Popular Science Monthly/Volume 47/October 1895/War as a Factor in Civilization

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MAN'S progress toward civilization has been by no royal road. His every step has been met by opposing influences, some of them inherent in Nature, others in the conditions of the social organism, whose action is to prevent any rapid or continuous development. He has, on the other hand, been helped by numerous agencies, some of them such as seem by no means adapted to become aids to civilization. Of these, unlikely as it may appear, the most important and effective has probably been that of war, an agent usually looked upon as simply destructive, but which is, as I hope to show, largely constructive in its effects.

It may seem to many readers absurd to speak of war as a helpful agency in civilization. It is the general impression that a state of profound peace, with its consequent agricultural and mechanical industries, is most conducive to human advancement. Warfare is usually looked upon as simply destructive, and as destitute of any redeeming feature; and yet I venture to claim that all the civilizations to-day existing were in their origin largely the results of ancient wars; and that peace, in the long past of the human race, was almost a synonym for social and intellectual stagnation. The views usually entertained as to the comparative advantages of peace and war apply only to our own enlightened age, and are not wholly correct even now. As applied to the past ages of barbarism and semi-civilization they are far from being correct. Nor will it be difficult, in support of the above assertion, to present instances of long-prevailing peace and of continued warfare, and to show that the latter has had far the most beneficial influence on human progress.

I shall adduce some such instances here as historical evidences in support of my proposition, and afterward consider the causes which lead to such seemingly improbable results. While it may not be possible to name any nations which have existed for a long period in a state of profound peace, there are two very prominent ones which during many centuries have not indulged, or only to an unimportant extent, in foreign warfare. These two possessors of the golden age of peace are China and India. They have had their petty internal combats, but they have not gone abroad as conquerors. They have been conquered, at long intervals apart, by exterior races; but the influx of strange peoples has been like that of the waters of a brook into a lake—the vast masses of the conquered have given color to, instead of receiving color from, their few conquerors. Thus, in these two great nations, the results of long-continued peace have been attained to a more complete extent than elsewhere in the world of civilization.

But when we look at these results we are not strongly encouraged in favor of a golden age of peace. These nations have grown old as many men grow old, their prejudices become rigid, their conceits hardened, their beliefs inflexible. They have reached the limit of their narrow line of development, and crystallized there. Their ideas of industry, of social custom, of law and government, have become fixed and unchangeable. National isolation has removed China from the useful influence of intellectual contact with exterior peoples. Mental isolation has had the same effect in India. Local pride and self-satisfaction have hindered progress, but they have not hindered the deterioration which is sure to set in when progress halts. These nations having, ages ago, lost all active development, and solidified into unchangeable forms, they have become subject to the influences which affect a tree that has ceased to grow. Inevitable decay has supervened. Whole swarms of political, social, and moral delinquencies have crept in and fastened themselves upon the body corporate, which has lacked the vitality to throw them off, and which is being gradually consumed by these eating parasites.

It may be argued, however, that both these nations had attained a considerable degree of civilization before their progress became thus checked. This must be admitted; but it must also be admitted that this progress was chiefly attained during their earlier, warlike stage. Of this we have abundant evidence. The intellectual growth of the Hindu people was certainly most pronounced in that early period when they were marching southward through hostile realms, and afterward fiercely fighting with the Indian aborigines for a home. It seems to have culminated shortly after this period, and before they sank into their subsequent state of profound peace. Since then they have produced literature, but have not advanced in civilization. In China, also, there is historical evidence of an ancient state of affairs widely different from that now existing. The earlier annals of the Chinese nation present us with a series of separate, independent provinces, among which China proper occupied but a contracted section in the northwest of the present empire. Gradually, through continued aggression, this province extended its borders, brought the others under a sort of feudal allegiance, and finally into complete subjection. During this period civilization was progressing. But since the final establishment of the empire within its present boundaries, and its inauguration of the policy of peace, progress seems to have halted, and mental stagnation to have replaced the ancient intellectual vitality.

If we now come to consider instances of warlike nations, it will be found that a complete parallel can not be made. Warlike nations do not subsist through uncounted generations like those at peace. They conquer and they are conquered; they destroy and they are destroyed; they die and leave their heirs. To consider them properly we must follow them through the long line of their descent, and see how the successive offspring have wrought with the talents of their far-off ancestry. This can not be easily done. Each heir has inherited from several warlike predecessors. There are no entailed estates of human progress, no fixed hereditary successions. The world has gathered up the scattered possessions of its broken peoples and built new empires upon their ruins.

Various examples of marked progress in warlike nations might be adduced from ancient history, particularly in the cases of Greece and Rome. In more modern times we have examples in the history of the Arabians after their proselyting outburst, of Spain after the expulsion of the Saracens, of Europe during the Crusades, and in the infiltration of liberal ideas into the European mind during the Napoleonic wars. But for a more complete illustration, equaling in length the period of the Chinese Empire, the history of western Europe during its whole civilized period must be taken, since, as the former presents us with an instance of almost unbroken peace, the latter yields an example of almost unceasing war. For several thousand years this region has been a theater of conflict: first, between Rome and its barbarian neighbors; second, between the Europeans and their Asiatic invaders; third, between the several tribes and nations that succeeded Rome. There has been no rest in Europe, no isolation. War has gone on almost unceasingly, between lord and lord, tribe and tribe, nation and nation; and civilization has kept pace with it, developing with a rapidity in marked contrast with the stagnation of China during the same period.

The difference is a striking one. That war was its cause, it is true, may be open to question. Race distinctions may have had much to do with it; but these are certainly insufficient to explain the greatness of the difference, particularly when we remember that during the warlike and advancing period of China the Aryans of Europe were, so far as we are aware, in a state of tribal isolation and stagnation, with no hostilities other than intertribal quarrels. How long they had remained in this condition no one can tell. They broke out of it only when their period of migration and of warlike relations with foreign peoples began, and from that time forward they have steadily advanced from barbarism to high civilization.

If we ask what is the philosophy of this, the answer may not be difficult to reach. Unlike the fixed conservatism of peace, war introduces new conditions, new foundations for human thought, on which the edifice of future civilization may be erected; and, breaking up the isolation of peace, it spreads these conditions throughout the world, making distant nations participants in their influences. The progress of mankind means simply the development of the human mind. Ideas are the seeds of civilization, and under whatever form it appears the idea must be born first, the embodiment must come afterward. In seeking for the causes of advancement, then, we must seek for the sources of new ideas; but, as experience lies at the root of ideas, new ideas can only arise from new experiences. Whence, then, do we derive our experiences? No isolated individual can learn much of himself. His own powers of observation and thought are limited. Our minds can only rapidly develop when we avail ourselves of the experience of others. In this way only can they become storehouses of new thoughts. There is a common stock of such thought abroad in the world, from which we derive the great mass of the ideas which we call our own. And, obviously, that mind will be most developed which comes into contact with and assimilates the greatest number of these thoughts.

The same holds good with nations. An isolated nation is in the same position as an isolated individual. Its experiences are limited, its ideas few and narrow in range. Its thoughts move in one fixed channel, and the other powers of its mind are apt to become virtually aborted. An isolated nation, then, is not likely rapidly to gain new ideas. Yet peace, in all barbarian and semi-civilized nations, seems to tend strongly toward this condition of isolation; and such isolation in its conservative influence is a fatal bar to any wide or continuous progress. The long persistence of one form of government, of one condition of social customs, of one line of thought, tends to produce that uniformity of character which is so fatally opposed to any width of development or breadth of mental grasp. From uniformity arises stagnation. Its final result is a dead pause in mental advancement. Variety of influences and conditions alone can yield a healthy and vigorous growth of thought. The movement of the national mind in any one line must soon cease. Its limit is quickly reached, unless it be aided by development in other directions. China affords us one example of this. There the religion is the worship of ancestors, or the Buddhistic atheism; the learning is the ethics of Confucius; the government is a patriarchal despotism. Religion, learning, and political institutions are thus innately prosaic; there is nothing to arouse the imagination; the mind of the whole people has become hereditarily stagnant through its ages of continuance in this state. In India, on the contrary, the imagination has been fostered at the expense of the reasoning faculties; literature, religion, and political relations are full of an unpruned growth of fancy; and the historical works, which form the basis of the literature of practical China, are unknown in imaginative India.

Such are some of the results of an isolated national development. Progress, in such nations, can not proceed far; for the mind, to attain its best results, must unfold all its faculties together. These strike fire from each other, and produce a genial flame where otherwise would be but smoldering embers. Every separate nation is subject to special conditions. It gains laws, customs, and possessions in accordance therewith. A number of isolated nations is equivalent to a number of separate individuals, each content with his own range of experiences and stock of ideas, and refusing, through prejudice or bigotry, to accept those of others. But when once individuals intimately mingle, and begin to compare thoughts and interchange ideas, a rapid mental growth takes place in each. A similar mental contact is not easy between nations. Isolation and national prejudice form barriers over which thought can but slowly make its way. Yet, evidently enough, were nations, after attaining the limit of progress in their special lines, to be thoroughly mingled, each falling heir to the mental growth of all the others, a sudden and rapid intellectual progress might well be achieved, hosts of new ideas arising from this grand influx of new experiences. In barbarian and semicivilized communities such an intermingling proceeds but slowly in times of peace. A certain degree of intercommerce and of emigration may exist. But emigration under barbarian conditions does not usually bring peoples into contact, except it be the harsh contact of war. The only peaceful contact is the commercial one. Merchants, undoubtedly, in early times penetrated foreign tribes and nations, and brought home, in addition to their wares, stories of what they had seen and learned abroad. But the merchants were too few, too ignorant and prejudiced, and too little given to observation, to spread much useful information in this way; and their peoples were too self-satisfied to give up any customs and beliefs of their own for those thus brought them.

How, then, could any effective result from national contact be produced? In primitive times the only effective agency must have been that of war. Destructive as this is in its results, it has the one useful effect of thoroughly commingling diverse peoples, bringing them into the closest contact with each other, and forcing upon the attention of each the advantages possessed by the other. The caldron of human society must be set boiling before its contents can fully mingle and combine. War is the furnace in which this ebullition takes place, and through whose activity human ideas are forced to circulate through and through the minds of men.

But there is a special cause that renders war peculiarly effective in this direction. In every war there are two peoples to be considered, the invaders and the invaded. The latter remains at home, on the defensive, its government intact, its prejudices condensed by hatred of the invaders, its people strongly bent on both mental and material resistance. The invaders, on the contrary, not only leave their country behind them, but they leave its laws and conditions as well. They march under new skies, over new soils, through new climates. They come into the closest contact with new customs, laws, and conditions. And their local prejudices only partially march with them. The laws of the peaceful state are abrogated in the army. Its members are brought under other laws and disciplines. Religious influences weaken. A sense of liberty fills the mind of the soldier; expectancy arises; new hopes and fears are engendered; the old quiet devotion to law becomes a tendency to license.

Thus the mind of the soldier is in a state essentially unlike that of the peaceful citizen. The one is heated where the other is cool; expectancy in the one replaces the fixed prejudice of the other; a tendency to license and insubordination in the one replaces the law-abiding disposition of the other. The intellect of the soldier is therefore in a state rendering it a quick and ready solvent of new experiences. All its fixity of ideas is broken up, the deep foundations of its prejudices are shaken, it is in a receptive condition; fresh thoughts readily pass the broken barriers of its reserve, it is freely open to ideas which it would have sternly refused in its cold, unsolvent, peaceful stage.

For this reason we find races which have dwelt long in self-satisfied barbarism suddenly leaping into civilization when they assume the role of conquerors. The savage hordes of Timur developed, in a few generations, into the comparatively civilized Mogul people of India. From the Saxon pirates who conquered England an Alfred the Great soon arose. The Norman invaders of France quickly threw aside their barbarism and emerged into chivalry.

This rapid change in mental conditions is not displayed by conquered nations. They remain sullen and obstinate. Though conquered physically, they continue mentally on the defensive. Yet the mental resistance of a subject people to their conquerors is only temporary. There is nothing more difficult than to raise fixed barriers in the mind against the influx of thought. The conquerors force on their subjects new social customs and new political institutions. No one can hinder himself from thinking and comparing, and the mind involuntarily opens to take in the advantageous ideas which may be thus presented to it. It is usually religious infusion that is longest resisted. Yet this, too, makes its way rapidly if there is a strong effort to enforce it. Witness the quick outflow of Mohammedanism through the conquered nations of Asia and Africa.

The results of invasion in this direction depend largely on the comparative civilization of the conquerors and the conquered. If a barbarous people overflows a civilized, the mental level of the conquerors is sure to be raised, but that of the conquered is very likely to be lowered. Yet the result is not a mean between the two grades of advancement; for ideas are hard to kill out. Unlike material possessions, they are capable of unlimited duplication. An idea is the one human possession that can be at once kept and given. Thus the ideas of the conquered infuse themselves irresistibly into the minds of their barbarian conquerors, becoming the mutual property of both peoples. If the conquering race be the most advanced, the process is somewhat different. They are likely to avail themselves of all the good they can obtain from the subjected people, and usually endeavor to force-upon them their own form of mental discipline and social organization. Resistance to this influence is ineffective if the subjection be long continued. Roman thought and Roman civilization followed Roman conquest over half the ancient world. And when Rome was finally overflowed by barbarians, the persistent Roman thought exercised its lifting force on these conquering tribes, gradually reproducing the downtrodden civilization.

Another consideration naturally flows from the above review of war as a civilizing agency. This is, that the greater the diversity in conditions between two warring nations, the greater is their mutual benefit. Civil wars usually yield but small results in this direction. Few new experiences are gained. It is but the commingling of two similar fluids. Yet in a case like that of our American civil war, where the existence of widely different conditions in two opposed sections of the country is the determining cause of the war, very important advantages to civilization may be gained. It would have taken many years of peace to produce as strong a feeling of the moral obliquity of slavery as was produced in four years of war. The heated minds of our people received the doctrine of abolitionism as a river of new thought, where before it had been but a trickling rivulet. And the overflow of this new thought is gradually making itself felt in the South, despite the fact that the conquerors have left them to their previous isolation.

Thus it is not only the soldier's mind that is heated and receptive; the same condition, in a lesser degree, exists in the nation for whose benefit the army is fighting. The souls of the people march, if their bodies do not, with the army. They are excited, hopeful, eager to participate in its booty, and ready to be influenced by its experiences. And when the conquerors return with spoils in their hands, and new thoughts, beliefs, and aspirations in their minds, they mingle intimately with a people eager to participate in their gains, and in a mental condition highly receptive to their new ideas. The more diverse these from the previous mental state of the people, the greater is the warping influence upon the national mind, and the more decided are the new conceptions attained. Nor in any such case does the conquering race simply lift itself toward the level of the conquered. If we cause oxygen and hydrogen to combine, the result is not oxygen or hydrogen, but water. And, in like manner, the mingling of two diverse grades of thought yields a compound that resembles neither of its constituents, but is a new phase of civilization, a positive step forward in progress.

Thus the world progressed through its long ages of partial civilization. The combined experiences of the members of a tribe yielded a certain degree of advancement, and there stopped. Each tribe differed from all others to the extent that its experiences and their resulting ideas differed. During peace the tribes repelled each other and remained intact, each with its special form of mental progress. In war they overflowed each other, greatly diversified thoughts and habits were brought into intimate contact, new ideas were engendered from the mixture, new forms of civilization arose. And as war was almost incessant, so these new products of thought were constantly brought into existence. Nomads became agriculturists through conquest; but the habits and ideas gained in a nomadic life mingled with those of the conquered agriculturists, and yielded a new and superior result—superior because based on a wider range of experiences and bringing a greater number of elements into the problem of social development. Mountaineers brought down their ideas to combine them with those born of the plain. Deserts and river valleys poured their common thought results into new and more comprehensive minds. The great ebullition went on. East mingled with west, north with south, mountain with plain, seashore with interior; men's thoughts fused and boiled incessantly; new compounds constantly appeared; the range of ideas grew wider and higher; and mental development steadily advanced—though over the ruins of empires and through the ashes of man's most valued possessions.

It was a destructive process. Life vanished, wealth perished, nations disappeared. But mind remained, and mind infused by every invasion with new ideas. The raw material of progress continued undestroyed. Material production is only inorganic substance poured into the mold of an idea. Its loss is no permanent deprivation while the idea remains. Its destruction is a positive gain if it has aided in yielding a crop of fresh and superior ideas.

The considerations above taken seem to prove that war has been an efficient civilizing agent, despite its cruelty and destructiveness. Nor has its good influence been physical and intellectual only; it has been moral as well. In truth, intellectual development can not go far without instigating moral advancement. But war has a more immediate ethical influence through its influence in combining tribes into nations, nations into empires. It widens human sympathies, brings greater bodies of people under the softening influence of fellow-citizenship, extends more widely the sentiment of human brotherhood, and overcomes that feeling of hostility with which tribesmen are apt to regard all mankind beyond their narrow borders.

War would therefore appear to have benefited man in the past alike physically, mentally, and morally. It can not be claimed to be a necessary agent for these purposes in the enlightened nations of the present. It has been replaced by more efficient civilizing agencies, whose character we now need to consider. In modern times nations have learned how to avail themselves of each other's advantages without going to war for them. Commerce, travel, and emigration have gone far to overcome national isolation, and a peaceful commingling of peoples has taken the place of warlike invasion.

Commerce lay at the foundation of Grecian enlightenment. The interchange of products is necessarily accompanied, to some extent, with an interchange of ideas. The feeling of curiosity reached a high point of development among the Greeks. It was the thirst to know which sent old Herodotus into the heart of hostile nations, and which is sending thousands to-day, in quest of knowledge, through the highways and byways of the world. Greece first fairly set in train this mental commerce. But the peaceful interchange of thought has grown immensely since the Grecian days, the whole world is being ransacked for old ideas and new experiences, and the thought stock of the several nations is gradually becoming a general thought stock, the freehold property of the world.

It is unquestionable that trading nations which have reached a certain degree of mental advancement are efficient agents in propagating civilization. There are several instances of this in the history of the past, but in most of such cases commerce was aided in its effects by colonization. It was not the movement of a few isolated merchants, but of extensive colonies, that produced the commingling of thought, with its useful results. The Phœnicians were the first great trading nation of whom we have any record; and they were the first to emerge into civilization under peaceful influences. The Greeks followed them in this field, and the lofty enlightenment of Athens is more to be ascribed to its commercial activity, its colonizing spirit, and its free reception of the best minds from other nations than to its warlike vigor and success. In more modern times we have had successively the Venetians, the Genoese, the Spaniards, the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the English advancing into commercial activity and, with it, into phases of enlightened energy in close accordance with the width and character of their commerce.

We no longer have to fight our way into the thoughts of the world. Every step of mental development made by an exterior people is becoming our own without need of its being taken by violence. We pick and choose at will throughout the races of mankind, digest what we thus consume, assimilate the good, avoid the evil, and widen our minds continually in the process. If it is something to learn what good exists unknown to us, it is also something to know what evil exists. A knowledge of good and evil alike is essential to human progress. And this process is in no sense a destructive one. In war not only possessions are destroyed, but to some extent ideas as well. It is only the remnants that enrich the conquering race—the methods of material production, the religions and philosophies, the rigid laws and customs among which they settle down and which they are forced to assimilate.

Modern progress is not gained by the gathering up of the relics of a conflagration. It is a whole, healthy, and complete development, a method full of infinite possibilities. Yet it has its apparent drawbacks. The minds of people working peacefully at home are not in the recipient state of that of the soldier, who has broken the chains of law and habit and grown singularly porous to the reception of new ideas. Local prejudices dwell at home with localized people. Knowledge has to fight its way through a thick crust of self-satisfied home partisanship. Men must come into contact with each other if conservatism is to be eliminated. They are fortunately coming more and more into peaceful contact with each other. Modern facilities are rendering habits of travel more general. There is as much peaceful movement now as there was warlike movement of old. The stay-at-home society is yearly losing membership.

And this process is wonderfully aided by another instrumentality. Men's bodies on longer need to touch for their ideas to come into contact. Ideas themselves are on their travels. The whole world, in a contracted sense, lies before every man at his breakfast table. The newspaper, aided by the telegraph, is a most powerful civilizing agent. In books not only the thought of the existing world, but a condensed epitome of the thought of all the past, is placed before the reading public. The library is the great granary of ideas. The press is the brain of the world, the grand receptacle of its thoughts.

Thus, in a wider sense than ever before, we travel and learn. Our souls travel while our bodies are at rest. The whole world is harvesting all the experiences and ideas gained by any portion of mankind. It is not the destructive harvesting of war, but the careful harvesting of peace. And prejudice—the mental isolation which has succeeded to national isolation—is breaking down before it. We are growing more and more receptive. The world's mind is becoming strikingly porous to new thought. We are cutting loose from fixity of belief, rigidity of custom, and devotion to authority, and growing mentally flexible, inquiring, and rebellious against bigotry. The reign of faith is giving way to the reign of reason.

And in this modern mode of development ethical evolution comes actively into play. Human progress has its three phases—the physical, the intellectual, and the moral. The last, the highest of all, was but imperfectly provided for in the old civilizing agencies. War has a brutalizing tendency. Only in peaceful development can moral progress fully display itself. As the highest moral advancement of mankind has seemed to keep pace, perhaps necessarily, with the highest intellectual development, it was undoubtedly to some extent favored by war. Certainly, in the warring nations of Europe morality has reached a far higher stage than in the peaceful nations of eastern Asia, essentially, no doubt, through the influence of Christianity, but largely through the development of the intellect, the disappearance of local prejudices, and the extension of human sympathy arising from the formation of great nations.

War still exists, but it has largely lost its function as a civilizer so far as enlightened nations are concerned. New and superior agencies are at work, and the injury done by war now looms far above any good it is likely to accomplish. Yet its active power in the spread of ideas continues, as in the notable instance I have already named—that of the rapid growth of abolition sentiment in the North during the American civil war. Possibly future useful effects in the same direction are still reserved for war, though it is to be hoped that man may henceforward rest content with the more desirable, if slower, results of peace.

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