Nicholas Murray Butler

Where the forms of civil, religious and political liberty still exist, they must be strengthened and given new power over the hearts as well as over the minds of men. Faith must not be lost, and courage must not be lacking. The call is for every civilized human being who believes in justice, in liberty and in public morals. The bell is ringing!

Nicholas Murray Butler (April 2, 1862December 7, 1947) was an American philosopher, diplomat, and educator. Butler was president of Columbia University, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.


  • Where the forms of civil, religious and political liberty still exist, they must be strengthened and given new power over the hearts as well as over the minds of men. Faith must not be lost, and courage must not be lacking. The call is for every civilized human being who believes in justice, in liberty and in public morals. The bell is ringing!
  • There was a time when philosophy might have been defined as the science of human activity, so all-comprehensive was it. The ambitious Greek who would attach his name to a philosophical system must include in his scheme all that could be known, done, and speculated about God, the world, and man. In the course of time and the specialization of the sciences this view of philosophy fell away, and was replaced by the more exact and narrower conception of modern times.
  • The United States is in sore need today of an aristocracy of intellect and service. Because such an aristocracy does not exist in the popular consciousness, we are bending the knee to the golden calf of money. The form of monarchy and its pomp offer a valuable foil to the worship of money for its own sake. A democracy must provide itself with a foil of its own and none is better or more effective than an aristocracy of intellect and service.
  • Many definitions have been given of the word “education,” but underlying them all is the conception that it denotes an attempt on the part of the adult members of a human society to shape the development of the coming generation in accordance with its own ideals of life. It is true that the word has not infrequently been used in wider senses than this.
    • Butler (1911) "Education" in Encyclopædia Britannica, (11th ed.), 1911. (United States)
  • All the problems of the world could be settled easily if men were only willing to think. The trouble is that men very often resort to all sorts of devices in order not to think, because thinking is such hard work.
    • Attributed to Butler in: American Dental Association (1959) The Journal of the American Dental Association. Vol 59. p. 289
  • When you remember how few Jews there are in Italy and how relatively few there are in Germany, one must wonder at the violence and the bitterness of this perse cution. The number of Jews in Italy is only a small fraction of those in the city of New York, while there are in the city of New York six times as many Jews as there were in the German Reich when the last war ended and possibly more than four times as many as there are there now. Yet the persecution, personal, physical, family, financial, goes on, openly and secretly, in a way that is perfectly appalling. To my great astonishment, this anti-Semitic persecution has been violently and publicly revived in this country within the last few weeks or months, and it is as discreditable to us that this should have happened as anything that we can imagine.'
    Jews differ among themselves just as do Spaniards or Italians or Canadians or Americans. There are some who belong to one party, some who belong to another some whp hold one point of view, some who hold a point of view that is contradictory. The notion that all who belong to that race or profess that faith are of one mind in everything that relates to their public relationships is a grotesque departure from fact. But if you can play upon an excited public emotion by the use of these terms and by the insinuation that the entire Hebrew population is engaged, let us say as we have been told from the platform recently in trying to get this nation into war, such statements, although absolutely contradictory to every well-known fact, will, if repeated long enough, be believed and acted upon by a certain number of our unthinking population.
    We cannot protest too vigorously and too strongly against that sort of thing. It may be the Ku Klux Klan persecuting the Catholics, it may be the anti-Semites persecuting the Jews: but persecution on racial or religious ground has absolutely no place in a nation given over to liberty and which calls itself a democracy.
  • Whether it be generally recognized or not, what we call the civilized world, which for seven hundred years has been moving steadily forward in the spirit of liberalism and toward liberalism s high ideals, has now turned suddenly and violently backward. The guidance of reason and of understanding, of moral principle and of religious faith, has been shockingly and cruelly disslaced by the rule of brute force. Our literally stupendous achievements in literature, in philosophy, in the arts, in the sciences and in the comforts and conveniences of life count for nothing in the control of no national policy and of national conduct, and by far the major portion of the world is now under the rule of brutal compulsion. Such portion of the world as is not in that condition may soon be struggling for its life.
  • Public opinion* is the unseen product of education and practical experience. Education, in turn, is the function, in co-operation, of the family, the church and the school. If the family fails in its guiding influence and discipline and if the church fails in its religious instruction, then everything is left to the school, which is given an impossible burden to bear. It is just this situation which has arisen in the United States during the generation through which we are still passing. In overwhelming proportion, the family has become almost unconscious of its chief educational responsibility. In like manner, the church, fortunately with some noteworthy exceptions, has done the same. The heavy burden put upon the school has resulted in confused thinking, unwise plans of instruction and a loss of opportunity to lay the foundations of true education, the effects of which are becoming obvious to every one. Fundamental dis cipline, both personal and social, has pretty well disappeared, and, without that discipline which develops into self-discipline, education is impossible.
    What are the American people going to do about it? If they do not correct these conditions, they are simply playing into the hands of the advocates of a totalitarian state, for that type of state is at least efficient, and it is astonishing to how many persons efficiency makes stronger appeal than liberty.
    Then, too, we have many signs of an incapacity to understand and to interpret liberty, or to distinguish it from license. There is a limit to liberty, and liberty ends where license begins. It is very difficult for many persons to understand this fact or to grasp its implications. If we are to have freedom of speech, freedom of thought and freedom of the press, why should we not be free to say and think and print whatever we like? The answer is that the limit between liberty and license must be observed if liberty itself is to last. To suppose, as many individuals and groups seem to do, that liberty of thought and liberty of speech* include liberty to agitate for the destruction of liberty itself, indicates on the part of such persons not only lack of common sense but lack of any sense o humor. If liberty is to remain, the barrier between liberty and license must be recognized and observed.
  • Until the family and the church can be roused to the full height of their responsibility we cannot expect to find the youth of the land in possession of that religious knowledge and religious feeling which were characteristic of their ancestors two or three generations ago.
  • Both anti-Semitism and the Ku Klux Klan are an insult to democracy and a contradiction of it. But faith honest, sincere, hopeful, opens a door to moving forward in this new and very difficult world in which our children must live. It opens the door into that world in a spirit inspired by something more than the merely human, the gain-seeking and the temporary. It brings us, our children and our grandchildren, in touch with the eternal verities which are the only possible foundation for a civilization and a life that are worthy of human ambition and human endeavor.
  • The moral ideal has disappeared in all that has to do with international relations. The gain-seeking impulse supported by brute force has taken its place, and so far as the surface of things is concerned human civilization has gone back a full thousand years. Inconceivable though it be, we are brought face to face in this twentieth century with governments of peoples once great and highly civilized, whose word now means absolutely nothing. A pledge is something not to be kept, but to be broken. Cruelty and national lust have displaced human feeling and friendly international co-operation. Human life has no value, and the savings of generations are wasted month by month and almost day by day in mad attempts to dominate the whole world in pursuit of gain.
    How has all this been possible? What has happened to the teachings and inspiring leadership of the great prophets and apostles of the mind, who for nearly three thousand years have been holding before mankind a vision of the moral ideal supported by intellectual power? What has become of the influence and guidance of the great religions Christian, Moslem, Hebrew, Buddhist with their counsels of peace and good-will, or of those of Plato and of Aristotle, of St. Augustine and of St. Thomas Aquinas, and of the outstanding captains of the mind Spanish, Italian, French, English, German who have for hundreds of years occupied the highest place in the citadel of human fame? The answer to these questions is not easy. Indeed, it sometimes seems impossible.
    Are we, then, of this twentieth century and of this still free and independent land to lose heart and to yield to the despair which is becoming so widespread in countries other than ours? Not for one moment will we yield our faith or our courage! We may well repeat once more the words of Abraham Lincoln: "Most governments have been based on the denial of the equal rights of men, ours began by affirming those rights. We made the experiment, and the fruit is before us. Look at it think of it!"
    However dark the skies may seem now, however violent and apparently irresistible are the savage attacks being made with barbarous brutality upon innocent women and children and non-combatant men, upon hospitals and institutions for the care of the aged and dependent, upon cathedrals and churches, upon libraries and galleries of the world s art, upon classic monuments which record the architectural achievements of centuries we must not despair. Our spirit of faith in the ultimate rule of the moral ideal and in the permanent establish ment of liberty of thought, of speech, of worship and of government will not, and must not, be permitted to weaken or to lose control of our mind and our action.
  • There is no .man, there is no people, without a God. That God may be a visible idol, carved of wood or stone, to which sacrifice is offered in the forest, in the temple, or in the market-place; or it may be an invisible idol, fashioned in a man's own image and worshipped ardently at his own personal shrine. Somewhere in the universe there is that in which each individual has firm faith, and on which he places steady reliance. The fool who says in his heart "There is no God" really means there is no God but himself. His supreme egotism, his colossal vanity, have placed him at the center of the universe which is thereafter to be measured and dealt with in terms of his personal satisfactions. So it has come to pass that after nearly two thousand years much of the world resembles the Athens of St. Paul's time, in that it is wholly given to idolatry; but in the modern case there are as many idols as idol worshippers, and every such idol worshipper finds his idol in the looking-glass. The time has come once again to repeat and to expound in thunderous tones the noble sermon of St. Paul on Mars Hill, and to declare to these modern idolaters "Whom, therefore, ye ignorantly worship, Him declare I unto you."
    There can be no cure for the world's ills and no abatement of the world's discontents until faith and the rule of everlasting principle are again restored and made supreme in the life of men and of nations. These millions of man-made gods, these myriads of personal idols, must be broken up and destroyed, and the heart and mind of man brought back to a comprehension of the real meaning of faith and its place in life. This cannot be done by exhortation or by preaching alone. It must be done also by teaching; careful, systematic, rational teaching, that will show in a simple language which the uninstructed can understand what are the essentials of a permanent and lofty morality, of a stable and just social order, and of a secure and sublime religious faith.
    Here we come upon the whole great problem of national education, its successes and its disappointments, its achievements and its problems yet unsolved. Education is not merely instruction far from it. It is the leading of the youth out into a comprehension of his environment, that, comprehending, he may so act and so conduct himself as to leave the world better and happier for his having lived in it. This environment is not by any means a material thing alone. It is material of course, but, in addition, it is intellectual, it is spiritual. The youth who is led to an understanding of nature and of economics and left blind and deaf to the appeals of literature, of art, of morals and of religion, has been shown but a part of that great environment which is his inheritance as a human being. The school and the college do much, but the school and the college cannot do all. Since Protestantism broke up the solidarity of the ecclesiastical organization in the western world, and since democracy made intermingling of state and church impossible, it has been necessary, if religion is to be saved for men, that the family and the church do their vital cooperative part in a national organization of educational effort. The school, the family and the church are three cooperating educational agencies, each of which has its weight of responsibility to bear. If the family be weakened in respect of its moral and spiritual basis, or if the church be neglectful of its obligation to offer systematic, continuous and convincing religious instruction to the young who are within its sphere of influence, there can be no hope for a Christian education or for the powerful perpetuation of the Christian faith in the minds and lives of the next generation and those immediately to follow. We are trustees of a great inheritance. If we abuse or neglect that trust we are responsible before Almighty God for the infinite damage that will be done in the life of individuals and of nations.... Clear thinking will distinguish between men's different associations, and it will be able to render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and to render unto God the things which are God's.
  • Man's conception of what is most worth knowing and reflecting upon, of what may best compel his scholarly energies, has changed greatly with the years. His earliest impressions were of his own insignificance and of the stupendous powers and forces by which he was surrounded and ruled. The heavenly fires, the storm-cloud and the thunderbolt, the rush of waters and the change of seasons, all filled him with an awe which straightway saw in them manifestations of the superhuman and the divine. Man was absorbed in nature, a mythical and legendary nature to be sure, but still the nature out of which science was one day to arise. Then, at the call of Socrates, he turned his back on nature and sought to know himself; to learn the secrets of those mysterious and hidden processes by which he felt and thought and acted. The intellectual centre of gravity had passed from nature to man. From that day to this the goal of scholarship has been the understanding of both nature and man, the uniting of them in one scheme or plan of knowledge, and the explaining of them as the offspring of the omnipotent activity of a Creative Spirit, the Christian God. Slow and painful have been the steps toward the goal which to St. Augustine seemed so near at hand, but which has receded through the intervening centuries as the problems grew more complex and as the processes of inquiry became so refined that whole worlds of new and unsuspected facts revealed themselves. Scholars divided into two camps. The one would have ultimate and complete explanations at any cost; the other, overcome by the greatness of the undertaking, held that no explanation in a large or general way was possible. The one camp bred sciolism; the other narrow and helpless specialization.
    At this point the modern university problem took its rise; and for over four hundred years the university has been striving to adjust its organization so that it may most effectively bend its energies to the solution of the problem as it is. For this purpose the university's scholars have unconsciously divided themselves into three types or classes: those who investigate and break new ground; those who explain, apply, and make understandable the fruits of new investigation; and those philosophically minded teachers who relate the new to the old, and, without dogma or intolerance, point to the lessons taught by the developing human spirit from its first blind gropings toward the light on the uplands of Asia or by the shores of the Mediterranean, through the insights of the world's great poets, artists, scientists, philosophers, statesmen, and priests, to its highly organized institutional and intellectual life of to-day. The purpose of scholarly activity requires for its accomplishment men of each of these three types. They are allies, not enemies; and happy the age, the people, or the university in which all three are well represented. It is for this reason that the university which does not strive to widen the boundaries of human knowledge, to tell the story of the new in terms that those familiar with the old can understand, and to put before its students a philosophical interpretation of historic civilization, is, I think, falling short of the demands which both society and university ideals themselves may fairly make.
    A group of distinguished scholars in separate and narrow fields can no more constitute a university than a bundle of admirably developed nerves, without a brain and spinal cord, can produce all the activities of the human organism.
  • On the eve of that going out, we gather to participate in this stately and solemn service to Almighty God, in Whose name this University was founded and in Whose name it has labored from generation to generation... Wherever the cause of liberty is in danger, there Columbia's hand will be found to help

avert it. Wherever the rule of despotism is extending, there Columbia's hand will be found to remove It. Wherever there is need of scientific skill and genius to serve, to cure, to invent, to construct, there a Columbia hand will be found ready to do its duty for the advancement of the public good and for the glory of Almighty God.

  • There is, I venture to think, no ground for the ordinarily accepted statement of the relation of philosophy to theology and religion. It is usually said that while^hilosophy is the creation of an individual mind, theology or religion is, like folk-lore and language, the product of the collective

mind of a people or a race. This is to confuse philosophy with philosophies, a conmion and, it must be admitted, a not unnatural confusion. But while a philosophy is the creation of a Plato, an Aristotle, a Spinoza, a Kant, or a Hegel,^hilosophy itself is, like religion, folk-lore and language, a product of the collective mind of humanity. It is advanced, as these are, by individual additions, interpretations and syntheses, but it is none the less quite istinct from such individual contributions. philosophy is humanity's hold on Totality, and it becomes richer and more helpful as man's intellectual horizon widens, as his intellectual vision grows clearer, and as his insights become more numerous and more sure. Theology is philosophy of a particular type. It is an interpretation of Totality in terms of God and His activities. In the impressive words of Principal Caird, that philosophy which is theology seeks "to bind together objects and events in the links of necessary thought, and to find their last ground and reason in that which comprehends and transcends all— the nature of God Himself." Religion is the apprehension and the adoration of the Grod Whom theology postulates.
If the whole history of philosophy be searched for material with which to instruct the beginner in what philosophy really is and in its relation to theology and religion, the two periods or epochs that stand out above all others as useful for this purpose are Greek thought from Thales to Socrates, and that interpretation of the teachings of Christ by philosophy which gave rise, at the hands of the Church Fathers, to Christian theology. In the first period we see the simple, clear-cut steps by which the mind of Europe was led from explanations that were fairy-tales to a natural, well-analyzed, and increasingly profound interpretation of the observed phenomena of Nature. The process is so orderly and so easily grasped that it is an invaluable introduction to the study of philosophic thinking. In the second period we see philosophy, now enriched by the literally huge contributions of Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics, intertwining itself about the simple Christian tenets and building the great system of creeds and thought which has immortalized the names of Athanasius and Hilary, Basil and Gregory, Jerome and Augustine, and which has given color and form to the intellectual life of Europe for nearly two thousand years. For the student of today both these developments have great practical value, and the astonishing neglect and ignorance of them both are most discreditable.

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