Ethics Of Victory
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
"STRIFE is the Father of all things, the King of all ; it makes of some Gods, of others men : of some it makes slaves, of others free men." Thus Heraclitus of Ephesus. In periods of great national excitement—in America a Presidential election, in England or France a national vote at the polls—we have what appears almost a confirmation of the old sage's contention. We witness a tremendous conflict ; in our ears rings the shout of the victors, the moan-of the vanquished ; we watch an astonishing displacement of power ; the ascent of unknown men to prominence, the descent of known ones to obscurity. Every citizen feels him-self either conqueror or conquered. His private and individual affairs are swallowed up in the common consciousness. That his side, his party is up or down makes his happiness or his chagrin. In this immense tumult of feeling one feature of the situation, even in the sanest minds, is apt to be obscured. The intoxication of victory may make us forget that there is an ethic of victory, and that this is really in the long run the only thing worth considering. It may be worth while to examine this aspect of the matter.
Man has been diligently fighting his neighbour from the beginning ; but it was comparatively late in history that our question about the business dawned upon him as even a subject for discussion. In the dim unwritten past he fought as those
Dragons of the prime
The morality here, if such we may call it, was worse even than that of the beasts of prey. The brutes conquered to satisfy their hunger, but with man an essential part of the joy of victory was the discomfiture and agony of his vanquished foe. In imperial Rome, at the height of its civilisation, a conqueror's "triumph " offered as its chief and most enjoyed feature the spectacle of distinguished captives dragged, manacled, behind his car. What " ethic of victory " was in the mind of an Attila, of a Genghis Khan ; of the Ottoman Bajazet, who at the battle of Nicopolis, where the flower of the Western chivalry were slain, had the thousands of prisoners beheaded before him, the frightful work going on through all the long hours of a summer day ; or of Timour the Tartar, Bajazet's conqueror, who as he swept through Asia made of city after city a smoking ruin, where neither man nor beast survived, and where all that was left was a pyramid of skulls ?
And that kind of victory is not yet obsolete in the world. There are races, counting millions of men, ready, if the chance offers, to repeat it today. What we call civilised warfare reproduces three-parts of it. And in our own civic and political contests, waged with tongue and pen, on the platform and at the polling booths, have we not all felt the ancient savagery stir in our blood, and leap ever and anon to expression in thought and speech ? The barbaric inheritance in us is so old, so firmly established ; and the new in us, the high and spiritual, is so new and inexperienced, that the battle is continually flinging us back again on that prehistoric instinct which links us with the Druid and the stone age man that went before us. We find in us for the moment his lack of imagination ; his failure to appreciate the stand-point of the other man ; even something of his base delight over the humiliation our opponent is suffering. There is evidently—and we realise it when we have regained our heads—no moral discipline more needed, no moral danger more imminent and formidable than that of the moment of victory.
The first danger here is that of mistaking an outside triumph for an inward and real one. A very considerable proportion of what are hailed as victories are, to the seeing eye, bad defeats. That is true both of persons and causes. In the struggle with our rival he may have gone down. But who has conquered ? If we have been unjust to him, and fought him with unhallowed weapons, we may be called the victors, but our place is lower than his. The best men found that out long ago. Plato never ceases to reiterate how infinitely better it is to suffer injustice than to do it. " The unjust doer of unjust actions," says he in the Gorgias," is miserable in any case—more miserable, however, if he be not punished." If through and after our battle, pride, vainglory and the instinct of revenge have swept over us and had their way in us, what-ever shouts and jubilations are rising outside, we are the defeated party.
A similar thing has to be said of causes. The worst day for a spiritual movement often enough has been that of its outward success. Constantine's imperialising of Christianity was the defeat of its inner idea. The elevation of its teachers to temporal power was their degradation as prophets of the Unseen. When the Church had won to the top, and was lording it over princes and emperors, it forgot the thing it had come for. And do not let us imagine that the dangers of victory are con-fined to any one department of the spiritual movement. They show everywhere. The German Ana-baptists of the Reformation time were many of them excellent men, examples of learning, piety and blameless life. But when, as at Minster and else-where, in the troubles of the time, the party gained a momentary political mastery, we have the story of monstrous excesses, of ruthless slaughterings of unoffending people, of wildest debauchery. It is the saddest of histories, indeed, this of a temporal victory acting on undisciplined natures to blight their early promise, and wreck the moral beginnings within them. We remember Plato's description of the tyrant. He begins always, says he, as a protector.
It is significant also to note how different are the results of the most resounding victories from the expectations of the combatants. A public triumph sets forces in motion—new, incalculable—whioh neither side had wotted of. Most victors in these scenes suffer soon after from cruel disillusionments. Human nature, one may think, has to pay a price to the infernal powers for all its achievements. The European Reformation was a great deliverance, but over its whole area, over England, Scotland, Germany, Switzerland, the after conduct of princes and nobles on the one side, and of the peasantry on the other, filled its leaders, filled Knox and Luther, Calvin and Melancthon, with despair. The French Revolution at its beginning excited the noblest spirits to rapture. The planting of the tree of liberty on the Champ de Mars seemed the dawn of a millennium. Wordsworth sang of it:
Bliss were it in that dawn to be alive,
What followed drove the poets into pessimism, and the world-rulers to the extremities of reaction. The English democracy went mad with delight over the Reform Bill of 1832. Two years after—only two short years—Earl Grey had resigned, beaten over Irish coercion ! In all these instances, and many more could be cited, a great and lasting thing had been done, a long stride forward had been taken. But all the problems had not been solved, nor had Paradise been regained. Men found themselves instead in the region of new disciplines and new fatigues.
From this long experience of the past it is time we had all of us reached a juster estimate of what victory means and entails. It is time, especially, that we realised the stern ethic it imposes on us.
That ethic leaves amplest room for joy. It is, after all, a great thing to win, and Nature meant us to believe it is great. Else why our apparatus of enthusiasm ? But we need to be sure of what we are winning. There is to be no mean Schadenfrende, no ignoble delight that our opponent is humiliated. Our victory is unworthy unless we believe it to be as good for him as for ourselves. If it be not a gain to humanity at large, in which he is included, it is no end that we should fight for. If the triumph be over a gross injustice, from which we have suffered, and in the perpetration of which our opponent has taken part, the victory for him and us will be simply in the reinstatement of justice. Here " not to do likewise is the best re-venge." Our quarrel is with narrowing ideas, with hateful survivals, with worn-out institutions ; never with the persons who represent them. We fight that they, with us, may come into a larger inheritance.
It is as we become possessed with this higher ethic that our fighting enthusiasms are more and more turned from the old arena to a new one. Today man's greatest fight is with one whom he loves while he wrestles with her : his conquests are not over his fellow, but over Nature. Here the joy of victory is without alloy ; its rapture means no opponent's humiliation ; the enemy is a friend, a mother who laughs as her child wrests from her the latest secret. In view of all this one may say the true human advance lies aside from politics. The kings of music, of art, of science of literature ; the great souls that give us a Hamlet, a Moonlight Sonata, a Madonna Ansidei ; that discover the secret of steam, of electricity that track the germ of a disease and find its remedy ; that open new spiritual horizons—to these it is given to win victories which help all and hurt none. More and more the fighting element in man will find in this noblest arena the scene of its energies and, rewards.
Nevertheless, there is a victory over persons, a worthy and a notable one, the joy of which we may all legitimately seek. It is not one of coercion, of subjugation in any form. The world has tried that long enough, with an invariable result of disaster. Far back in history Asoka, the Buddhist king, one of earth's wisest, struck the true note in that wonderful saying, " They must not think that conquests by means of arrows deserve the name of conquest ; they are but disturbances and violence. The conquests of religion alone are real conquests. They hold good for this world and the next." And even here we have to discriminate. There are moral conquests that are conquests by violence. They represent the breaking down of a man's own individuality by an unlawful pressure. We are only on the right track when we have recognised that the fight here is not to subdue a man's will, but to help him to assert it. The battle for us all finally is in that viewless realm the republic of the soul. And here we can fight for others as well as for ourselves. We may well bear a hand for our neighbour in the mortal struggle of his nobler part, his spiritual faculty, to assert itself over the lower powers that war against it. The battle for you and me is not that we may master our fellow, and so rule over him, but to help him to that self mastery which, when everywhere achieved, will give us a community of nobly independent personalities, each giving of his best to his brethren, and all guided by the same Divine, universal law.
To sum up. The experience yielded by our long world-history should enable us to discern the true and false, the noble and the base, in victory. No instructed spirit will find its joy in the humiliation of others. Its triumphs will be in results, whose benefits are for all, opponents included. Such a soul works for causes, and not for aims that end in self. In the personal sphere there will be no moral coercion, but only a help to self-mastery. Finally, external victories will be judged by their spiritual contents. A resounding outside triumph may in this view be the most serious of defeats, and the outside disaster the noblest victory. The greatest of all human achievements was the ascent to a Cross.