Norman Angell

On Human Nature




This is Chapter III (Part II) of the famous book by Norman Angell, The Great Illusion. A Study of the Relation of Military Power to National Advantage. The main ideas were first expressed in a pamphlet (Europe's Optical Illusion, 1909) and then presented, the following year, in a book (The Great Illusion, 1910). In those pages Norman Angell destroyed the myth that war and territorial conquest were of any good for the wealth of a nation. He was also upholding the case that international economic life would make war a relic of the past as exchanges and investments were creating a network of mutual interests between the people and regions of the world. Unfortunately in this he was clearly mistaken given the outbreak of two world wars. However, his thesis that war and imperial adventures are inimical to any economic progress and well-being has been confirmed over and over again during the 20th century.

This extract, that focus on human nature and negate the conviction held by many interested commentators about its fixity, is taken from the fourth revised American edition published in 1913.



All of us who have had occasion to discuss this subject are familiar with the catch-phrases with which the whole matter is so often dismissed. "You cannot change human nature," "What man always has been during thousands of years, he always will be," are the sort of dicta generally delivered as self-evident propositions that do not need discussion. Or if, in deference to the fact that very profound changes, in which human nature is involved, have taken place in the habits of mankind, the statement of the proposition is somewhat less dogmatic, we are given to understand that any serious modification of the tendency to go to war can only be looked for in "thousands of years."

What are the facts? They are these:

That the alleged unchangeability of human nature in this matter is not borne out; that man's pugnacity, though not disappearing, is very visibly, under the forces of mechanical and social development, being transformed and diverted from ends that are wasteful and destructive to ends that are less wasteful, which render easier that co-operation between men in the struggle with their environment which is the condition of their survival and advance; that changes which, in the historical period, have been extraordinarily rapid are necessarily quickening - quickening in geometrical rather than in arithmetical ratio.

With very great courtesy, one is impelled to ask those who argue that human nature in all its manifestations must remain unchanged how they interpret history. We have seen man progress from the mere animal fighting with other animals, seizing his food by force, seizing also by force his females, eating his own kind, the sons of the family struggling with the father for the possession of the father's wives; we have seen this incoherent welter of animal struggle at least partly abandoned for settled industry, and partly surviving as a more organized tribal warfare or a more ordered pillaging, like that of the Vikings and the Huns; we have seen even these pillagers abandon in part their pillaging for ordered industry, and in part for the more ceremonial conflict of feudal struggle; we have seen even the feudal conflict abandoned in favour of dynastic and religious and territorial conflict, and then dynastic and religious conflict abandoned. There remains now only the conflict of States, and that, too, at a time when the character and conception of the State are being profoundly modified.

Human nature may not change, whatever that vague phrase may mean; but human nature is a complex factor. It includes numberless motives, many of which are modified in relation to the rest as circumstances change; so that the manifestations of human nature change out of all recognition. Do we mean by the phrase that "human nature does not change" that the feelings of the paleolithic man who ate the bodies of his enemies and of his own children are the same as those of a Herbert Spencer, or even of the modern New Yorker who catches his subway train to business in the morning? If human nature does not change, may we therefore expect the city clerk to brain his mother and serve her up for dinner, or suppose that Lord Roberts or Lord Kitchener is in the habit, while on campaign, of catching the babies of his enemies on spear-heads, or driving his motor-car over the bodies of young girls, like the leaders of the old Northmen in their ox-wagons.

What do these phrases mean? These, and many like them, are repeated in a knowing way with an air of great wisdom and profundity by journalists and writers of repute, and one may find them blatant any day in our newspapers and reviews; yet the most cursory examination proves them to be neither wise nor profound, but simply parrot-like catch-phrases which lack common sense, and fly in the face of facts of everyday experience.

The truth is that the facts of the world as they stare us in the face show that, in our common attitude, we not only overlook the modifications in human nature, which have occurred historically since yesterday - occurred even in our generation - but we also ignore the modification of human nature which mere differences of social habit and custom and outlook effect. Take the case of the duel. Even educated people in Germany, France, and Italy, will tell you that it is "not in human nature" to expect a man of gentle birth to abandon the habit of the duel; the notion that honorable people should ever so place their honor at the mercy of whoever may care to insult them is, they assure you, both childish and sordid. With them the matter will not bear discussion.

Yet the great societies which exist in England, North America, Australia - the whole Anglo-Saxon world, in fact - have abandoned the duel, and we cannot lump the whole Anglo-Saxon race as either sordid or childish.

That such a change as this, which must have conflicted with human pugnacity in its most insidious form, - pride and personal vanity, the traditions of an aristocratic status, every one of the psychological factors now involved in international conflict - has been effected in our own generation should surely give pause to those who dismiss as chimerical any hope that rationalism will ever dominate the conduct of nations.

Discussing the impossibility of allowing arbitration to cover all causes of difference, Mr. Roosevelt remarked, in justification of large armaments: "We despise a nation, just as we despise a man, who fails to resent an insult."[Speech at the Stationer’s Hall, London, June 6, 1910] Mr. Roosevelt seems to forget that the duel with us is extinct. Do we, the English-speaking people of the world, to whom presumably Mr. Roosevelt must have been referring, despise a man who fails to resent an insult by arms? Would we not, on the contrary, despise the man who should do so? Yet so recent is this charge that it has not yet reached the majority of Europeans.

The vague talk of national honour, as a quality under the especial protection of the soldier, shows, perhaps more clearly than aught else, how much our notions concerning international politics have fallen behind the notions that dominate us in everyday life. When an individual begins to rave about his honour, we may be pretty sure he is about to do some irrational, most likely some disreputable deed. The word is like an oath, serving with its vague yet large meaning to intoxicate the fancy. Its vagueness and elasticity make it possible to regard a given incident, at will, as either harmless or a casus belli. Our sense of proportion in these matters approximates to that of the schoolboy. The passing jeer of a foreign journalist, a foolish cartoon, is sufficient to start the dogs of war baying up and down the land. We call it "maintaining the national prestige," "enforcing respect," and I know not what other high-sounding name. It amounts to the same thing in the end.

The one distinctive advance in civil society achieved by the Anglo-Saxon world is fairly betokened by the passing away of this old notion of a peculiar possession in the way of honour, which has to be guarded by arms. It stands out as the one clear moral gain of the nineteenth century; and, when we observe the notion resurging in the minds of men, we may reasonably expect to find that it marks one of those reversions in development which so often occur in the realm of mind as well as in that of organic forms.

Two or three generations since, this progress, even among Anglo-Saxons, towards a rational standard of conduct in this matter, as between individuals, would have seemed as unreasonable as do the hopes of international peace in our day. Even to-day the continental officer is as firmly convinced as ever that the maintenance of personal dignity is impossible save by the help of the duel. He will ask in triumph, "What will you do if one of your own order openly insults you? Can you preserve your self-respect by summoning him to the police-court?" And the question is taken as settling the matter offhand.

The survival, where national prestige is concerned, of the standards of the code duello is daily brought before us by the rhetoric of the patriots. Our army and our navy, not the good faith of our statesmen, are the "guardians of our national honour." Like the duellist, the patriot would have us believe that a dishonourable act is made honourable if the party suffering by the dishonour be killed. The patriot is careful to withdraw from the operation of possible arbitration all questions which could affect the "national honour." An "insult to the flag" must be "wiped out in blood." Small nations, which in the nature of the case cannot so resent the insults of great empires, have apparently no right to such a possession as "honour." It is the peculiar prerogative of world-wide empires. The patriots who would thus resent "insults to the flag" may well be asked whether they would condemn the conduct of the German lieutenant who kills the unarmed civilian in cold blood "for the honour of the uniform."

It does not seem to have struck the patriot that, as personal dignity and conduct have not suffered but been improved by the abandonment of the principle of the duel, there is little reason to suppose that international conduct, or national dignity, would suffer by a similar change of standards.

The whole philosophy underlying the duel, where personal relations are concerned, excites in our day the infinite derision of all Anglo-Saxons. Yet these same Anglo-Saxons maintain it as rigorously as ever in the relations of States.

Profound as is the change involved in the Anglo-Saxon abandonment of the duel, a still more universal change, affecting still more nearly our psychological impulses, has been effected within a relatively recent historical period. I refer to the abandonment, by the Governments of Europe, of their right to prescribe the religious belief of their citizens. For hundreds of years, generation after generation, it was regarded as an evident part of a ruler's right and duty to dictate what his subjects should believe.

As Lecky has pointed out, the preoccupation which, for numberless generations, was the centre round which all other interests revolved has simply and purely disappeared; coalitions which were once the most serious occupation of statesmen now exist only in the speculations of the expounders of prophecy. Among all the elements of affinity and repulsion that regulate the combinations of nations, dogmatic influences which were once supreme can scarcely be said to exist. There is a change here reaching down into the most fundamental impulses of the human mind. "Until the seventeenth century every mental discussion, which philosophy pronounces to be essential to legitimate research, was almost uniformly branded as a sin, and a large proportion of the most deadly intellectual vices were deliberately inculcated as virtues."

Anyone who argued that the differences between Catholics and Protestants were not such as force could settle, and that the time would come when man would realize this truth, and regard a religious war between European States as a wild and unimaginable anachronism, would have been put down as a futile doctrinaire, completely ignoring the most elementary facts of "unchanging human nature."

There is one striking incident of the religious struggle of States which illustrates vividly the change which has come over the spirit of man. For nearly two hundred years Christians fought the Infidel for the conquest of the Holy Sepulchre. All the nations of Europe joined in this great endeavour. It seemed to be the one thing which could unite them, and for generations, so profound was the impulse which produced the movement, the struggle went on. There is nothing in history, perhaps, quite comparable to it. Suppose that during this struggle one had told a European statesman of that age that the time would come when, assembled in a room, the representatives of a Europe, which had made itself the absolute master of the Infidel, could by a single stroke of the pen secure the Holy Sepulchre for all time to Christendom, but that, having discussed the matter cursorily twenty minutes or so, they would decide that on the whole it was not worth while! Had such a thing been told to a mediæval statesman, he would certainly have regarded the prophecy as that of a madman. Yet this, of course, is precisely what has taken place.

A glance over the common incidents of Europe's history will show the profound change which has visibly taken place, not only in the minds, but in the hearts of men. Things which even in our stage of civilization would no longer be possible, owing to that change in human nature which the military dogmatist denies, were commonplace incidents with our grandfathers. Indeed, the modifications in the religious attitude just touched on assuredly arise from an emotional as much as from an intellectual change. A theology which could declare that the unborn child would suffer eternal torment in the fires of hell for no crime, other than that of its conception, would be in our day impossible on merely emotional grounds. What was once deemed a mere truism would now be viewed with horror and indignation. Again, as Lecky says, "For a great change has silently swept over Christendom. Without disturbance, an old doctrine has passed away from among the realizations of mankind."

Not only in the religious sphere do we see this progress. In a civilization, which was in many respects an admirable one, it was possible for 400 slaves to be slaughtered because one of them had committed some offence; for a lady of fashion to gratify a momentary caprice by ordering a slave to be crucified; and, a generation or two since, for whole populations to turn torture into a public amusement and a public festival; for kings, historically yesterday, to assist personally at the tortures of persons accused of witchcraft. It is related by Pitcairn, in his "Criminal Trials of Scotland," that James I. of Scotland personally presided over the tortures of one, Dr. Fian, accused of having caused a storm at sea. The bones of the prisoner's legs were broken into small pieces in the boot, and it was the King himself who suggested the following variation and witnessed the execution of it: the nails of both hands were seized by a pair of pincers and torn from the fingers, and into the bleeding stump of each finger two needles were thrust up to their heads!

Does anyone seriously contend that the conditions of modern life have not modified psychology in these matters? Does anyone seriously deny that our wider outlook, which is the result of somewhat larger conceptions and wider reading, has wrought such a change that the repetition of things like these in London, or in Edinburgh, or in Berlin, has become impossible?

Or, is it seriously argued that we may witness a repetition of these events, that we are quite capable at any moment of taking pleasure in burning alive a beautiful child? Does the Catholic or the Protestant really stand in danger of such things from his religious rival? If human nature is unchanged by the progress of ideas, then he does, and Europe's general adoption of religious freedom is a mistake, and each sect should arm against the other in the old way, and the only real hope of religious peace and safety is in the domination of an absolutely universal Church. This was, indeed, the plea of the old inquisitor, just as it is the plea of the Spectator to-day, that the only hope of political peace is in the domination of an absolutely universal power:

There is only one way to end war and preparation for war, and that is, as we have said, by a universal monarchy. If we can imagine one country - let us say Russia for the sake of      argument - so powerful that she could disarm the rest of the world, and then maintain a force big enough to forbid any Power to invade the rights of any other Power ... no doubt we should have universal peace.[Spectator, December 31, 1910]

This dictum recalls one, equally emphatic, once voiced by a colleague of the late Procurator of the Holy Synod in Russia, who said:

There is only one way to ensure religious peace in the State, to compel all in that State to conform to the State religion. Those that will not conform must, in the interests of peace, be driven out.

Mr. Lecky, who of all authors has written most suggestively, perhaps, on the disappearance of religious persecution, has pointed out that the strife between opposing religious bodies arose out of a religious spirit which, though often high-minded and disinterested (he protests with energy against the notion that persecution as a whole was dictated by interested motives), was unpurified by rationalism; and he adds that the irrationality which once characterized the religious sentiment has now been replaced by the irrationality of patriotism. Mr. Lecky says:

If we take a broad view of the course of history, and examine the relations of great bodies of men, we find that religion and patriotism are the chief moral influences to which they have been subjected, and that the separate modifications and mutual interaction of these two agents may almost be said to constitute the moral history of mankind.

Is it to be expected that the rationalization and humanization which have taken place in the more complex domain of religious doctrine and belief will not also take place in the domain of patriotism? More especially, as the same author points out, since it was the necessities of material interest which brought about the reform in the first domain, and since "not only does interest, as distinct from passion, gain a greater empire with advancing civilization, but passion itself is mainly guided by its power."

Have we not abundant evidence, indeed, that the passion of patriotism, as divorced from material interest, is being modified by the pressure of material interest? Are not the numberless facts of national interdependence, which I have indicated here, pushing inevitably to that result? And are we not justified in concluding that, just as the progress of rationalism has made it possible for the various religious groups to live together, to exist side by side without physical conflict; just as there has been in that domain no necessary choice between universal domination or unending strife, so in like manner will the progress of political rationalism mark the evolution of the relationship of political groups; that the struggle for domination will cease because it will be realized that physical domination is futile, and that instead of either universal strife or universal domination there will come, without formal treaties or Holy Alliances, the general determination for each to go his way undisturbed in his political allegiance, as he is now undisturbed in his religious allegiance?

Perhaps the very strongest evidence that the whole drift of human tendencies is away from such conflict as is represented by war between States is to be found in the writings of those who declare war to be inevitable. Among the writers there is not one who, if his arguments are examined carefully, does not show that he realizes, consciously, or subconsciously, that man's disposition to fight, far from being unchanged, is becoming rapidly enfeebled. Take, for instance, one of the latest works voicing the philosophy that war is inevitable; that, indeed, it is both wicked and childish to try to prevent it. Notwithstanding that the inevitability of war is the thesis of his book, Homer Lea entitles the first section "The Decline of Militancy," and shows clearly, in fact, that the commercial activities of the world lead directly away from war.

Trade, ducats, and mortgages are regarded as far greater assets and sources of power than armies or navies. They produce national effeminacy and effeteness.

Now, as this tendency is common to all nations of Christendom - indeed, of the world -since commercial and industrial development is world-wide, it necessarily means, if it is true of any one nation, that the world as a whole is drifting away from the tendency to warfare.

A large part of Homer Lea's book is a sort of Carlylean girding at what he terms "protoplasmic gourmandizing and retching" (otherwise the busy American industrial and social life of his countrymen). He declares that, when a country makes wealth, production, and industries its sole aim, it becomes "a glutton among nations, vulgar, swinish, arrogant"; "commercialism, having seized hold of the American people, overshadows it, and tends to destroy not only the aspirations and world-wide career open to the nation, but the Republic itself." "Patriotism in the true sense" (i.e., the desire to go and kill other people) Homer Lea declares almost dead in the United States. The national ideals, even of the native-born American, are deplorably low:

There exists not only individual prejudice against military ideals, but public antipathy; antagonism of politicians, newspapers, churches, colleges, labour unions, theorists, and organized societies. They combat the military spirit as if it were a public evil and a national crime.

In that case, what, in the name of all that is muddleheaded, becomes of the "unchanging tendency towards warfare"? What is all this curious rhetoric of Homer Lea's (and I have dealt with him at some length, because his principles if not his language are those which characterize much similar literature in England, France, Germany, and the continent of Europe generally) but an admission that the whole tendency is not, as he would have us believe, towards war, but away from it? Here is an author who tells us that war is to be forever inevitable, and in the same breath that men are rapidly conceiving not only a "slothful indifference" to fighting, but a profound antipathy to the military ideal.

Of course, Homer Lea implies that this tendency is peculiar to the American Republic, and is for that reason dangerous to his country; but, as a matter of fact, Homer Lea's book might be a free translation of much nationalist literature of either France or Germany. I cannot recall a single author of either of the four great countries who, treating of the inevitability of war, does not bewail the falling away of his own country from the military ideal, or, at least, the tendency so to fall away. Thus the English journalist reviewing in the Daily Mail Homer Lea's book cannot refrain from saying:

Is it necessary to point out that there is a moral in all this for us as well as for the American? Surely almost all that Mr. Lea says applies to Great Britain as forcibly as to the United States. We too have lain dreaming. We have let our ideals tarnish. We have grown gluttonous, also. ... Shame and folly are upon us as well as upon our brethren. Let us hasten with all our energy to cleanse ourselves of them, that we can look the future in the face without fear.

Exactly the same note dominates the literature of an English protagonist like Mr. Blatchford, the militarist socialist. He talks of the "fatal apathy" of the British people. "The people," he says, breaking out in anger at the small disposition they show to kill other people, "are conceited, self-indulgent, decadent, and greedy. They will shout for the Empire, but they will not fight for it."[Germany and England, p. 19] A glance at such publications as Blackwood's, the National Review, the London Spectator, the London World, will reveal precisely similar outbursts.

Of course, Mr. Blatchford declares that the Germans are very different, and that what Mr. Lea (in talking of his country) calls the "gourmandizing and retching" is not at all true of Germany. As a matter of fact, however, the phrase I have quoted might have been "lifted" from the work of any average Pan-German, or even from more responsible quarters. Have Mr. Blatchford and Mr. Lea forgotten that no less a person than Prince von Bülow, in a speech made in the Prussian Diet, used almost the words I have quoted from Mr. Blatchford, and dwelt at length on the self-indulgence and degeneracy, the rage for luxury, etc., which possess modern Germany, and told how the old qualities which had marked the founders of the Empire were disappearing?

Indeed, do not a great part of the governing classes of Germany almost daily bewail the infiltration of anti-militarist doctrines among the German people, and does not the extraordinary increase in the Socialist vote justify the complaint?

A precisely analogous plea is made by the Nationalist writer in France when he rails at the pacifist tendencies of his country, and points to the contrasting warlike activities of neighbouring nations. A glance at a copy of practically any Nationalist or Conservative paper in France will furnish ample evidence of this. Hardly a day passes but that the Echo de Paris, Gaulois, Figaro, Journal des Débats, Patrie, or Presse, sounds this note, while one may find it rampant in the works of such serious writers as Paul Bourget, Faguet, Le Bon, Barrès, Brunetière, Paul Adam, to say nothing of more popular publicists like Deroulède, Millevoye, Drumont, etc.

All these advocates of war, therefore - American, English, German, French - are at one in declaring that foreign countries are very warlike, but that their own country, "sunk in sloth," is drifting away from war. As presumably they know more of their own country than of others, their own testimony involves mutual destruction of their own theories. They are thus unwilling witnesses to the truth, which is that we are all alike - English, Americans, Germans, French - losing the psychological impulse to war, just as we have lost the psychological impulse to kill our neighbours on account of religious differences, and (at least in the case of the Anglo-Saxon) to kill our neighbours in duels for some cause of wounded vanity.

How, indeed, could it be otherwise? How can modern life, with its overpowering proportion of industrial activities and its infinitesimal proportion of military ones, keep alive the instincts associated with war as against those developed by peace?

Not only evolution, but common sense and common observation, teaches us that we develop most those qualities which we exercise most, which serve us best in the occupation in which we are most engaged. A race of seamen is not developed by agricultural pursuits, carried on hundreds of miles from the sea.

Take the case of what is reputed (quite wrongly, incidentally) to be the most military nation in Europe - Germany. The immense majority of adult Germans - practically, all who make up what we know as Germany - have never seen a battle, and in all human probability never will see one. In forty years eight thousand Germans have been in the field about twelve months - against naked blacks. So that the proportion of warlike activities to peaceful activities works out at one to hundreds of thousands. I wish it were possible to illustrate this diagrammatically; but it could not be done in this book, because, if a single dot the size of a full-stop were to be used to illustrate the expenditure of time in actual war, I should have to fill most of the book with dots to illustrate the time spent by the balance of the population in peace activities.

In that case, how can we possibly expect to keep alive warlike qualities, when all our interests and activities - all our environments, in short - are peace-like?

In other words, the occupations which develop the qualities of industry and peace are so much in excess of those which would develop the qualities we associate with war that that excess has almost now passed beyond any ordinary means of visual illustration, and has entirely passed beyond any ordinary human capacity fully to appreciate. Peace is with us now nearly always; war is with us rarely, yet we are told that it is the qualities of war which will survive, and the qualities of peace which will be subsidiary.

I am not forgetting, of course, the military training, the barrack life which is to keep alive the military tradition. I have dealt with that question in the next chapter. It suffices for the moment to note that that training is defended on the grounds (notably among those who would introduce it into England) - (1) that it ensures peace; (2) that it renders a population more efficient in the arts of peace - that is to say, perpetuates that condition of "slothful ease" which we are told is so dangerous to our characters, in which we are bound to lose the "warlike qualities," and which renders society still more "gourmandizing" in Mr. Lea's contemptuous phrase, still more "Cobdenite" in Mr. Leo Maxse's. One cannot have it both ways. If long-continued peace is enervating, it is mere self-stultification to plead for conscription on the ground that it will still further prolong that enervating condition. If Mr. Leo Maxse sneers at industrial society and the peace ideal - "the Cobdenite ideal of buying cheap and selling dear" - he must not defend German conscription (though he does) on the ground that it renders German commerce more efficient - that, in other words, it advances that "Cobdenite ideal." In that case, the drift away from war will be stronger than ever. Perhaps some of all this inconsistency was in Mr. Roosevelt's mind when he declared that by "war alone" can man develop those manly qualities, etc. If conscription really does prolong peace and increase our aptitude for the arts of peace, then conscription itself is but a factor in man's temperamental drift away from war, in the change of his nature towards peace.

It is not because man is degenerate or swinish or gluttonous (such language, indeed, applied as it is by Mr. Lea to the larger and better part of the human race, suggests a not very high-minded ill-temper at the stubbornness of facts which rhetoric does not affect) that he is showing less and less disposition to fight, but because he is condemned by the real "primordial law" to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow, and his nature in consequence develops those qualities which the bulk of his interests and capacities demand and favour.

Finally, of course, we are told that even though these forces are at work, they must take "thousands of years" to operate. This dogmatism ignores the Law of Acceleration, as true in the domain of sociology as in that of physics, which I have touched on at the close of the preceding chapter. The most recent evidence would seem to show that man as a fire-using animal dates back to the Tertiary epoch - say, three hundred thousand years. Now, in all that touches this discussion, man in Northern Europe (in Great Britain, say) remained unchanged for two hundred and ninety-eight thousand of those years. In the last two thousand years he changed more than in the two hundred and ninety-eight thousand preceding, and in one hundred he has changed more, perhaps, than in the preceding two thousand. The comparison becomes more understandable if we resolve it into hours. For, say, fifty years the man was a cannibal savage or a wild animal, hunting other wild animals, and then in the space of three months he became John Smith of Des Moines, attending church, passing laws, using the telephone, and so on. That is the history of European mankind. And in the face of it, the wiseacres talk sapiently, and lay it down as a self-evident and demonstrable fact that inter-State war, which, by reason of the mechanics of our civilization, accomplishes nothing and can accomplish nothing, will forever be unassailable because, once man has got the habit of doing a thing, he will go on doing it, although the reason which in the first instance prompted it has long since disappeared - because, in short, of the "unchangeability of human nature."


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