On this Memorial Day I am thinking of my pregnant cousin and her young son as they wait for the return of her husband from Afghanistan. Yet another tour after surviving an attack on the helicopter he was piloting in 2008 when it was shot down in Iraq. Memorial Day is for remembering the fallen, the injured, and those who suffered. It is a time to thank those who serve and have served. But it is not a time to glorify war. It is a time to ask the questions: Why are we so often at war? What are we doing wrong?
From Maria Montessori's 1932 address in Geneva
to the International Bureau for Education:
“ A Remedy for War: Thoughts on Peace and Education”
Let us look at a phenomenon parallel to war—war’s reflection, as it were, but on the physiological level. I am speaking of the plague, that scourge capable of decimating or even wiping out a whole population, which remained for centuries dreadful and invincible—the plague, propagated by ignorance and conquered only when scientifically studied in its most hidden causes.
The plague, as we know, appeared at long intervals, just like war. It disappeared each time spontaneously, and society—which did not know its causes—could not hasten its disappearance. Seen in those days as a horrendous chastisement, it caused ravages of historic proportions, like war.
Indeed, the plague had a greater number of victims than war, and caused many more economic disasters. In the fourteenth century, a plague in China claimed ten million victims. That same devastating wave swept over Russia, Asia Minor, Egypt, and reached Europe, threatening with destruction almost all humankind. The total of those deaths has been estimated at over 25 million—hence the ravages of the plague were worse than those of any war, even the World War.
Each appearance of this scourge caused a general stoppage of labor, ushering in periods of deep misery. Famine followed plague, and so did insanity, as a notable proportion of survivors were unbalanced. These conditions made a return to normalcy much more difficult and for long halted the constructive work of civilization.
It is interesting to examine the explanations given for this scourge, and to look at the attempts to protect against it. From Homer and Livy to the Latin chronicles of the Middle Ages, we find always the same explanation: The plague is caused by wicked people who spread poison.
Describing the plague of 189 A.D., Dion Cassius relates that throughout the Roman Empire evil men were enlisted and paid to throw about poisoned needles. In the days of Pope Clement VI, the spread of disease was blamed on the Jews, who were massacred. When during the siege of Naples the plague destroyed 400,000—nearly the whole city population and almost three-quarters of the besieging troops—the Neapolitans believed themselves poisoned by the French, and the French by the Neapolitans.
Still more interesting is the trial of two presumed poisoners accused of starting the famous plague of Milan—proceedings that resulted in their executions. It is hard to imagine that a disaster so patently pathological could be attributed to an illegal act and should lead to the trial of men utterly powerless to cause it. With our knowledge today of the plague, this seems absurd. But do we not, in the case of the World War, seek to foist the responsibility upon an individual—the Kaiser, the Czarina, the priest Rasputin, or the assassin at Sarajevo?
Another phenomenon, arising from the instinct of self-preservation, was observed during the most celebrated outbreaks of the plague: the flocking together of those not yet struck down. Crowds assembled in public squares, filled the churches, and formed processions in the streets to chant prayers and carry banners, sacred images, and relics. These gatherings helped spread the disease rapidly among those who might have escaped it.
Does not this remind us of alliances among nations? Those alliances made before the World War were meant to avoid just such a war by establishing a balance of power. It is plain now that it was precisely this system that caused the stupendous disaster, because many nations were drawn into the conflict merely from being bound to others.
Finally, each time after the scourge of plague ceased abruptly, the hearts of the survivors swelled with that hope that never dies. They were convinced that humankind had just undergone a necessary trial—perhaps the last one.
At the end of the World War, did not people continue to hope, imagining that this war—surely the last—had been necessary for the final establishment of peace?
It was scientific research in the realm of the invisible that alone succeeded in discovering the direct causes of the plague: specific microorganisms and their unsuspected disseminators, the rats. Once these factors were known, the plague became recognized as one of countless infectious diseases that continually threaten the health of humankind and that find in a vitiated environment a permanent ground of infection.
Now, in the Middle Ages, people lived indifferent and ignorant amidst unsanitary conditions—coming and going through filth in the streets, lacking water in their houses, choosing to sleep in dark, stuffy rooms, fearing the sunshine. This created a favorable breeding ground not only for the dreaded plague but for countless sicknesses less conspicuous from not disrupting the general workings of society.
Hence, when people fought successfully against the plague, their campaign necessarily aimed at all diseases caused by germs. This was an energetic campaign of public and private cleansing, undertaken both throughout a city and inside every home. And that was the first chapter of the glorious history of humankind’s defense against the last and smallest creatures still threatening its existence.
But personal hygiene—the ultimate attainment of that long fight—has another aspect. It bestowed on health itself a new importance—because a perfectly healthy person, well-grown and strong, can risk exposure to disease without becoming infected. Perfect health, then, became a new ideal, a new goal to strive for.
Now, when humankind started this new quest, the perfectly healthy individual was simply not to be found. Underfed or overfed, people were always filled with poisons—we may even say they deliberately poisoned themselves. But the ideal of personal hygiene reversed those old values, replacing the pleasures of the race to death with the pleasures of the race to life.
By contrast, in the inner realm, we have not yet taken one step forward—we are as backward as the people of the Middle Ages. We live in a state of psychic degeneracy, within a dark and stuffy moral environment. A healthy person from the psychical point of view is as rare today as a physically healthy one before.
If a person were to grow up with a healthy soul, enjoying the full development of a strong character and a clear intellect, they could not endure to uphold two kinds of justice—the one protecting life and the other destroying it. Nor would they consent to cultivate in their heart both love and hate. Neither could they tolerate two disciplines—the one aimed at building, and the other at tearing down what has been built.
Better humans than we are would use their intellects and the attainments of civilization to end the fury of war. War would not be a problem for them at all. They would see it simply as a barbarous state, opposed to civilization—an absurd and incomprehensible phenomenon, as expendable and defeatable as the plague.