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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Causes of War
By William Ellery Channing (1780–1842)
 
From a ‘Discourse delivered before the Congregational ministers of Massachusetts’

ONE of the great springs of war may be found in a very strong and general propensity of human nature—in the love of excitement, of emotion, of strong interest; a propensity which gives a charm to those bold and hazardous enterprises which call forth all the energies of our nature. No state of mind, not even positive suffering, is more painful than the want of interesting objects. The vacant soul preys on itself, and often rushes with impatience from the security which demands no effort, to the brink of peril. This part of human nature is seen in the kind of pleasures which have always been preferred. Why has the first rank among sports been given to the chase? Because its difficulties, hardships, hazards, tumults, awaken the mind, and give to it a new consciousness of existence, and a deep feeling of its powers. What is the charm which attaches the statesman to an office which almost weighs him down with labor and an appalling responsibility? He finds much of his compensation in the powerful emotion and interest awakened by the very hardships of his lot, by conflict with vigorous minds, by the opposition of rivals, by the alternations of success and defeat. What hurries to the gaming tables the man of prosperous fortune and ample resources? The dread of apathy, the love of strong feeling and of mental agitation. A deeper interest is felt in hazarding than in securing wealth, and the temptation is irresistible…. Another powerful principle of our nature which is the spring of war, is the passion for superiority, for triumph, for power. The human mind is aspiring, impatient of inferiority, and eager for control. I need not enlarge on the predominance of this passion in rulers, whose love of power is influenced by its possession, and who are ever restless to extend their sway. It is more important to observe that were this desire restrained to the breasts of rulers, war would move with a sluggish pace. But the passion for power and superiority is universal; and as every individual, from his intimate union with the community, is accustomed to appropriate its triumphs to himself, there is a general promptness to engage in any contest by which the community may obtain an ascendency over other nations. The desire that our country should surpass all others would not be criminal, did we understand in what respects it is most honorable for a nation to excel; did we feel that the glory of a State consists in intellectual and moral superiority, in pre-eminence of knowledge, freedom and purity. But to the mass of the people this form of pre-eminence is too refined and unsubstantial. There is another kind of triumph which they better understand: the triumph of physical power, triumph in battle, triumph not over the minds but the territory of another State. Here is a palpable, visible superiority; and for this a people are willing to submit to severe privations. A victory blots out the memory of their sufferings, and in boasting of their extended power they find a compensation for many woes…. Another powerful spring of war is the admiration of the brilliant qualities displayed in war. Many delight in war, not for its carnage and woes, but for its valor and apparent magnanimity, for the self-command of the hero, the fortitude which despises suffering, the resolution which courts danger, the superiority of the mind to the body, to sensation, to fear. Men seldom delight in war, considered merely as a source of misery. When they hear of battles, the picture which rises to their view is not what it should be—a picture of extreme wretchedness, of the wounded, the mangled, the slain; these horrors are hidden under the splendor of those mighty energies which break forth amidst the perils of conflict, and which human nature contemplates with an intense and heart-thrilling delight. Whilst the peaceful sovereign who scatters blessings with the silence and constancy of Providence is received with a faint applause, men assemble in crowds to hail the conqueror,—perhaps a monster in human form, whose private life is blackened with lust and crime, and whose greatness is built on perfidy and usurpation. Thus war is the surest and speediest way to renown; and war will never cease while the field of battle is the field of glory, and the most luxuriant laurels grow from a root nourished with blood.  1
 
 
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