If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
From “Dulce Est Decorum Est,” by Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)
As the Carnegie Council’s centennial approaches, I’ve found myself contemplating the implications of the Council’s original charge: to pursue and achieve sustainable world peace. While many would argue that the human race has progressed in leaps and bounds from its baser beginnings, this does not imply that we are in turn progressing towards the peaceful state that Andrew Carnegie and his philanthropic peers envisioned almost 100 years ago. There is also the sustainability question: how can we ensure that, once achieved, such peace may be preserved for future generations?
These questions prompted me to reconsider one of the most impactful texts I read in my freshman year of college, which was Immanuel Kant’s treatise on perpetual peace. What I found most fascinating upon revisiting his work (besides how much better my handwriting was four years ago) was his assessment of human nature and how it influences the mechanisms by which we seek to achieve a peaceful future.
Based on Kant’s understanding of human nature, we are predisposed by our very essence to live in a state of war. He writes, “This ease in making war, combined with the inclination of those in power to do so—an inclination that seems innate in human nature—is a great obstacle to perpetual peace” (109). However, Kant also believes that we possess some cognizance of “right” which may be harnessed to steer us towards peace. He continues, “The homage that every nation pays (at least in words) to the concept of right proves, nonetheless, that there is in man a still greater, though presently dormant, moral aptitude to master the evil principle in himself (a principle he cannot deny) and to hope that others will also overcome. For otherwise the word right would never leave the mouths of those nations that want to make war on one another, unless it were used mockingly…” (116).
So what does Kant recommend in order to awaken this latent sense of right within us? It would be worthwhile at this stage to address the importance he places on a “league of nations,” universal moral law and subsequent obligations incumbent upon the peace-seeking nations of the world, but I am most interested in his critique of what societies deem honorable.
Kant eloquently condemns the primary position war holds in the consciousness of political figures worldwide when he writes, “Nonetheless, war itself requires no particular motivation, but appears to be ingrained human nature and is even valued as something noble; indeed, the desire for glory inspires men to it, even independently of selfish motives” (123). Parsing his use of the word “glory” further, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines glory as, “praise, honor, or distinction extended by common consent.” Webster also references the term’s relationship to beauty, for beautiful things may be deemed glorious.
Yet human history bears witness to the less glorious realities of war. The excerpt from Wilfred Owen’s famous WWI poem provided above summarizes the harsh reality of trench warfare and the tragic, horrific ends young men met on European battlefields—realities which were unknown to many of his countrymen. Beyond Owen’s account, more sobering assessments of war throughout history can be found with little difficulty. Nonetheless, even in modernity, many still view war as both honorable and desirable in attaining peaceful ends.
Insofar as political leaders proclaim war as a justifiable, necessary reaction to threats at home and abroad, the popular narrative will always exalt war as glorious and honorable. But if it is the case that human beings will continue to seek honor and glory no matter their contrivances, then we must create the conditions for perpetual peace to be our primary goal, one that is perceived as more honorable and more glorious than any other.
Of course, this is not to belittle or criticize those who have fought and died for the cause of peace throughout history, nor is it to deny the existence of “just wars”—for example, I believe it was morally just to defeat Hitler by any means necessary—but it is certainly to push us even in our more “humane” era to seek peaceful resolutions to the disputes that will inevitably arise between us. After all, I agree with Kant when he argues that a peace begotten by war (or more simply, by violence) can quickly be rendered illegitimate. He notes, “…although a treaty of peace can put an end to some particular war, it cannot end the state of war (the tendency always to find a new pretext for war)” (116). We must seek to reduce that tendency within us and aspire to a peace forged not by our violent inclinations, but from our more deliberative, rational faculties.
Why shouldn’t peaceful coexistence be perceived as the greatest honor we can achieve as a race? Why must we further the narrative which exalts that baser inclination within Man to seek war as the necessary mechanism to achieve peace? When will glory be accorded to legal statutes which bind the nations of the world in a compact that ensures perpetual, sustained peace? These are the questions Kant rightfully asked, and these are questions we should continue to ask as we progress towards ever greater milestones in modernity. But, as Owen noted, we must first reconsider a maxim older than he, one he transcribed from Horace’s Odes written over two thousand years ago: how sweet and honorable it is to die for your country.
Instead, how sweet and honorable, and glorious, it would be for Man to utilize the rational impulse he has been endowed with to craft compacts of peace that may stand for all time. I understand that this would be a less pithy maxim, but this was Andrew Carnegie’s belief as well as Kant's, and this belief must one day rest with us all.