William James’ wars against war

Noted William James biographer Robert D. Richardson has a short post over at The Second Pass (where they’re doing a William James week in celebration of the centenary of his death) about James’ attempts to grapple with the problem of war. His most well-known confrontation with the matter is of course in the essay “The Moral Equivalent of War,” but Richardson also points to another, earlier effort by James to propose an alternative to warmaking, one profoundly reminiscent of Gandhi:

James made two concrete proposals for how this might be done. In The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), he reached back to Thoreau’s Walden and the idea, discussed in the first chapter of that classic, of voluntary poverty. (When Americans see that phrase, they see “poverty” written in boldface. We must train ourselves to see “voluntary,” meaning willed, written in caps and printed in red.)

“What we now need to discover in the social realm is the moral equivalent of war,” James wrote in Varieties, “something heroic that will speak to men as universally as war does, and yet will be as compatible with their spiritual selves as war has proved itself to be incompatible. . . . May not voluntarily accepted poverty be ‘the strenuous life’ without the need of crushing weaker peoples?”

By the time he wrote “The Moral Equivalent of War,” James had dropped the idea of voluntary poverty or simplicity—the sort of thing advocated in Walden, and by Wendell Berry, and by the modern “freegans”—in favor of something very close to the modern idea of the Peace Corps. “To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dish-washing, clothes-washing, and window-washing, to road building and tunnel making, to foundries and stoke holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youth be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas.”

One need look no further for resonance with James’ first proposal than Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, as he describes the requirement for Satyagraha, or non-violent resistance. While his life was one of very much the voluntary poverty James proposes, Gandhi emphasized spiritual renunciation more than material:

Just as there is necessity for chastity, so is there for poverty. Pecuniary ambition and passive resistance cannot well go together. Those who have money are not expected to throw it away, but they are expected to be indifferent about it. They must be prepared to lose every penny rather than give up passive resistance.

He added elsewhere, on the significance of suffering in the struggle for justice:

He who has not the capacity of suffering cannot non-co-operate. He who has not learnt to sacrifice his property and even his family when necessary can never non-co-operate. … There lies the test of love, patience, and strength.

Both Gandhi and James recognized that the world without war would not be a world without hardship or suffering—nor would we want it to be.