Sarton on Duty

Excerpted from May Sarton’s “I Knew a Phoenix,” a letter written by her father, George Sarton to his wife in December 1914 about World War I and the choice to stand by his convictions:

“You will understand all my anguish of this week, if I simply tell you the conclusions at which I have arrived. It is this: what is worst about the catastrophes brought about by men themselves is that it is impossible to act wholly for the good (outside of the Red Cross) for violence calls out violence, and evil calls out evil. The act itself of fighting is a monstrous thing; but what surpasses everything in horror and monstrousness is when the act of fighting becomes a moral duty, and the collective crime becomes for the moment the highest duty of the citizens.”


How things stay the same. Collective crimes elevated to moral duty. How it echoes. Humankind. What a word that is. The images evoked by the conjoined terms in their separate states are so contrary to one another, looking back over recent and distant history.

What is heartening is that George Sarton confided in his wife, knew she would understand him best. He found comfort in their shared view of the war, though they debated most everything. Yes, the romantic in me, perhaps. Still there is so much said in that last sentence, conciseness of thought without sacrificing its effect.

©2005 Sandra Davidson

2 responses to “Sarton on Duty

  1. That last sentence is indeed pretty amazing, not only in it’s conciseness as you say, but also that he would admit to have been involved in that behavior. It seems it is inevitable in war-time when ordinary , so called moral behavior goes out the window. As you say, it certainly echoes with present day – I think of all the fear-mongering around terrorism, and how rights have been stripped in both the US & UK in the guise of ‘fighting the common enemy’. No, the ends do not always justify the means.

    • Thank you for the insight from your perspective. It’s a hard place from which to speak, and yet to have your best friend, your wife, in whom you can confide—rare in our age.

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