touching the ground. Nineteen hundred and forty-three happily marks the rediscovery of the earthy principle of mens sana in corpore sano, or scholarship without sickness of either mind or body.

I see ahead of us a year of unusual difficulty, but one which, may go down in history as a year in which humanity began to purge its spirit of faith in lies and hatred, in which America recaptured some of its early faith in the individual citizen and some of its pristine contact with Mother Earth. The way forward will be gradual. Utopia will not be built in a day nor can a millennium take less than a thousand years. I venture, however, to set down 1943 in my book as a year which was both a turning point of the war and a step nearer to Plato's ideal era when the rulers of the people will be guided by the spirit and power of philosophy. In the changing pattern of this world each of you is an important component, a part of the new mental climate in which life on the planet is about to be lived. Every impression that you form while in college, every idea that you store away in memory and imagination is one more element in that mental climate. The student of 1943 is invested with a peculiar responsibility for making the most of intellectual opportunities. "Choose well," said Carlyle, "your choice is brief and yet endless."