The First World War had, to say the least, a major impact on many areas of social and cultural life. Did it have any effect on philosophy? In 1914 the dominant movement in Britain was German Idealism, expounded by figures like Bosanquet and Bradley, and there were attempts, as part of the propaganda war, to link this philosophical view, and Hegel in particular, with German militarism. But it was already being challenged philosophically by Bertrand Russell and G E Moore, so its subsequent decline can hardly be blamed on the war. In the war itself very few established philosophers died; the only British philosopher to be killed in action was T E Hulme, a follower of Bergson. The established philosophers who were involved in the war, like R G Collingwood, worked for the government in administrative or intelligence roles.
But of course the war had an impact on individuals. Here I would like to trace its impact on three philosophers from Britain, Austria and France. The first two are familiar enough: Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, who were of course on opposite sides of the conflict. The third is a French philosopher little known in Britain who, though himself a pacifist and older than Russell, volunteered for the French army, saw frontline action and survived to write vividly and energetically about the experience and the nature of war itself. This is Alain, penname of Emile Chartier (1868 – 1951).
When war began Russell was forty-two, embedded in the comfortable academic life of Trinity College, Cambridge. He was, perhaps surprisingly, shocked by the outbreak of hostilities. As he put it in his Autobiography: “I found it impossible to believe that Europe would be so mad as to plunge into war, but I was persuaded that, if there was war, England would be involved. I felt strongly that England ought to remain neutral … Looking back it seems extraordinary that one did not realize more clearly what was coming.” And then he was surprised to find that most people in Britain were delighted at the prospect of war; his colleagues at Cambridge supported it, and students hurried to enlist.
His reaction? “I knew that it was my business to protest, however futile protest might be.” But he was not a pacifist; he did not think that war was always wrong, though between civilised nations it was a disaster. His considerable energy was now directed to political activity. His first involvement was with the Union for Democratic Control, founded in August 1914 to bring together those who thought that the government had led Britain into a war without any consideration of public or even parliamentary opinion, an issue to which we shall return. Later, when conscription was proposed in 1916, he joined the No Conscription Fellowship (NCF), became Acting Chairman for a time, spoke at meetings all round the country to defend conscientious objectors, and did most of the writing in the NCF’s journal. This brought him rather more to the attention of government, who saw him as a nuisance and looked for ways of keeping him quiet, which is a compliment to his effectiveness. In 1916 he wrote a pamphlet in support of one conscientious objector, for which the distributors were threatened with prison. Russell promptly wrote a letter to The Times to declare his authorship; he was prosecuted and fined. This also led to his dismissal from Trinity College, and the refusal of a passport for a journey to the US. Then he was banned from certain “prohibited” areas (approximately one third of the country), to prevent him from speaking to munitions workers and others involved in the war effort.
In January 1918, the United States had entered the war and was likely to settle the outcome. In an article for the NCF magazine, Russell wrote: “The American garrison which will by that time be occupying England and France, whether or not they will prove efficient against the Germans, will no doubt be capable of intimidating strikers, an occupation to which the American army is accustomed at home.” Certainly provocative, probably ill-judged, the remark earned him six months imprisonment for the crime of “insulting an ally”, a sentence he served in Brixton prison, which he found, in his own words, “in many ways quite agreeable”. He could receive visitors, and read and write twelve hours a day. He was released in September 1918 after what he called this “holiday from responsibility”.
His most significant work of the war, however, was a book published in 1916 as Principles of Social Reconstruction, originally delivered as lectures in London earlier that year, a book that Russell would later consider “the least unsatisfactory” expression of his personal religion. The lectures in London had been a great success and so was the book. One reviewer called it a “thoroughly mischievous work”, a verdict that was proudly printed on the jacket of the next edition.
As he put it in the Preface: “my aim is to suggest a philosophy of politics based upon the belief that impulse has more effect than conscious purpose in moulding men’s lives. Most impulses may be divided into two groups, the possessive and the creative … Only passion can control passion, and only a contrary impulse or desire can check impulse… It is not by reason alone that wars can be prevented, but by a positive life of impulses and passions antagonistic to those that lead to war”. Impulses are blind and need to be redirected – “towards life and growth rather than towards death and decay”. What is needed are institutions that will promote not more material goods but “more freedom, more self-direction, more outlet for creativeness, more opportunity for the joy of life, more voluntary co-operation and less involuntary subservience to purposes not their own”.
Russell also argues that the state has too much power, which needs to be reduced – though in certain areas, such as health and education, and somewhat in contradiction, he thought it should be extended. So Russell suggests giving more power to voluntary organisations within a state; as for dealing with conflict between nations, what is needed is “a parliament of the nations with full power to alter the distribution of territory” and also “there should be only one military state in the world and that when disputes between different countries arise it should act according to the decision of a central authority”. The final chapter has the title “What we can do”, but actually becomes rather vague: “New thought will be required”, and “the world has need of a philosophy, or a religion, which will promote life”. Given that these words were initially delivered as lectures in the middle of war, the vagueness is understandable, as intended to spur the thinking of his audience. But the argument for institutions to aid international harmony was well made. The League of Nations, established after World War One, failed to prevent the conflicts of the Thirties and the outbreak of a second World War, but we now have the United Nations, and the European Union which developed out of the desire to put an end to wars on the continent.
Russell drew two conclusions from his wartime activity. On the one hand, “all that I had done had been totally useless except to myself. I had not saved a single life or shortened the war by a minute.” Put in those terms, he is right, but these would have been very ambitious aims for a single individual. Where he did succeed was in giving support to the many conscientious objectors and making their lot easier. On the other hand, the war “changed everything for me. I ceased to be an academic and took to writing a new kind of book. I changed my whole conception of human nature … Through the spectacle of death I acquired a new love for what is living.” In short, Russell became an author and public intellectual. That he took on this role perhaps reflects a realisation that his most creative work in philosophy was largely over, and this might have been emphasised for him when in July 1919 he received a manuscript from his former pupil, Ludwig Wittgenstein. The Tractatus Logico-Philosphicus.
Wittgenstein was aged twenty-five and in Austria when war broke out. He promptly enlisted as a volunteer gunner in order “to share the burden” as he put it, seeing military service as a civic duty. He would serve most of the war on the Eastern front where things went badly for the Austrian armies; he suffered severe privations, was often in great danger and earned several awards for bravery; more than once he considered suicide.
In 1918 he was on the Italian front, in time for the collapse of the Austrian armies in October, became a prisoner of war, and was not released from captivity until August 1919. All through the war he kept notebooks, some of which have survived, and which make it possible to trace the progress of his thinking, as he continued to engage with the problems of logic that he had studied with Russell before the war, while on active service (for example, when peeling potatoes) and on leave back in Austria. But also, from the summer of 1916 the notebooks record the emergence of so-called “mystical” tendencies: “my work has broadened out from the foundations of logic to the essence of the world”, tendencies which would appear in the final propositions of the Tractatus and would alarm Russell.
War is a test for any human being, all the more so for a young man from the wealthy upper bourgeoisie with sophisticated intellectual and cultural interests, suddenly thrown among uneducated recruits. Wittgenstein found his fellow soldiers stupid and coarse. No feeling of comradeship alleviated his sense of isolation. And then, of course, there was the close prospect of danger and death.
Where he initially found support was in a bookshop that, as the story goes, contained only one book, which he bought and kept with him throughout the war: Tolstoy’s The Gospel in Brief. In this work Tolstoy focused on the words and teachings of Jesus, stripped of what he regarded as the Church’s distortions and focus on dogma and ritual. Instead he places his emphasis on the spirit which is in the individual and in all men. The only true life is communion with that spirit.
On an early occasion of danger Wittgenstein wrote in his diary: “I say Tolstoy’s words over and over again in my head: ‘Man is powerless in the flesh but free because of the spirit'”. A few days later: “Now I might have an opportunity to be a decent human being, because I am face to face with death. May the spirit enlighten me.” It seems that the test for him became one of maintaining this sense of the spirit through all the dangers and vicissitudes of war. There is a touch of Stoicism here, in the sense that Stoicism promotes the self-sufficiency and independence of the spirit, and which can be glimpsed later in Wittgenstein’s Lecture on Ethics of 1929, where he talked of feeling that “I am completely safe”. His pupil Rush Rhees recorded this remark: “Don’t be dependent upon the external world and then you have no fear of what happens in it”, which can be taken as a gloss on proposition 6.373 from the Tractatus: “The world is independent of my will.” We might also consider that proposition 6.4311 was forged in the experience of war, which is also the experience of death: “Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death.” Was this insight a way of calming his own fears?
I’d also suggest that the war influenced Wittgenstein’s writing. The Tractatus is notorious for its condensed style, its short elliptical remarks. His later writing, as in the Philosophical Investigations, is not so compressed, but is still built up from short, aphoristic remarks. But this reflects the kind of thinking that is possible under conditions of military service; it is highly unlikely that there will be the time and circumstances to allow the careful construction of arguments across several pages. Thoughts will come as flashes of insight.
After the war, Wittgenstein’s character was much changed. One biographer wrote of the hardships of 1916 that they “gave him the sunken face that was to mark him for the rest of his life no longer as a serious young man, but as one who had suffered deeply”. It also left him with a certain political pessimism, even quietism. Another biographer records that he would say to friends “Just improve yourself, that is all you can do to improve the world”. But to a nephew he said: “It saved my life; I don’t know what I’d have done without it.” It led him to renounce his pre-war life of privilege for an austere commitment to philosophy.
Turning to France, which suffered greater losses of men than Britain or Germany, I have chosen to represent it through the figure and incisive writings of Alain, because he engaged with the war in ways that can be compared to both Russell and Wittgenstein. He fought in the war and wrote extensively about it. Unlike Russell, Alain was not surprised. The desire for French revenge for the defeat to Prussia and the loss of Alsace and Lorraine in 1870 had been a theme of French politics for many years; he had been writing against the rise of militarism and the prospect of war since 1911. But, also like Russell, he was not a complete pacifist in that he thought defensive wars were justified.
When war came, he was forty-six (four years older than Russell). He was teaching philosophy in one of the grandes lycées of Paris and had been writing a daily newspaper column since 1906 that ranged widely and vividly over philosophy, politics, literature, religion, but always aimed at provoking thought in his readers. Remarkably, he chose to enlist at the earliest opportunity and was on his way to the front by the end of August 1914.
Yet right from the start he knew what the war meant: a “massacre of the best”. As a citizen of the Republic he felt he had to take on the responsibilities of a citizen; he also felt that this war had been foisted upon the young, which would include his students and ex-students, and wanted to be with them rather than, as he put it, nursing his anger and frustration in civilian life with all its rhetoric and lies. He served in the artillery, as an ordinary soldier, until a leg injury released him from service in 1917. He saw three years of fighting including the charnel house of Verdun, had a couple of near misses, but says himself that he was only on the edge of the circles of hell; it was the infantry that descended there. His moving Souvenirs de guerre of 1931 admit to frequently feeling fear, while also stressing the camaraderie which sustained the soldiers.
Like Wittgenstein, he found time to think and write about philosophical questions; like Russell he thought about what had led the civilised nations of Europe to this bitter and barbaric struggle. On leave in Paris in 1916 he began to write a work he called Des causes réelles de la guerre entre nations civilisées, which was later turned into the powerful book published in 1921: Mars ou la guerre jugée (translated very badly into English in 1930 under the title Mars, or the Truth about War). The war confirmed his pacifism, as it did for so many of his generation throughout Europe, and he would campaign for it all through the inter-war years.
Two important themes emerge from Mars, which remains his most sustained meditation upon war. He soon saw that this was a war like no other previous conflict. As an ordinary soldier, he experienced its organised, mechanical massacres as a machine that turned human beings into things. As a philosopher, he noticed that the army was afraid of thought. The soldier is not allowed to think. A man becomes a mere tool, means to an end, “a walking pick-axe”. The haughty and scornful attitude of the officer class, supported by the doctors and priests, “methodically crushed and flattened” the ordinary soldier. The army was a form of slavery, a display of naked power. For Alain, all power thinks continually of maintaining its power. And those in power like war because war allows the exercise of that power. So if peace is to be obtained or maintained, power has to be reduced.
The second theme is one that is close to Russell’s observation, that war is only a passion. Alain quotes the comment of a lawyer: “Interests always compromise, passions never”. War is, literally, a crime of passion, based on the notion of honour, which governments manipulate in order to maintain their power. Those who died were paying for the rhetoric of those who were not risking their lives. As he put it to a woman who said that honour was more precious than life: “You are choosing between your honour and the lives of others.”
The assassin was not a German but a Frenchman in his armchair.
So it is the responsibility of the citizens to resist those in power and the passions that persuade them to support war. As the title of one of the later chapters of Mars puts it, “Say No”.
This in turn means resisting the way that governments and press can play upon our emotions through sense of honour, national pride, ambition, anger and fear of others, in short, through the passions. War, Alain insists, is a human fact and depends upon opinion, to which people become slaves instead of thinking for themselves. And the most dangerous opinion of all is to think that war is inevitable, a “natural plague”. He is making a direct appeal to his readers: war and peace depend upon you. Where Russell emphasised the role of institutions in preventing war, Alain puts the burden upon the individual. Peace has to be actively striven for in the belief that agreement can be reached through reason and patience.
In the background here is the general philosophical issue of determinism and human freedom: is war a “natural plague” that cannot be avoided? Alain firmly declares that war is a choice, and the questions that follow from this are relevant today: What leads a state to choose war? Do the citizens have a role to play in the making of that choice? On whose authority is war enacted?
At this point I guess many readers will be thinking of the Iraq war of 2003, where Prime Minister Blair himself made the choice to join the US and go to war. He then had to persuade first his cabinet, second his party, and third the House of Commons, to support that choice. This persuasion was effected, as we know, through false information. The citizens of this country were not consulted, and the widespread public protests were ignored. But opinion polls did show a majority of the British population in support of military action by the UK and the US up until the discovery that there were no weapons of mass destruction. Without that support, could Blair have gone ahead? As a military action the war was a success; in every other respect it has been a failure. War on its own never establishes peace, as Alain observed.
The debate about taking military action in Syria in the autumn of 2013 was more open and my own MP, a member of government, wrote to constituents (some, at least) to ask our views before the debate in the Commons. How far these were taken into account, if at all, one can only guess. In the event, the debate rejected the use of force, though the motion would not have committed the government to putting soldiers in the firing line.
Apparently, this was the first time since 1782 that a government has lost a vote about going to war. At least one Conservative politician was led to worry that this established a precedent that going to war might no longer be an executive decision. As Alistair Burt MP put it in a recent article, somewhat coyly: “Just occasionally the majority of the public may be wrong, and politicians need space and time to take unpopular action that they believe in the long run is in the nation’s interest.” Except that in this case it was other politicians that rejected the motion. And to return to World War One, Niall Ferguson has recently argued that all the combatants exaggerated the benefits of going to war and underestimated the costs.
So the questions remain for any democracy: first, can the executive, that is, the politicians, be trusted to make the decision about going to war? Second, could a decision to go to war be made against widespread public opposition?
For the next months, perhaps for the next four years, we will continue to read accounts and discussions of the First World War; many more words will be spilled. As we do, we might remember what Alain wrote in its aftermath to his readers: “Look at your feet, not in the air; in the air are phrases, flags and consolations; at your feet are slavery, mud and blood.”