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Pacifism, which literally refers to making peace (from pace and facere) is often mistakenly understood as passivity.



Pacifism and Philosophy is the text of a talk Huxley gave in 1936. Some of its references are of its time but his arguments remain as relevant today as it was then. ‘Pacifists’, Huxley writes, ‘are people who have broken with an old establishes convention of though – the utopian dream of pacifism is in fact a practical policy; indeed, the only practical, the only realistic policy there is.’

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Can bad means ever lead to a realisation of the good ends desired by their users?


In recent times, many apologists of war have insisted on its naturalness. But no mammal makes war in the human sense of the term; and we find that in fact there exist and have existed societies which have not used war. This means that it is possible for men so to construct their world that fear and greed will not seem the mainsprings of action, nor violence the obvious commonsense way of getting things done. The naturalists have failed to see that many of the human failings attributed by them to nature are in fact to be put down to second nature, and that, therefore, it is possible by changing the habits of thought and feeling to eliminate such failings. (Nobody pretends that these changes are easy to make. The point is that they can be made by those who desire strongly enough to do so.) There is one other common justification for war which these justifications for pacifism do not directly answer. In its crude form this doctrine merely consists in the statement that a given people is justified in attacking its neighbours because it is superior to them. Hegel disguised it in an elaborate fancy dress of metaphysics. But even when disguised, it remains the expression of national vanity and egotism. The fact that it is merely egotism sufficiently condemns this doctrine, however imposing the theological or philosophical terms in which it is dressed up.

So much for the justifications for pacifism. I must now briefly consider the philosophical conditions in which pacifism, or its opposite, can flourish.
The fact may seem curious, but it is none the less true, that the warlike passions burn most fiercely in minds which think about the problems of peace and war in terms of generalisations and abstractions. To bring oneself to kill individual human beings is not easy; but when those human beings are thought of merely as members of a class which has previously been defined as evil, then killing becomes a simple matter. Brown, Jones and Robinson must not be thought of as Brown, Jones and Robinson, but as heretics, enemies of God, Gentiles, non-Aryans, niggers, barbarians, Huns, fascists, communists, capitalists, whichever the case may be. When they have been called such names and assimilated to the accursed class to which these names apply, Brown, Jones and Robinson cease to be regarded as human beings and become vermin or devils whom one is justified in exterminating in the most painful way possible. All war propaganda consists, in the last resort, in substituting diabolical abstractions for human beings. Similarly, those who defend war have invented a pleasant-sounding vocabulary of abstractions in which to describe the process of mass murder. Consider the phrase which was on everybody’s lips in 1917 – the phrase ‘war of attrition’. Nothing could be more genteel, less calculated to shock the sensibilities. For what is ‘attrition’? A mere process of rubbing. The word suggests the delicate polishing of a telescope lens. There is no hint of individuals suffering pain, going mad, being killed. All writings on the art of war are a tissue of such abstract or elegant figurative phrases. (Coleridge calls them, ‘Our dainty terms for fratricide’.) It is a most salutary exercise to go through such treatises, translating each phrase as it occurs into other phrases expressing the individual reality of the situation under discussion. In general, no pacifist can permit himself to think in terms of abstractions. The abstractions in terms of which strategists describe war are meant to conceal the fact that war is a process of large-scale murder. The abstractions in terms of which propagandists describe the enemy are meant to conceal the fact that the hostile nation consists of individual men and women, having the same potentialities for good and evil as ourselves. Similarly, abstractions such as ‘the State’, and ‘the Nation’ should constantly be re-translated into terms descriptive of concrete individual reality. If this is not done, State and Nation may easily come to be regarded as self-subsisting, divine entities which it is our duty to worship.

Abstractions are indispensable instruments of thought. Without them it would be impossible for us to think clearly or rapidly about the immensely complex world in which we live. But, though useful, abstractions are also dangerous. If we think only in terms of abstractions we shall go astray – go astray not only intellectually, but also emotionally and cognitively. At any and every moment we must be prepared to see the individual realities behind our abstractions and generalisations. If we do this, we shall retain our sanity, not only of intellect, but also – and this is more important in the circumstances – of feeling and of will. Abstractions and generalisations are symbols. Realities are individual.

The final question with which I shall deal is this: Which is the most propitious metaphysical environment for pacifism – a humanistic philosophy, or a philosophy which recognises the existence of more than human spiritual realities?

History seems to show that many kinds of belief in spiritual powers are not only compatible with war, but that they also actively encourage the war-like passions of the believer. The deity may be theoretically universal, the father of all men; but particular groups may believe that their own views of the deity’s nature and their own magical devices for entering into touch with Him are the only correct views and the only effective devices. Strong in this belief, they proceed to classify all those who think differently as ‘heretics’ or ‘miscreants’. Heretics can be thought of abstractly, not as human beings, but as representatives of a principle which is by definition a principle of evil. They are devils whom it is a duty to destroy. Belief in more than human spiritual realities has been in the past more often the enemy of pacifism than its friend. It can become its friend only on one condition: that the doctrine of the essential spiritual unity of man be taken seriously; that God be regarded and, if possible, experienced as a psychological fact, present at least potentially in every human being.

Let us now consider humanism. This philosophy of man for man’s sake emerges at the Renaissance and becomes gradually more explicit during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Humanism starts as the revolt against a Christianity in which belief in the universal fatherhood of God and consequent unity of men is purely theoretical, a Christianity not only compatible with war, but also directly responsible for wars. At first, humanism reveals itself as the friend of pacifism. Wars are still freely waged during the eighteenth century, but are waged with a decency unparalleled in earlier or later history. Then something strange, something utterly unanticipated by any of the great eighteenth-century humanists takes place. There is a religious revival. This is partly a revival in terms of the old religion; but mainly and much more significantly a revival in terms of new, humanistic, mundane religions: the religions of nationalism and – a much less powerful creed – socialism. During the nineteenth century these religions – and especially the religion of nationalism – grow more and more powerful. Humanism, reinforced on its doctrinal side by the spectacular advances of science, makes it ever more difficult for ever increasing numbers of Europeans to accept the theologies of the old religion. But the desire to worship, to devote oneself, and make sacrifices persists. To whom shall the sacrifices be made? Transcendental deities are out of the question. Finding themselves unable to believe in anything that they cannot see, men bow down to mundane gods. Superstition becomes positivistic. A new idolatry appears. Instead of God, men adore the Nation, the State, the Class, the Leader. All history takes an undulatory course. Religion has always had its ups and downs. A period of fervour and self-discipline is followed by one of slackness and self-indulgence. In recent years this undulatory movement has shown itself most clearly in the history of the essentially humanistic religion of nationalism. Periods of slackness, during which people have thought only of money and what is called a good time, have alternated with periods of intense devotion – not to God, for humanism and science have made it difficult for the masses to believe in God, but to the local idols, Nation, State and Leader. We are living at the moment in a period of extreme idolatrous fervour.

This religion, it is sufficiently obvious, is wholly incompatible with pacifism and can never be anything else. For nationalism marks a retreat from monotheism towards tribal gods, from beliefs in the essential unity of man to belief in his essential diversity. Significantly enough, our contemporary emperor-worship differs from that established by Augustus in being, not a unifying religion, but a separating and divisive one. Today there is not one emperor for many people; there is a whole pantheon of local emperors, each worshipped by his own people.

There is left the belief in a spiritual reality to which all men have access and in which they are united. Such a belief is the best metaphysical environment for pacifism; and if enough people address themselves to living up to this belief, if enough people set out to experience the spiritual reality in which men are united, then there will be peace; for peace is, so to speak, the by-product of a certain way of life – a way of life that is not only the outcome and practical illustration of the philosophy I have described, but is also, and at the same time, a device for advancing farther into the knowledge of the realities with which that philosophy is concerned.

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