The Suicide of European Civilization

By David Jayne Hill
Formerly United States Ambassador to Germany

[The Century Magazine, June 1917]

Despite the heritage of evil in the absolute conception of the state and the relations between states; and, in truth, on account of it, men of reflective habits of mind have devoted much attention to the ideas that ought to prevail when, either in the course of progressive evolution or at some critical period of readjustment, the opportunity for amelioration may exist.

At the very outset, however, we are confronted with the question how far the thought and purpose of man can affect such vast issues as social, political, and international organization. Judging by the past, we should, perhaps, be led to conclude that mere theories have, on the whole, very little to do with the mass action of mankind, and that such action is almost universally determined by the blind instincts and irresistible appetites of men rather than by reason; with the result that it is useless to expect that anything of national magnitude will happen simply because it is reasonable or that international affairs will ever cease to be more unreasonable than they have been in the past.

If there were no important change in the human units that make up the populations of what we call the civilized nations of the world, this hopeless prospect might be justified; but, in fact, a very radical change has occurred in these later decades. It consists in an ever-widening common consciousness regarding national and international affairs. Great world events, portrayed in terms generally intelligible and brought home to the masses of mankind everywhere, have awakened the intelligence of the common man as it has never been aroused before. In the humblest walks of life men are now discussing difficult questions of jurisprudence and diplomacy in the light of stirring events of world-wide significance, and they are asking one another, What is to become of civilization? Will it perish in the conflict of national interests or will it enter upon a new era of development?

Justice, peace, cooperation, culture—all these appear to be imperiled by national antagonisms; and yet they are aspirations that all nations profess to entertain. How may they be realized? By intelligent organization, no doubt; but it must be of a more thorough kind and on a larger scale than has ever before been attempted. It cannot stop at the national boundaries; it must include the whole family of man.

Before great progress can be made in harmonizing national interests it will be necessary to reconsider, in the light of modern knowledge and experience, the true nature of the state, and by a readjustment of opinions upon that subject prepare the way for a change in the attitude of nations toward one another.

The present is an unusually auspicious moment for reflection upon the true nature of the state, for the battle between the opposing theories has not yet been fought out. What is the purpose of the state? Does it exist for the individual man, as democracy contends, or does the individual man exist for the state, as absolutism claims?

As a question of philosophy the opposing types of conception regarding the nature of the state may perhaps be best illustrated by comparing the theories of Kant and Hegel, the one emphasizing the freedom, development, and responsibility of the man, the other the power, the glory, and the divinity of the state.

It is Kant who best marks the transition to distinctively modern thought not only on account of his having lived in a period of revolt against absolutism, but on account of the place he assigns to man as a factor in history. To his mind the great necessity for man is freedom. All the forces of humanity are locked up in the possibilities of the individual being. The great problem of society is to release the free activity of human faculties. Personality is not a means to an end; it is an end in itself, and therefore should not be treated as a mere thing, or made the creature, the instrument, or the victim of arbitrary force.

The business of government, therefore, is to remove the hindrances to freedom, which are found in the love of power, of glory, and of gain, motives engendered by the natural instincts which man shares with the lower animals.

Such a conception appears at first sight to be not only cosmopolitan, but antinational; but it is not anti-national in the sense of denying the value and necessity of the nation. What it aims at is the extension of local order until it becomes general order, by so conceiving the state as to allow of its cooperation with other states, with the purpose of insuring general harmony and, therefore, permanent peace.

Here is presented, no doubt, a conception of the state which renders internationalism possible without the destruction of nationalism. But we find in Kant only the beginning of a complete political philosophy, for the reason that he had not seen the idea of personality as the basis of political organization anywhere effectively worked out. He had not witnessed the development of constitutionalism, which was only just asserting itself, and his conservative spirit in matters practical was rudely shocked by the enormities of the French Revolution. Yet he perceived that it was upon the inherent rights of the individual man that the state must be founded if despotism is to be abolished. But he also apprehended the deeper truth that rights without duties cannot be sustained, and he therefore laid the principal stress upon duty—duty to the state and duty to all mankind.

While Kant's conception of the state was making practical progress in other parts of the world, his fatherland was harried by invasion, subjugated by conquest, and in the Napoleonic domination a new imperialism was holding all continental Europe in its grasp. Fichte applied the Kantian conception of duty to the fallen fortunes of the Prussian state, for a strong doctrine of nationalism became the necessity of the hour. But it was Hegel, after liberation had been achieved, who made the state the shrine of the indwelling absolute, and for the cosmopolitanism of Kant was substituted a theory of the state which proclaimed it an organ of divine action, identified patriotism with religion, and rendered the separate nationalities as unapproachable for purposes of rational understanding as the planets in the solar system.

For Hegel the individual man is nothing in himself. Whatever he has of moral personality is the creation of the state. In his earlier writings Hegel, like Kant, laid stress upon personality; but in his later philosophy, when he had assumed the task of glorifying the state, he made of it the only vehicle through which the absolute reaches humanity, and he always means by it the Prussian state-—the Prussian state, as Haym has said, as it existed in 1821, when Hegel wrote.

But this was a necessary corollary of Hegel's conception of history as immanent reason. It was idle, he thought, to speak of what a state "ought to be." Being an incarnation of the absolute, it is what it is, and cannot be other than it is. It is right in all it does. All changes are divine acts. The individual man must take his orders from the state, because it alone has the right to command. The state being an embodiment of the absolute, it is foolish to try to make constitutions, as if we had any right of choice. Parliaments are only mediating bodies, which should take their directions from the permanent ruler in order to enlighten the masses as to how they are to execute these orders. The state is an organism in which every constituent part is subject to the will of the whole. But as this unity is not found in society, it must be sought in the will of a dominant person, the monarch through whom the absolute speaks. And thus the philosopher sinks at last into the sycophant, crowning his system with the dogma of divine right, and ending with the adulation of a notoriously weak and reactionary king!

Evidently, if all states are like this—and this is intended as a theory of the state in the abstract,—there can nowhere be a restraint upon the purpose of the monarch. He is absolute, and all states are absolute. There being no law but the sovereign's own will, there can be no such thing as international law; and, as the state's omnipotence includes the unlimited right of making war at the will of the sovereign, there cannot be a permanent peace. Such a condition is an "empty dream." It is through war that the absolute carries forward the work of history.

Almost with unanimity, after being for a time under the spell of Hegel's speculations, some decades ago philosophers abandoned absolutism as a system of thought, and raised the cry, "Back to Kant!" In the theory of the state, however, Hegel still exerts an influence. The picture of it as a self-subsisting and dominant power serves well; the designs of imperial ambition. Religion, war, and further domination seem to be reconciled by the assertion that the individual man exists for the state, and that the state is not founded on the rights of the individual man.

Hence there is to-day a contest between these opposing conceptions—a contest upon the decision of which the future of international relations throughout the world will depend. If, as Kant's theory assumes, law is the formulation of justice and equity, resulting from a consensus of social needs interpreted in the light of reason, of which the state is an expression, then there is law for states as well as for individual men. If, on the contrary, law is a sovereign decree emanating from a dominant will regardless of limitations, there can be no law for states until such a superior will is established over them.

Both ideas have been worked out in the development of modern states. Some have followed the absolutist theory even in their internal organization; and in these, authority without restriction emanates from a superior, an individual ruler or a governing class. In others authority proceeds from the constituents of the state under definite forms of limitation, in which checks upon the pretensions of absolute sovereignty are embodied in the very structure of the state. Only states of the latter kind are truly constitutional. They are by their very nature creations of law. They recognize the fact that whatever rightful authority there is in the world is derived from claims to justice antecedent to all legislation and inherent in personality. When all the resources of sophistry have been exhausted in trying to derive rights from power—that is, to prove that might is right—we shall be obliged to go back to Kant and admit that human personality as such is a source of claims to justice and equity, or we must confess that right and wrong are merely imaginary distinctions, and jurisprudence a system of purely mechanical ideas.

It has been said that all men may have "interests," but nobody has any "rights" until government has accorded them by an act of legislation. In some technical sense this may be true, but in a broad human sense it is not true. If it were true, it would be absurd to fight for another man's rights. But all the progress the world has ever made, all that distinguishes civilization from barbarism, springs from some one's sense of duty, which means simply the recognition of another man's right, which is as real when it is denied as when it is conceded.

Certainly these inherent rights do not belong to human beings in an isolated and non-social state, for men never existed in a non-social state. All men are members of a series and members of a group, and it is in these relations that they recognize their claims to justice and to equity whether they are granted or not.

Thus the idea of law is a part of the mental furniture of every being capable of an act of reflection. To say with Hegel—or with Austin or with any legal positivist—that there is and can be no international law, because there is no international sovereign to decree it, is to define law by a mere accident and not by its essential nature.

It is singular how this notion lingers. A modern disciple of Hegel, for example, argues thus:

The whole of international law rests on the principle that treaties are to be observed. But behind all this there is the sheer fact of the separate individual Powers, each absolute in its limited area; so that, at bottom, the whole fabric of international rules and customs is just an agreement of separate wills, and not an expression of a single general will.

And he sees in this a reason why international agreements cannot have the quality of law, forgetful of the fact that in all modern constitutional states every law of every legislative body is an agreement of separate wills expressed in the votes of the legislators. But if the separate wills of a congress or a parliament may pass a law, why may not separate and independent states pass a law for the government of their own conduct? And having pledged themselves to it, being law in the most perfect sense, are they not bound by it?

There is, no doubt, an ineffaceable distinction between the nature of a state, even a constitutional state, and a human being. The state is the guardian of private rights and interests. It acts for its constituents in a fiduciary capacity. It is, indeed, an "ark of safety" to which communities of men have committed the keeping of their lives and treasures on the troubled waters of an uncharted world. It is the vehicle which carries the whole value of life. Furthermore, it exists in a world of hostile forces. "In the world, right can only prevail through might." Therefore the state must be strong, and to be strong it must be armed, as the individual man under the protection of the state need not be. How otherwise can it fulfill its sacred trusts?

All this is true and of the first importance; but while it justifies the possession of force by the state, it makes it very plain that the strength of the state is not an end in itself, but merely a means—an instrument for the protection of rights and interests intrusted to its care. The end of the state is, therefore, not aggression or profit or power, but justice. The primary reason for the existence of a government is that every citizen shall be protected, in his rights.

It is this that distinguishes the state from other forms of human association. Its function is primarily protective. Upon this foundation rest all its special and peculiar prerogatives. Here is the reason for its authority, and this is limited by the reason for its existence. Society has manifold functions, but they may be normally left to individual and corporate enterprise within the state, which may be a complete and perfect "body politic" without them. On the other hand, these functions may be in part, and even to a great extent, taken over and performed by the state, but they are not necessary to its existence. They do, however, modify its character. When the state, in addition to its protective function, assumes those of industry, transportation, and commerce, as the modern state sometimes does, it undergoes a radical transformation. It itself then becomes a business corporation, a rival and a competitor in the world of trade.

Now, what is most important to consider is that, while this expansion of its functions profoundly changes the character of the state, it does not confer upon it any new authority. It, does multiply and extend its interests, but it does not in any respect render the state absolute or endow it with unlimited right of command. Mere business cannot be regarded as a source of absolute sovereignty.

For constitutional states, therefore—that is, for governments based upon the protection of human rights, and not upon some superhuman claim to authority, like that of the divine right of the monarch—there is no logical ground for claiming sovereign rights in the absolutist sense. Such states are free and independent, but they do not represent the will to power. They represent and embody, the will to justice, and the principles of justice are, ipso facto, their law of action. Everything violative of justice is for them usurpation. They may commit acts of injustice, they may explain them, they may excuse them; but they cannot logically justify them. As an organ of justice the state exceeds its prerogatives when it is unjust.

Undoubtedly this implies that international law is self-subsistent. For constitutional states it exists regardless of customs and conventions, and would be their law if no customs or conventions had ever existed, for its principles enter into their very purpose and structure. For them to deny these principles in their conduct would be to denature themselves.

Written or unwritten, international law is accepted by all constitutional states as binding upon them. By some, as in the United States, it is expressly declared to be a part of the law of the land. Acceptance of it should be the condition of recognition of a government; for in so far as a community of men does not admit its existence, it is not a state in any defensible sense. An aggregation of cle facto forces it may be, but in so far as it is merely an embodiment of the will to power and not the will to justice, it falls below statehood and is merely a predatory band, an outlaw that deserves to be proscribed and refused a place in the society of states.

In practice the specific rules of international law are established by a general consensus. They are sometimes inferred from custom and sometimes defined in conventions; but these rules are admitted to be merely partial and tentative efforts to express in definite formulae what justice and equity demand. In this respect international law is comparable with science. As the man of science is engaged in a continuous effort to discover and state truth, so the jurist and the statesman, in so far as he is really such, persistently seeks to formulate the requirements of justice. In both cases the formulae arrived at may be plainly incomplete; but justice, like truth, is not a mere creation of the mind. It is, an object of research and discovery; and as far as it is discovered and agreed upon it is obligatory, although our knowledge of it may still be incomplete.

It is, therefore, a solecism to speak of international law as "destroyed" or "nonexistent" because it is sometimes violated. It can never be destroyed. It will continue to reassert itself; and, as public order and state authority appear more necessary after a period of domestic anarchy than they ever did before, international law, after an orgy of violence and atrocity, appeals with pew strength to the reason of mankind as something that possesses an inherent claim upon our respect and obedience.

Although criminally violated, it is an error to suppose that international law has been wholly disregarded in the great European conflict. On the contrary, it has been recognized and appealed to as never before in human history. Never in any previous war have such efforts been put forth by belligerents to justify their own conduct and to prove that their enemies have openly disregarded the principles of justice as well as the merely technical rules of warfare. The voluminous white, red, yellow, and other books published by the governments are all eloquent tributes to the authority of international law, which they constantly accuse their enemies of violating, and appeal to as a body of rules that ought to be obeyed. In truth, the approval and disapproval of their acts by the neutral nations are based almost entirely upon the evidence that these, accusations are true, and the weight of condemnation corresponds with the preponderance of guilt resulting from intentional disregard of the principles of justice.

How trivial it is, then, to speak of international law as being of slight importance, and especially to treat it as if it had no claims to the title of binding law because it does not have an immediate external sanction! An ultimate sanction it unquestionably has. If it were generally disregarded, it would involve the complete ruin of civilization. If, on the other hand, it were generally obeyed, if all the great powers, not to speak of the smaller ones, earnestly sought to carry out in all of their relations with one another the principles for which they profess to stand, and which they endeavor to enforce within their own jurisdictions and demand that other governments should observe in respect to themselves, it would seem like a different world. Is it, then, not idle to pretend that international law has no sanction when obedience or disobedience of its precepts carries such far-reaching consequences to mankind? In the present condition of the world, as the rain falls alike on the just and on the unjust, even under municipal law the victims of unprovoked aggression often suffer while the guilty escape the penalty the state would impose upon them; but we do not on this account deny the existence of the law. Nor can it be said that no penalty is attached to the violation of the law of nations. In general, besides its direct consequence of resentment and hostility on the part of the nation wronged, it should involve the general reprobation of mankind. And, in fact, the penalties for violations of international law are far more specifically apportioned and executed than we sometimes imagine. The perpetration of injustice by one state upon another invariably deteriorates its own citizenship, and destroys within the body politic itself values far more precious than those obtained by an unjust war. "A state," it has been well said, "can do no wrong to another which is not equally, and even more, a wrong to itself." Regarded from a historical point of view, there are few projects of international depredation that have not brought terrific retributions; and, although law-abiding states have sometimes been subjected to infamous encroachments, it is a fact supported by statistics that the citizens of small and inoffensive states, like Switzerland and Holland, pay lower taxes and borrow money at lower rates of interest than the imperial powers that have from time to time attempted to subjugate their neighbors, thereby sowing dragons' teeth of reprisal and revenge that exhaust populations and burden them with public debt. The cost of overgrown armies and navies and the far heavier cost of young life offered as a sacrifice to national pride and national greed—are not these a penalty for disregarding a law of life written in the reason and the conscience of man?

What, then, is law, if it is not that principle of self-regulation by which a being realizes the true end of its existence? Our statements of it may vary from time to time, for the perception of it depends upon the development of our intelligence. But it does not depend upon our will. It is inherent in our being. It is manifested through our reason. It is confirmed through our experience. There is a law of nations as well as a law of individual life, which we have only partly discovered, because we have not sought the highest good of all, but only the highest good of a limited number. But nature deals in universals. So long, therefore, as all nations, or even some nations, insist upon a right of territorial expansion at the expense of others; so long as they fail to recognize that, irrespective of size and strength, they are members of a community of jural equals; so long as they claim that their will is law, so long war will be the ratio ultima and preparation for it the highest wisdom of statesmanship. If it is impossible to place confidence in leagues of peace, it is still less possible to confide our destinies to a league to enforce peace, if it is to be composed of powers that need themselves to be placed under guardians. The only league that could be trusted effectually to enforce peace would be one composed exclusively, of states that are disposed to recognize the obligations of international law, and voluntarily to pledge themselves to protect and obey it.

But, to speak plainly, peace is not in itself a human ideal. As long as it leaves unsolved the problems of justice, it is not even a desirable aspiration. It may even be repugnant to the moral sentiments of an enlightened conscience. It is to be desired only when it is the concomitant of realized social good, for it is in no sense an end in itself. But the word is not to be set aside as representing a mere negation, as if it were simply the absence of strife. Peace on earth would mean the liberation of human faculties for the highest and noblest achievements of which human nature is capable. It would mean a splendid efflorescence of art, literature, science, philosophy, and religion, in short, culture in its best sense, as the spontaneous unfolding of the powers of personality. And when we consider what an absolutist state might do to repress human spontaneity, destroy the sense of personality, and render its own dogmas definitive, we see what an incubus upon civilization it is capable of becoming. If the tendency to monopolize and direct for its own purposes all human energies in channels of its own devising were unrestrained, we should eventually have an official art, an official science, and an official literature that would be like iron shackles to the human mind.

These things, being human, are essentially cosmopolitan, and thrive best where international intercourse is least restrained. If, as the absolutist theory of the state assumes, a particular government did in reality embody the indwelling absolute, the source and shaper of all intelligent existence, as Hegel would have it, would it even then have the right to dictate what language should be employed, what arts should be encouraged, what forms they should take, and what purposes they should serve? What a narrow view it is to assume that any national culture is a world culture, or that it has a right to impose itself upon recalcitrant peoples who have a culture of their own! Such an assumption is not only unphilosophical; it is unhistorical. "Culture is not, and never can be, an inherent quality peculiar to a particular nation or language. It is the heritage of the whole human race, cherished, enriched, and transmitted by one generation to another, from one corner of the earth to another. Human languages are the vessels in which culture resides. No language has been a culture-language from the beginning, and none is incapable of becoming such in the end." Culture in any true sense is not a national monopoly. It is an affair of the human soul, and any vehicle of expression against which the soul is in revolt is doomed to defeat, or culture will perish in the struggle.

Here speak with voices that cannot be silenced and with pleadings that must be heard the suppressed nationalities, whole peoples smitten with the sword, torn up from their historic roots, and made to serve the narrow, selfish purposes of dominant dynasties. It is useless to speak of peace while these enormities exist. How can peoples who, through mere numerical superiority and military power, have overwhelmed subject races, and by the menace of the sword forbidden the use of native languages and the retention of historic memories, speak seriously of superior culture? It is only by the power of persistence under conditions of perfect liberty that the superiority of a form of culture can vindicate itself, for that is for each nation the highest which is best suited to its powers of achievement; and when a dynastic ruler by violence strips a subject race of its spiritual inheritance, it reverses and destroys the process by which true culture is developed. There is no people in the world who would not resist it if this procedure were practiced upon itself.

A people, therefore, cannot fit itself for international society or realize its own normal development as a state until it is ready to recognize the claims of personality. Where mixed races compose the population, and nationality is identified with a dominant race, there can be no true national unity, because there is no spirit of cooperation. On the other hand, it has been shown by the experience of Switzerland and the United States that different races may coexist in the same nation without in the slightest degree destroying their personal freedom, and that they may cooperate together successfully in the organization of liberty. Many nations may still be unripe for this higher development of nationality, and the contest for race segregation and race domination may still continue; but the obstacle to harmony does not proceed from the essential nature of the state. It consists rather in the arrest of political evolution at a stage where true statehood has not yet been achieved; for a nation organized merely for power, for conquest, and not for justice, is not yet a state in the proper meaning of the word, but an unsocial and anarchical survival of primitive despotism!

The complete realization of international ideals must, therefore, wait on further political evolution. But they are not wholly dependent on purely speculative thought. They are closely intertwined with practical experience. They gain new strength from every new disillusionment regarding the value and expediency of schemes of conquest and the effort to secure social prosperity by military force. We have, therefore, to take into account existing realities. No more than the old will the new Europe be a mere structure of thought. It is materially shaping itself now before our eyes. It is being forged and fashioned amid the smoke and flame and torture of battle. It is to be determined not only by what men love and desire, but by what they hate and by what they recoil from in horror. Its battle-cry is: "Never again! Never again!" Thrones may be shaken or they may endure; but out of the anguish, the disillusionment, and the fading of iridescent dreams the new Europe will come forth chastened, reconstituted, and redeemed.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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