Monday, January 14, 2008

On False Pacifism

by Fr. Vincent McNabb, O.P.


Two errors, garbed as virtues, are at present threatening the course of European justice. One of these is false pity ; the other, false pacifism. Now whereas we wish to speak at length of the latter, a word may dismiss the former.

False pity makes an appeal after this manner: "Be merciful even to your enemy. Overcome him if you will ; but be not overcome by what is worst in him. Conquer, but do not copy him. In the hour of victory forget your enemy's frightfulness. Forget even that he is your enemy, and remember only that he is your brother."

The errors latent in this appeal to the quality of mercy need hardly be dwelt upon, whilst one fatal quality swallows up the rest.

The truth is that this gentle-toned pity is almost a superlative pride. It is so supremely self-conscious that in spite of the soil of Germany being still practically inviolate, it calmly foretells victory.

The false pacifism, which we other pacifists nowise confound with true pacifism, makes a brave show on platforms and on paper. It lends itself readily to the more moving kinds of address. It appeals to the noble-hearted. It unnerves heroes. It deceives even the elect.

Seldom does it preach its evangel of peace without direct mention of Him around whose cradle angels sang of "Peace on earth to men." It almost disarms criticism by beseeching Christian men to remember the Rock whence they were hewn and the Captain whose victory on the mount was won: Non occidendo sed moriendo, by dying, not by putting to death.

But the noble blunder into which these pacifists have fallen can be seen only by those who have the power of grasping, as the Scholastics would say, certain simple distinctions.

Their first duty is to see the distinction between common virtue and heroic virtue. It was the Greek thinkers and heroes who first detected and proclaimed this simple distinction. Plato and Aristotle, who knew Greeks, divided them into normal Greeks and hero Greeks. The average man, whether Greek or barbarian, can risk his life in order to save his life ; in other words, he can be brave in self-defence. Only a hero will risk his own life to save another's ; that is, only a hero can meet death bravely that others may live.

This distinction between common virtue and heroic virtue passes into the classical Christian distinction between the commandments and the counsels. Until a man understands these two, and the difference between them, he has not understood Christianity; and until a man understands Christianity, how can he judge of Europe in this year of our Lord nineteen hundred and fifteen?

This, then, is the distinction between commandments and counsels. A command is something that all must do. A counsel is something that none need do, but some will do. Thus unto everyone it is commanded: "Thou shalt not steal." All are forbidden to take what is not their own ; and are commanded to give back what is not their own if they have taken it. But the Master has given a counsel : " Sell all thou hast." This is more than a command ; not, indeed, more in obligation, but more in hardship and nobility. It suggests that the higher way, the way, not over the earth, but through the air, is to those rare souls who have grasped the principle that "a man's riches consists less in the multitude of his possessions than in the fewness of his wants."

Thus everyone is under the command : "Thou shalt not kill." By virtue of this a man may not take human life. Yet if another attempts his life he may defend himself by slaying the other. The average man, if attacked by another, could not be bound to forgo all self-defence by force. Yet if a man for some noble motive did allow himself to be slain instead of slaying his foe, he would be giving an example of heroic virtue.

But too much stress cannot be laid upon the sound ethical principle that " No one is bound to heroic virtue." The attitude of the Society of Friends towards war is undeniably a noble one ; or it would be noble were it wise. But since it insists that everyone shall exercise the heroic virtue of non-resistance by force it lacks that touch of mercy which would make it kindred to mankind.

A last and most necessary distinction is between "meum" and "tuum" that is, between our power over our own rights and our power over the rights of others. A man may quite lawfully give his purse up to the first stranger who asks it of him. But a postman who would give up a purse he was bound to deliver would be condemned for neglect of duty.

In the same way an individual on the banks of the Meuse might resign his rights against trespass by allowing German troops to pass through his garden. But if that individual is a Belgian soldier, whose duty it is to defend the rights of his fellow-countrymen, then to allow German soldiers to pass through the garden would be a traitorous neglect of duty. Far from being heroic virtue, it would be the cowardice of treachery.

It is not a little strange that the men who so persistently preach heroic virtue in the matter of the commandment : "Thou shalt not kill" do not preach it in the far easier commandment : "Thou shalt not steal."

As we know, the commandment : "Thou shalt not kill" is the chief safeguard in a civilization that is dominantly military, whereas the commandment : "Thou shalt not steal" is the chief safeguard in a civiliza-tion that is dominantly commercial.

Now, the counsel to defend no rights even the rights of others, or our own trans- cendent right to live by an appeal to physical force is the absolute or heroic in the commandment against killing. But the absolute or heroic in the commandment against stealing is : "Sell all thou hast and give to the poor."

How few there are to urge this absolute amongst the men who look on war as a crime ! Peace has its frightfulness no less than war. Mammon is a more sanguinary god than Mars. When men plead that Mars is red-handed and should not be adored, it may be well to remind them, amidst their financial operations, that their counsels of perfection would be more effective if they themselves followed them in the lesser sphere of self-emptied riches.

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