Virtus and Peace: Synthesis in ‘The Moral Equivalent of War’ by William James

Delineating Peace and War
Epidemics and wars are similar—to paraphrase
Georges Bernanos: they have no beginning nor
end. But although war has been cyclical
throughout history, unlike epidemics and natural
disasters, war is based on intentional human
choice. And unlike catastrophes that can be
defined scientifically, war and its counterpart—
peace—have evaded conclusive definitions. Of
the two, describing peace has been especially
elusive, so much so that it has been called ‘an
eschatological endeavor—a final version to
come at the end of time’ (James, 15).
While there are many definitions of peace,
perhaps the one most fitting for an analysis of
James’s essay ‘The Moral Equivalent of War’ is
the work of Johan Galtung, the founder of
modern peace and conflict studies and of the
Oslo Peace Research Institute. In brief, Galtung
conceives of a typology of four human needs
(‘The Basic Needs Approach’). One is the need
for security or freedom from violence. This
results in the first level of peace, which Galtung
terms ‘negative peace,’ that is, ‘the absence of
direct violence between states engaged in by
military and others in general, and of massive
killing of categories of human in particular’
(‘Positive and Negative Peace,’ 173). Or as he
more simply notes in Peace by Peaceful Means,
at this first level ‘peace is the absence/reduction
of violence of all kinds’ (9).
However, Galtung also states in the same work
that another layer of peace exists: non-violent
and creative conflict transformation (9). This
layer is ‘positive peace’ and addresses the need
of freedom from structural violence. That is:
freedom from repression; freedom from
economic misery; and freedom from alienation.
(It is interesting to note that the root meaning of
‘freedom’ is from the Old English freod
‘affection, friendship, peace,’ friga ‘love,’ friòu
‘peace.’) ‘Positive peace’ is based on
‘reciprocity, equal rights, benefits and dignity’
(‘Positive and Negative Peace,’ 173). Peace
theory is intimately connected not only with
conflict theory, but equally with developmental
theory (Galtung, ‘Violence and Peace,’ 13).
Reducing peace to the simple cessation of
violence, without social justice, will never result
in lasting peace:
War reduction theories appeal to most people
because they deal directly with the use of force
and weapons. They are, however, limited
because they focus on immediately observable
symptoms rather than on deeper underlying
causes. Theories of peace creation go beyond
buffering existing international relations. They
focus on balancing and restructuring of the
world system. (Beer, 16)
Galtung’s configuration of peace is unlike
many definitions because it ultimately
considers the root impediments to lasting
peace. In this respect it resonates with the
earlier Universal Charter of Human Rights
(1948) and the papal encyclical Pacem in
Terris (1963). Though written almost a
century before Galtung’s work, it will be seen
that James’ ‘The Moral Equivalent of War’ is
also about peace as a social goal with a direct
method to achieve elements of ‘positive
War: Violence and Virtus
Definitions of war vary and often directly or
indirectly reflect the political or philosophical
background of the author. Nevertheless, most
descriptions of war include the concept of
violence. A classic example is von Clausewitz,
who goes beyond his well-known aphorism that
war ‘is the continuation of policy with other
means’: ‘War is nothing but a duel on an extensive scale… an act of violence intended to
compel our opponent to fulfill our will, directed
by political motives and morality…. War is an
act of violence pushed to its utmost bounds’ (Bk
I, 101, 103). While the technology of war has
changed, peace theorist Robert Holmes affirms
that ‘war by its nature is organized violence, the
deliberate, systematic causing of death and
destruction… whether the means employed are
nuclear bombs or bows and arrows’ (On War
and Morality, 180).
If the presence of violence constitutes the base
line of war (i.e., ‘negative war’)—much as the
absence of violence constitutes Galtung’s
‘negative peace’—would it be possible to speak
of ‘positive war’ and what connection it might
have with James’s work? Such a war matrix
may be explored visually if one compares two
very different renditions of actual combat, the
first battle of Tannenberg (1410), by Alphonse
Mucha and Jan Matejko respectively. Despite
differences in style (Art Nouveau and 19th
century Polish historicism), both artists portray
features of the war in which Polish, Lithuanian,
and Ruthenian forces successfully fought the
German Teutonic Knights, who attempted to
convert the mainly Slavic pagan tribes to
Christianity through Catholic colonization.
Mucha’s 1924 painting, number 10 of his
monumental 20-panel Slavic Epic, depicts the
morning after the battle. In somber tones, the
scene consists of the dead on the battlefield, not
only the ethnically-diverse Slavic soldiers, but
the Teutonic Knights as well. The Polish King
Wladyslaw surveys the aftermath of violence
not as a hero, but with horror at the cost of
freedom. Victory is not the major theme here;
rather, aspects of ‘negative war’ are more
Matejko, in contrast, presents the battle in
turbulent action. While his 1878 painting shows
violent confrontation, it also brings out certain
positive personal effects of warfare: courage,
self-reliance, confidence, leadership,
comradeship, organization—among others.
Unlike Mucha’s work, Matejko shows both the
Polish King and the Lithuanian Grand Duke in
partnership together. The notion of chivalry is
also present due to the number of knights
included in the painting. Victory is the
overriding emotion of the work with the central
triumphant figure of Witold (Vytautas) the
Grand Duke enrobed in red.
Traditionally, theorists have looked at the
positive after-effects of war: the elimination of
repressive governments and injustices, among
others. One may, as in the Matejko work,
examine positive characteristics in bello that
were historically termed virtus. For the Romans,
virtus was originally associated with the
battlefield (Schrader, 87). However, Roman
society saw the four cardinal virtues of a
military commander (prudence, temperance,
justice, and fortitude) as mainly external virtues
to serve the state, a position James will take.
The original four qualities have often been
expanded to an imposing list of ‘military
virtues’: justice, obedience, loyalty, courage,
wisdom, honesty, integrity, perseverance,
temperance, patience, humility, compassion,
discipline, professionalism (Skerker et al. 2019).
Instead of a strong emphasis on individual
heroic action in the Greek tradition, these
martial virtus qualities were seen to lead to civic
duty—a focus essential to ‘The Moral
Equivalent of War.’
Genesis and Context of ‘The Moral
Equivalent to War’
James was a pacifist living in the aftermath of
the American Civil War and much opposed to
the jingoism he saw in United States foreign
policy. He was also, a member of the AntiImperialist League. He firmly believed that
‘negative war’ was anachronistic and would
eventually disappear. It is important to
remember that during James’s lifetime many
domestic and international peace organizations
were founded along with the establishment of
the Geneva and Hague conventions, and in 1904
James was invited to address the 13th Universal
Peace Congress in Boston. Among the 500
members attending were such peace advocates
as Jane Addams and Baroness von Suttner,
William Dean Howells, and Booker T.
Washington. Both Addams and James ‘tried to
articulate an alternative to the psychological
allure of war’ (Schott, 241; italics mine). In fact,
James had planned to work more on the subject
of military psychology before his death in 1910
and thought he might one day write a book
called A Psychology of Jingoism and Varieties
of Military Experience (Myers, 601).
In terms of context, one should also remember the general male attitude towards women at the
time, since both the 1904 speech and the 1910
‘The Moral Equivalent’ center on male
initiatives— ‘Let the soldiers dream of killing,
as the old maids dream of marrying’ (‘Address’,
268). (The Congress had a separate venue for
most women to present and discuss.) James’s
speech appeared two months later in The
Atlantic and was later published as ‘Remarks at
the Peace Banquet’ in Memories and Studies
The ‘Address’ contains two major themes that
will inform ‘The Moral Equivalent.’ The first of
these is that the psychological inclination to war
will always be with us:
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. (267)
Long periods of peace cannot eliminate this war
‘DNA’ in humans. And the chief reason is that
‘war has an omnipotent support in the form of
our imagination’ (267), which is thrilled by war.
The plain truth is that people want war. They
want it any how; for itself, and apart from each
and every possible consequence. It is the final
bouquet of life’s fireworks. The born soldiers
want it hot and actual. The non-combatants
want it in the background, and always as an
open possibility, to feed imagination on and
keep excitement going. Its clerical and historical
defenders fool themselves when they talk as
they do about it. What moves them is not the
blessings it has won for us, but a vague religious
exaltation. (268)
The second theme that James briefly introduces
(but only develops thoroughly in ‘The Moral
Equivalent’) is the solution—to channel this war
But organize in every conceivable way the
practical machinery for making each successive
chance of war abortive. Put peace men in
power; educate the editors and statesmen to
responsibility…. Seize every pretext, however
small, for arbitration methods, and multiply the
precedents; foster rival excitements, and invent
new outlets for heroic energy, and from one
generation to another the chances are that
irritation will grow less acute and states of strain
less dangerous among the nations. (268, italics
Virtus: Joining the ‘War Party’ and the
‘Peace Party’
‘The Moral Equivalent of War’ was originally
given in 1906 as a speech at Stanford
University. It was later published in 1910. As a
realist and pragmatist, James begins ‘The Moral
Equivalent of War’ by echoing his belief that
the need for war is inherent in humans, thus
giving the position of his opponents, the ‘war
party.’ However, he then proceeds to give the
history of Greek and Roman warfare and their
atrocities, making it clear that he condemns
‘negative war’ and its violence: ‘History is a
bath of blood. The Iliad is one long recital of
how Diomedes and Ajax, Sarpedon and Hector
killed. No detail of the wounds they made is
spared us, and the Greek mind fed upon the
story’ (Memories and Studies, 269). Believing
in a progressive evolution of society, James felt
that ‘negative war’ was no longer acceptable to
modern rational nations: ‘At the present day,
civilized opinion is a curious mental mixture.
The military instincts and ideals are as strong as
ever, but they are confronted by reflective
criticisms…. Innumerable writers are showing
up the bestial side of military service’ (273).
(Part of this ‘reflective criticism’ was directed at
Japan and Germany.)
Again, in a conciliatory fashion, James notes
that the search for lasting peace has often been
hindered by the ‘peace party’ itself: ‘I see how
desperately hard it is to bring the peace-party
and the war-party together, and I believe that
the difficulty is due to certain deficiencies in the
program of pacifism which set the military
imagination… strongly against it’ (274).
Pacifists ‘ought to enter more deeply into the
aesthetical and ethical point of view of their
opponent’ (283). James continues to point out
that the ‘war-party’ fears a world in which the military values of virtus would be absent.
Instead, James concludes that ‘war is, in short, a
permanent human obligation (277). This is
because the military virtues (the military
character) preserve ‘hardihood.’ A world
without virtus would fall into stagnation, a
‘pleasure economy,’ and ‘degeneration.’ It
might well see war as no more than relief from
boredom: ‘Man lives by habits indeed, but what
he lives for is thrills and excitements. The only
relief from habit’s tediousness is periodical
excitement. From time immemorial wars have
been, especially for non-combatants, the
supremely thrilling excitement. There is not a
man in this room, I suppose, who doesn’t buy
both an evening and a morning paper, and first
of all pounce on the war column’ (‘Address,’
303). Indeed, ‘martial virtues must be the
enduring cement; intrepidity, contempt of
softness, surrender of private interest, obedience
to command, must still remain the rock upon
which states are built’ (288). Thus, James
suggests a compromise in which ‘the martial
type of character can be bred without war’
(292), without the horrors of ‘negative war.’
James predicts that peace will not be permanent
‘unless the states, pacifically organized,
preserve some of the old elements of armydiscipline’ (287).
How will the military virtus be utilized? James
holds that civic duty is the solution as ‘all the
qualities of a man acquire dignity when he
knows that the service of the collectivity that
owns him needs him’ (285). The solution that
James proposes is not a military conscription,
but ‘a conscription of the whole youthful
population to form for a certain number of years
a part of the army enlisted against Nature’
To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to
fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing,
clothes washing, and window washing, to roadbuilding and tunnel-making, to foundries and
stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers,
would our gilded youth be drafted off,
according to their choice, to get the childishness
knocked out of them, and to come back into
society with healthier sympathies and soberer
ideas. (291)
James ends ‘The Moral Equivalent of War’ by
declaring, with a reference to H. G. Wells, that
‘the conceptions of order and discipline, the
tradition of service and devotion, of physical
fitness, unstinted exertion, and universal
responsibility, which universal military duty is
now teaching European nations, will remain a
permanent acquisition when the last
ammunition has been used in the fireworks that
celebrate the final peace’ (295).
Utopia or Relevancy
‘The Moral Equivalent of War’ is one of the
more widely read works of William James. It
provided the catalyst for creating in the United
States alone the Civilian Conservation Corps
during the Depression, the Peace Corps, Job
Corps, VISTA, Americorps, and other civic
organizations. The same title was used by
President Jimmy Carter in 1977 in a speech to
address national issues of energy. It can be
asked if Galtung himself was influenced by the
The argument made here is not to abolish the
military but to give it new tasks. That institution
has had very bad habits in the past, such as
attacking other countries and nations, and other
classes, usually at the behest of the ruling elites,
killing and devastating through external and
internal wars. But there have also been virtues:
good organization, courage, willingness to
sacrifice. The bad habits have to go; not
necessarily the military, and certainly not the
virtues. (Peace by Peaceful Means, 5)
Criticism of James’s essay usually centers on
his relegating women to the private sphere and
proposing conscription primarily to affluent
white males (Schott, 253). His solution has been
called ‘incredibly daft’ in respect to the fight
against nature: ‘This proto-Ayn Randian line of
thought means taking the human will and
pouring it into Industry in order to build
monuments such as railroads and skyscrapers
celebrating human achievement to the detriment
of the biosphere’ (Taggart, 15). Of course,
instead of damaging the planet, activists today
follow James’s civic advice and work for the
world’s betterment. His solution for ‘positive
peace’ has also been termed ‘naive’ as ‘a social
program intended for national utilization’
(Myers, 444). Nevertheless, ‘what survives is
the notion that there may be a moral equivalent for the pugnacious impulse’ and that for those
who continue to hope that war can be avoided,
James’ conviction that there are ways of
sublimating aggressive emotions is supportive’
Although set in a particular time frame, ‘The
Moral Equivalent of War’ is unique in that it
strives for compromise and conciliation, uniting
the values of ‘positive war’ along with those of
‘positive peace,’ presented in what is known
today as Rogerian argumentation. James’ work
also looks at the psychological impetus to war.
Generally, thinkers have emphasized the cause
of war as ‘necessity,’ Livy’s ‘iustum enim est
helium quihus necessarium’ (war is just for
those for whom it is necessary). But as Arendt
maintains: ‘Conquest, expansion, defense of
vested interests, conservation of power in view
of the rise of new and threatening powers, or
support of a given power equilibrium—all these
well-known realities of power politics were not
only actually the causes of the outbreak of most
wars in history, they were also recognized as
‘necessities’” (3). Unfortunately, Arendt, unlike
James, fails to add the psychological aspect of
war which may act independently from ‘power
politics.’ Finally, ‘The Moral Equivalent of
War’ considers ‘one of the classic problems of
politics: how to sustain political unity and civic
virtue in the absence of war or a credible threat
(Roland 2015). His work is obsolete only if we
concur with Bernanos, that ‘the modern state no
longer has anything but rights; it does not
recognize duties anymore.’
(Ref : The Japan Mission Journal, Vol.76,
no.2, pp.85 – 92)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *