I found this tattered old hardcover at Goodwill that celebrates one hundred years of The Atlantic from the distant remove of 1957. Near the back of this treasure of prose, fiction and poetry is a brief speech by William James that caught my eye. Its simple title is ‘Remarks at the Peace Banquet‘ and it contains many profound and refreshingly honest insights into human nature and warfare.
Speaking on October 7, 1904 at the World Peace Conference, James humorously introduced himself by saying, “I am a philosopher, and there is only one thing that a philosopher can be relied on to do. You know that the function of statistics has been ingeniously described as being the refutation of other statistics. Well, a philosopher can always contradict other philosophers.” Ideas will forever clash and try to cancel each other out.
He quickly turns his focus to mankind and the folly that the noble philosopher’s cherished Reason too often proves to be,
“When looked at candidly, reason is one of the very feeblest of Nature’s forces, if you take it at any one spot and moment. It is only in the very long run that its effects become perceptible. Reason assumes to settle things by weighing them against one another without prejudice, partiality, or excitement; but what affairs in the concrete are settled by is and always will be prejudices, partialities, cupidities, and excitement. Appealing to reason as we do, we are in a sort of forlorn hope situation, like a small sandbank in the midst of a hungry sea ready to wash it out of existence.”
He expresses hope that reason will grow over time because reason presses in one direction “while man’s prejudices vary, their passions ebb and flow, and their excitements are intermittent.”
James is optimistic about humanity in the long-run, pessimistic in the short-run. And his misgivings are grave:
“Our permanent enemy is the noted bellicosity of human nature. Man, biologically considered, and whatever else he may be in the bargain, is simply the most formidable of all beasts of prey and, indeed, the only one that preys systematically on its own species. We are once for all adapted to the military status. A millennium of peace would not breed the fighting disposition out of our bone and marrow, and a function so ingrained and vital will never consent to die without resistance, and will always find impassioned apologists and idealizers.”
Furthermore, human nature is at war with boredom, of all things, “Man lives by habits, indeed, but what he lives for is thrills and excitements. The only relief from habit’s tediousness is periodic excitement.” And what could be more exciting than war? For in wartime, “the dams of routine burst, and boundless prospects open.”
With hindsight, we can say that the 1904 World Peace Conference was an abysmal failure. But still, speaking a decade before the outbreak of the First World War, William James words still ring hauntingly true more than 113 years later. Human nature hasn’t changed, but sure enough, reason and science has brought us a widespread increase in health, education, and living standards in that intervening time, even if we haven’t yet transcended what William James called “the mystical blood payment.”