Popular Science Monthly/Volume 14/April 1879/Editor's Table

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HOW the art of war, by the powerful stimulus it has given to the investigation of the properties of projectiles and numerous kindred researches, has been an efficient promoter of progress in physical science, is well understood. The strife among engineers to construct guns that shall be able to pierce any barrier, and to construct barriers that shall resist all guns, has led to results in improving the quality of metals which could hardly have been gained in any other way.

It is not, however, this aspect of the science of war that here interests us; but rather its ethical side, or the excuses that can be offered for it as a part of the policy of Nature. An English writer[1] has recently gone into the subject, and attempted a scientific defense of the general and permanent habit of war which it is important to notice, in order that science may not be perverted to false and injurious ends.

The writer with whose views we are now concerned points out in an interesting manner in what way science has operated to alleviate the horrors of war, to shorten its duration, and temper its effects. He remarks that in the days of the old smooth-bore, when it was a maxim not to fire till the whites of the opponents' eyes were visible, it was said to take a man's weight in lead and iron to kill him, so many bullets and cannon-balls were fired ineffectually; but now, owing to the increased distance at which firing takes place and to the general use of earthworks, it is still more difficult to do execution. The statistics given by the writer strongly corroborate this view. He says the average number of killed and wounded on both sides in the great Napoleonic battles taken collectively was a little over one fourth of the whole forces engaged; while the average in the great European battles fought within the last thirty years, since the general introduction of arms of precision, gives a little less than one twelfth. We are also reminded that the more improved modern warfare engenders less hatred between the conflicting parties. "Before the invention of gunpowder, when fighting was conducted at comparatively close quarters, soldiers fought with an animosity which is now rarely seen. The man who was to take your life unless you took his, projected himself before you dangerous and hateful, but under the present system wounds seem to come from some impersonal agency; a man is less vividly impressed with the personality of his foe, who, like the Ethiopians, is blameless because he is far away, and whose individuality is lost at the distance of a quarter of a mile, where he is taking shots at you from behind a hedge. But in ancient times great bodies of men once interlocked in conflict could not be drawn off till utterly exhausted with mutual slaughter, and hence we read of such battles as Cannæ, where on the Roman side alone, according to Polybius, out of 86,000 men not much more than 15,000 prisoners or fugitives came off unhurt; and Cressy, where there perished of the French on the field or in the pursuit between 30,000 and 40,000 men—battles in which the wounded and disabled experienced in butchery that cruelty to which in brave minds the frenzied fears attending close conflict can alone give rise."

Our new philosopher of war is quite ready to concede its evils, its calamities, and its horrors—its terrible waste of treasure, blood, and life. He says millions of men all over Europe are at this moment idling away their time in demoralizing barrack-life, trained among much physical and mental deprivation to no art but that of destroying each other skillfully, which is much as if they had been usefully employed and the products of their labor then cast into the sea. We are reminded of the immense amount of work bestowed upon a first-class ironclad, which is liable to be sent to the bottom in an instant. She may have cost $2,000,000 and her equipment another half million; so that if the ordinary laboring man earns $250 a year, on the average of twenty years of working life we have the whole life's labor of 500 men destroyed by the single loss of such a ship. Blood and health are precious; war spills the former and impairs and destroys the latter on an appalling scale. As to the waste of life, it is of course incalculable; yet, if there be a money estimate of it, the result is shocking. Laboring men are capital in society, and it is a very moderate estimate to assume them from this point of view as worth $2,500 a piece. A battle, therefore, in which 20,000 men are killed, annihilates $50,000,000 of capital in human beings alone.

The sufferings of war are conceded to be indescribable. Mr. Ram remarks: "Of all incidents of battle the one which impresses itself most strongly on my imagination is that of Borodino, where 60,000 French and Russians were left upon the ground; the groans of the wounded in the ensuing night sounded at a distance like the roar of the sea. The far-off listener might expect to hear outcries of pain and distress from such a scene, that screams of agony should arise from instant to instant, and that the doleful, piercing note should be taken up from this point and from that, and that night should be made hideous by this inarticulate misery. But here was no such intermittent lamentation. From amid 20,000 corpses arose a hoarse, uniform, unceasing roll of the anguish of 40,000 men!"

How, then, are we to regard these practices? Our author says that we must turn to Nature to find how she regards such things. Is war an exception to her course, or does she regard men fighting as a naturalist looks on tribes of ants destroying each other? The answer is, that Nature is absolutely pitiless. Her eyes never fill with tears. She multiplies to destroy, and destroys without mercy.

"Her taller trees debar the meaner shrubs from sun and breeze. It is nothing to her that the more lowly plants in the forest wither and pine for light and air. It is her will that the weakest should go to the wall. Ravin is the condition of the existence of half her creatures; and at this moment, as all around tins sea-girt ball the strong animals prey upon the weak for their daily sustenance, more skins are being pierced and torn, more bones being crushed, more blood being shed, in the far-off places of the earth than twenty Russo-Turkish wars going on together would involve. Are we to be told that Nature enjoins these things, and yet is outraged by men tearing and rending each other? Still she is not simply indifferent. She appears to have a purpose in all this. She knows that the world is not rich enough for all. She keeps it upon principle in a condition of over-population. She thinks it better that the strong should crowd out the weak than that the weak should crowd out the strong by mere dint of numbers under any protective system. She seems to desire the greatest good possible in the world, and her means to this end is the selection of the fittest, with the extermination of the less fit; the selection of the most highly organized in body, which includes the most highly organized in mind. In her care for the type she disregards individual men and individual races.

"The excellence of man himself is the outcome of continual fighting among species of anthropoid animals involving the continual destruction of the weaker by the stronger and the constant selection of the fittest to survive. It is curious to note that it is not those most distantly below us in the scale that we are chiefly eager to destroy. It is generally those who more nearly approach to us in gradation and who consequently clash with us, that we destroy. Those whose complete inferiority prevents us from fearing them escape. At the present time, Nature is doing much more by human agency to destroy Red Indians and native Australians than to exterminate gorillas. No links have so great a tendency to disappear altogether as those which are nearest to ourselves in the chain. As man ascends the ladder he kicks off those who stand on the next step below him. This habit has in time created an immense gap between us and some of those through whose condition our race has once passed—a gap so wide as to make it almost impossible for any but studious men to realize that there is indeed any solidarity between us and the lowly forefathers ascribed to our species."

There is much truth, no doubt, in this view of the operations of Nature, but it is far from the whole truth as relates to the morality of war. It certainly will not do to excuse private violence and offer a defense of crime on the ground that Nature is also ruthless and violent. And if individuals may not plead the example of Nature to justify their injurious interference with others, neither may nations. That war was indispensable in the lower stages of society when brute force predominated, and became a means of enforcing those subordinations which led to social order, may be freely admitted. But if old practices are to go on for ever, what becomes of progress? The essence of evolution is transformation—the substitution of higher agencies for lower in the unfolding economy of the world. War is one of the things that must certainly be left behind if there is to be any advancing or upward movement. It is the old and deadly enemy of the pacific and constructive forces of society, which have nevertheless made way against it, and which may be expected in the future to gather a strength that will redeem society from the baneful influence of the military spirit.


We referred last month to the revival of the old classical controversy consequent upon the proposal to drop compulsory Greek from the curriculum of the University of Cambridge, in England. The controversy grows warm in various quarters. Mr. Freeman, the historian, comes forward in the "Fortnightly Review" to discuss the question, "Shall we give up Greek?" and uses the occasion to go into the general subject. He regards the present spasm of controversy as not very serious, inasmuch as he has had experience of such things before, and thinks it is merely part of a system of curious intellectual cycles, the causes of which would perhaps form fit subject for the philosophical statistician. Mr. Freeman says there was a sharp brush over the question in 1871, in which he took a part, and that we are now engaged in merely reproducing the old arguments and the old answers.

But Mr. Freeman betrays, in his treatment of the subject, the consciousness that it is advancing, and that these rhythmic disputes are bringing about very serious changes of opinion. He pleads strongly for Greek, but seems to feel that it is doomed, and is decided in his conviction that, if but one of the classical tongues is to be retained, it must be Latin.

His general position in relation to the question is much the same as that so elaborately put forth by John Stuart Mill in his celebrated St. Andrew's discourse; in both cases we are presented with a grand picture of the intellectual advantages derivable from the acquisition of many languages, and their comprehensive philosophical study. Against this, as we have often said, there is, in itself, nothing to urge. It is an entirely proper thing for men of capacity, whose tastes lead them in this direction, to give their lives to linguistic philosophy, and the acquirement of many languages. But, for ordinary students in college, this is simply futile and impossible, and we have here the perpetual fallacy of the advocates of classical studies. Experience in the universities of all countries and for centuries, and everywhere attested to-day, assures us that this ideal classical accomplishment is not attained, nor anything approaching it. Mr. Freeman says: "If Greek and Latin study could never come to anything more than that kind of scholarship which in its highest form corrected the text of a Greek play and made Greek iambics and Latin elegiacs—which in its lowest form turned out that fearful form of bore which is ready at every moment with a small scrap of Horace or Virgil—if this is all that comes of Greek and Latin study, we might be tempted to say. Perish Greek and Latin study!" But what else do we get, or can we get, but that sort of scholarship from the great mass of students in colleges? He thinks that teaching can be improved so as to yield better results, but that has been the illusion of hundreds of years. The failure and defeat of classical studies has been the opprobrium of the universities for generations, and from the time of Milton to the present there have been loud calls for reform and improvement in the modes of classical instruction; but the changes have not come, and the old results continue, nor is any such reform possible. The vice of our system of higher studies is the enormous disproportion between the study of language and the period allowed for education, or even the common length of life. Mr. Freeman says: "I believe, then, that if we can only learn all tongues in a rational way, we may keep our Greek and our Latin, and bring in our German, our French, our Italian, above all our English, in their due places alongside of them." Two results must ever follow from the attempt to realize any such ideas in practice: First, such a predominance of lingual study must effectually exclude all other most important subjects from the curriculum; and, second, the acquisition of the languages themselves will generally be so miserably imperfect that the higher ends aimed at will not be reached. At the foundation this acquisition of languages is a problem of cerebral dynamics. The learning of a language exhausts a very considerable portion of the plastic power of the brain. The acquisition of six languages is, of course, a still more enormous draft upon the cerebral energy, and there must be very considerable native capacity if so many forms of speech are thoroughly acquired so as to be brought into relations of critical comparison for philological purposes. Not one student in twenty, nor indeed one in a hundred, will ever do this, and the great mass of them will fall so lamentably short of it that the time given to the study is essentially wasted. Let languages, ancient and modern, living and dead, be pursued to any extent by those who are drawn to the study and propose to devote themselves to this line of scholarship. What we protest against, and what the common sense of the age undoubtedly condemns, is this tenacious and self-defeating ascendancy of extinct languages in the higher education of our youth at large.

We say "extinct" languages, but Mr. Freeman does not like this idea at all. He objects to regarding Greek and Latin as "dead, ancient, classical." He would abolish the current distinction between antiquated and recent—the living and the dead. He says, "I claim for the Greek tongue its place on the exactly opposite ground—because it is not dead but living, because if it is ancient, it is mediæval and modern no less." This is a new argument for the so-called ancient and dead languages that they are not as ordinarily characterized, but are in reality living and modern. And what else is it but the nonsensical makeshift of a hard-pushed advocate? If the Greek and Latin tongues are still living, why not the Greek and Latin nations? If these languages are not ancient, is there anything ancient? The course of nature goes on, and materials of all kinds are used over and over again in unbroken continuity, but because the present is thus born of the past, are we to forget the distinction between the living and the dead. If the ancient languages are modern, then of course ancient history, and ancient philosophy, and ancient art, are modern history, modern philosophy, and modern art, and there is no end to the stupid confusion. We can hardly congratulate Mr. Freeman on his defense of the cause he has espoused, and have referred to it merely as illustrating the best that can be said by a distinguished historical writer in defense of old academical superstitions.

  1. "The Philosophy of War," by James Ram.