Patriotism and Altruism: Prize-Winning Essay by Reinhold Niebuhr

From our Archives: 100 for 100


Reinhold Niebuhr circa 1916

When Andrew Carnegie founded the Church Peace Union [now Carnegie Council] in February 1914, he told his new organization that theirs was a "divine mission" to end war. Once that goal was achieved—which he had no doubt would be soon—they should disband and give the CPU's funds to the poor.Thus the outbreak of World War I a few months later plunged Carnegie into despair and the fledgling CPU into disarray. Ultimately, the  CPU rejected absolute pacifism and embraced a measured realism.

In 1915-1916, the CPU turned its attention to peace education in the churches and Sunday Schools, a program praised for its innovation by trustee Charles S. MacFarland, who pointed out that peace had not been a significant thread in church-sponsored education before.

It also held an essay contest, and the young Reinhold Niebuhr won the top prize for seminary students. Dr. Niebuhr (1892-1971) went on to become a distinguished Protestant theologian and ethicist. Here is his winning essay, dated 1915.

---Adapted from Kate Hallgren's Toward Peace with Justice: One Hundred Years of the Carnegie Council. Essay accessed via the Library of Congress.    

Perhaps the most general impression created in the hearts of American citizens by the rumors of war immediately preceding the present great conflict was a sense of incredulity. Prominent men everywhere expressed the opinion that the world war to which the rumors pointed would be such an anachronism that some means would surely be found to avert the seemingly inevitable catastrophe. This feeling of incredulity persisted in many quarters even after hostilities had actually begun. In part it was no doubt due to the natural inability of our minds to become reconciled to events that had not before entered into the range of possibilities for us. But another reason for our incredulity and our desperate hope was our belief that the sin and the injustice of war was so evident to the majority of civilized men that the moral conscience of the nations would revolt against the impending struggle.

It was because of this widely held opinion that men were so quick to place the blame for the war upon the respective rulers of the belligerent nations. And even though it must be conceded that this was not done entirely without justice we must nevertheless admit that the wholehearted enthusiasm with which the masses of most of the involved nations entered the conflict forced a general revision of preconceived judgments. It became evident that popular enthusiasm for war was still wider than we had hoped and believed it would be. The passion of patriotism is of course not new to history. It is its supreme motive. But one might have justly expected a more sober spirit in this age and a more general insistence upon knowing the justice of the positions the nations had taken, and for which they asked their citizens to sacrifice their lives.

It is true, there were some questioning and some dissenting voices in the countries involved. Perhaps they were more numerous than in any similar situation of history. But they were not as numerous and not as strong as might have been expected considering the strength of the various peace propaganda of ante-bellum days. Two of the most effective foes of war, the church and socialism, were carried away by the emotional riot of the hour and gave a more or less unanimous moral sanction to what they had previously condemned as immoral. Some of the nations had been concerned with momentous internal issues. These paled into insignificance. The champions of certain moral issues, some of them of great importance, depreciated their causes in comparison with what they conceived to be a greater one and to which they tried to attach moral significance.

That an immense number of people are still blind to the iniquity of war, is of course not surprising. The important thing is that the moral leaders of the nations did not rebel. Perhaps this was due to the fact that they overestimated the moral significance of their respective nation's positions. Scholars of both sides for instance interpreted the war as a defense of democracy or a defense of culture. But the utterances of many of the nations' leaders force us to conclude that there was yet another cause for their readiness to sanction an undertaking for which a moral defense is so difficult. This was the moral charm that war still holds for many as an opportunity for the expression of some of man's noblest passions. As a collective undertaking, war is primarily selfish and immoral without excuse. But for the individual it often means the highest expression of his altruism and the greatest opportunity for the development of his nobler passions.

This is the paradox of war and the problem it presents cannot be ignored by peace advocates without serious harm to their cause. That war has some element that has appealed to the best in the best of men is clearly proven by history. There we may see how patriotism as it was expressed in national conquest was more closely allied to religion than any other moral factor. And war appealed not only to man's noblest instincts but developed them as well. This aspect of war has played a most seductive part in the present war. This we must acknowledge if we but consider how the emphasis upon it on the part of the church and the ministry has made it possible for the greatest moral agency we know to sanction the undertaking. That the clergy should be in times of war, as George Bernard Shaw not unjustly observes, "The most pugnacious of our citizens" is significant. There are so many phases of war that lend themselves most easily to a religious interpretation. The heroism and sacrifices of national conflicts have always been among the favorite topics of the poets and among the ideals which men worship the virtues of the battle have taken the highest rank. We do violence to history therefore if we ignore this problem. If it is our aim to prepare and educate men for permanent peace we must convince them that no moral values will be lost in the transition to a new state of civilization. And we can do his only by proving either that the virtues developed in war are ultimately not indispensable or that they may be adequately conserved in a civilization of peace. A problem of personal rather than national ethics therefore, confronts us.

Some apologists for war have attempted to prove that every personal quality developed in battle is indispensable to a peaceful civilization. Those qualities, they contended, that make for success in battle, courage, hardihood, power, willingness to sacrifice, are equally necessary for the success of nations in time of peace. But such an extreme view is hardly tenable. Men have in the past admired qualities as virtues that ought to be doubtful in the future civilization. Other qualities which war has developed, and which have been highly regarded, ought never to have had a place among the virtues even in the past.

Among such alleged virtues of war is that ruthless determination, developed especially among the leaders of battle that wills to achieve its end at any cost. It is personified in the Caesars and Napoleons of history. There is a certain grandeur about such personalities that appeals to men or they would not have erected most of their statues to them and given them the place of honor in their histories. But that this is not a true virtue may be proved by the fact that Friedrich Nietzsche had to do violence to all accepted moral standards in order to justify it.

Physical hardihood is another quality that war developed in men. This quality has also been considered an indispensable virtue, by many ethical thinkers, conspicuous among them is William James. But we might justly question whether only the disciple of war could produce this hardihood in men or whether after all it is of sufficient importance to present a real problem.

Other virtues of similar nature might be pointed too. They represent a class of attributes of character that were once so necessary to the business of war that men naturally admired them while engaged in it. We may venture to hope that they will lose their place among true virtues as they become less indispensable to men in times of permanent peace.

We may say therefore, that there are at least some qualities demanded and produced by war that need not be conserved necessarily for a civilization of peace. But such a conclusion will not be as easy in regard to a nobler virtue which has received its highest expression in the struggle of nations, willingness to sacrifice, the heroism that forgets itself in the struggle for the common good. "What" asks Emerson, "is this invincible respect for war here in the triumphs of our commercial civilization that we cannot quite smother the trumpet and the drum?" And he answers, "It is that we wish to see those to whom existence is most dear and attractive, foremost to peril it for their object and ready to answer for their actions with their lives." Here we have the very heart of our problem. Can a civilization of peace offer risk great enough and demand sacrifices severe enough to draw men out of their ordinary selfishness. For though men have always been inclined to self-seeking, they have at the same time cherished sacrifice as their highest ideal of conduct and have welcomed every opportunity to realize it. It is because war is a "mixed crusade and martyrdom", in the words of DeQuincy, that it has such an irresistible charm to many. The glories of martyrdom appeal to men but they do not care for martyrdom alone. Sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice is not an ideal that gives men power to overcome the selfishness of their ways. The sacrifice must be a sacrifice for a cause and the cause must be a great one. Martyrdom in a crusade, martyrdom for the success of great issues, this men have worshipped as the highest end of life.

It is because war has presented to the individual what seemed to him to be greatest of all issues, that it has been so successful in satisfying his nobler passions. Altruism, as an abstract principle does not appeal to man. Loyalty to a community is the secret and the power of his altruism. And the community imperiled is that which incites him most to serve it. To defend the community is the highest cause of sacrifice he knows. Moreover, it is natural that he should serve a large community more readily than a limited one. And this is what he is called upon to do in national crises. He finds in peril the largest community which he recognizes and to defend it seems to him his highest duty. It is for this reason that to the average man war means the noblest expression of altruism. It must be said of course that this was not the motive that always animated the warriors of old. They fought for pure love of the fight. Sometimes they fought for the supremacy of their nation over others. But for man at his highest moral development the defense of the nation is the only true motive of his sacrifice. It is for this reason that every nation involved in the present struggle has so assiduously propagated the impression that defense has been its only motive.

If we would abolish war must we not satisfy the altruism of man by presenting him with issues that will seem to him as momentous as has this issue? The defense of the fatherland is of course not the only cause that has demanded the self-denying heroism of men. But history proves that it has been the most successful one. If the humdrum existence of peaceful days had offered larger issues men would not have turned so greedily to the opportunities of war. There are no doubt moral issues, not connected with patriotic conflicts, that might become incentives to the higher passions of men but they need a stronger emphasis than they have in present civilization if they would be fitting vehicles of man's heroism. Perhaps William James is a little unjust when, after enumerating the most common propaganda of the day, he scorns the community that would be satisfied with them and cries "Fie upon such a cattleyard of a planet", and yet we will have to admit that many of the issues with which men busy themselves in times of peace are not genuine enough and not momentous enough to enlist the complete devotion of men. Politics, business, religion, all offer real opportunities for a heroic and self-denying devotion to a common good. But too many of their battles are sham and too many of their issues trivial to arouse the latent heroism of men as it is aroused by national crises. The problem of making war less attractive to men is therefore not one of providing for new issues but rather one of making old ones more genuine. If peace would be permanent in the future its issues must be of a different character, at least of a different degree of intensity than the issues of the peace of the past.

There is no reason why this should not be so. If permanent peace could be established society would have to be reconstructed in many respects and in this reconstruction much would be done to solve our problem. Thus, for instance, a community much wider than an individual state would be established, to serve which ought to be a more inviting service than to serve one state. The establishment of an international community, only possible through the abolishment of war, ought to be, at the same time, the greatest factor in providing an adequate moral substitute for war. This argument the advocates of peace have effectively used. And there is much to commend it. History has shown us how men have constantly progressed in paying their allegiance to wider and wider communities. The family was replaced by the clan and the clan by the nation in the affection of men. There is therefore no reason why we should not hope that a universal community will someday replace the state as the object of men's loyalty. There have been apologists for war who have contended that the state must eternally be the widest community to which men might be loyal since any wider community would not be tangible enough to command their allegiance. But the progress of affairs is disproving this rather clever defense of war. International intercourse in a thousand different fields is making more and more tangible the community of nations. And the advocates of peace have not been without success in proving that a universal community is not only real but that it can be organized sufficiently to express its desires and advance its claim. To prove this has been almost the entire burden of the modern peace propaganda. Though the racial nation will probably never be displaced, it is not too much to hope that the claims of an international community and the rights of humanity will be pressed upon the conscience of the individual with increasing force, so that it will become practically impossible to make war the expression of any altruistic motives. The abolishment of war will therefore solve its own problem, to an extent at least, by creating a community to which man can be more sincerely loyal than to any limited community and which he may serve without fear that he may be really defeating his own altruistic purpose in his service, as would be the case in serving a community that does not embrace all people who have a just claim upon him.

But the mere creation of a larger community than has heretofore existed will not solve the whole of our problem. Though humanity as a whole may become the object of man's sincere devotion, its claim and its rights must be brought forcibly to his attention and something specific must be at stake before he will make great sacrifices for it. Tangible as an international community may be it must always be somewhat vague to the individual if special issues do not bring its claims to his attention. And if permanent peace is established the state cannot continue to claim the loyalty of men in a special way. Of course men will always have a particular sense of devotion to that part of humanity which is best known to them and their own particular race and nation will therefore be the object of their special interest insofar as its claims do not conflict with the larger claims of humanity. Nevertheless, in the event of permanent peace, neither the nation nor humanity, taken as they are, would adequately present to man the issues for which he finds it necessary and for which he is willing to risk his life. Something must be imperiled, something definite must be at stake, as has been the case in the crises of war.

What we need therefore, if we would conserve the best values of war, is to have the large community, that embraces all humanity, divided into smaller communities of interest in place of geographical communities, which might bring some particular need of humanity to man's attention and for whose success men might feel called upon to make special sacrifices. The world is of course not lacking in agencies of every order that serve to give expression to some particular or to several of humanity's needs and man's interests. But their interests are often too small to enlist man's self-denying devotion and often when their interests are large they are too soft spoken in demanding support and sacrifices. It is for this reason that Steinmatz in his "Philosophy of War" contends that no society can take the place of the state. All communities but the state, he argues, are voluntary and therefore fail to make those imperious demands upon man which the state makes and which man needs and likes. While it would be hard to agree with this contention that involuntary service is the fittest mode of expressing our devotion to a community we must recognize, nevertheless, that the state has satisfied a real need in man's moral nature that no voluntary society has satisfied when it expressed its need or his services in a more commanding way than any society has dared to do. But there is no reason why voluntary organizations should not dare a little more, should not make their purpose so high and their call to service so effective that they may take the place of the state as the object and the vehicle of the militant altruism of men.

There is one agency, one special community that ought to be particularly effective in providing adequate moral substitutes for war. That agency is none other than the christian church. If its purposes and ideals are not great enough to interest men, they ought to be, and if its call to service has been too soft spoken this is certainly not because of its true nature. If the church is not now an agency that could demand and receive the sacrificing devotion of men it certainly has the possibilities of becoming one. It is more universal than most agencies and its ideals are more unique and therefore more challenging than are those of any other special community. Moreover it can never, if it remains true to its ideals, come in conflict with the interests of that larger community, humanity, for to serve humanity is its avowed purpose. It is the ideal community within a community for it is unique without being separatistic.

We should have to consider Christianity as a potent instrument for the conservation of that militant altruism which war and the state have so successfully nourished even if we had no other reasons for it but the claims its founder made, Christ was wont to call his cause the "Kingdom of God" and allegiance to it would demand, he was sure, the highest sacrifices. Its claims would be higher than those of the family and loyalty to it would demand the greatest sacrifices, even that of life itself. Though he was called the Prince of Peace he asserted that his gospel would not lead to any easy and smug civilization. He came not to bring peace but a sword. In all these statements in the very words he used, there is the suggestion that he wanted Christianity to replace national conflicts with moral ones. He understood that the things for which he stood were so different from the average morality of men that to champion them would involve the sacrifice of certain comforts that society bestows only upon those who are in complete sympathy with it. He expected social ostracism and persecution for his followers and placed a premium upon that championship of his principles that would involve persecution. If we judge Christianity by the purpose and the ideals of Christ, therefore we cannot but be forced to the conclusion that it is fitted in a particular way to present issues that will demand and that will be worthy of the sacrifices of men. However, though Christianity is thoroughly committed to all the purposes of Christ, a sharp distinction must be made between its willingness to fulfill his purposes and its success in doing so. In the early days of the Christian church it did indeed realize the ideals of Christ in this respect, for it was a unique community that brought upon itself the persecution of the world and its sacrifices and its martyrdoms have an equal place in history with those of patriotic struggles.

But religious tolerance brought peace to the church, a peace that was gained, however, not without compromise with the world. And in order that it might preserve its ideals of sacrifice and self-abnegation the church instituted its system of monastic exactions and legal requirements. Artificial as cloister sacrifices are, the desire to do the heroic has been so great in man that he has found some satisfaction even in these sacrifices for the sake of sacrifice. But men can never be permanently satisfied with a service that is not for a great cause.

The protestant church has realized and has therefore exhorted its disciples to devote their lives to the cause of human betterment. But it also has made the mistake of valuing love and devotion for its own sake, for the charm it gives the individual character. It has not provided enough actual issues for which men might risk that which they hold dear. The modern church has been, until recent date at least, a society of well-meaning individuals that cherished the ideal of self-denying devotion to the interests of humanity rather than a community that advocated such issues as would arouse the desire of men to champion them and (to champion which would) require genuine self-denial.

But the modern church has hewn new paths for itself and more progress in the direction it has taken ought to make the church a much more adequate instrument for the expression of man's altruism. It has announced to the world its ethical ideals and has demanded of those who call themselves Christians that they should apply more universally and more exactly in their relations with men the principles for which Christ stood. If modern social ethics did not originate with the church, it certainly received its greatest impetus there. But the church may become even more specific in the advocacy of social justice than it is now. If it will set itself definite goals to achieve and if it will give its followers specific ideals to realize in their social relations as well as in their personal lives it will be more successful in getting its principle of love realized than by mere advocacy of the principle of love as an ideal. And at the same time it will be more successful in providing a moral equivalent for the issues of war that have heretofore captivated the imagination of men.

The constant danger of Christianity as of all religion is that it becomes priestly where it ought to be prophetic, that it put a religious interpretation upon the common moralities of men instead of constantly demanding higher standards. Since the church has always shown a willingness to follow where it believed Christ to lead we may venture to hope that its religion will always be primarily prophetic, proclaiming and demanding a new order of things, serving humanity by these demands and above all providing man with issues for the success of which he may struggle and sacrifice. Christianity need not vie with the state in order to fulfill this purpose. In fact political ambitions are death to this ideal. The sacrifices it demands ought never be for itself, but for humanity. Thus it will ask man to serve the greatest of all communities and will at the same time make the needs of humanity specific and stake the welfare of humanity upon definite issues.

History proves that such issues are as successful in satisfying and developing the sacrificing devotion of men as are the issues of war. Amos and Elijah, Calvin and Luther, Loyola and Huss, all these heroes of religion, all these prophets of righteousness compete with the heroes of war for the places of honor in history. We only need more of them. The heroes of moral struggle must take the places of the heroes of war in our halls of fame; the battles over moral issues must demand the sacrifices of the patriotic struggles and the issues of humanity must challenge men as do those of the fatherland. Other agencies may do much to bring about this result but none can do more than the church. Militant idealism is more than a substitute for military patriotism and nowhere has militant idealism found as adequate expression as in the religion of Jesus Christ.


Politics and Political Economy, Ch. On War - DeQuincy
Essay on War  - Emerson
A Moral Equivalent for War -  James
World Organization as Effected by the Nature Of the Modern State - Hill
Die Philosophie des Krieges -  Steinmetz
Patriotismus Contra Civilization - Becker
Address on War - Ruskin
The Peace Problem - Lynch
The Unseen Empire - Jordan
The Great Illusion - Angell

Last two books were read before choice of subject.

Dr. Niebuhr occasionally wrote for the Council's magazine, Worldview.  To access his articles, click here.