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The Record Lie Post by :lechoad Category :Essays Author :A. A. Milne Date :August 2011 Read :753

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The Record Lie

I have just seen it quoted again. Yes, it appears solemnly in print, even now, at the end of the greatest war in history. _Si vis pacem, para bellum._ And the writer goes on to say that the League of Nations is all very well, but unfortunately we are "not angels." Dear, dear!


Being separated for the moment from my book of quotations, I cannot say who was the Roman thinker who first gave this brilliant paradox to the world, but I imagine him a fat, easy-going gentleman, who occasionally threw off good things after dinner. He never thought very much of _Si vis pacem, para bellum;_ it was not one of his best; but it seemed to please some of his political friends, one of whom asked if he might use it in his next speech in the Senate. Our fat gentleman said: "Certainly, if you like," and added, with unusual frankness: "I don't quite know what it means." But the other did not think that that would matter very much. So he quoted it, and it had a considerable vogue... and by and by they returned to the place from which they had come, leaving behind them the record of the ages, the lie which has caused more suffering than anything the Devil could have invented for himself. Two thousand years from now people will still be quoting it, and killing each other on the strength of it. Or perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps two thousand years from now, if the English language is sufficiently dead by then, the world will have some casual paradox of Bernard Shaw's or Oscar Wilde's on its lips, passing it reverently from mouth to mouth as if it were Holy Writ, and dropping bombs on Mars to show that they know what it means. For a quotation is a handy thing to have about, saving one the trouble of thinking for oneself, always a laborious business.


_Si vis pacem, para bellum._ Yes, it sounds well. It has a conclusive ring about it, particularly if the speaker stops there for a moment and drinks a glass of water. "If you want peace, prepare for war," is not quite so convincing; that might have been his own idea, evolved while running after a motor-bus in the morning; we should not be so ready to accept it as Gospel. But _Si vis pacem_----! It is almost blasphemous to doubt it.


Suppose for a moment that it is true. Well, but this certainly is true: _Si vis bellum, para bellum._ So it follows that preparation for war means nothing; it does not necessarily mean that you want war, it does not necessarily mean that you want peace; it is an action which is as likely to have been inspired by an evil motive as by a good motive. When a gentleman with a van calls for your furniture you have means of ascertaining whether he is the furniture-remover whom you ordered or the burglar whom you didn't order, but there is no way of discovering which of two Latin tags is inspiring a nation's armaments. _Si vis pacem, para bellum_--it is a delightful excuse. Germany was using it up to the last moment.


However, I can produce a third tag in the same language, which is worth consideration. _Si vis amare bellum, para bellum_--said by Quintus Balbus the Younger five minutes before he was called a pro-Carthaginian. There seems to be something in it. I have been told by women that it is great fun putting on a new frock, but I understand that they like going out in it afterwards. After years in the schools a painter does want to show the public what he has learnt. Soldiers who have given their lives to preparing for war may be different; they may be quite content to play about at manoeuvres and answer examination papers. I learnt my golf (such as it is) by driving into a net. Perhaps, if I had had the soldier's temperament, I should still be driving into a net quite happily. On the other hand, soldiers may be just like other people, and having prepared for a thing may want to do it.


No; it is a pity, but Universal Peace will hardly come as the result of universal preparedness for war, as these dear people seem to hope. It will only come as the result of a universal feeling that war is the most babyish and laughably idiotic thing that this poor world has evolved. Our writer says sadly that there is no hope of doing without armies--we are not angels. It is not a question of "not being angels," it is a question of not being childish lunatics. Possibly there is no hope of this either, but I think we might make an effort.


For opinions do spread, if one holds them firmly oneself and is not afraid of confessing them. A _si-vis-pacem_ gentleman said to me once, with a sneer: "How are you going to do it? Speeches and pamphlets?" Well, that was how Christianity got about, even though Paul's letters did not appear in a daily paper with a circulation of a million and a telegraphic service to every part of the world.


But perhaps Christianity is an unfortunate example to give in an argument about war; one begins to ask oneself if Christianity has spread as much as one thought. There are dear people, of course, to whom it has been revealed in the night that God is really much more interested in nations than in persons; it is not your soul or my soul that He is concerned about, but the British Empire's. Germany He dislikes (although the Germans were under a silly misapprehension about this once), and though the Japanese do not worship Him, yet they are such active little fellows, not to say Allies of England, that they too are under His special protection. And when He deprecated lying and stealing and murder and bearing false witness, and all those things, He meant that if they were done in a really wholesale way--by nations, not by individuals--then it did not matter; for He can forgive a nation anything, having so much more interest in it. All of which may be true, but it is not Christianity.


However, as our writer says, "we are not angels," and apparently he thinks that it would be rather wicked of us to try to be. Perhaps he is right.


(The end)
A. A. Milne's essay: Record Lie

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