This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Wrestling with Arthur Schlesinger’s logjam
Monday, May 19, 2003 Honolulu, Hawaii By David Arthur Walters An authoritative example favoring the popular evolutionist argument in favor of the necessity of pain for the moral gain of mankind was provided by the eminent American historian, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in his essay ''The Causes of the Civil War, a Note on Historical Sentimentalism (Partisan Review, October 1949). ''Sentimental'' historians had revised the received interpretations of the facts leading up to the Civil War, and concluded that the pain could have been avoided. Their revisions of the Civil War justifications were especially painful to those who had recently suffered the horrors of the subsequent world wars. They did not appreciate the implication drawn from the Civil War revisionist argument that their own suffering was unnecessary; that millions had died in wars for nothing; wherefore war has no end but destruction, hence war is for naught. However, Christian authorities had insisted for many centuries that war, even in the name of the same god of love, was preordained and was necessary to discover who is right and wrong; war was needed to sort out which persons are entitled to eternal life in Heaven or eternal damnation in Hell. God was then a sort of Divine Piñata to be filled with goods to
be beaten out of Him by blind men wielding clubs - if He was nowhere to be found on Earth, men would just have to beat the goods out of each other for their own good. Organized or mass-murder is hate-based group-love. After all, love cannot stand alone, not without its contrary, hate. The religionists were ironically joined at the hip by certain evolutionists who impartially worshipped an impersonal power effecting a similar but much more gradually realized aim on Earth, at the cost of many generations of mortal individuals, individuals who were not saved for the selfishly desired personal hereafter, but were unselfishly sacrificed for their progeny; thus the survival of a species by virtue of species-love operating through the struggle of its fittest warriors. There really was no question of rational progress: a few are chosen by god or were randomly selected by evolution - god's decision was a matter of chance in ancient times, revealed by rolling dice, cracking turtle shells, throwing bones, drawing lots, and so on. Nonetheless, sentimental and weak people were insisting that war in itself is unnecessary and immoral, and their opinion was being affirmed by revisionists, particularly by the socialist historians who believed wars were economically determined and could be prevented by a better distribution of goods. They were suspected of being or known to be pink if not red, and therefore of harboring a secret wish to see all capitalists draped in their false flags and hung by their necks from their respective flagpoles until dead. However that may be, certain heretical historians repudiated the holy writ laid down in rivers of blood, that war is necessary to resolve moral conflicts and is needed to dislodge the log-jammed mores of an inherently disagreeable and originally evil people - so they may realize downstream, if not Progress, then X. But belay the rhetoric and ask, How can that be? As every laboring woman and every fighting man who survives knows very well, without excruciating pain there can be no worthwhile gain. Schlesinger had this to say about the pain without which there is no moral gain: "Man generally is entangled in insoluble problems; history is consequently a tragedy in which we are all involved, whose keynote is anxiety and frustration, not progress and fulfillment. Nothing exists in history to assure us that the great moral dilemmas can be resolved without pain...." On the one hand, history is a painful experience which does not lead to progress. On the other hand, history teaches us that even more pain is necessary to relieve that pain. Now it stands to reason that the relief of pain is in fact progress albeit the peace may be temporary. We should draw a distinction between moral or mental anxiety and physical pain in respect to Schlesinger’s statement, and say that history teaches us that our moral or mental anxieties cannot be resolved except by physical pain. Schlesinger offers the question of slavery as the great moral dilemma leading to the Civil War. Pain is necessary to resolve it, therefore he goes on to say: "We cannot therefore be relieved from the duty of moral judgment on issues so appalling and inescapable as those involved in human slavery; nor can we be consoled by sentimental theories about the needlessness of the Civil War into regarding our own struggles against evil as equally needless."
Although Schlesinger would have people progress against evil by doing their duty, progress for him is not the "keynote" of human history, but is rather "anxiety and frustration", hence he did not believe such progress would ever eliminate the necessity of doing that duty via social paroxysms of mass murder and mayhem. His progress seems rather like a tragic, vicious cycle of a revolving-door justice system, instead of rehabilitation and the end of the criminal record. From Schlesinger’s perspective, the inevitability of war is no problem: the problem is the sentiment of those who think it is not inevitable: "The problem of the inevitability of the Civil War, of course, is in its essence a problem devoid of meaning. The revisionist attempt to argue that war could have been avoided by ''any kind of sane policy'' is of interest less in its own right than as an expression of man and of history. And the great vogue of revisionism in the historical profession suggests, in my judgment, ominous weakness in the contemporary attitude about history. We delude ourselves when we think that history teaches us that evil will be ''outmoded'' by progress and that politics consequently does not impose on us the necessity for decision and for struggle.... Sometimes there is no escape from the implacability of moral decision. When social conflicts embody great moral issues, these conflicts cannot be assigned for solution to the invincible march of moral progress...." But moral progress proceeds historically, and we might hope to render war obsolete. If there is no such historical ''progress'', if moral progress is to be divorced from history, why, there is no human history at all: without the application of human intention, history is a chronology of meaningless events. If there be no progress either real or imagined, why bother to fight? Simply to do one's duty as a soldier, a soldier who has the morality of a loaded gun, the trigger of which may or may not be pulled by politicians who must do their duty according to the theory that war is inevitable, so that what has been useful to solve moral dilemmas in the past, namely war, can forever be the solution? Schlesinger’s choice of words such as "weakness" and "struggle" in the context of his argument leads us to believe he may be an admirer of the latest popular justification for mutual homicide, the "Darwinian'' argument for the necessity of war. That is, perpetual violent struggle is necessary for the continuous evolution of the fittest who are randomly selected by chance environmental factors or accidental mutations to survive. Of course the confounded struggle must go on forever in order for the theory to be maintained; otherwise, we would evolve beyond evolution, just as the Marx's noble laborer would eventually be freed of labor by his theory and society would be deprived of Marxist theory. Following that perverse, hopeless line of thinking, we might say that, whatever progress might be, it must not obviate the need for progress; if there is too much of it, we must declaim, "To hell with ''progress'', let us return to jungle warfare and fight like real men rather than be weak sissies!" Indeed, prominent men occasionally propose that the liberal measure of the degree of civilization, the extent of female liberation, is not progress at all, but is rather an feminization of men which is indicative of civilization’s degeneration and decline. But society may solve that by putting its women into business and combat; that is
the democratic thing to do; at least guns make us equal and war leads us to the ultimate equality of death. Schlesinger believes that the Civil War revisionist historians, by denying the necessity of pain, deprive themselves of painful insight into the moral dimension of the slavery crisis. They did not feel the anxiety themselves: "Because the revisionists felt no moral urgency themselves, they deplored as fanatics those who did feel it, or brush aside their feelings as the artificial product of emotion and propaganda." He cites a statement made by the revisionist Professor James G. Randall as indicative of the uncritical sentimental attitude; Randall said, "To suppose that the Union could not have been continued or slavery outmoded without the war and without the corrupt concomitants of war is hardly an enlightened assumption." To this Schlesinger responds against the Enlightenment: "We have here a touching afterglow of the admirable nineteenth-century faith in the full rationality and perfectibility of man; the faith that the errors of the world would all in time by ''outmoded'' by progress. Yet the experience of the twentieth century has made it clear that we gravely overrated man’s capacity to solve the problems of existence within the terms of history." Here we might expect Schlesinger to do as many others do who follow the traditional view that war is inevitable: pull out a crucifix, upon which we are all to suffer the commands of the warlords until only god knows when, never to unsheathe our swords against them that Caesar may get what he deserves. But Schlesinger spares us from that controversy, perhaps because of the symbolic ambiguity we might be confronted with, if some sheepish preacher avers, against the testimony of wolves and with the sage advice of Socrates and the great Christian who impugned Greeks, that, for justification and reconciliation, it is better to suffer a harm than to do one, that it is better to be killed than to kill. But to continue with Schlesinger’s line of thinking, the moral crisis that could only be resolved by civil war was slavery; therefore war was inevitable; all the revisions made by armchair philosophers after the fact can be summarily dismissed. We might as well erase the following excuses from our history books, that the Civil War was caused by fanatics on both sides; by political misrepresentations and misunderstandings; by failure of political leadership; power-seeking; by a blundering generation; by democratic emotionalism and by related low average of intelligence; by economic exhaustion of the South. The conflict was ''irrepressible'' for a moral reason - which Schlesinger would detach from intellectual progress even though morality originally implies reasonable choice however feeble the reasoning might be at the time. Slavery was not about to be tolerated or eliminated by peaceful means, therefore a just war was once again waged against an immoral practice that constituted yet another "betrayal of the basic values of our Christian and democratic tradition." Christian scripture in support of obedient slaves and slavish women obeying their husbands was not cited, nor did our eminent historian address the historical fact that the freest, most democratic groups have been small groups supported by slaves or wage-slavery.
In fine, the necessity of making war is justified by reference to the traditional practice of war. We hate to directly say that the human race has a sado-masochistic streak or a death instinct; that the individual who wants absolute freedom can brook no resistance and is therefore a frustrated terrorist; that people love to hate, to cause each other and themselves pain, and to murder one another; that all the above is somehow good for everybody. Nor can we accept Jacques Ellul's conclusion that there is no such thing as a "just war" - there is war, period, and nobody can say why for sure; even some animals besides humans engage in war for no apparent reason. We would rather not think of ourselves as unwitting dupes of natural historical processes, so we find a ''just'' or ''moral'' cause to sharpen tooth and claw, and to have at each other’s throats. And if progressives object to the physically violent mode of conflict-resolution, they are too sentimental, their so-called ''progress'' is the idle fantasy of ivory tower intellectualism, hence we must arm ourselves for moral progress from evil to good; but we had better not call it ''progress'' for progress perfected is the death of progress. If we follow this absurd theme - and I do not deny the reality of the Absurd - our new century is doomed to war after war like all the other centuries, for, as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. said: "The unhappy fact is that man occasionally works himself into a log-jam; and that the log-jam must be burst by violence."
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue listening from where you left off, or restart the preview.