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The Great War Which Was Really the Struggle for a New and Better World

The Marquis de Condorcet was one of the noblest characters among the small group of honest enthusiasts who were responsible for the outbreak of the great French Revolution. He had devoted his life to the cause of the poor and the unfortunate. He had been one of the assistants of d'Alembert and Diderot when they wrote their famous Encyclopédie. During the first years of the Revolution he had been the leader of the Moderate wing of the Convention.

His tolerance, his kindliness, his stout common sense, had made him an object of suspicion when the treason of the king and the court clique had given the extreme radicals their chance to get hold of the government and kill their opponents. Condorcet was declared "hors de loi," or outlawed, an outcast who was henceforth at the mercy of every true patriot. His friends offered to hide him at their own peril. Condorcet refused to accept their sacrifice. He escaped and tried to reach his home, where he might be safe. After three nights in the open, torn and bleeding, he entered an inn and asked for some food. The suspicious yokels searched him and in his pockets they found a copy of Horace, the Latin poet. This showed that their prisoner was a man of gentle breeding and had no business upon the highroads at a time when every educated person was regarded as an enemy of the Revolutionary state. They took Condorcet and they bound him and they gagged him and they threw him into the village lock-up, but in the morning when the soldiers came to drag him back to Paris and cut his head off, behold! he was dead.

This man who had given all and had received nothing had good reason to despair of the human race. But he has written a few sentences which ring as true today as they did one hundred and thirty years ago. I repeat them here for your benefit.

"Nature has set no limits to our hopes," he wrote, "and the picture of the human race, now freed from its chains and marching with a firm tread on the road of truth and virtue and happiness, offers to the philosopher a spectacle which consoles him for the errors, for the crimes and the injustices which still pollute and afflict this earth."

By 1918, the world passed through an agony of pain compared to which the French Revolution was a mere incident. The shock was so great that it has killed the last spark of hope in the breasts of millions of people. They chanted a hymn of progress, and four years of slaughter followed their prayers for peace. "Is it worth while," so they ask, "to work and slave for the benefit of creatures who have not yet passed beyond the stage of the earliest cavemen?"

There is but one answer.

That answer is "Yes!"

World War I was a terrible calamity. But it did not mean the end of things. On the contrary, it brought about the coming of a new day.

It is easy to write a history of Greece and Rome or the Middle Ages. The actors who played their parts upon that long-forgotten stage are all dead. We can criticize them with a cool head. The audience that applauded their efforts has dispersed. Our remarks cannot possibly hurt their feelings.

But it is very difficult to give a true account of contemporary events. The problems that fill the minds of the people with whom we pass through life, are our own problems, and they hurt us too much or they please us too well to be described with that fairness which is necessary when we are writing history and not blowing the trumpet of propaganda. All the same, I shall endeavor to tell you why I agree with poor Condorcet when he expressed his firm faith in a better future.

Often before have I warned you against the false impression which is created by the use of our so-called historical epochs which divide the story of people into four parts, the ancient world, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Reformation, and Modern Time. The last of these terms is the most dangerous. The word "modern" implies that we, the people of the twentieth century, are at the top of human achievement. Fifty years ago the liberals of England who followed the leadership of Gladstone felt that the problem of a truly representative and democratic form of government had been solved forever by the second great Reform Bill, which gave workmen an equal share in the government with their employers. When Disraeli and his conservative friends talked of a dangerous "leap in the dark" they answered "No." They felt certain of their cause and trusted that henceforth all classes of society would cooperate to make the government of their common country a success. Since then many things have happened, and the few liberals who are still alive begin to understand that they were mistaken.

There is no definite answer to any historical problem.

Every generation must fight the good fight anew or perish as those sluggish animals of the prehistoric world have perished.

If you once get hold of this great truth you will get a new and much broader view of life. Then, go one step further and try to imagine yourself in the position of your own great-great-grandchildren who will take your place in the year 10,000. They too will learn history. But what will they think of those short four thousand years during which we have kept a written record of our actions and of our thoughts? They will think of Napoleon as a contemporary of Tiglath Pileser, the Assyrian conqueror. Perhaps they will confuse him with Genghis Khan or Alexander the Macedonian. The great war which has just come to an end will appear in the light of that long commercial conflict which settled the supremacy of the Mediterranean when Rome and Carthage fought during one hundred and twenty-eight years for the mastery of the sea. The Balkan troubles of the 19th century (the struggle for freedom of Serbia and Greece and Bulgaria and Montenegro) to them will seem a continuation of the disordered conditions caused by the Great Migrations. They will look at pictures of the Rheims cathedral which only yesterday was destroyed by German guns as we look upon a photograph of the Acropolis ruined two hundred and fifty years ago during a war between the Turks and the Venetians. They will regard the fear of death, which is still common among many people, as a childish superstition which was perhaps natural in a race of men who had burned witches as late as the year 1692. Even our hospitals and our laboratories and our operating rooms of which we are so proud will look like slightly improved workshops of alchemists and medieval surgeons.

And the reason for all this is simple. We modern men and women are not "modern" at all. On the contrary we still belong to the last generations of the cave-dwellers. The foundation for a new era was laid but yesterday. The human race was given its first chance to become truly civilized when it took courage to question all things and made "knowledge and understanding" the foundation upon which to create a more reasonable and sensible society of human beings. The Great War was the "growing-pain" of this new world.

For a long time to come people will write mighty books to prove that this or that or the other person brought about the war. The Socialists will publish volumes in which they will accuse the "capitalists" of having brought about the war for "commercial gain." The capitalists will answer that they lost infinitely more through the war than they made—that their children were among the first to go and fight and be killed—and they will show how in every country the bankers tried their very best to avert the outbreak of hostilities. French historians will go through the register of German sins from the days of Charlemagne until the days of William of Hohenzollern and German historians will return the compliment and will go through the list of French horrors from the days of Charlemagne until the days of President Poincaré. And then they will establish to their own satisfaction that the other fellow was guilty of "causing the war." Statesmen, dead and not yet dead, in all countries will take to their typewriters and they will explain how they tried to avert hostilities and how their wicked opponents forced them into it.
The Spread of the Imperial Idea

The historian, a hundred years hence, will not bother about these apologies and vindications. He will understand the real nature of the underlying causes and he will know that personal ambitions and personal wickedness and personal greed had very little to do with the final outburst. The original mistake, which was responsible for all this misery, was committed when our scientists began to create a new world of steel and iron and chemistry and electricity and forgot that the human mind is slower than the proverbial turtle, is lazier than the well-known sloth, and marches from one hundred to three hundred years behind the small group of courageous leaders.

A Zulu in a frock coat is still a Zulu. A dog trained to ride a bicycle and smoke a pipe is still a dog. And a human being with the mind of a sixteenth century tradesman driving a 1921 Rolls-Royce is still a human being with the mind of a sixteenth century tradesman.

If you do not understand this at first, read it again. It will become clearer to you in a moment and it will explain many things that have happened these last six years.

Perhaps I may give you another, more familiar, example, to show you what I mean. In the movie theaters, jokes and funny remarks are often thrown upon the screen. Watch the audience the next time you have a chance. A few people seem almost to inhale the words. It takes them but a second to read the lines. Others are a bit slower. Still others take from twenty to thirty seconds. Finally those men and women who do not read any more than they can help, get the point when the brighter ones among the audience have already begun to decipher the next cut-in. It is not different in human life, as I shall now show you.

In a former chapter I have told you how the idea of the Roman Empire continued to live for a thousand years after the death of the last Roman Emperor. It caused the establishment of a large number of "imitation empires." It gave the Bishops of Rome a chance to make themselves the head of the entire church, because they represented the idea of Roman world-supremacy. It drove a number of perfectly harmless barbarian chieftains into a career of crime and endless warfare because they were forever under the spell of this magic word "Rome." All these people, Popes, Emperors and plain fighting men were not very different from you or me. But they lived in a world where the Roman tradition was a vital issue—something living—something which was remembered clearly both by the father and the son and the grandson. And so they struggled and sacrificed themselves for a cause which today would not find a dozen recruits.

In still another chapter I have told you how the great religious wars took place more than a century after the first open act of the Reformation and if you will compare the chapter on the Thirty Years War with that on Inventions, you will see that this ghastly butchery took place at a time when the first clumsy steam engines were already puffing in the laboratories of a number of French and German and English scientists. But the world at large took no interest in these strange contraptions, and went on with a grand theological discussion which today causes yawns, but no anger.

And so it goes. A thousand years from now, the historian will use the same words about Europe of the out-going nineteenth century, and he will see how men were engaged upon terrific nationalistic struggles while the laboratories all around them were filled with serious folk who cared not one whit for politics as long as they could force nature to surrender a few more of her million secrets.

You will gradually begin to understand what I am driving at. The engineer and the scientist and the chemist, within a single generation, filled Europe and America and Asia with their vast machines, with their telegraphs, their flying machines, their coal-tar products. They created a new world in which time and space were reduced to complete insignificance. They invented new products and they made these so cheap that almost every one could buy them. I have told you all this before but it certainly will bear repeating.

To keep the ever increasing number of factories going, the owners, who had also become the rulers of the land, needed raw materials and coal. Especially coal. Meanwhile the mass of the people were still thinking in terms of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and clinging to the old notions of the state as a dynastic or political organization. This clumsy medieval institution was then suddenly called upon to handle the highly modern problems of a mechanical and industrial world. It did its best, according to the rules of the game which had been laid down centuries before. The different states created enormous armies and gigantic navies which were used for the purpose of acquiring new possessions in distant lands. Wherever there was a tiny bit of land left, there arose an English or a French or a German or a Russian colony. If the natives objected, they were killed. In most cases they did not object, and were allowed to live peacefully, provided they did not interfere with the diamond mines or the coal mines or the oil mines or the gold mines or the rubber plantations, and they derived many benefits from the foreign occupation.

Sometimes it happened that two states in search of raw materials wanted the same piece of land at the same time. Then there was a war. This occurred fifteen years ago when Russia and Japan fought for the possession of certain territories which belonged to the Chinese people. Such conflicts, however, were the exception. No one really desired to fight. Indeed, the idea of fighting with armies and battleships and submarines began to seem absurd to the men of the early 20th century. They associated the idea of violence with the long-ago age of unlimited monarchies and intriguing dynasties. Every day they read in their papers of still further inventions, of groups of English and American and German scientists who were working together in perfect friendship for the purpose of an advance in medicine or in astronomy. They lived in a busy world of trade and of commerce and factories. But only a few noticed that the development of the state, (of the gigantic community of people who recognize certain common ideals,) was lagging several hundred years behind. They tried to warn the others. But the others were occupied with their own affairs.

I have used so many similes that I must apologise for bringing in one more. The Ship of State (that old and trusted expression which is ever new and always picturesque,) of the Egyptians and the Greeks and the Romans and the Venetians and the merchant adventurers of the seventeenth century had been a sturdy craft, constructed of well-seasoned wood, and commanded by officers who knew both their crew and their vessel and who understood the limitations of the art of navigating which had been handed down to them by their ancestors.

Then came the new age of iron and steel and machinery. First one part, then another of the old ship of state was changed. Her dimensions were increased. The sails were discarded for steam. Better living quarters were established, but more people were forced to go down into the stoke-hole, and while the work was safe and fairly remunerative, they did not like it as well as their old and more dangerous job in the rigging. Finally, and almost imperceptibly, the old wooden square-rigger had been transformed into a modern ocean liner. But the captain and the mates remained the same. They were appointed or elected in the same way as a hundred years before. They were taught the same system of navigation which had served the mariners of the fifteenth century. In their cabins hung the same charts and signal flags which had done service in the days of Louis XIV and Frederick the Great. In short, they were (through no fault of their own) completely incompetent.

The sea of international politics is not very broad. When those Imperial and Colonial liners began to try and outrun each other, accidents were bound to happen. They did happen. You can still see the wreckage if you venture to pass through that part of the ocean.

And the moral of the story is a simple one. The world is in dreadful need of men who will assume the new leadership—who will have the courage of their own visions and who will recognize clearly that we are only at the beginning of the voyage, and have to learn an entirely new system of seamanship.

They will have to serve for years as mere apprentices. They will have to fight their way to the top against every possible form of opposition. When they reach the bridge, mutiny of an envious crew may cause their death. But someday, a person will arise who will bring the vessel safely to port, and he shall be the hero of the ages.


Study the lesson for one week.

Over the week:

  • Read and/or listen to the lesson.
  • Review the synopsis.
  • Study the vocabulary terms.
  • Complete the enrichment activities.
  • Answer the review questions.


Marquis de Condorcet advocated all his life for the poor and died for his efforts. He persisted in maintaining hope for the future and faith in humankind. World War I was a terrible calamity, yet it did not shake humankind's hope for a better future. Although we continue to progress, we all think of ourselves as thoroughly "modern," elevated in comparison to those in the past. However, no matter how far we advance, we are still human, with the same limitations as our ancestors.


Patriot: A person who loves and zealously supports and defends their country.
Yokel: An unsophisticated person or a person of rural background.
Socialist: Of, promoting, practicing, or characteristic of any of various economic and political theories advocating collective ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.
Capitalist: Of, or pertaining to, a socio-economic system based on private ownership of resources or capital.


Activity 1: Narrate the Lesson

  • After you read the lesson, narrate the lesson aloud using your own words.

Activity 2: Study the Lesson Picture(s)

  • Study the lesson picture(s) and describe how they relate to the lesson.

Activity 3: Complete Copywork, Narration, Dictation, and Coloring   

Click the crayon above. Complete page 55 of 'World History Activities for Fourth Grade.'


Question 1

For whom did Marquis de Condorcet advocate?
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Answer 1

Marquis de Condorcet advocated for the poor.
1 / 3

Question 2

Did World War I shake humanity's faith in a better future?
2 / 3

Answer 2

No, World War I did not shake humanity's faith in a better future.
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Question 3

Should we think of ourselves as modern and elevated beyond our ancestors?
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Answer 3

It is good not to be too arrogant about our perceived 'modernness,' for modern today is the antiquity of tomorrow.
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  1. For whom did Marquis de Condorcet advocate? Marquis de Condorcet advocated for the poor.
  2. Did World War I shake humanity's faith in a better future? No, World War I did not shake humanity's faith in a better future.
  3. Should we think of ourselves as modern and elevated beyond our ancestors? It is good not to be too arrogant about our perceived 'modernness,' for modern today is the antiquity of tomorrow.