My Great-Grandmother died when I was in grade school. By then I had already gotten a bookish reputation, so she made sure I inherited two books from her library. The first was a religious book, ‘The Manliness of Christ’ published in about 1908. It represents a very 19th century point of view.
The other slender volume is “Notable Events of the Nineteenth Century’ published in 1896. This is a fascinating read. I was particularly interested in the section entitled ‘Progress in Discovery and Invention’ where there are articles such as “The First Steamboat”, “The New Light”, “The Machine that Talks Back”, and “The Unknown Ray”. Science is represented by “The Century of the Asteroids” pointing out that the first asteroid, Ceres, was discovered and named in 1801, “The Evolution of the Telescope” followed by an article entitled “What the Worlds are Made of” which is, by the way, completely wrong as we know it today. Perhaps more apropos for our time is the article entitled “The New Inoculation”, followed by “Koch’s Battle with the Invisible Enemy”.
A large part of the “Notable Events” book is taken up by “The Great Battles”. Here is a list: Trafalgar, Austerlitz, Waterloo, Sebastopol, Sadowa, Mexico City, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Appomattox, Sedan, Metz. Some of those are familiar but some I confess there are several I had never heard of before.
Reminds me of a poem by Carl Sandburg that has this stanza:
“Let it be a series of memorials to the Four Horsemen, to Napoleon, Carl the Twelfth, Caesar, Alexander the Great, Hannibal and Hasdrubal, and all who have rode in blood up to the bridles of the horses calling, Hurrah for the next who dies, He was pretty good, but he didn’t last long.”
War and bloodshed are the curse of humanity. We need to pray according to the old hymn “Father, stop thy children’s warring madness.”
At the end of the 19th century the great thinkers of the time believed that mankind was becoming so perfected that war would never again occur. We know how that turned out in the twentieth century.
The ancient Greek philosopher Plotinus postulated that evil was the absence of good, much as darkness is the absence of light. He was wrong. Evil is very real and active.
My inspiration for decades has been Archibald McLeish’s essay “Riders on the Earth Together, Brothers in the Eternal Cold” which was written just after Apollo 8 returned the first glorious pictures of the earth from a lunar perspective. He concluded: “To see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold — brothers who know now they are truly brothers.”
It has been my hope that the peaceful cooperative exploration of space would provide an outlet for humanities energies that would be peaceful and productive. And indeed, onboard the International Space Station there is only talk of cooperation and teamwork. Maybe there is still hope.
That hope is likely insufficient. Evil and warfare does exist in the world, it is conspicuously present in the world today. It is up to the people of goodwill everywhere to blot out that evil and stop our warring madness.
May the peacemaker’s time be at hand.
I will leave you with this thought from James Russell Lowell “The Present Crisis” 1845:
“Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.”