FIRST, what is peace? Peace is not merely the avoidance of war by the European nations as a result of the skill of their diplomats, even over a considerable period of time, the while armaments grow and mutual suspicions flourish and national prides smart -- the while, in a word, war hovers over the Continent as it has since 1918. That is not peace. I adopt Spinoza's definition: "Peace is not absence of war, but a virtue that springs from strength of soul." [i] In other words, the problem of peace is more than anything else a moral problem. It is a problem of moral reformation. That of course is not to say that it is not also an economic problem, a problem of statesmanship, a problem of law. What I mean is that in addition to being those things, and more distinctively, it is a moral problem, and especially therefore a matter for our moral educators.


What is the moral reformation which educators should preach to the peoples in order to create in them such a state of mind that they are ready to come together? The answer is obvious. They should be exhorted to banish from their hearts the religions of force, "will to power," "dynamism," and other Nietzscheisms which they have been worshipping since the middle of the nineteenth century, and go back to the cult of universality, rationality, harmony, moderation, which they have been neglecting for the same length of time. They should be urged to abandon the German ideals which they -- France included -- have been honoring since Germany took the lead in Europe in 1870, and go back to the cult of the Hellenic-Christian. They should be told to take back their allegiance from the gods of the North Sea and give it again to the gods of the Mediterranean. Such is the reversal of values that the educators of Europe should propose, if they would not have Europe continue to be a field of hatred and see it again become a field of carnage.

Let no one misunderstand me on this point. I am not denying the value of the "will to power" or the value of "dynamism." They are of the essence of human progress. The thing to teach, rather, is that those values are not the supreme values, that above them there are other values, that above human values which are necessarily struggle-values there are divine values which are values of peace and serenity. There is no question of destroying a this to keep only a that. We are to keep both the this and the that, teaching, however, that this is higher than that.


Who are to be these educators, the evangelists of this gospel? First of all, the clergy, the ministers of the divine, whatever their creed. Are they doing their duty? Are they imparting this teaching? No, certainly not. One has only to read the declarations of certain German pastors who kowtow to Hitlerism to be convinced of that. For that matter, we in France have churchmen who energetically propound the morality of war. Anyone interested will find plenty of examples cited in my books.[ii] I have shown, furthermore, that God, who since Plato's time had been a principle of peace, of non-agitation, has become today, with Hegel and Bergson, a "fighting" principle, a "dynamic" principle.

Another preacher of pacifist morality might be the League of Nations; but to be that the League would have to conceive of its function in much higher terms than it does at present. I could not express my thought better than by quoting a beautiful paragraph from a Jesuit father, who grasps the present-day rôle of the educator in its full grandeur: "One may criticize the Christian unity of the Middle Ages for confining itself a little too strictly to religious and intellectual spheres, for not coming down to the solid earth and more thoroughly organizing the material interests of humanity. But the League of Nations seems to be drifting into the opposite error. Born of economic progress and of the disappointments of nationalism, it is striving to organize humanity on a temporal basis, and may well be taking too little interest in the frightful spiritual and moral anarchy in which the modern world is floundering. May it succeed, in accord with the religion of Christ, in instilling in human society that spirit of peace, that moral and spiritual unity, without which all the legislating, organizing and policing in the world amount to nothing." [iii]


Other preachers -- ready-made, as it were, for the teaching I have in mind -- would be the writers of Europe. Of them too I ask: "Are you doing your duty? Are you educating the peoples in such a way as to create in them a spirit favorable to peace?" Some are -- men like Jules Romains or Thomas Mann. But in all countries there are many others -- and these not the least important -- who do not, but who on the contrary are furiously nationalistic. May I go so far as to say that I am not really convinced of their sincerity? The nationalism of a man like Maurras undoubtedly has something deeply true about it. But Barrès? His Cahiers are now being published. They reveal in him a constant thirst after new sensations, an inability to fasten on any faith, a relentless basic skepticism that does not spare even his nationalistic patriotism.[iv] In a Bourget a deep strain of cosmopolitanism comes constantly to the surface, though it is the fashion to describe it as "enlightened nationalism." [v] Further, it seems to me that sincerity in nationalism presupposes a virtue which, all will agree, is not exactly characteristic of men of letters -- naïveté. I often have noted among my friends that many who are fire-eating nationalists when they have a pen in hand become in private, when they are most themselves, quite pliant and reasonable -- proof enough of the insincerity of their hyper-nationalist explosions.

If our men of letters do not believe in nationalism, why do they pretend to? The answer is easy -- to please the bourgeoisie, which makes reputations, dispenses honors, and is, as it happens, nationalistically inclined. However, here again I must distinguish: there are the men, and there are the women.

Many men of the bourgeoisie, those who are engaged in banking or manufacturing or ordinary business and who thus come into touch with economic problems, are often able to have at least a vague conception of internationalism. They incline to admit the possibility, even though remote, of something like a European union. But the women know no economics, and in the richer classes they have a genius for what we call snobisme -- for posing. If the women are nationalists, we have a right to say that the bourgeoisie is nationalist. For, as everybody knows, the whole spiritual direction of the French home belongs to the woman. The total abdication of the Frenchman in everything pertaining to moral life, in the education of the young, in the political color of the guests he receives, in the families with which his children intermarry, in the publications that are read in the home, is something incomprehensible to foreigners. Going back to our writers, it is for the women that they write, women being the only ones who read and who make reputations.

The nationalism of the bourgeoisie -- or at least of the French bourgeoisie, which is the most representative of all the European middle classes -- derives from what seem to me fundamental instincts in that type of people. I have just mentioned one: snobisme. In the eyes of the French bourgeois, to be nationalist means to belong to an ultra-select circle presided over by Du Guesclin, Jeanne d'Arc, Richelieu, Louis XIV (not Napoleon), and from which everything and everybody not French -- Goethe, let us say, or Lincoln -- are automatically barred. To be a nationalist is at once to decorate oneself with something that the French bourgeois regards as the essential of essentials: a "title of distinction."

I will mention another and still more fundamental instinct: hatred of the democratic spirit, so far as the latter smacks of anything not respectful of authority, not submissive to one's betters.

It is often overlooked that the nationalism of the French bourgeoisie is of very recent date and does not reflect the historic tradition of that class. During all the Restoration period and under the July Monarchy the advanced parties were the backbone of nationalism. They were the ones who wanted a war to vindicate national honor and tear up the treaties of 1815. They were the ones to cry shame and point the finger of scorn at the men like Villèle, La Ferronaye, Guizot, who were for peace. The conservative elements, on the other hand, would hear of nothing that spelled military action. Chateaubriand had the greatest difficulty in making them swallow the war in Spain. During the Second Empire, too, the champions of order were bitterly opposed to any law that suggested reënforcing the army. That was how Prince Napoleon could exclaim hotly (August 1859): "Here we are riveted to this cowardly conservative party which will have peace at any price!"

From 1875 all that changed. The bourgeoisie began to heckle those in power because they were not preparing for the revanche, or at least were thinking of something else besides war. What happened? The German Empire, of course! But that is not the whole story. Democracy too had come to the fore, and now in order to maintain the spirit of class distinctions and keep everyone in his place, the interested classes felt that they could do no better than stimulate nationalism, which in turn fosters a permanent military spirit in a people, makes it more inclined to recognize the advantages of taking orders from above, the legitimacy of superiorities and inferiorities -- which, in a word, puts it in the frame of mind that best suits those who are interested in having it as their servant.

Hence the bad humor shown by certain of the bourgeoisie -- one might almost say systematically, quite apart from any study of the evidence -- whenever a statesman, a Briand, a Herriot, a Boncour, makes some move in the direction of an international understanding. They explain their opposition on the ground that to believe that international hatreds ever will vanish is foolish and dangerous. The truth is that they do not want those hatreds to vanish. They recognize that to cherish them may some day cost them the lives of their children. But that risk they will take, that sacrifice they will make, if it is the price which they have to pay in order to keep their comforts and their hold on those who serve them.[vi] That reaches a sublime height of selfishness which ought to receive fuller recognition.


A number of writers preach peace in perfectly good faith, but meantime say things which I believe are false and which do actual harm to the cause of peace. In the first place, they lead people to expect too much of official organizations devoted to peace. They fail to lay enough stress on the fact that such organizations can prove effective only to the extent that they have public support; that peace will be achieved only through the desire of the peoples for peace, through a change in their moral outlook in the world; that peace is a gift that the peoples must make to themselves, that it will not be handed down to them by some power from above, that their governments can be nothing more than their intelligent agents, not their transcendent benefactors.

When I point out how far the moral conceptions of the peoples -- even the best of them -- is from what it must be if peace is really to be established, I hear answers from all sides that improvements are to be the work of time, of "evolution," that new economic conditions will bring men to peace just as the old conditions have brought them to war, in short, that peace will be bestowed on humanity by the fatal trend of history, by the automatic functioning of the world, that is to say, mechanically, without anybody's doing anything to obtain it.[vii] Such a doctrine merely encourages people to neglect the one factor which can bring them peace, the very one which they are only too willing to neglect: an effort of will.

Others preach that men must abstain from war because it is contrary to their interests, because even when victorious it necessarily represents a loss, because it "does not pay." We may overlook how base this argument is; it is on a par with a dictum I used to hear in the barracks, that "you had better not steal because if you do you get punished." More important is the fact that it is false. Who could hold that Germany made a bad bargain in fighting the war of 1870, or Russia with her Turkish war, or England in the war in the Transvaal? I am told that today, in view of the enormous sacrifices involved, war is ruinous whatever its outcome, and that the war of 1914 amply proved the fact. But that was because it lasted five years. Had it ended in a few weeks, as those who began it hoped, it would certainly have benefited the conqueror. Nor is it inconceivable that a rapid victory might occur even today -- Germany failed of one in 1914 only by a hair. To say that her defeat proves the impossibility of success in a sudden attack today is to be not very exacting as to proofs, especially as an aggressor is not always bound to do his utmost to array the whole world against him from the outset. In a word, it is in no way proved that a nation now has to be insane before it starts a war. Certainly the manœuvres of countries such as Italy or Japan show clearly enough that they at least are not satisfied with the proofs. Those who rule out war on that order of reasoning make the evangelists of peace seem either frauds or fools.

Others think the best interests of peace are served by urging the peoples to know each other better and to visit each other back and forth, assuring them that in this way they will eradicate the sense of their differences from their hearts and replace it with the sense of their human brotherhood. That seems to me very doubtful. One may quite well argue the contrary, that contacts with foreigners intensify differences. I recently read a book by a Lettish scholar which contended that the French and the Germans first became conscious of their antagonisms when they were fighting shoulder to shoulder in the Crusades.[viii] What we must teach, rather, is that the way to abolish our mutual sense of differences is to feel the need of being superior to them -- something that we can very well do, perhaps better do, by all of us staying at home. Peace is to be the product of a spiritual effort on the part of men, not of wholesale gallivantings over the surface of the globe. In any event, the "mutual understanders" would bring peace to men by mechanical agencies, making no demands on their inner strength of soul.

I must also label the fallacy in another doctrine. I hear most of our doctors in pacifism assuring the peoples that the formation of a united Europe will not hinder them from asserting their national individualities as in the past, that it will not prevent them from conserving their "distinctive physiognomies," from clinging to the moral values and ideals which have been peculiar to them and which distinguish them from other races. When Germany entered the League of Nations, the Foreign Minister of that country declared that in becoming members of the League "the peoples in no sense abandoned their national moralities." Such doctors generally add that the new Europe will be a "harmonization" of the various physiognomies, something like the harmony that is yielded by the different notes in the scale -- forgetting, meantime, that the notes in the scale do not produce a harmony unless they are chosen in advance for a given effect, that left to themselves they produce discords.

The whole argument seems to me misleading. The new Europe, if ever there is one, will call for the outblossoming of a European soul, which will master and in large part extinguish national souls, just as the birth of France called for the birth of a French soul which stifled the souls of Brittany and Provence, and as the advent of Germany brought the advent of a German soul that did away with the souls of Saxony and Bavaria. To surrender the joys of possessing an individual temperament is an act of heroism which all human collectivities that have risen to political unity have had to perform; and the inhabitants of Europe will have to be just as heroic if they are to make Europe into something more than a mechanical assemblage of individualities always at each other's throats. In this argument, too, the idea is to assure the peoples that they can get peace without sacrificing anything they love, to avoid any appeal to them to exercise their will. Here again I hope that I shall not be misunderstood. I am not insisting that national differences be wiped out. They could not be, even if one wanted. The peoples, rather, should be urged to take their spiritual stand in a region of the soul where national differences become unimportant. Christian propaganda in the early days would be an excellent example. When Saint Paul taught that there were no longer to be Greeks or Jews or Scythians, but Christ alone in everything, he did not mean that ethnical differences were to come to an end, but that men were to strive to reach a state of mind where those differences would cease to count.


One may take it for granted that if war broke out in Europe now it would be, more emphatically than ever, a conflict between two principles, two conceptions of life, two orders of value. On one side would be the system which sets the greater store by values which are strictly ideal and disinterested: respect for truth and justice. That system, it must be confessed, is meagerly represented today in Europe. France holds to that system, theoretically at least. And on the other side would stand the system which lays primary or sole emphasis on practical values, the values of strength. The nation most representative of that system is Germany. It is easy to see that whatever the outcome of such a war, it would be disastrous for the idealistic system.

Suppose France the victor. In that case nothing is changed. France is not strong enough to annihilate her adversary. The latter still stands there, eaten with bitterness, shouting that its defeat is the greatest injustice in history, preparing for revenge, and again, for another period of years, holding a sword over the head of Europe. The conflict between the two principles is left where it was.

Suppose France the loser. In that case the idealistic principle is destroyed. Germany victorious would be wild enough, fanatical enough, to take every advantage of her victory. That would mean a second disappearance of Athens from the world -- and this time for good, not as it was in the days of the Romans, who began to worship Greece the day after their victory.

For that matter, the idealistic principle can be destroyed without any war, by the mere fact that a number of Frenchmen who hate that principle get the upper hand in the country and blot it out of French habits of thought; or, more simply still, by the fact of the French deserting it spontaneously, without anyone forcing them. Already there are Frenchmen who think Sparta admirable and Athens contemptible, to whom respect for abstract truth and abstract justice is a childish weakness from which serious people should recover; they think Nietzsche a far greater man than Descartes, and find Hitler the ideal type. That would mean a destruction of the French ideal by the French themselves. The torch of human civilization which was lighted in Greece with Socrates would have burned twenty-five centuries and then gone out, and humanity would revert to the cult of pure force -- its true law, perhaps!


In one case the unification of Europe would have moral consequences hardly better than the moral consequences of war -- in case Europe came together for the sole purpose of presenting a united front of force against another continent. That conception of European unity is undoubtedly present in the minds of a number of European writers.

At one of the sessions of the "Convention for the Promotion of a European Spirit" held in Paris last October under the chairmanship of Paul Valéry, and which I attended as a guest, an Italian Fascist declared that the world should have done with the universal values which the French Revolution had brought into vogue and which were "forever outworn." He was then asked to state his view as to the possibility of creating Europe (the purpose of the Congress which he was attending) if one were to banish the only principles that seemed capable of establishing unity among men. He answered that in his judgment Europe would come into being through the need which the European peoples eventually would face of combining against a common foe. It is only fair to add that the thought found little echo in the audience, most of the delegates thinking of creating Europe by resurrecting devotion to universal ideals rather than by propounding a super-xenophobia aimed either at Asia or at the Americas.

But putting aside that fanatical view, whenever I appeal to the nations of Europe to abdicate their sovereignties as a necessary prerequisite to the real establishment of peace, I hear the answer that, "Europe, like every other nation, will come into being through the assertion of a single sovereignty, that is to say, European sovereignty." That, I reply, is just what it must not be. All lovers of peace must refuse to have it that way. There is precisely where they must do something different from what the founders of nations have done in the past. These asked people to abandon their individual sentiments inside the group which they desired to establish, and then to stop the process at the frontiers of that group, using all the energies of the individual sentiments which they had abandoned in order to distinguish their group from all other groups. Today the idea must be to keep the movement going, to think of the frontiers of Europe as only an imaginary stopping-place in a continuous evolution -- something like one of those concentric circles which an illusion of our senses solidifies on the surface of a wave that nevertheless goes on vibrating. A united Europe will have no real civilizing value unless, far from being an end in itself, it is only a stage in the process of submerging in a divine Ideal all egos, whether of the person, or of country, or continent. I end where I began: peace is a moral problem. More than that, it is a religious problem.

[i] I put this definition of peace as an epigraph to my recent book, "Discours à la Nation Européenne" (Gallimard, Paris, 1933).

[ii] "La Trahison des Clercs," and its continuation, "La Fin de l'Éternel."

[iii] J. Leclerc: "Chrétienté Médiévale et Société des Nations" (Études, August 5, 1932).

[iv] I have debated this point with an ardent defender of Barrès, M. François Mauriac, in the Nouvelle Revue Française (October-November, 1932).

[v] I quote from Bourget, and comment on his views, in "La Trahison des Clercs," p. 101 n.

[vi] "Above all," says Machiavelli ("Prince," xvii), "do not rob your subjects of their property; for men more readily forget the loss of their fathers than the loss of their inheritances." For "fathers" substitute "children," and we get a truth emphasized by the last war.

[vii] That was the attitude of Anatole France. In "Sur la Pierre Blanche" he wrote: "World peace will come some day not because men will be better men (there can be no hope of that) but because a new order of things, a new knowledge, new economic necessities, will force a state of peace upon them, just as hitherto human conditions have also been to the liking of men and kept them in a state of war."

[viii] G. Zeller, "La France et l'Allemagne depuis dix siècles," p. 73.

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  • JULIEN BENDA, French writer on philosophic subjects; author of "Discours à la Nation Européene," "La Trahison des Clercs," and other works
  • More By Julien Benda