Popular Science Monthly/Volume 87/August 1915/War and the Progress of Society

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1581152Popular Science Monthly Volume 87 August 1915 — War and the Progress of Society1915Ira Woods Howerth


By Professor I. W. HOWERTH


WE in America are so accustomed to the idea of social progress, and so familiar with certain actual or so-called progressive ideals, progressive factors and progressive movements, not to speak of progressive parties, that we are likely to assume that progress is general and in the nature of things. Such, however, is not the case. There are no grounds for the prevalent belief in the "general evolution of mankind" in which the nations of Europe, our own country, or any other country for that matter, must necessarily participate in spite of its wickedness, excesses and folly. The very idea of social progress is comparatively new, and the most superficial examination of the facts of social evolution as revealed in history will show that social advancement is sporadic, local and limited in time. Primitive civilizations were as a rule non progressive. Some of the modern nations, as for instance, China, are practically in a statical condition. National decadence, or the reverse of progress, as for instance in the later history of Spain, Rome, Greece and Egypt, looms large in the background of the past. Extensive regions in the Orient, once the home of advanced civilizations, are now barren deserts from which all life has disappeared. National decadence is in fact a more familiar phenomenon than national progress. As Maine remarks,

The stationary condition of the human race is the rule, the progressive the exception.[1]

Still, if the doctrine of social evolution be true, and we assume that it is, progress has characterized all peoples at some time in their history. Even in the case of stagnant primitive peoples, as well as the non-progressive nations of to-day, there must have been advancement prior to the time at which they reached their static condition. A brief study of the manner in which this advancement was brought about, particularly the part that war played, and now plays, in the achievement of social progress is the object of this paper.

It is sometimes said, and it seems to be widely believed, that one of the essential factors in social progress is war. This declaration and this belief, however, are unwarranted, as I shall proceed to show.

If we should look into sociological literature to find a specification of the factors of social progress and an accurate analysis of the several circumstances, elements or influences which tend to the promotion of civilization through progress, we should find practical agreement, though the distinction between factors, forces, means and methods is not always carefully drawn. Buckle, in his "History of Civilization in England" attributes social changes, hence progress, to climate, food, soil and the general aspect of nature. Buckle, however, regards only the external factors of progress; and inasmuch as he holds that physical agents are the primary and the chief factors in human development, he anticipates the modern advocates of the materialistic conception of history. John Fiske says:

The prime factors in social progress are the community and its environment.

By environment, Fiske means to include not only the climate, soil, flora and fauna, perpendicular elevation, relation to mountain ranges, length of coast-line, character of scenery and geographic position with reference to other countries, but also "the ideas, feelings, experiments and observances of past times, so far as they are preserved by literature, traditions or monuments, as well as foreign contemporary manners and opinions so far as they are known and recorded by the community." He does not attempt to analyze his conception of "community." Professor Carver in compiling his "Hand-Book for Students of Sociology" arranges his material under the following heads: the physical and geological factors, the psychical factors, the social and economic factors and the political and legal factors. In still another classification we find the factors of social evolution divided as follows: physical and geographical, biological, hygienic and eugenic, genetic and economic, political and legal, ethical and religious, esthetic, intellectual and associational.[2]

The literature of the subject aside, however, we need only to glance at the social process to see that the factors at work in the advancement of society are external and internal. The external factors arrange themselves under three heads, namely, the physical, the vital and the societal. The physical factors include soil, climate, topography, etc.; the vital include the regional flora and fauna; and the societal, the surrounding social groups that in one way or another exercise an influence on a given society. The internal factors consist in two things, and two things only: they are men and the things that men have made, or, somewhat less exactly, ideas and the embodied results of ideas in language, literature, the sciences, the arts, law, property, the state, religion, etc. Chief among the internal factors the one indeed from which all others are derived, is the intellect acting as a guide to the will. Professor Ward is practically correct when he declares that it is through the cooperation of the will and the intellect that civilization has been brought about. At all events, these are the great and comprehensive internal factors of civilization and progress.

In presenting these classifications of the factors of social progress, I am not concerned merely with their completeness or accuracy. I wish rather to bring out two significant facts: First, that the factors of progress are many, and hence in attempting to account for social progress we should be careful not to overestimate the influence of any single factor; and, second, that in none of the foregoing classifications of the factors of progress is there mention of war. Why is war omitted? Is it because in the analyses it has been overlooked? Or is it because it may not properly be included among the factors of progress? Clearly the latter is the explanation. War is not a factor of social progress. This will be obvious on considering the real meaning of the term "factor."

If we turn to a definition of the word factor we find it means anything that is employed in the production of a given result. Thus, three is a factor of eighteen. It may be employed in the production of that number, but the manner or method of its employment may be either addition or multiplication. Now it is quite worth while in the interest of clearness of thought on the present subject to make a distinction between the factors that unite or that are employed in the production of a given result, and the manner in which these factors naturally combine or the method by which they are employed in producing that result. Clearly three and six, the factors of eighteen, are quite different from the addition or the multiplication, that is, the method, employed in producing the number. Observe, too, in this connection that while the number of factors that combine or are employed in the production of a given result may be and in general are fixed, the method of employing them is variable. It may be a natural and fortuitous reaction, which is really no method at all, or if consciously employed the methods may be as many and as varied as human ingenuity can devise. With exactly the same factors which by natural reaction or by conscious employment produce a given result, methods of employing them may be accepted or rejected in accordance with our judgment with respect to their effectiveness. We may eliminate what we consider bad methods and employ only what seem to us to be good methods, while the factors may remain the same.

In the case, then, of progress, or its opposite effected by war, the factors are the social groups involved, the war itself being merely the manner in which these factors combine to produce the given result. Is this mode of combining properly to be called a method? That is to say, is war a method of social progress? If war is a method of social progress it is clearly not the only method. Hence it is subject to comparison with other methods as to its relative efficiency. Its value as a method must depend upon its cost and effectiveness as compared with the cost and effectiveness of other conceivable methods of social progress, as for instance education, commerce, contact through travel, and the various other forms of intercommunication by which alone one social group may stimulate the progress of another. If, on comparison, a better method were found, it would show lack of social intelligence not to discard the worse for the better.

But a further consideration will show that war is not really a method of social progress, except in a figurative sense. For method, as De Greef properly observes, is the highest manifestation of knowledge and consciousness;[3] or, as Spencer remarks, the highest self-conscious manifestation of the rational faculty. It implies always and everywhere the perception of an end to he reached, and the conscious selection and employment of the means of reaching it. Before war can properly be regarded as a method of social progress, then, social progress must be conceived as the end to be realized, and war must be entered upon with the conscious intent of thereby promoting social advancement. It is hardly probable, however, that any nation has ever deliberately declared war with the conscious aim of promoting social progress, and it is not likely that any nation ever will do so. Unless and until this is done war, while it may be employed from time to time as a method of attaining governmental, class, or dynastic ends, can not properly be classified as a method of social progress.

We have seen then that war is neither a "factor" of progress, nor, properly speaking, a "method" of social advancement. It follows that it is not a "means" of social progress. For a means, strictly speaking, is something chosen for use in the achievement of an end. It implies method. It is that which mediates between the existing condition and the purpose to be achieved. Until some government, nation or society sets up social progress as an aim, and selects war as the agency for bringing it about, it is just as improper to speak of war as a means to social progress as it is to speak of it as a method or a factor of social progress.

So much for what war is not. It is sufficient perhaps to show that what is asserted of war as "an essential factor of progress," an "indispensable method of social advancement," etc., is incorrect, and that the widely prevalent conception of the necessity of war in the promotion of "kultur" and civilization is not well founded—is in fact mere unsinnige Reden.

But if war is none of the things already described, what is it? Plainly it can not be argued out of existence. In addition to being a frequent occurrence in the past, it is just now a very conspicuous and stubborn fact. What, then, is its real nature as a social phenomenon? and what is its true relation to progress?

From the social standpoint war is manifestly a form of group interaction. The nations involved have collided while in pursuit of what is regarded as their own individual well-being. War, then, is always entered upon, not with the large and generous object of promoting social progress, but in order to realize one or the other of the narrower and conflicting purposes of social groups. Social progress is not the conscious end, although any of the nations engaged will be ready to identify its own "cause" with progress, and with all that is precious in civilization. This means that war is a socially unconscious phenomenon. As distinguished from the conscious and concerted, that is to say, artificial, action of society in the promotion of its own well-being, it is a purely natural phenomenon, and socially considered belongs in exactly the same class as earthquakes, floods, famine and pestilence.

To this point we come, then, that war has nothing to do with social progress, except in an incidental way. It is a mode of collective action whose incidental effect may be progress or regress. It is, as De Greef has well said, the best example of a socially unconscious phenomenon. He says:

La guerre est le phénomenène social ineonscient par excellence; la preuve, c'est qu'elle finit toujours par où on aurait dû commencer, si l'on avait été capable d'établir la balance exacte des forces hostiles, c'est-à-dire par des traites.[4]

"But," it will be said, "it can not be denied that war has sometimes resulted in progress." Certainly not; nor can it be denied that it has sometimes resulted in regress. As a result of war states have been founded, and as a result of war states have been destroyed. War has initiated civilizations, and war has overthrown them. And always the effect on social progress has been incidental, unforseen and unintended.

The social effects of war, then, and hence its influence upon progress, are exactly parallel to the effects of the undirected forces of nature. These in their blind action produce results sometimes progressive and sometimes the opposite, but always with absolute disregard of the effects produced and of the amount of energy expended. War, it may be said, belongs to the economy of nature and not to the economy of mind.

Now the common characteristic of the phenomena of nature as distinguished from the phenomena of mind, so far as they are related to the achievement of the ends desired by human beings, is waste. Nature is notoriously prodigal. Progress achieved by it is uncertain, slow and expensive. War, therefore, being from the social viewpoint a natural phenomenon should be expected to exhibit this common characteristic. And so it does. It is perhaps the superlative example of social waste.

Now waste, whether it result from individual or social action, is an evidence of unintelligence. The function of intelligence is to promote economy of time, means and energy in the realization of a given end. Social intelligence, therefore, when it is directed to the promotion of social progress, can not countenance war because of its wastefulness, to say nothing of the uncertainty of its results. Social progress, after the dawn of social intelligence, is really equivalent to the development of such intelligence. The general progress of society must therefore necessarily lead to the social prevention of war. Continuous progress with the continuance of war is a contradiction in terms.

  1. "Ancient Law," p. 23. See also Bagehot, "Physics and Politics," Ch. I.
  2. Bogardus, a syllabus entitled "An Introduction to the Social Sciences."
  3. See Introduction, "A la Sociologie," p. 441.
  4. Op. cit., p. 434.