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A philosophical apology from 1919 for not being pro-war

Leiter posted the PDF of this on his site. I can’t help but reproduce some of the choicer quotes:

“DEAR FRIEND: Your letter gently but un-mistakably intimates that I am a slacker, a slacker in peace as well as in war; that when the World war was raging bitterly I dawdled my time with subjects like symbolic logic, and that now when the issues of reconstructing a bleeding world demand the efforts of all who care for the future of the human race, I am shirking my responsibility and wasting my time with Plato and Cicero. Your sweetly veiled charge is true, but I do not feel ashamed of it. On the contrary, when I look upon my professional colleagues who enlisted their philosophies in the war, who added their shrill voices to the roar of the cannons and their little drops of venom to the torrents of national hatreds, I feel that it is they who should write apologies for their course. For philosophers, I take it, are ordained as priests to keep alive the sacred fires in the altar of impartial truth, and I have but faithfully endeavored to keep my oath of office as well as the circumstances would permit.

I believe in the division of labor. I am a priest or philosopher, not a soldier or propagandist. I yield to none in my admiration for the brave fellows who gave their all on the bloody fields of Flanders, but I have no respect for the bigots who cannot realize that “there are many mansions in my Father’s house,” and that it would be a poor world if there were no diversity of function to suit the diversity of natural aptitudes. And when people begin to admonish me that if everyone did as I did, etc., I answer that humanity would probably perish from cold if everyone produced food, and would certainly starve if everyone made clothes or built houses. I admit the desperate need of men to defend the existence of our country, but I cannot ignore the need of men to maintain even in war the things which make the country worth defending. Purely theoretic studies seem to me to be of those fine flowers which relieve the drabness of our existence and help to make the human scene worth while.

If I had your persuasive talent, dear friend, and cared to exalt one human interest above others, I would contend that the really important issue before the American people today is not economic or political but moral and vital—the issue of Puritanism. It is the Puritanic feeling of responsibility which has blighted our art and philosophy and has made us as a people unskilled in the art of enjoying life.

The great philosophers, like the great artists, scientists and religious teachers have all, in large measure, ignored their contemporary social problems. Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, Newton, Buddha, Jesus of Nazareth and others who have done so much to heighten the quality of human life, have very little to say about the actual international, economic and political readjustments which were as pressing in their day as in ours. The great service of Socrates to humanity was surely not in his somewhat superficial criticism of the Athenian electoral machinery of his day, but rather in developing certain intellectual methods, and suggesting to Plato certain doctrines as to the nature of the soul and ideas,—doctrines which in spite of all their impracticality have served for over two thousand years to raise men above the grovelling, clawing existence in which so much of our life is sunk.”

From the New Republic, December 5, 1919. As such it is now out of copyright, despite what TNR says.


  1. Thank you for posting this; however, the Leiter link doesn’t work, or it doesn’t work for me.

  2. LR LR

    “For philosophers, I take it, are ordained as priests to keep alive the sacred fires in the altar of impartial truth…”

    —- This fella didn’t study much philosophy, did he?

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