The Book of Man: Who Are Men, What Should Men Be, What Should Men Do?
by William Bennett
Spanning twenty-seven years, the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta in ancient Greece forever transformed the landscape of the ancient world. Considered one of the world’s first great wars, the Athenians and Spartans fought a bloody and horrific war for freedom. After the first series of battles and amid great sorrow and loss, the Athenian leader Pericles faced his fellow countrymen and delivered his famous funeral oration to memorialized and immortalize the Athenian lives lost.
Of his fallen comrades, said the great Pericles: “For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb; and in lands far from their own, where the column with its epitaph declares it, there is enshrined in every breast a record unwritten with no tablet to preserve it, except that of the heart. These take as your model and, judging happiness to be the fruit of freedom of valor, never decline the dangers of war.”
Pericles’ eulogy immortalized the virtuous ideals of war – the idea of sacrificing one’s self for liberty, happiness, and state. Pericles understood that he was asking the men of Athens to leave their homes and families behind to die a painful death on the battlefield. He assured them that their death was not in vain. Because of their stoicism and sacrifice, their progeny would live to enjoy the precious right of liberty.
The history of man is rife with war of all kinds, but Pericles’ message remains timeless. The actors and plots might change, from the ancient barbaric crusades of Genghis Khan to today’s high-tech, super-trained military operations; but men still fight wars. At its core, was has, and always will be, a horrific act of violence between fellow men. The Greek philosopher Plato famously noted, “It is only the dead who have seen the end of war.” By definition, war is one of man’s most dangerous acts. To engage in war is to risk everything, including your life.
This is why history has long wrestled with the concept of war. What is casus belli? What is a just war? From Aristotle to Aquinas, civilized man has sought to define war as a means of preventing it. Yet, where laws and morals fail, war becomes the answer. It is the last resort for men to solve disputes and settle differences. In essence, war captures the best and worst traits of mankind.
As for the latter, war unleashes the worst violence man is capable of. Living through the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson admitted, “I have seen enough of one war never to wish to see another.” Even if you haven’t experienced war firsthand, you can understand the loss, the chaos, and the pain that emanate from broken families, blackened landscaped, and shattered psyches. Behind every war are men using their God-given intellects to plot and scheme the death and torture of other men. What started with hand-to-hand combat developed to spears to swords to bullets to bombs. As cruel as it sounds, war breeds its own culture of war. It should come as no shock that there has never been an extended period of world peace in human history.
With the worst of war, however, also comes the best of men. Often the darkest of moments and the worst of times bring out the finest in men. We will forever remember George Washington crossing the ice-capped Delaware River, the brave men storming the death-trap beaches of Normandy, and the tired, bloodied soldiers raising the flag over Iwo Jima. War provokes the highest virtues of man’s soul: honor, fortitude, service, and sacrifice. It is no wonder that the greatest moments of manhood are often found in battle.
What is it about combat that would make a young man leave his home and family to risk death for a cause that is not entirely his own? What is war that a man would fall on an enemy grenade to save his comrades? Simply put, war restores in man the belief that there are some things worth fighting and dying for; things like love, liberty, and faith. Furthermore, it instills in men a notion of priorities (what Augustine called the ordo amorum, the order of the loves) and responsibility for the protection of the individual, the family, and the polis. Famous World War II general George S. Patton said, “Battle is the most magnificent competition in which a human being can indulge. It brings out all that is best; it removes all that is base … duty is the essence of manhood.”
The fight between life and death has a way of turning boys into men and transforming mobs of untrained civilians into intelligent, coordinated military units. About the nature of war, H.G. Wells said, “One lives in a higher order of being.” Philosopher William James taught that combat revived the “martial values” in men and forced on them “intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command.” There may be no better trial by fire for a man’s character than to subject himself to the rigors and abuses of war.
As iron sharpens iron, so also does war whet the rough edges of a man’s soul. British minister Sydney Smith, quoted often by Teddy Roosevelt, recognized that “there are seasons in human affairs when qualities, fit enough to conduct the common business of life, are feeble and useless … [when] God calls all the passions out in their keenness and vigor for the present safety of mankind … all the secret strength, all the invisible array of the feelings – all that nature has reserved for the great scenes of the world when the usual hopes and aids of man are gone.” When laws and morals fail, the strength and fortitude of human passions become nature’s protector.
The test of war’s virtue can be seen in its fruits – men like George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, and countless others. These great men surrendered their own volitions to a higher cause, whether family, faith, or state. They did not fear death because they recognized the honor in serving and protecting a cause above their own. “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country,” said the ancient Roman poet Horace.
Having said that, today’s modern man remains mostly immune to war or combat. A vast majority of our generation’s young men will never don a military uniform or take orders from a military commander. Let us never take war lightly, however, or take our military protection for granted. John Stuart Mill, the British philosopher, said, “War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. They decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. A man who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”
Some of the worst atrocities committed by mankind were done in the name of war. When entrusted in the wrong hands, the power of war has been the instrument of death for the world’s worst men. But, remember, when civility, diplomacy, and the rule of law fail, it is only through war that good conquers evil and freedom crushes tyranny. As Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. told Harvard students in 1895, “War, when you are at it, is horrible and dull. It is only when time has passed that you see that its message was divine.” Learn from men at war, pray for peace, but always be ready to fight.