War is much in the news these days, to the great distress of the world. There is not a continent on Earth on which some form of violence is expressing our species capacity for hatred and cruelty. What did Henry Miller think of war and how it could be avoided?
Miller regarded war as the ultimate expression of anti-life. In the midst of World War Two, at the urging of his devoted follower Bern Porter, Miller wrote a pamphlet titled Murder the Murderer that set forth his position. Not surprisingly, Miller's views on war reflect his belief in the inviolability of the individual human conscience, and his condemnation of mass movements. War results because men surrender their individuality to the will of the herd⎯a herd that is manipulated to pursue the interests of a privileged few.
Murder the Murderer has two parts. Part I, "An Open Letter to Fred Perlès," was written in 1941 but never sent. It was Miller's response to a letter from his Paris friend Alfred Perlès, who had moved to England, become a British citizen, and joined the army. Perlès faulted Miller for his "detachment" in taking an American driving tour while his country was at war. Miller replied that the ultimate authority of the individual conscience justifies his detachment from state sanctioned mass murder.
Miller's argument against involvement in the war effort is based on his belief that wars are fought to advance the economic interests of a vested few whose will to power denies the individual his freedom of choice. "It is the minority which sponsors war, and this minority always represents the vested interests . . . The vast majority of people in the world to-day not only believe but know the sole reason for war, in this day and age, is economic rivalry." Miller insists on the right of the individual to obey his own conscience and refuse involvement in war. "What I protest against, and what I will never admit to be right, is forcing a man against his will and his conscience to sacrifice his life for a cause which he does not believe in."
Miller asserts that his detachment, far from being a fault, is actually the highest form of virtue, practiced by the world's greatest spiritual leaders. "The figures who have most influenced the world all practiced detachment: I mean men like Laotse, Gautama the Buddha, Jesus Christ, St. Francis of Assisi, and such like." Miller traces his own detachment to his stay in Greece just before the outbreak of the war. "The visit fortified me inwardly to a degree beyond anything I had ever known before . . . In Greece I came to grips with myself and made my peace with the world . . . I succeeded in detaching myself completely . . . I finally became a citizen of the world."
Miller made this supra-nationalism into an ideal world order that would come about only through the effort of each individual to become free, to self-actualize. "There can be no civilized effort until the organism embodying the ideal becomes world-wide . . . The fact that we are all alike before God has to be demonstrated in practice."
In Part I of Murder the Murderer Miller defends his detachment and disengagement from the war on the principle of individual freedom. In Part II, he argues for the supremacy of individual freedom, whether of conscience or of expression, over state authority, and implies that militarism and censorship of his work emanate from the same repressive animus that dominates American life. He cites distinguished American thinkers such as Thoreau and Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in support of his position. Thoreau: "There will never be a really free and enlightened state until the state comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly." Brandeis: "No danger flowing from free speech can be deemed clear and present, unless the incidence of evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall before there is opportunity for full discussion. Only an emergency can justify repression. Such must be the rule if authority is to be reconciled with freedom."
Miller saw America's willingness to go to war and its willingness to censor free speech as driven by a deeply rooted impulse towards conformity and control that springs from greed and fear. "We are paying now for the crimes committed by our ancestors. Our forefathers when first they came to this country, were hailed as gods. To our disgrace, they behaved as demons. They asked for gold instead of grace . . . We have emphasized gold instead of opportunity . . . Power and riches, not for all America⎯that would be bad enough!⎯but for the few."
Miller refused to participate in a society that suppresses individual liberty. He accepted his role as an outsider, one of a small number of people⎯like Thoreau, or D. H. Lawrence, or Christ⎯whose ability to self-govern eliminates their need for, or obligation to, society. "Men of good will need no government to regulate their affairs. In every age there is a very small minority which lives without thought of, or desire for, government . . . They lie outside the cultural pattern of the times . . . They are evolved beings." This statement brings into view Miller's anarchism, a philosophy he adopted at the age of twenty after hearing a lecture in San Diego, California by the anarchist Emma Goldman. Miller viewed himself as being among the spiritually elite of his day, a man in possession of himself, an adept who is attuned to a higher moral order than the vast majority of men. And until all men become adept at living war will not cease. Christ is Miller's touchstone. "The Christian world has welcomed every excuse to fight in the name of Christ who came to bring peace on earth. There can be no end to this repetitious pattern until each and every one of us become as Christ, until belief and devotion transform our words into deeds and thus make of myth reality."