THE PLEA OF REASON, RELIGION,
AND HUMANITY AGAINST WAR
by Desiderius Erasmus
If there is in the affairs of mortal men any one thing which it is proper uniformly to discredit, and which it is incumbent on every man, by every lawful means, to avoid, to deprecate, and to oppose, that one thing is doubtless war. There is nothing more unnaturally wicked, more productive of misery, more extensively destructive, more obstinate in mischief, or more unworthy of man as formed by nature, much more of man professing Christianity.
Yet, it is an object of wonder to relate that, in these times, war is undertaken everywhere rashly, and on the slightest pretext; cruelly and savagely conducted, not only by unbelievers, but by Christians; not only by laymen, but by priests and bishops; not only by the young and inexperienced, but even by men far advanced in life, who must have seen and felt its dreadful consequences; and not only by the lower order, the rude rabble, fickle in their nature, but, above all, by princes, whose duty it is to compose the rash passions of the unthinking multitude by superior wisdom and the force of reason. Nor are there ever wanting men learned in the law, and even theologians, who are ready to furnish firebrands for the nefarious work, and to fan the latent sparks into a flame.
For this reason, war is now considered so much a thing of course, and the wonder is how any man can disapprove of it. It is so much sanctioned by authority and custom that it is deemed impious (I had almost said heretical) to have borne testimony against a practice that is most profligate in its principle and pregnant with every kind of calamity in its effects.
One may more justly wonder what evil genius, what accursed fiend, what hell-born fury first suggested to the mind of man a propensity so brutal that it instigates a gentle animal, formed by nature for peace and good-will, formed to promote the welfare of all around him, to rush with mad ferocity on the destruction of his fellow-creatures and himself!
This will appear still more and object of wonder if, laying aside all vulgar prejudices, and accurately examining the real nature of things, we contemplate, with the eyes of philosophy, the portrait of man on one side, and on the other the picture of war!
In the first place then, if anyone for a moment considers the organization and external figure of the body, will he not instantly perceive, that nature, or rather the God of nature, created the human animal not for war, but for love and friendship; not for mutual destruction, but for mutual service and safety; not to commit injuries, but for acts of reciprocal benevolence?
To all other animals, nature, or the God of nature, has given appropriate weapons of offence. The inborn violence of the bull is seconded by weapons of pointed horn. The rage of the lion is confirmed by claws. Terrible tusks are fixed on the wild boar. The elephant, in addition to the toughness of his hide and his enormous size, is defended with a proboscis. The crocodile is covered with scales like a coat of mail. Fins serve the dolphin for arms, quills protect the porcupine, prickles defend the thornback, and the gallant chanticleer in the farmyard crows defiance, conscious of his spur. Some are furnished with shells, some with hides, and others with an external covering resembling the outer layer of a tree in strength and thickness. Nature has contrived the safety of some of her creatures, as of the dove, by velocity of flight. To others she has given venom as a substitute for a weapon and added a hideous shape, eyes that beam terror, and a hissing noise. She has also given them antipathies and discordant dispositions corresponding with this exterior, that they might wage an offensive or defensive war with animals of a different species.
But man she brought into the world naked from his mother’s womb, weak, tender, and unarmed; his flesh of the softest texture, his skin smooth and delicate, and susceptible to the slightest injury. There is nothing observable in his limbs that is adapted to fighting or violence, not to mention that other animals are sufficient of themselves to support the life they have received as soon as they are brought forth. But man alone, for a long period, totally depends on external assistance. Unable either to speak, walk, or help himself to food, he can only implore relief by tears and wailing, so that from this circumstance alone might be surmised that man is an animal born for that love and friendship which is formed and cemented by the mutual interchange of benevolent offices. Moreover, nature evidently intended that man should consider himself indebted for the boon of life, not so much to nature herself as to the kindness of his fellow man, so that he might perceive himself designed for social affections and the attachments of friendship and love. Then she gave him a countenance, not frightful and forbidding, but mild and placid, intimating by external signs his benign disposition. She gave him eyes full of affectionate expression, the indexes of a mind delighting in social sympathy. She gave him arms to embrace his fellow-creatures. She gave him lips to express a union of heart and soul. She gave him alone the power of laughing, a mark of the joy of which he is susceptible. She gave him alone tears, the symbol of clemency and compassion. She gave him also a voice, not a menacing and frightful yell, but bland, soothing, and friendly. Not satisfied with these marks of her peculiar favor, she bestowed on him alone the use of speech and reason. This is a gift that tends more than any other to conciliate and cherish benevolence and the desire to render mutual services, so that nothing among human creatures might be done by violence. She implanted in man a hatred of solitude and a love of company. She sowed in his heart the seeds of every benevolent affection, and thus rendered what is most salutary and, at the same time, most agreeable. For what is more agreeable than a friend? What is so necessary? Indeed, even if it were possible to conduct life conveniently without mutual interaction, yet nothing could be pleasant without a companion, unless man should have divested himself of humanity and degenerated to the rank of a wild beast. Nature has also added a love of learning and an ardent desire for knowledge, a circumstance that at once contributes in the highest degree to distinguish man from the ferocity of inferior animals and to endear him cordially to his fellow-creature. Neither the relationship of affinity nor of consanguinity binds congenial spirits with closer or firmer bands than a union in one common pursuit of liberal knowledge and intellectual improvement. Add to all this that she has distributed to every mortal endowments, both of mind and body, with such admirable variety that every man finds something in every other man to love and to admire for its beauty and excellence, or something to seek after and embrace for its use and necessity. Lastly, kind nature has given to man a spark of the Divine Mind, which stimulates him, without any hope of reward, and of his own free will, to do good to all. This is the most natural and appropriate attribute of God himself: to pursue the good of all by disinterested benevolence. If it were not so, how happens it that we feel an exquisite delight when we find that, by our offices or intervention, any man has been preserved from danger, injury, or destruction? How happens it that we love a man the better because we have done him a service?
It seems as if God has placed man in this world as a representative of himself, a kind of terrestrial deity, to make provision for the general welfare. Of this the very brutes seem sensible, since we see not only tame animals, but also leopards, lions, and even fiercer animals flying for refuge to man when in extreme danger. This is the last asylum, the most inviolable sanctuary, and the anchor of hope in distress to every inferior creature.
Such is the true portrait of man, however faintly and imperfectly delineated. It remains that I compare it, as I proposed, with the picture of war. We shall see how the two descriptions compare when hung up together and contrasted.
Now view, with the eyes of your imagination, savage troops of men, horrible in their very visages and voices; men, clad in steel, drawn up on every side in battle array, armed with weapons, frightful in their crash and their very glitter; mark the horrid murmur of the confused multitude and their threatening looks; the harsh jarring din of drums and clarions, the terrific sound of the trumpet, the thunder of the cannon, a noise not less formidable than the real thunder of heaven, and more hurtful; a mad shout like that of the shrieks of bedlamites, a furious onset, a cruel butchering of each other! See the slaughtered and the slaughtering, heaps of dead bodies, fields flowing with blood, and rivers reddened with human gore! It sometimes happens that a brother falls by the hand of a brother, a kinsman upon his nearest kindred, a friend upon his friend, who, while both are actuated by this fit of insanity, plunges a sword into the heart of one by whom he was never offended, not even by a word of his mouth! So deep is the tragedy that the bosom shudders even at the feeble description of it, and the hand of humanity drops the brush while it paints the scene.
In the mean time I pass over, as comparatively trifling, the corn-fields trodden down, peaceful cottages and rural mansions burnt to the ground, villages and towns reduced to ashes, the cattle driven from their pasture, innocent women violated, old men dragged into captivity, churches defaced and demolished, and everything laid waste, a prey to robbery, plunder, and violence!
Not to mention the consequences which ensue to the people after a war that is even the most fortunate in its event, and the most just in its principle: the poor, the unoffending common people, robbed of their little hard-earned property; the great, laden with taxes; old people bereaved of their children, more cruelly killed by the murder of their offspring than by the sword, happier if the enemy had deprived them of the sense of their misfortune, and life itself, at the same moment; women far advanced in age, left destitute, and more cruelly put to death than if they had died at once by the point of the bayonet; widowed mothers, orphan children, houses of mourning; and families, that once knew better days, reduced to extreme penury.
Why need I dwell on the evils that morals sustain by war, when everyone knows that every kind of evil, which disturbs and destroys the happiness of human life, at once proceeds from war?
War brings about a contempt of piety, a neglect of law, and a general corruption of principle that hesitates at no villainy. From this source a torrent of thieves, robbers, sacrilegists, and murderers rushes on society. And, what is the greatest misfortune of all, this destructive pestilence does not confine itself within its own boundaries. Instead, originating in one corner of the world, it not only spreads its contagious virulence over the neighboring states, but also draws the most remote regions, either by subsidies, by marriages among princes, or by political alliances into the common tumult and the general whirlpool of mischief and confusion. One war sows the seeds of another. From a pretended war arises a real one. From an inconsiderable skirmish arise hostilities of most important consequence. Nor is it uncommon, in the case of war, to find the old fable of the Lernaean Lake with its Hydra realized. For this reason, I suppose, the ancient poets (who penetrated into the nature of things with wonderful sagacity, and illustrated truths with the most appropriate fictions) handed down by tradition that war originated from hell, that it was brought thence by the assistance of the furies, and that only the most furious of the furies, Alecto, was fit for the infernal office. The most pestilent of them all was selected for it,
Cui nomina mille, mille nocendi artes. Virgil
As the poets describe her, she is armed with snakes without number, and blows her blast in the trumpet of hell. Pan fills all the space around her with mad uproar. Bellona, in frantic mood, shakes her scourge. And the unnatural, impious fury, breaking every bond asunder, flies abroad all horrible to behold, with a visage besmeared with gore!
Even the grammarians, with all their trifling ingenuity and observing the deformity of war, say that bellum, the Latin word for war, which also signifies the beautiful or comely, was so called by the rhetorical figure Contradiction (κατ’ αντιφρασιν) because it has nothing in it either good or beautiful, and that bellum is called bellum by the same figure that called the furies Eumenides. Other etymologists, with more judgment, derive bellum from bellua, a beast, because meeting for no other purpose than mutual destruction ought to be more characteristic of beasts than of men.
But to me it appears to deserve a worse epithet than brutal. It is more than brutal, when men engage in the conflict of arms as ministers of death to men! Most of the brutes live in peace with their own kind, move together in flocks, and defend each other by mutual assistance. Indeed, all kinds of brutes are not inclined to fight even their enemies. There are harmless ones like the hare. It is only the fiercest, such as lions, wolves, and tigers, that fight at all. A dog will not devour his own species. Lions, with all their fierceness, are quiet among themselves. Dragons are said to live in peace with dragons, and even venomous creatures live with one another in perfect harmony. But to man, no wild beast is more destructive than his fellow man.
Again, when the brutes fight, they fight with the weapons which nature gave them. We arm ourselves for mutual slaughter with weapons which nature never thought of, but which were invented by the contrivance of some accursed fiend, the enemy of human nature, so that man might become the destroyer of man. Neither do the beasts break out in hostile rage for trifling causes, but only when hunger drives them to madness, when they find themselves attacked, or when they are alarmed for the safety of their young. But people – good Heaven! What tragedies do we act out in the theatre of war on frivolous pretences! We kindle the flames of war under the pretense of some obsolete and disputable claim to territory, in a childish passion for a mistress, or for causes even more ridiculous than these. Among the beasts, the combat is for the most part only one against one, and for a very short time. And though the contest should be bloody, yet when one of them has received a wound, it is all over. Whoever heard (what is common among men in one campaign) that a hundred thousand beasts had met in battle for mutual butchery? Besides, as beasts have a natural hatred to some of a different kind, so are they united to others of a different kind in a sincere and inviolable alliance. But man with man, and any man with any man, can find an everlasting cause for contest, and become what they call natural enemies. Nor is any agreement or truce found sufficiently obligatory to bind man from attempting, on the appearance of the slightest pretexts, to commence hostilities after the most solemn covenant. So true it is, that whatever has deviated from its own nature into evil is apt to degenerate to a more depraved state than if its nature had been originally formed with inbred malignity.
Do you wish to form a lively idea, however imperfect, of the ugliness and the brutality of war (for we are speaking of its brutality), and how unworthy it is of a rational creature? Have you ever seen a battle between a lion and a bear? What bedlam, what roaring, what howling, what fierceness, what bloodshed! The spectator of such a fray, in which mere brutes like these are fighting, though he stands in a place of safety, cannot help shuddering at a sight so bloody. But how much more shocking a spectacle it is to see man conflicting with man, armed from head to foot with a variety of artificial weapons! Who could believe that creatures so engaged were men, if the frequency of the sight had not blunted its effect on our feelings and prevented surprise? Their eyes flashing, their cheeks pale, their very gait and mien expressive of fury; gnashing their teeth, shouting like madmen, the whole man transformed to steel; their weapons clanging horribly, while the cannon’s mouth thunders and illuminates around them. It would really be less savage if man destroyed and devoured man for the sake of necessary food, or drank blood because of a lack of beverage. Some, indeed, (men in form) have come to such a pitch as to do this from rancor and wanton cruelty, for which expediency or even necessity could furnish only a poor excuse. Crueler still, they fight on some occasions with weapons dipped in poison, and with engines invented in Tartarus for wholesale havoc at a single stroke.
You now see not a single trace of man, that social creature, whose portrait we lately delineated. Do you think nature would recognize the work of her own hand – the image of God? And if anyone were to assure her that it was so, would she not break out into curses at the scandalous actions of her favorite creature? Would she not say, when she saw man thus armed against man, “What new sight do I behold? Hell itself must have produced this portentous spectacle. There are some who call me a stepmother because, in the multiplicity of my works, I have produced some that are venomous, though even they may be made to serve the uses of man, and because I created some among the variety of animals to be wild and fierce, though there is not one so wild and so fierce that he cannot be tamed by good management and good usage. Lions have grown gentle and serpents have grown innocuous under the care of man. Who is this then, worse than a stepmother, who has brought forth a nondescript brute, the plague of the whole creation? I, indeed, made one animal like this in external appearance, but with kind propensities, all placid, friendly, and benevolent. How comes it to pass that he has degenerated to a beast such as I now behold, still in the same human shape? I recognize no vestige of man as I created him. What demon has marred the work of my hands? What sorceress, by her enchantments, has discharged the human mind from the human figure, and put the heart of a brute its place? What Circe has transformed the man that I made into a beast? I would bid this wretched creature to behold himself in a mirror, if his eyes were capable of seeing himself when his mind is no more. Nevertheless, you depraved animal, look at yourself, if you can. Reflect on yourself, you frantic warrior, if by any means you may recover your lost reason and be restored to your pristine nature. Take the looking glass, and inspect it. How came that threatening crest of plumes upon your head? Did I give you feathers? Where did that shining helmet come from? And those sharp points, which appear like horns of steel? Why are your hands and arms furnished with sharp prickles? What about those scales, like the scales of fish, upon your body? Where did those brazen teeth come from, and those plates of brass all over you, and those deadly weapons of offence? Why that voice, uttering sounds of rage more horrible than the inarticulate noise of the wild beasts? Why is the whole form of your countenance and person distorted by furious passions, which are more than brutal? What is that thunder and lightning, which I perceive around you, at once more frightful than the thunder of heaven and more destructive to man? I formed made you a little lower than the angels, a partaker of divinity. What grieved you to think of transforming yourself into a beast so savage that no beast hereafter can be deemed a beast, if it be compared with man, originally the image of God and the lord of the creation?”
Such, and much more, would, I think, be the outcry of indignant Nature, the architect of all things, viewing man transformed into a warrior.
Now, since man was so made by nature, as I have above shown him to have been, and since war is that which we too often feel it to be, it seems matter of infinite astonishment what demon of mischief, what distemper, or what unfortuitous circumstances could put it into the heart of man to plunge the deadly steel into the bosom of his fellow creature. He must have arrived at such a degree of singular madness so by imperceptible gradations, since
Nemo repente fuit turpissimus. Juvenal
It has ever been found that the greatest evils have insinuated themselves among men under the shadow and the specious appearance of some good. Let us then endeavor to trace the gradual and deceitful progress of that depravity which produced war.
It happened in primeval ages, when men, uncivilized and simple, went naked and dwelled in the woods, without walls to defend and without houses to shelter them, that they were sometimes attacked by the beasts of the forest. Against these, man first waged war, and the one who repelled the attack of the beasts from the sons of men was esteemed as a valiant hero and an honorable chief. Just and right it was to slaughter animals that would otherwise have slaughtered us, especially when they aggressed with spontaneous malice, unprovoked by any previous injury. A victory over the beasts was a high honor, and Hercules was deified for it. The rising generation glowed with a desire to emulate Hercules, to distinguish themselves by the slaughter of harmful animals, and they displayed the skins that they brought from the forest, as trophies of their victory. Not satisfied with having laid their enemies at their feet, they took their skins as spoils, and clad themselves in the warm fur to defend themselves from the rigor of the seasons. Such was the blood first shed by the hand of man, such was the occasion, and such were the spoils.
After this first step, man advanced still farther and ventured to do that which Pythagoras condemned as wicked and unnatural, and which would appear to us as a thing of wonder, if the practice were not familiarized by custom having such universal sway. In some nations it has been deemed a virtuous act to knock a parent on the head and to deprive him of life, from whom we received the precious gift. In others it has been held a duty of religion to eat the flesh of near and dear departed friends. It has been thought a laudable act to prostitute virgins in the temple of Venus, and custom has familiarized some other practices still more absurd, at the very mention of which everyone is ready to pronounce them abominable. From these examples it appears that there is nothing so wicked or atrocious that it may not be approved, if it has received the sanction of custom or the authority of fashion. From the slaughter of wild beasts, men proceeded to eat them, to tear the flesh with their teeth, to drink their blood, and, as Ovid expresses it, to entomb dead animals in their own bowels. Custom and convenience soon reconciled the practice (animal slaughter and animal food) to the mildest dispositions. The choicest dainties were made of animal food by the ingenuity of the culinary art, and men, tempted by their palates, advanced a step farther. From dangerous animals, which alone they had at first slaughtered for food, they proceeded to the tame, the harmless, and the useful. The poor sheep fell a victim to this ferocious appetite.
Animal sine fraude doloque.
The hare was doomed also to die, because his flesh was a tasty dish. Nor did they spare the gentle ox, who had long sustained the ungrateful family by his labors at the plough. No bird of the air, or fish of the waters, was allowed to escape, and the tyranny of the palate went to such lengths that no living creature on the face of the globe was safe from the cruelty of man. The custom that no slaughter was thought cruel prevailed for a time, being confined to any kind of animals so long as such slaughter abstained from shedding the blood of man. But though we may prevent the entrance of vices, just as we may prevent the entrance of the sea, yet when once either of them is allowed, it is not in everyone’s power to say, “Thus far shall you go, and no farther.” When once they are fairly entered, they are no longer under our command, but rush on uncontrolled in the wild career of their own impetuosity.
Thus, after the human mind had been once initiated in shedding blood, anger soon suggested that one man might attack another with a fist, a club, or a stone, and destroy the life of an enemy as easily as that of a wild beast. They had hitherto confined themselves to such obvious targets of offence, but they had learned from the habit of depriving cattle of life that the life of man could be also taken away by the same means without difficulty. The cruel experiment was long restricted to single combat; one fell, and the battle was at an end. Sometimes it happened that both fell; both, perhaps, proving themselves by this act unworthy of life. It now even seemed to have an appearance of justice, to have dispatched an enemy, and soon it was considered as an honor to put an end to a violent or mischievous wretch, such as a Cacus or Busiris, and to deliver the world from such monsters in human shape. Exploits of this kind we see also among the praises of Hercules.
But when single combatants met, their partisans, and all whom kindred, neighborhood, or friendship had connected with either of them, assembled to second their favorite. What would now be called a fray or riot was then a battle or a warlike action. Still, however, the affair was conducted with stones or with sharp-pointed poles. A rivulet crossing the ground or a rock opposing their progress put an end to hostiles, and peace ensued.
In the course of time, the rancor of disagreeing parties increased, their resentments grew warmer, ambition began to catch fire, and they contrived to give superior vigor to their furious passions by the inventions of their ingenuity. Armor was therefore contrived, such as it was, to defend their persons, and weapons were fabricated to annoy and destroy the enemy.
Now at last they began to attack each other in various quarters with greater numbers, and with artificial instruments of offence. Though this was evidently madness, yet false policy contrived that honor should be paid to it. They called it war and endowed it with valor and virtue if anyone, at the hazard of his own life, should repel those whom they had now made and considered as an enemy for the sake of their children, their wives, their cattle, and their domestic retreat. And thus, with the art of war keeping pace with the progress of civilization, they began to declare war formally, state with state, province with province, and kingdom with kingdom.
In this stage of the progress they had indeed advanced to great degrees of cruelty, yet there still remained vestiges of native humanity. Previously to drawing the sword, satisfaction was demanded by a herald. Heaven was called to witness the justice of the cause, and even then, before the battle began, pacification was sought by the prelude of a parley. When at last the conflict commenced, they fought with the usual weapons, mutually allowed, and contended by dint of personal valor, scorning subterfuges, strategies, and the artifices of treachery. It was criminal to aim a stroke at the enemy before the signal was given, or to continue the fight one moment after the commander had sounded a retreat. In a word, it was rather a contest of valor than a desire of carnage. Nor yet was the sword drawn except against the inhabitants of a foreign country.
Hence arose despotic government, of which there was none in any country that was not procured by the copious effusion of human blood. Then followed continual successions of wars, while one tyrant drove another from his throne, and claimed it for himself by right of conquest. Afterwards, when empire devolved to the most profligate of the human race, war was wantonly waged against any people, in any cause, to gratify the basest of passions. Nor were those who deserved ill of the lordly despot chiefly exposed to the danger of his invasions, but those who were rich or prosperous, and capable of affording ample plunder. The object of a battle was no longer empty glory, but sordid lucre, or something still more detestably wicked. And I have no doubt but that the sagacious mind of Pythagoras foresaw all these evils, when, by his philosophical fiction of transmigration, he endeavored to deter the rude multitude from shedding the blood of animals. He saw it likely to happen that a creature who, when provoked by no injury, should accustom himself to spill the blood of a harmless sheep, would not hesitate, when inflamed by anger and stimulated by real injury, to kill a man.
Indeed, what is war but murder and theft, committed by great numbers on great numbers? The greatness of numbers not only not extenuating its malignity, but also rendering it more wicked in proportion as it is thus more extended in its effects and its influence. But all this is laughed at as the dream of men unacquainted with the world, by the stupid, ignorant, unfeeling noblemen of our time, who, though they possess nothing of man but the form, yet seem to themselves little less than earthly divinities.
From such beginnings as I have described here, it is certain that man has arrived at such a degree of insanity that war seems to be the chief business of human life. We are always at war, either in preparation or in action. Nation rises against nation and, what the heathens would have reprobated as unnatural, relatives rise against their nearest kindred, brother against brother, and son against father! More atrocious still, a Christian is set against a man, and worst of all, a Christian against a Christian! And such is the blindness of human nature, that nobody feels astonishment at all this; nobody expresses detestation. There are thousands and tens of thousands ready to applaud it all, to extol it to the skies, and to call a truly hellish transaction a holy war. There are many who incite princes to war, mad enough as they usually are of themselves. Yet there are many who are always adding fuel to their fire. One man mounts the pulpit, and promises remission of sins to all who will fight under the banners of his prince. Another exclaims, “O invincible prince! Only keep your mind favorable to the cause of religion, and God will fight (his own creatures) for you.” A third promises certain victory, perverting the words of the prophetic Psalmist to the wicked and unnatural purposes of war. “You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day… A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.” Psalm 91:5,7
The whole of this mystical psalm is wrested to signify something in favor of the most profane of all profane things, and to second the interested views of this or that earthly potentate. Both parties find such passages in the Prophets or the Psalmist on their own side, and such interpreters of the Prophets do not fail to find their admirers, their applauders, and their followers.
We have heard such warlike sermons from the mouths of grave theologians and even bishops. These men are, in fact, warriors; they help the cause. Decrepit as they are in person, they fight from the pulpit the battles of the prince, who, perhaps, raised them to their eminence. Priests fight, in fact, when they send others out to fight. Even monks fight, and, in a business truly diabolical, dare to use the name and authority of Jesus Christ.
Thus two armies shall meet in the field, both bearing before them the standard of the cross, which alone might suggest to their minds how the followers of Christ are to carry on their warfare and to gain their victory.
From the holy sacrament itself, in which the perfect and unspeakable union of all Christians is represented, these very Christians shall march with eager haste to mutual slaughter, and make Christ himself both the spectator and instigator to a wickedness, no less against nature, than against the spirit of Christianity. For where, indeed, is the kingdom of the devil, if not in a state of war? Why do we drag Christ thither, who might be present in a brothel much more consistently with his doctrine than in the field of battle?
St. Paul expresses his indignation that there should be even a hostile controversy or dispute among Christians. He rather disapproves even litigation before a judge and jury. What would he have said if he had seen us waging war all over the world; waging war on the most trifling causes with more ferocity than any of the heathens, and with more cruelty than any savages; led on, exhorted, assisted by those who represent a pontiff professing to be pacific, and to cement all Christendom under his influence; and who salute the people committed to their charge with the phrase, “Peace be to you!”
I am well aware what a clamor those persons will raise against me who reap a harvest from public calamity. “We engage in war,” they always say, “with reluctance, provoked by the aggression and the injuries of the enemy. We are only prosecuting our own rights. Whatever evil attends war, let those be responsible for it who furnished the occasion of this war, a war which to us is just and necessary.” But if they would hold their vociferous tongues a little while, I would show, in a proper place, the futility of their pretences, and take off the varnish with which they endeavor to disguise their mischievous iniquity.
I just now drew the portrait of man and the picture of war, and compared one with the other – that is, compared an animal, the mildest in nature, with an institution of the most barbarous kind. And I did this so that war might appear, on the contrast, in its own black colors. Now it is my intention to compare war with peace, to compare a state most pregnant with misery and most wicked in its origin, with a state having profuse blessings and contributing, in the highest degree, to the happiness of human nature. It will then appear to be downright insanity to go in search of war, with so much disturbance, so much labor, so great an expense of blood and treasure, and at such a hazard after all, when, with little labor, less expense, no bloodshed, and no risk, peace might be preserved inviolate.
Now amidst all the good this world affords, what is more delightful to the heart of man, what more beneficial to society, than love and amity? Nothing, surely. Yet what is peace, but love and amity flourishing between great numbers? And, on the other hand, what is war, but hatred and enmity flourishing between great numbers? But it is the nature of all good, that the more it is extended, the greater the good becomes, and the more benign its influence. Therefore, if the amicable union of individuals is so sweet and so salutary, how much would the sum total of happiness be augmented if kingdom with kingdom, and nation with nation, were to coalesce in this amicable union? On the other hand, it is the nature of all evil that its malignity increases the more it is extended. Therefore, if it is wretched and wicked for one man to meet another with a sword pointed at his vitals, how much more wretched and wicked is it when thousands and tens of thousands meet in the same manner? By union little things are augmented to a respectable magnitude; by disunion, the greatest fall to insignificance and dissolution. Peace is, indeed, at once the mother and the nurse of all that is good for man. War, suddenly and at one stroke, overwhelms, extinguishes, and abolishes whatever is cheerful, happy, and beautiful, and pours a foul torrent of disasters on the life of mortals. Peace shines upon human affairs like the vernal sun. The fields are cultivated, the gardens bloom, the cattle are fed upon a thousand hills, new buildings arise, ancient edifices are repaired, riches flow, pleasures smile, laws retain their vigor, the discipline of the police prevails, religion glows with ardor, justice bears sway, humanity and charity increase, arts and manufacturing feel the genial warmth of encouragement, the gains of the poor are more plentiful, the opulence of the rich displays itself with additional splendor, liberal studies flourish, the young are well educated, the old enjoy their ease, marriages are happy, good men thrive, and the bad are kept under control. But no sooner does the storm of war begin to lower than what a deluge of miseries and misfortunes seizes, inundates, and overwhelms all things within the sphere of its action! The flocks are scattered, the harvest trampled, the husbandman butchered, villas and villages burned, and cities and states, that have been ages rising to their flourishing state, subverted by the fury of one tempest: the storm of war. So much easier is the task of doing harm than of doing good; of destroying than of building up! The earnings of honest industry, the wealth of quiet citizens, are transferred to the pockets of vile robbers and murderers. Private houses exhibit the dismal effects of fear, sorrow, and complaint, and all places resound with the voice of lamentation. The loom stands still; the trowel, the axe, and the hammer are silent; and the poor manufacturers must either starve or have recourse to wicked practices for daily bread. The rich either deplore the diminution and loss of their property, or lie under terrible apprehension for what remains; in both circumstances rendered incapable by war of enjoying the common comforts of life. Marriages are few, or attended with distressful and fatal consequences. Matrons, deserted by their husbands who are forced to the wars, pine at home in childless solitude. The laws go unenforced, charity is laughed at, justice has no dwelling-place, and religion becomes an object of scorn until no distinction is left between the sacred and the profane. Youth is corrupted by every species of vice, old men lament their longevity, and their grey hairs descend with sorrow to the grave. No honor is paid to learning, sciences, or arts, the elegant pursuits of liberal and honorable minds. In a word, more misery is felt from war than the eloquence of any man, much more than mine, is able to describe. Yet it might be borne patiently, if war only made us miserable and did not corrupt our morals or and involve us in guilt, and if peace only made us happier and not better. But the man who engages in war by choice, when he could have avoided it, is wicked. He sins against nature, against God, and against man, and is guilty of the most aggravated and complicated impiety.
Alas! Too many are the evils by which miserable mortality is of necessity tormented, worn out, and at last overwhelmed. Two thousand years ago, no fewer than three hundred dangerous diseases, besides their various species and degrees, were discovered by the physicians. And every day, even now, new diseases arise. Old age itself is a disease, an incurable disease. We read of whole cities buried in ruins by earthquakes or burned to ashes by lightning, and whole countries swallowed up in chasms occasioned by subterranean convulsions. We hear of how many men are lost by casualties, which, by the frequency of their occurrence, cease to surprise us; how many are drowned in seas and rivers; how many destroyed by poison, by falling, and by other accidents; and how many are ruined by intemperance in food, in drink, and in sleep. The most trifling thing can deprive man of life. A grape-stone in the throat, a hair, or a bone of a fish has brought many to an untimely grave. Sudden joy has been fatal; it is no wonder that grief has been so. Add to all this plague, pestilence, and contagious fevers of various kinds, which frequently commit their ravages, without mercy or distinction, throughout a whole city or province. There is no quarter from which danger does not hang, as it were, by a hair over the life of man. Life itself, even if no accident shortens it, flies away on the swiftest wings. Such and so great are the miseries of human life that Homer did not hesitate to pronounce man, of all creatures to whom the breath of life has been given, the most miserable. But these evils, because they cannot easily be shunned and fall on our heads without any fault of our own, make us wretched indeed, but do not render us guilty.
Nevertheless, why should those who are plagued to so many calamities go voluntarily in quest of additional evil, as if the measure of misery must be full to the very brim and running over? And this is no common evil, but the worst and the foulest of all human evils; so destructive an evil that alone it exceeds them all in mischief; so abundant in misery that it includes every kind of wretchedness within itself; so pestilent in its nature that it loads men with guilt in proportion as it galls them with woe; rendering them at the same time objects of the greatest pity, yet unworthy of being pitied at all. Unworthy indeed, unless they are those who, while they feel the misery with the greatest acuteness of suffering, have the least responsibility for causing it, and would have prevented it if they had possessed power in equal measure with their innocence.
Add to these considerations that the advantages derived from peace diffuse themselves far and wide, and reach great numbers, while in war, if any thing turns out happily (though, O my God, what can ever deserve to be called happy in war!), the advantage accrues only to a few, and to those unworthy of reaping it. One man’s safety is owing to the destruction of another; one man’s prize is derived from the plunder of another. The cause of rejoicings made by one side is to the other a cause of mourning. Whatever is unfortunate in war is severely so indeed; and whatever, on the contrary, is called good fortune, is a savage and a cruel good fortune, an ungenerous happiness deriving its existence from another’s woe. Indeed, at the conclusion, it commonly happens that both sides, both the victorious and the vanquished, have cause to deplore the outcome. I know not whether any war ever succeeded so fortunately in all its events, but that the conqueror, if he had a heart to feel or an understanding to judge as he ought, repented that he had ever engaged in it at all.
Peace is confessedly the best and the happiest of all things; and war, on the contrary, appears to be attended with the greatest possible distress of every kind and the blackest villainy of which human nature is capable. Therefore, can we think those men of sound mind or honest hearts, who, when they might enjoy the blessings of peace with little trouble merely by negotiation, go out of their way and rush headlong into every difficulty and danger to involve a whole people in the horrors of war?
How unpleasant, in the first place, is the first rumor of war to the unoffending people! And in the next, how unpopular does it render the prince, when he is compelled to rob his own subjects by taxes upon taxes and tribute upon tribute! How much trouble and anxiety in forming and preserving alliances! How much in engaging foreign troops, who are let out by their owners to fight for hire! How much expense, and at the same time solicitude, in fitting out fleets, in building or repairing forts, in making all kinds of camp equipment, and in fabricating and transporting machines, amour, weapons, baggage, carriages, and provisions! What infinite fatigue in fortifying towns, digging trenches, excavating mines, keeping watch and ward, exercising, reviewing, maneuvering, marching, and countermarching! I say nothing of the constant state of fear and alarm in which the people live. I say nothing of the real danger to which they are perpetually exposed. Such is the uncertainty of war. What is there not to be feared in it? Who can enumerate the inconveniencies and hardships that they who foolishly go to war endure in a camp! (Stultissimi milites, says Erasmus) They deserve even more, because they voluntarily undergo all that they suffer: food such as a hog would loathe; beds that even a bug would disdain; little sleep, and that little at the will of another; a tent exposed to every bitter blast that blows, and often not even a tent to shelter their cold limbs from the wind and the weather! They must continue all night, as well as day, in the open air; they must lie on the ground; they must stand with their weapons; they must bear hunger, cold, heat, dust, rain; and they must be in a state of abject slavery to their leaders, even beaten with canes! There is, indeed, no kind of slavery on earth more unworthy of man than the slavery of these poor wretches in unnecessary wars! After all these hardships comes the dreadful signal for engagement! To death they must go! They must either slay without mercy, or fall without pity!
Such and so great are the evils that are submitted to in order to accomplish an end, which is itself a greater evil than all that have preceded in preparation for it. We thus afflict ourselves for the noble end of enabling ourselves to afflict others. If we were to calculate the matter fairly and form a just computation of the costs attending war, and that of procuring peace, we should find that peace might be purchased at a tenth of the cares, labors, troubles, dangers, expenses, and blood that it costs to carry on a war. You lead a vast multitude of men into danger of losing their lives in order to demolish some great city, while the same labor and fatigue of these very men would build, without any danger, a more magnificent city than the city doomed to demolition. But the object is to do all possible injury to an enemy. A most inhuman object, let me tell you! And consider whether you can hurt him effectively without hurting your own people at the same time, and by the same means. It surely is to act like a madman to take to yourself so large a portion of certain evil, when it must ever be uncertain what the outcome of war may be in the end.
One could believe that the heathens might be hurried into all this madness and folly by anger, by ambition, by avarice, by cruelty, or, which I am rather inclined to believe, by the furies sent from Hell for that very purpose. Yet how could it ever enter into our hearts that a Christian should stain his hands with the blood of another Christian! If a brother murders his brother, the crime is called fratricide. But a Christian is more closely allied to a Christian as such than a brother is by the ties of consanguinity, unless the bonds of nature are stronger than the bonds of Christ, which Christians, if they are consistent with their faith, cannot allow. How absurd then is it, that they should be constantly at war with each other; who form but one family, the church of Christ; who are members of the same body; who boast of the same head, even Jesus Christ; who have one Father in Heaven, common to them all; who grow in grace by the same spirit; who are initiated in the same mysteries; who are redeemed by the same blood; who are regenerated by the same source; who are nourished by the same holy sacrament; who militate under the same great Captain of Salvation, eat of the same bread, partake of the same cup, have one common enemy, the devil, and are all called to the same eternal inheritance?
Where are there so many and so sacred obligations to perfect peace as in the Christian religion? Where are there so numerous exhortations to peace? Jesus Christ claimed one law as his own peculiar law, and that was the law of love or charity. What practice among mankind violates this law as grossly as war? Christ salutes his votaries with the happy omen of peace. To his disciples he gives nothing but peace. He leaves them no other legacy but peace. In his holy prayers, the subject of his devout entreaty was principally that, as he was one with the Father, so his disciples, that is to say, all Christians, might be one with him. This union is something more than peace, more than friendship, and more than concord; it is an intimate communion with the Divine Nature.
Solomon was a type of Christ. But the word Solomon in Hebrew signifies the Pacific. Solomon, on this account, because he was pacific, was chosen to build the temple. David, though endeared by some virtues, was rejected as a builder of the temple because he had stained his hands in blood, because he was a sanguinary prince, because, in a word, he was a warrior. He was rejected for this, though the wars he carried on were against the wicked and at the command of God, and though God, who afterwards abrogated the laws of Moses in great measure, had not yet taught mankind that they ought to love their enemies.
At the nativity of Jesus Christ, the angels sang, not the glories of war, nor a song of triumph, but a hymn of peace. “Glory to God in the highest. On earth peace, good-will towards men.” The mystic poet and prophet foretold before his birth:
His tent is in Salem (Peace), His dwelling place in Zion. There he broke the flashing arrows, the shields and the swords, the weapons of war… He breaks the spirit of rulers. He is feared by the kings of the earth. Psalm 76:2-3,12
Examine every part of his doctrine, you will find nothing that does not breathe peace, speak the language of love, and savor of charity. And because he knew that peace could not be preserved unless those objects for which the world contends with the sword’s point were considered as vile and contemptible, he ordered us to learn from him to be meek and lowly. He pronounced those happy who hold riches, pomp, and pride in no esteem, for these he calls the poor in spirit, and these he has blessed. He pronounced those happy who despise the pleasures of the world, for he says that the mourners are blessed. He even commended those who patiently allow themselves to be deprived of their possessions, knowing that their place of residence on earth is a place of exile, and that their true country and their best riches are in heaven. He pronounced those happy who, while deserving the good of all, are slandered and persecuted. He prohibited resistance to evil. In short, as the whole of his doctrine recommended forbearance and love, so his life taught nothing but mildness, gentleness, and kind affection. Such was his reign, thus did he wage war, thus he conquered, and thus he triumphed.
Nor do the Apostles inculcate any other doctrine. They had imbibed the purest spirit of Christ and were filled with sacred draughts from the fountainhead before it was polluted. What do all the epistles of St. Paul resound with, but peace, long-suffering, and charity? What does St. John speak of and repeat continually, but Christian love? What about St. Peter? What about all of the writers in the world who are truly Christian?
Where, then, have the tumults of war among the children of peace come from? Is it a mere fable, when Christ calls himself the vine and his disciples the branches? Who can conceive of a branch divided against a branch of the same tree? Or is it a meaningless assertion, which St. Paul repeatedly made, that the Church is one body, united in its many members and adhering to one head, Jesus Christ? Who ever beheld the eye contending with the hand, or the belly fighting against the foot?
In the whole universe, consisting of parts so discordant, there still continues a general harmony. In the animal body there is peace among all the members, and with whatever excellence one member is endowed, it confines not the benefit to itself, but communicates it to all. If any evil happens to one member, the whole body affords it assistance. Can then the mere animal connection of nature in a material body, formed soon to perish, effect more in preserving harmony than the union of the spirit in a mystical and immortal body? Is it without meaning that we pray, according to the command of Christ, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven? In the kingdom of heaven there is perfect peace. But Christ intended that his church should be nothing less than a celestial community, a heaven upon earth. Men who belong to it were to live, as much as possible, according to the model of the heavenly kingdom, hastening its realization, and feeling and acknowledging their whole dependence upon it for present and future felicity.
Come then, and let us picture in imagination some stranger, either from those nations on the moon which Empedocles inhabits, or those worlds which Democritus fabricated. Let us suppose that he has just arrived at this world of ours, and desirous of knowing what is going on here. When he has been informed of the various living creatures upon its surface, let him be told that there is one animal, wonderfully composed of two distinct parts: a body, which he possesses in common with the brutes, and a mind, which resembles the Divine mind and is in the image of the Creator. This animal is so noble in his nature that, though here in a state of exile, he has dominion over all other animals. Feeling his celestial origin, he is always aspiring to heaven and immortality. He is so dear to the eternal Deity that, since he was unable to reach the excellence at which he aspired, either by the powers of nature or the deductions of philosophy, the eternal Deity delegated his own Son to bring to him a new doctrine from heaven. Then, after the stranger should have heard the whole life of Christ, and become perfectly acquainted with his laws and precepts, let us suppose that he ascends some lofty pinnacle, from which he might see with his own eyes the things that he had heard by report concerning this noble animal – rational, Christian, immortal man.
He would see all other animals living at peace with their own kind, guided by the laws of nature and desiring nothing but what nature taught them to desire. But at the same time, he would observe that there is one animal, and one alone, trafficking dishonestly, intriguing treacherously, quarrelling, and waging war with its own kind. Would he not be apt to suspect any of the other animals to be man, of whom he had heard so much, rather than that two-legged creature, which is really man, thus perverted, as he would appear, from the state in which God made him and to which Christ came to restore him? But suppose some guide informs the stranger that this animal is really man. He would next look about to find in what place these Christian animals have fixed their abode, and where, following their divine Teacher, they are now exhibiting the model of an angelic community. Would he not imagine that Christians must choose their residence anywhere, rather than in countries where he sees so much superfluous opulence, luxury, lust, pride, indolence, tyranny, ambition, fraud, envy, anger, discord, quarrels, fighting, battles, wars, and tumults? Such countries are more abominable repositories of all that Christ condemns than are to be found among the Turks and the Saracens!
The question then naturally arises, how this pestilence of war first insinuated itself among a Christian people? This evil, like most other evils, made its way little by little among those who were off their guard. All evil, indeed, either gradually and invisibly creeps into the life of man, or forces its way in under the disguise of seeming good.
In the church militant, learning was the first auxiliary engaged to fight for religion. It was a desirable ally in a contest with heretics, who came to the combat armed with the literature of philosophers, poets, and orators. Indeed, in the earliest ages of Christianity, those professing it did not even arm themselves for defense with learning, but relied on those converts who brought profane knowledge, which they had acquired before they had gained a knowledge of Christ, to the aid of piety and the Christian cause. Next eloquence, which had been concealed at first rather than being despised, openly came forward and was approved as an auxiliary. In the process of time, under the pretence of defeating heretics, the vain ambition of ostentatious disputation crept into the church and became its bane. The matter proceeded so far that Aristotle was admitted into the midst of the Christian sanctuary, and admitted so implicitly that his authority carried with it a sanction paramount to the authority of Christ. If Christ had said anything that did not perfectly square with the accepted modes of living, it was lawful to turn it a little aside by an ingenious comment, but the man who had presumed to oppose, in the slightest manner, the oracular edicts of the Aristotle did not dare to show his head. From him we learned that the happiness of man could not be complete without the goods of the body and of fortune. From him we learned that a state in which Christian equality was found could not flourish. We endeavored to incorporate every one of his dogmas with the doctrine of Christ, which is much the same as to attempt the mixing of water and fire. We admitted something also from the Roman laws, on account of the apparent equity that they displayed, and so that they might agree even better, we violently forced, as far as we could, the doctrine of the Gospel into conformity with these laws. But these laws permit us to repel force by force. They allow everyone to litigate. They approve of all commercial dealings. They allow usury, provided it is moderate. They extol war as glorious, provided it is just, and they define a just war to be any war that is declared so by any prince, through the prince be either a child or a fool. Lastly, the whole doctrine of Christ was by this time so adulterated by the learning of heathen logicians, sophists, mathematicians, orators, poets, philosophers, and lawyers that the greatest portion of life was necessarily consumed before time could be found to examine the mysterious learning of the Gospel. Though men came at last to this knowledge, they could not but come prejudiced with so many worldly opinions that the laws and precepts of Christ either gave offence, or were made to bend to the dogmas preconceived in the schools of heathenism. This was so far from being disapproved that it was a crime for a man to speak of evangelical knowledge, if he had not plunged, as the phrase is, over his head in the nugatory and sophistical nonsense of Aristotle. It was as if the doctrine of Christ were of that kind which could not be adapted to the lowest degrees of intellect or attainments, or could by any means coalesce with the vain wisdom of mere human philosophy.
After this, Christians allowed among themselves honorable distinctions, offered, at first as a voluntary tribute, but soon demanded as an obligation to those who earned it. So far there appeared nothing unreasonable. The next step was to allow riches, first to be distributed for the relief of the poor, and then for their own private use. And why not? That methodical arrangement of duties was soon learned which suggested that charity begins at home, and that every man is to himself the nearest and dearest neighbor. Nor was a pretext wanting for this deviation from Christian disinterestedness. It was natural to provide for children, and no more than right to look forward to approaching old age. Why, indeed, should any man, said they, refuse riches if they come to him honestly? By these gradations, things came to pass such that the richest man was at last thought to be the best man. Nor was greater respect ever paid to riches among the heathens than is paid today among Christians. For what is there, either sacred or profane, which is not governed among them by the despotism of money?
It was now conceive, that it might not be amiss to add a little power to all these extraneous embellishments or fancied improvements of original Christianity. This also was allowed, but with an apparent moderation. In short, it was allowed upon the terms that Christians, satisfied with the title and claim to power, should leave the thing itself to be administered by others. At length, and by imperceptible degrees, the matter proceeded so far that a bishop could not believe himself a bishop in earnest unless he possessed a little worldly power. And the lesser clergy thought themselves dishonored if, with all their holiness, they could not possess at least as much weight and influence as the profane grandees who lorded it over the earth with ungodly rule.
In the ultimate stage of the progress, Christians put a bold face upon the matter, banished every childish blush, and broke down every bar of modesty and moderation. Whatever avarice, whatever ambition, whatever of luxury, whatever of pomp and pride, and whatever of despotism among the poor heathens there has ever been, however enormous, the Christians now imitated, equaled, and surpassed the whole of it.
But to wave more trifling articles, did the heathens, at any period of their history, carry on war either so continually or more cruelly than it has been carried on, in all ages, among Christians? How many pitiless storms of war, how many treaties broken, and how much slaughter and devastation have we seen only within the few years just elapsed? What nation in all Christendom has not drawn the sword on its neighbor? Christians, after all, revile unbelievers, as if there could be a more pleasing and diverting spectacle to unbelievers than that which we Christians exhibit to them every day by our mutual slaughter. Xerxes was stark mad when he led on that immense multitude to invade Greece. Could he be otherwise than mad, he who sent letters menacing Mount Athos with vengeance if it should not give way and yield him a passage, and who ordered the Hellespont to be whipped with scourges, because it did not smooth its waters to facilitate the transportation of his vessels? Alexander the Great was stark mad; no man ever denied it. He thought himself a demigod and wished for more worlds to conquer, so ardently did he burn with a feverish thirst for glory. And yet these two persons, whom Seneca does not hesitate to call robbers as well as madmen, conducted war with more humanity than we do. They conducted war with more good faith. They fought not with weapons so unnaturally, so ingeniously cruel, nor with similar contrivances for mischief, nor on so frivolous pretences as do we, the followers of Jesus Christ. If you review the history of the heathen nations, how many chieftains will you find who declined engaging in war by every studied means of reconciliation, or who chose rather to win over an enemy by kindness than to subdue him with weapons? Some even preferred the cession of a principality to running the hazard of war. We, pseudo-Christians, Christians only in name, eagerly seize every trifle that can possibly serve as an occasion of war. The heathen warriors, before they came to blows, had recourse to conference. Among the Romans, after every expedient had been tried in vain to preserve peace, a herald was dispatched with many formalities, certain preliminary ceremonies were gone through, and delays thus industriously contrived to temper the fury of the first onset. And even after this prelude was finished, no soldier dared begin the battle until the signal was given, and the signal was contrived to be given in such a manner that no one could know the exact time of it; all waited for it patiently. Nor, after the signal was once heard, was it lawful for any man to attack or strike the enemy if he had not taken the military oath. The elder Cato actually sent orders to his own son, who was loitering in the camp but had not taken the oath, to return to Rome. Or, if he chose rather to remain with the army, he was instructed to ask permission of the general to engage the enemy, since the signal for engagement did not give liberty to fight to any but those who had taken the oath. Also, the signal sounded for retreat immediately deprived every soldier of the liberty to kill a single individual in the enemy’s army. The great Cyrus publicly honored a private soldier who, though he had lifted up his sword to cut down one of the enemy, instantly withdrew it and spared the foe on hearing the signal for the cessation of battle. This was ordered by the heathens in their wars so that no man might imagine himself at liberty to slay a fellow creature, unless compelled by unavoidable necessity.
Now suppose that a citizen of an enemy nation is travelling through a wood, unarmed and laden with money, not intending to fight, but instead endeavoring to make his escape lest he should be forced to fight. Among Christians, a man is considered a brave fellow if he, upon seeing such a refugee, robs him, kills him, and buries him. Those also are called soldiers who, incited with the hope of a little paltry gain, eagerly hasten as volunteers to the battle, ready to bear arms on either side, even against their own kindred and their own prince. Wretches like these, when they return home from such engagements, presume to relate their exploits as soldiers. They are not punished as they ought to be, like robbers, traitors, and deserters. Everyone holds the common hangman in abhorrence, even though he is hired to do his work, only putting to death those who are found guilty and condemned by the laws of his country. At the same time, men who rush as volunteers or privateers into the war, forsaking their parents, their wives, and their children, not hired but ambitious to be hired for the unnatural work of human butchery, shall be received with a heartier welcome when they return home than if they had never gone to rob and murder. They imagine that they acquire something of nobility by such exploits. A man who steals a coat is considered infamous. But if the same man goes to the wars, and, after shedding blood, returns from the battle, laden with the property of a great number of innocent men, he is ranked among the honest and reputable members of society. Anyone among the common soldiers, who has behaved himself with remarkable ferocity, is judged worthy of being made a petty officer in the next war. Therefore, if we duly consider the humane discipline of the ancient warriors in heathen nations, the wars of Christians will appear, in comparison, to be merely systems of plunder.
And if you contrast Christian monarchs with heathen monarchs in their conduct of war, in how much worse a light will the Christians appear? The kings of the heathens sought not gain, but glory. They took delight in promoting the prosperity of the provinces that they subdued in war. Barbarous nations, who lived like the brutes, without letters and without laws, were polished and refined in the arts of civilization by heathen conquerors. They adorned uncultivated regions by building cities and towns in them. Whatever they found unprotected, they fortified. They built bridges, they embanked rivers, they drained swamps, they improved human life, and they facilitated and sweetened human interaction by a thousand similar accommodations. It became an advantage to have been conquered in those days of generous heroism. How many stories are handed down to us by tradition, in which they spoke wisely or acted humanely and temperately, even in the midst of war? But the military transactions of Christians are too offensive and atrocious to bear particular enumeration. Upon the whole, whatever was the worst part of the conduct of heathens in war, that alone we closely imitate, and in that alone we exceed them.
It may now be worthwhile to observe in what manner Christians defend the madness of war.
They say that if war had been absolutely unlawful, God would not have commanded the Jews to wage war against their enemies. I hear the argument, and observe upon it, that the objector should in justice add that the Jews scarcely ever waged war, as the Christians do, against each other, but against aliens and infidels. We Christians draw the sword against Christians. To them, a difference in religion and the worship of strange gods were the source of contest. We are urged to war either by childish anger or a hunger and thirst for riches and glory, and oftentimes merely for base and filthy lucre. They fought at the express command of God; we fight at the command of our own passions. But if we are so fond of the Jewish model as to make their going to war a precedent for us, why do we not, at the same time, adopt their practice of circumcision? Why not sacrifice cattle? Why not abstain from swine’s flesh? Why not allow polygamy? Since we condemn these practices, why do we pitch upon their warlike actions as the only model for our imitation? Why, lastly, do we follow the letter, which kills, and neglect the spirit of their institutions? War was permitted to the Jews for the same reason as divorce: because of the hardness of their hearts.
But since the time that Jesus Christ said, “Put up your sword into its scabbard,” Christians ought not to go to war, unless it is that most honorable warfare with the vilest enemies of the church: the inordinate love of money, anger, ambition, and the fear of death. These are our Philistines; these are our Nebuchadnezzars; these are our Moabites and Ammonites, with whom we ought never to make a truce. With these we must engage without intermission, until the enemy is utterly extirpated and peace is firmly established. Unless we subdue such enemies as these, we can have neither peace with ourselves nor peace with anyone else. This is the only war that tends to produce a real and a lasting peace. He who shall have once conquered foes like these will never wish to wage war with any mortal man upon the face of the earth, on which God placed all men to live, to let live, and to enjoy the life he gave.
I lay no stress on the opinion of those who interpret the two swords given to Peter to mean two powers, civil and ecclesiastical, claimed by the successors of Peter, since Christ allowed Peter himself to fall into an error in this matter, on purpose so that, when he was ordered to put up his sword, it might remain no longer a doubt that war was prohibited. Before that order, it had been considered as allowable. But Peter, they allege, did actually use his sword. It is true he did; but he did so while he was still a Jew, and had not yet received the genuine spirit of Christianity. He used his sword, not in support of any disputable claim to property, not to defend goods, chattels, lands, and estates, as we do, nor yet for his own life, but for the life of his Lord and Master. Let it also be remembered that he who used the sword in defense of his Master, very soon after denied and renounced that Master. If Peter is to be our model, and if we are so much pleased with the example of Peter fighting for Christ, we may probably approve also the example of Peter denying Christ.
Peter, in using his sword, only made a slip in consequence of the impulse of a sudden passion, and yet he was reprimanded. But if Christ approved this mode of defense as some most absurdly infer from this transaction, how happens it that the uniform tenor of his whole life and doctrine teaches nothing else but forbearance? Why, when he commissioned his disciples, did he expose them to the despots of the world, armed only with a walking stick and a wallet, a cane and pocket change? If by that sword, which Christ ordered them to buy after selling everything else, is meant a moderate defense against persecution, as some men not only ignorantly but wickedly interpret it, how came it to pass that the martyrs never used it?
Here it is usual to bring forward the rabbinical limitations, and to say that it is lawful for a hired soldier to fight, just as it is lawful for a butcher to practice his trade for a livelihood. Since the one has served an apprenticeship to the art of killing sheep and oxen, and the other to the art of killing men, both may equally follow their trade in perfect consistency with the character of good and worthy members of society, provided always that the war is just and necessary. And their definition of a just and necessary war is one that, whatsoever it is, howsoever it originates, on whomsoever it is waged, any prince whatever may have thought it proper to declare as such. Priests may not indeed actually brandish the sword of war, but they may be present at, preside over, and superintend all its operations by their counsels. They would not desire, indeed, for the world go to war from motives of revenge, but solely from a love of justice and a desire to promote a righteous cause. But what man alive is there who does not think, or at least maintain, that his own cause is a righteous cause?
Christ, indeed, sent forth his messengers without weapons, but they did not want weapons while he was with them. When the time of his departure was at hand, he advised them to take a purse and a sword: a purse to provide against hunger and a sword to guard against enemies. Nevertheless, precepts such as take no thought for tomorrow, do good to those who hate you, and the like remained in full force. If St. Paul and St. Peter give similar admonitions about defense and provision, it must be remembered that they are of the nature of temporary advice only, not of precepts or fixed rules of perpetual and universal obligation. But it is with these occasional admonitions or advice, sophistically represented as everlasting rules, that we feed the ambition of princes, and hold out something with which they flatter themselves that their conduct is justifiable and reconcilable to the principles of the Gospel. And, as if there were danger lest the world should enjoy repose from the horrors of war, we assert the propriety or expediency of war with the sword, one part only of these words of Christ. As if we were afraid the avarice of mortals should relax a little from its labors in heaping up riches, we make Christ the adviser and abettor of covetousness, misinterpreting the other part of his words, the purse, as if he perpetually prescribed, and did not only and merely permit for a particular occasion, what he had before most peremptorily interdicted when he said, “Do good to those who hate you, and take no thought for tomorrow.”
The world had its own laws and its own established practices before the Gospel appeared. It punished with death, it waged war, it heaped up wealth both into the public treasury and into the private coffer, and it wanted not to be taught what it already knew and practiced. Our Lord did not come to tell the world what enormity was permitted or how far we might deviate from the laws of rectitude, but to show us the point of perfection at which we were to aim with the utmost of our ability.
Those, however, who warmly dissuade mankind from war, are suspected of heresy. At the same time, those who by artful salvoes and quibbles contrive to dilute the strength of the Gospel, and who find out plausible pretexts by which princes may gratify their lust for war and plunder without appearing to act too openly against Gospel principles, are deemed orthodox theologians and teachers of true evangelical religion. A true Christian teacher or preacher never can give his approval to war. He may, perhaps, on some occasions, connive at it, but not without grief and reluctance.
But they urge that the laws of nature, the laws of society, and the laws of custom and usage conspire in dictating the propriety of repelling force by force and defending life – and money too, which, as Hesiod says, is to some persons as dear as life. So much I concede. But Gospel grace, of more force than all these laws, declares in decisive word, that we must not revile again those who revile us, that we must do good to those who abuse us, that we should give up the whole to those who take a part of our possessions, and that we should also pray for those who design to take away our lives. All this, they tell us, had a particular reference to the Apostles. But I contend that it also refers to all Christian people, to the whole body, which should be entire and perfect, though one member may have been formerly distinguished by some particular preeminence. The doctrine of Christ can, indeed, have no reference to those who do not expect their reward with Christ. Let those draw swords for money, for land, and for power, who laugh at Christ’s saying that the poor in spirit are the happy men – that is, that those who desire none of this world’s riches or honors are the truly rich. Those who place the chief good in things like these fight for their lives, but they cannot tell that this life is a kind of death, and that to the godly there is provided a treasure in heaven, a happy immortality.
They object to us that there have been Roman pontiffs who authorized war and took an active part in it. They further point out those opinions or decrees of the church fathers in which war seems to be approved. There are some of this sort, but they are only among the late writers who appeared when the true spirit of Christianity began to languish, and they are very few. On the other hand, there are innumerable ones among writers of acknowledged sanctity who absolutely forbid war. Why do the few rather than the many obtrude themselves into our minds? Why do we turn our eyes from Christ to men, and choose to follow examples of doubtful authority rather than an infallible guide, the Author and Finisher of our faith? The Roman pontiffs were but men, and it may have happened that they were ill advised, that they were inattentive, and lastly, that they were not endowed with either wisdom or piety. Though, indeed, you will not find, even among such as these, that those kinds of war in which we are continually engaged were countenanced. This is a point that I could prove by the clearest arguments, if I desired to dwell longer on this part of the debate.
Bernard, indeed, praised warriors, but praised them in such a manner as to condemn the whole of our war system at the same time. But why should I care about the writings of Bernard, or the disputations of Thomas, when I have before my eyes the absolute prohibition of Christ, who has told us in plain terms that we must not resist evil – that is to say, not in the manner in which most of mankind resists it, which is by violence and murder.
But they proceed to argue that, since it is lawful to inflict punishment on an individual delinquent, it must also be lawful to take vengeance on an offending state. The full answer to be given to this argument would involve me in greater long-windedness than is now necessary. I will only say that the two cases differ widely in this respect: he who is convicted judicially suffers the punishment that the laws impose, but in war, each side treats the other side as guilty and proceeds to inflict punishment, regardless of law, judge, or jury. In the former case, the evil only falls on him who committed the wrong and all enjoy the benefit. In the latter case, the greatest part of the very numerous evils falls on those who deserve no evil at all: on husbandmen, old people, mothers of families, orphans, and defenseless young females. But if any good at all can be gathered from a thing, which is itself the worst of all things, the whole of that good devolves to a few profligate robbers, to the mercenary pillager, to the piratical privateer, and perhaps to a very few generals or statesmen, by whose intrigues the war was excited for this very purpose, and who never thrive so well as in the wreck of the republic. In the former case, one man suffers for the sake of all; in the latter case, in order to revenge or serve the cause of a few, or, perhaps, of only one man, we cruelly afflict many thousand persons who gave no offence, and did no injury. It would be better to let the crime of a few go unpunished than to involve our own people, the neighboring people, and the innocent among the enemy in certain calamity, while we endeavor to chastise one or two by a war in which we may not succeed. It is better to let a wound alone if it cannot be healed without injury to the whole body. But if anyone should exclaim, “It would be unjust that he who has offended should not suffer suitable punishment,” I answer that it is much more unjust that so many thousand innocent persons should be called to share in the most extreme misfortune, which they could not possibly have deserved.
In these times, indeed, we see almost every war which breaks out deriving its origin from some nugatory and obsolete pretence, or from the ambitious confederacies of princes, who, in order to bring some contested petty town under their jurisdiction, lead the whole empire into extreme jeopardy. After all, this petty town or inconsiderable object, whatever it may be, claimed at the expense of much blood and treasure, is sold or ceded at the return of peace. Someone will say, “Would you not have princes prosecute their just rights?” I understand that it is not the business of persons like me to dispute too freely upon the rights of princes, which, were it safe, would involve me in a longer discourse than would suit the present occasion. I will only say that if every claim or disputable title were a sufficient cause for undertaking a war, it is likely, in the multitudinous changes and chances of human affairs, that a claim or disputable title will never be wanting for the purpose. What nation is there that has not been driven from some part of its territories, and that has not in its turn driven out others? How often have men emigrated from one quarter to another? How often has the seat of empire been transferred hither and thither, either by chance or by general consent? Now let the people of modern Padua, for instance, go and claim the territory of Troy because Antenor, their founder, was a Trojan. Let the modern Romans put in their claim to Africa and Spain, because some of their provinces formerly belonged to the Romans of antiquity, their forefathers.
Add to this that we are apt to call something dominion, or absolute property, when is only administration, or executive government on trust. There cannot be the same absolute right over men, who are all free by nature, as there is over cattle. This very right which you possess, limited as it is, was given to you by the consent of the people. Those who gave it, unless I am mistaken, can take it away. Now see how trifling a matter the subject in dispute is to the people. The point of contest is not that this or that state may become subject to a good prince rather than to a bad one, but whether it should be given up as property to the claim of Ferdinand or to the claim of Sigismund, or whether it should pay tribute to Philip or to Louis. The whole world is to be involved in one scene of war, confusion, and bloodshed in order to establish this great and mighty right. But let it be so; let this right be esteemed as highly as you please; let there be no difference between the right to a man’s private farm and to the public state; let there be no difference between cattle, bought with your own money, and men, not only born free, but become Christians. It would yet be the part of a wise man to weigh well in his mind whether this right is of so much value that he ought to prosecute it at the expense of such an immensity of calamities, which must be brought on his own people, on those who are placed under his care, on those for whose good he wears the crown.
If, in forming this estimate, you cannot display the generosity of a truly princely character, yet at least show us the shrewdness of a cunning tradesman, who knows and pursues his own interest. The tradesman despises a loss if he sees it cannot be avoided without a greater loss, and sets it down as clear gain if he can escape a dangerous risk at a trifling expense.
There is a trite little story that exhibits an example in private life, which it might not be amiss to follow when the state is in danger of involving itself in war. There were two near relations who could not agree on the division of some property that devolved to them. Neither of them would yield to the other, and there seemed to be no possibility of avoiding a lawsuit, and leaving the matter to be decided by the verdict of a jury. Counsel were retained, the process commenced, and the whole affair was in the hands of the lawyers. The cause was just on the verge of being brought on. War was declared. At this point, one of the parties sent for his opponent and addressed him to the following purpose:
“In the first place,” said he, “it is certainly unbecoming that two persons, united like us by nature, should be split apart by interest. In the second place, the event of a lawsuit is no less uncertain than the event of war. To engage in it, indeed, is in our own power, but to put an end to it is not. Now the whole matter in dispute is one hundred pieces of gold. If we go to law about it, twice that sum must be spent on notaries, attorneys, counselors, judges, and their friends. We must court, flatter, and pay them, not to mention the trouble of dancing attendance, and paying our most fawning respects to them. In a word, there is more cost than worship in the business, more harm than good, and therefore I hope this consideration will convince you to give up all thoughts of a lawsuit. Let us be wise for ourselves rather than for those plunderers, and let us divide between ourselves the money that would be wasted on them. Give me one portion from your share, and I will give you the same from mine. Thus we shall be clear gainers in point of love and friendship, which we should otherwise lose, and we shall escape all the trouble. But if you do not choose to yield anything to me, then I cheerfully resign the whole to you, and you shall do just as you please with it. I would prefer that the money should be in the hands of a friend than in the clutches of those insatiable robbers. I shall have made profit enough by the bargain if I shall have saved my character, kept my friend, and avoided the plague of a lawsuit.”
The justice of these remarks, and the good humor with which they were made, overcame the adversary. They therefore settled the business between themselves and left the poor lawyers in a rage, gaping like so many crows for the prey that had just escaped their hungry maws.
In the infinitely more hazardous concerns of war, let statesmen condescend to imitate this instance of discretion. Let them not view merely the object which they wish to obtain, but how great a loss of good things, how many and great dangers, and what dreadful calamities they are sure of incurring in trying to obtain it. And if they find, upon holding the scales with an even hand and carefully weighing the advantages with the disadvantages, that peace, even with some circumstances of injustice, is better than a just war, why should they choose to risk death in battle? Who but a madman would angle for a vile fish with a hook of gold? If they see much more loss than gain in balancing the account, even on the supposition that everything happens fortunately, would it not be better to step back a little from their strict and rigorous right than to purchase a little advantage at the high price of evils at once undefined and innumerable? Let the possessors keep their obsolete claims and titles unmolested, if I cannot dispute them without so great a loss of Christian blood! The reigning prince has probably possessed his doubtful right for many years. He has accustomed his people to his reins. He is known and acknowledged by them. He is executing the princely functions. Shall some pretender start up and, having found an old title in antiquated chronicles or musty parchments, go and disturb the state that is quietly settled, and turn everything topsy-turvy? Why do this, especially when we see that there is nothing among mortals that remains fixed and stable? Everything in its turn becomes the sport of fortune, and ebbs and flows like the tide. What end can it answer to claim, with such mischievous and tumultuous proceedings, what will soon change again and find its way to another claimant, some unborn proprietor?
But suppose that Christians are unable to despise such trifles, as they certainly ought. Why, on the breaking out of a dispute, must they rush instantly to arms? The world has so many grave and learned bishops, so many venerable churchmen of all ranks, so many grey-headed noblemen who have been rendered sage by long experience, so many councils, and so many senates that have certainly been instituted by our ancestors for some useful purpose. Why is not recourse had to their authority, and the childish quarrels of princes settled by their wise and decisive arbitration?
But more respect is paid to the specious language of the princes themselves, who cry out, “Religion is in danger,” and that they go to war to defend the church. It is as if the people at large were not the prince’s church; or as if the whole dignity or value of the church consisted in the revenues of the priesthood; or as if the church rose, flourished, and became firmly established in the world by war and slaughter, and not rather by the blood of the martyrs, by bearing and forbearing, and by a contempt for life, in competition with duty and conscience.
I, for one, do not approve the frequent holy wars that we make upon the Turks. Ill would it fare with the Christian religion if its preservation in the world depended on such support. Nor is it reasonable to believe that good Christians will ever be made by such initiation into their religion through the use of force and slaughter. What is gained to the cause by the sword, may in its turn be lost by the sword. Would you convert the Turks to Christianity? Show them not your riches, your troops of soldiers, your power to conquer, or your pretended title to their dominions. Instead, show them the infallible credentials of a Christian: an innocent life, a desire to do good even to enemies, an invincible patience under all kinds of injuries, a contempt for money, a disregard of glory, and a life itself little valued. And then point out to them the heaven-taught doctrine that leads to such a conduct, and requires such a life. These are the arms by which unbelievers are best subdued. As we now go on, we engage in the field of battle on equal terms, the wicked with the wicked, and our religion is no better than their own. I will say more, and I wish I said it with greater boldness than truth. If we drop the name of Christians and the banner of the cross, we are no better than Turks fighting against our brother Turks. If our religion was instituted by troops of soldiers, established by the sword, and disseminated by war, then indeed let us go on to defend it by the same means by which it was introduced and propagated. But if, on the contrary, it was begun, established, and disseminated by methods totally different, why do we have recourse to the practices of the poor heathens for the succor and defense of the Christian cause, as if we were afraid to rely on the aid of Christ?
But the objector repeats, “Why may I not go and cut the throats of those who would cut our throats if they could?” Do you then consider it as a disgrace that any should be more wicked than you? Why do you not go and rob thieves? They would rob you if they could. Why do you not revile those who revile you? Why do you not hate those who hate you? Do you consider it as a noble exploit for a Christian, having killed in war those whom he thinks wicked, but who still are men for whom Christ died, thus to offer up victims most acceptable to the devil, and to delight that grand enemy in two ways: first, that a man is slain at all, and secondly, that the man who slew him is a Christian?
There are many people who, while pretend to be better Christians than their neighbors and wish to appear to be men of extraordinary zeal and piety, endeavor to do as much evil as they possibly can to an unbelieving nation. And what evil they forbear to inflict, solely because they want the power, they make up for by hearty curses, whereas this conduct alone is sufficient to prove any man to be no Christian at all. Others again, desirous of seeming outrageously orthodox, call down the most dreadful curses on the heads of those whom we name heretics, though they themselves prove by this very conduct that they are more worthy of that appellation. He who would pass for a truly orthodox Christian must endeavor, by mild methods and mild methods alone, to reclaim those who err from the error of their ways and bring them into the paths of peace.
We spit our spite against infidels, and think, by so doing, that we are perfectly good Christians. Perhaps, at the same time, we are more abominable for the very act, in the sight of God, than the infidels themselves, who are the objects of our rancor. If the ancient and primitive preachers of the Gospel had felt sentiments as bitterly hostile against us before our conversion, as we do against the infidels of our time, where should we have been, we who are now Christians due to their patience and forbearance? Assist the poor infidels in their misfortune of infidelity. Make them pious by instruction and example, wherever they are now the contrary, and I will acknowledge your Christian disposition, your benevolent views, and your sound orthodoxy.
There are a great many orders of mendicant monks in the world, who wish to be thought of as the pillars of the church. How few there are, among so many thousands, who would risk their lives to propagate the Christian religion! They say that they have no hope of success, if they were to attempt it. But I say, there would be the best-grounded hopes of it, if they would bring into action the manners of their founders and ancestors, Dominic and Francis, who, I believe, had an unfeigned contempt for this world, not to dwell upon their truly apostolic lives and conversations. We should not want even miracles, if the cause of Christ now required them. But after all, those who boast themselves to be the vicars and successors of St. Peter, the great founder of the church, and of the other apostles, place their whole trust in the arm of flesh, in supports merely human, in fleets and in armies alone. These rigid professors of the true religion live in cities flowing with riches and abandoned to luxury, where they stand a chance of becoming corrupt themselves rather than of correcting the manners of others, and where there are plenty of pastors to instruct the people and priests to sing praises to God. They live in the courts of princes, where they behave in a manner that I shall not at present minutely relate. They hunt legacies, go in quest of filthy lucre, and make themselves subservient to the purposes of despots. Lest they should appear not to labor in their vocation, they stigmatize erroneous articles of faith and mark persons who are suspected of heresy and of schism, who give offence, or who are guilty of want of respect to themselves. They would rather rule and possess power, though to the injury of Christ’s people, than allow the least risk of their own ease or safety by extending the rule, the power, and the kingdom of Jesus Christ.
Now those whom we call Turks are in some respects half Christians, and perhaps approach nearer to genuine Christianity than most of us. For how many among us are there who neither believe the resurrection of the body, nor that the soul survives the body’s dissolution? And yet, with what vindictive rage do these men, when in authority, rise up to punish some little heretical wretch, who has had the audacity to doubt whether the Roman pontiff has any jurisdiction over the souls that lie in torment in purgatory. Let us first cast the beam out of our own eye so that we shall see to cast the mote out of our brother’s eye. The purpose of the Gospel is to produce morals worthy of the Gospel. Why do we urge those points which have no reference to the improvement of morals? If you take away morals, the pillars of the faith all fall to the ground at once. In the end, who will believe us while we hold up the cross and use the name of the Gospel, and at the same time our whole life and conversation exhibit nothing but a love of the world? Besides, Christ, in whom there was no failing or defect, did not quench the smoking flax or break the bruised reed, as the prophecy expresses it. Instead, he particularly bears with and cherishes whatever is imperfect until it improves and makes gradual advances towards perfection. We are ready to exterminate all Asia and Africa with the sword, though there are many there either almost or altogether Christians, such as we profess ourselves to be. Why do we not rather acknowledge the latter, and kindly encourage and improve the former? But if our real intention is only to extend dominion, if we are only opening our voracious jaws to swallow up their riches, why do we add the name of Christ to a purpose so vile, so wicked, and so profane? Is there not a possibility that, while we Christians are attacking these unbelievers by human force alone, our own territory may be in danger? How narrow a corner of the world do we possess? What a multitude of foreign enemies do we, so few in number, rashly provoke? But some man will say, “If God is with us, who shall be against us?” And that man may very properly say so if he relies only on such relief as God affords and approves. But to those who rely on other relief, what will our great Captain (Jesus Christ) say? He has already said, “He who takes the sword shall perish by the sword.”
If we are willing to conquer for Christ, let us buckle on the sword of the Gospel. Let us put on the helmet of salvation, grasp the shield of faith, and be completely clad in apostolic armor, the panoply of heaven. Then will it come to pass that we shall triumph even in defeat, and when routed in the field, we shall still bear away the palm of a most glorious victory.
But suppose the hazardous chance of war to turn out favorably to us. Who ever found that men were made true Christians by fire, sword, bloodshed, and plunder? There is less harm in being openly and honestly a Turk or a Jew than in being a hypocritical, pretended, and nominal Christian.
Still we must, you say, endeavor to ward off the violence of aggressors from our own heads. But why do we provoke their violence by fomenting feuds and animosities among ourselves, and widening the breach with them? They will not be very fond of invading us if we are united at home, and they will sooner be converted to the faith by our kind offices, if their lives are sure of being saved, than if they are harshly treated and threatened with extermination. I prefer an unbeliever in his native colors to a false Christian painted and varnished over with hypocrisy. It is our business to sow the seed of Christianity, and Christ himself will give the increase. The harvest is plentiful, if the laborers are not few. And yet, in order to make a few pretended Christians of unbelievers, how many good Christians shall we render bad ones, and how many bad ones worse? For what else can be the consequence of wars and tumults? I would not suspect for a moment, which has however often been the case, that a war against an unbelieving nation is made a mere pretext for picking the pockets of Christian people, that thus oppressed and quite broken down by every means, they may more meekly submit their necks to the yoke of despotic rulers, both civil and ecclesiastical. I do not say this with an intent to entirely condemn an expedition against unbelievers if they attack us unprovoked, but that we may carry on a war, to which we pretend Christ incites us, with such arms as Christ has furnished and approved, and to overcome evil with good. Let the unbelievers be made aware that they are invited by us to safety and salvation, and not attacked for the purpose of plunder. Let us carry to them morals worthy of the Gospel, and if we are not qualified or have no opportunity to address them with our tongues, let us remember that our lives and our behavior speak the most forcible language, and the most persuasive eloquence. Let us carry to them a creed or profession of faith – simple, truly apostolic, and not burdened with so many articles added by human contrivance. Let us require of them principally those things which are clearly and openly handed down by the sacred volumes and in the writings of the apostles. The fewer the articles, the easier the consent; and union will still more effectually be promoted if, everyone shall be allowed to put what construction he pleases on most of the articles, provided he does not enter into a controversy that breaks the public peace.
It is a truth to be lamented rather than denied, that if anyone examines the matter carefully and faithfully, he will find almost all the wars of Christians to have originated either in folly or in wickedness. Foolish young men, born to rule, totally unacquainted themselves with the world about them, have been inflamed with the love of martial glory by the bad examples of their forefathers and the silly stories of heroes, as they are called, in which foolish writers have trumpeted the fame of foolish princes. Raw striplings like these, upon thrones thus inflamed with false glory, are instigated by surrounding flatterers and stimulated by lawyers and churchmen. Bishops themselves encourage, conniving, and perhaps even require them to go and take the sword as an incumbent duty. Leaders such as these engage in war with all the rashness of folly, rather than the malignity of intentional guilt. They at last buy experience, which costs the world very dearly, and find that war is a thing which above all things they ought to have avoided. A secret grudge urges one fool, ambition drives another, and native cruelty and ferocity of disposition inspires a third to the horrid work of war. A history of war, like Homer’s Iliad, contains, as Horace says, nothing but a history of the wrath of silly kings, and of people as silly as they.
Next, as I said, our wars also arise from wickedness. There are kings who go about to war for no other reason than that they may establish despotic authority over their own subjects at home with greater ease. In times of peace the power of parliaments, the dignity of magistrates, and the vigor of the laws are great impediments to a prince who wishes to exercise arbitrary power. But when once a war is undertaken, the chief management devolves to a few, who call themselves the ministers of executive government. For the general safety, they assume the privilege of conducting everything according to their own humor, demanding unlimited confidence and the most profound secrecy from the people. These persons, in such a position, who are the prince’s favorites, are exalted to places of honor and profit, and those whom the prince dislikes are turned off, neglected, and considered as forming a dangerous opposition. Now is the time for raising as much money as their hearts can wish. In short, now is the time when they feel that they are monarchs, not in name only, but in very deed and truth – monarchs with a vengeance! In the mean time, the leaders play into one another’s hands until they have eaten up the poor people root and branch. Do you think that men of such dispositions would be reluctant to seize any slight occasion of war, which is so lucrative and so flattering to avarice and ambition?
In the mean time we give our evil disposition a plausible name. For instance, I long for some of the Turk’s riches, and I cloak my real motive by calling it a zeal for the defense of religion. I burn with hatred and malice, and I cloak them with a pretended regard for the rights of the church. I mean only to gratify my ambition and anger, or I am hurried on by the impetuosity of my own temper, but I take care to allege as a cause for taking up arms that some treaty has been broken, some of my allies have been injured or insulted, some contract has been violated, or any other paltry and specious pretence for a conflict.
After all, it is surprising to think how these persons are disappointed in the real objects of their hearts, and while they are striving by wrong methods to shun this or that evil, they fall into another, or even the same evil rendered still worse. If they are led on by the love of glory, is it not much more glorious to save than to destroy, to build than to demolish? Then, though everything should succeed most prosperously in war, yet how small a pittance of glory falls to the prince’s share? The people, whose money pays for it all, certainly claim a just part of the glory. The foreign soldier, hired for the business of the battles, demands still greater, and so do the generals. Fortune demands the largest portion of all, for she has great influence in all human affairs, so more particularly does she domineer in all the events of war.
Now, if greatness of mind stimulates to war, as you pretend, consider how inconsistent your conduct is with so noble a quality. While this greatness of mind forbids you to yield to some individual – perhaps a neighboring prince, perhaps related to you by marriage, perhaps one who has deserved well of you formerly – you make yourself and abject supplicant, while you condescend to solicit the auxiliary aid of barbarians against him. And what is baser still, you solicit the cooperation of men polluted with every kind of viciousness, if brutes like them deserve to be called men, while you condescend to promise, flatter, and cajole a set of abandoned wretches, murderers, and thieves, by whom the measures of war are principally executed. While you wish to bully your equal, you are obliged to fawn and cringe to the lowest wretches, the offscourings and dregs of the human race. While you are endeavoring to remove a neighbor from his proper dominions, you are obliged to admit into your own realm the basest tribe of knaves and varlets. You will not trust yourself to a relation by marriage, but you hesitate not to resign your cause into the hands of armed bandits.
As to your safety, how much safer would you be by establishing and preserving peace? If gain is your object, take your pen and ink and make the calculation. I give you leave to adopt war, if it shall appear, on a fair calculation, that you are not in pursuit of an uncertain profit, which is at a certain loss that is not to be estimated. Prove that you are in pursuit of a profit that is greater than the certain loss, and one that is certain to be obtained. But you are consulting the welfare of the state, not your own. Let me tell you, states are ruined in no way so expeditiously, and so much without remedy, as by war. Before you have struck a stroke, you have hurt your country more than you will ever do it good, even if your efforts should be crowned with victory. You exhaust the wealth of your people, you multiply houses of mourning, and you fill all the country with robbers, thieves, and violators of innocence. Such are the fruits reaped in the harvest of war, and such are the blessed effects it leaves behind it.
If you really love your subjects, your whole people, the individuals as well as the aggregate, how happens it that the following reflections do not arise in your mind? Why should I expose those young men of mine, flourishing in health and strength, to every kind of disaster? Why should I pursue a course likely to deprive so many worthy women of their husbands, and so many innocent children of their fathers? Why should I assert some obsolete claim or some very doubtful right, which I scarcely recognize myself, with the blood of those who are trusted, like children, to my protection? In a war undertaken under the pretence of defending the church, I have seen the churchmen themselves so stripped by repeated war taxes that no enemy could possibly have treated them with more effectual hostility. While we foolishly endeavor to avoid falling into a pit, we throw ourselves into it headlong of our own accord. While we cannot put up with a slight injury, we subject ourselves to the greatest injury, still further aggravated by the grossest insult. While we scorn to pay due deference to some prince, who is our equal, we render ourselves obsequious suitors to the lowest of the human race. While we aspire to freedom by silly conduct, we entangle ourselves in the nets of the basest slavery. While we are greedily hunting after a paltry pittance of gain, we involve ourselves and our people in losses beyond estimation.
It is the duty of a sensible man of the world to give these things due consideration, and it is the duty of a Christian, who is truly such, to shun, deprecate, and oppose, by every lawful means, a business so hellish and so irreconcilable, both to the life and to the doctrine of Christ.
If war cannot by any means be avoided, on account of the wickedness of the bulk of mankind, then, after you shall have left no stone unturned to avoid it, after you shall have sought peace by every mode of negotiation, the next desirable point will be to take the greatest care that the execution of a bad business may be chiefly consigned to bad men, and that it may be put an end to with as little loss as possible of human blood. For if we endeavor to be what we are called (that is, to be violently attached to nothing worldly, and to seek nothing here with too anxious a solicitude), if we endeavor to free ourselves from all that may encumber and impede our flight to heaven, if we aspire with our most ardent wishes at celestial felicity, and if we place our chief happiness in Christ alone, then we have certainly, in so doing, made up our minds to believe that whatever is truly good, truly great, and truly delightful is to be found in his religion. If we are convinced that a good man cannot be essentially hurt by any mortal; if we have duly estimated the vanity and transitory nature of all the ridiculous things that agitate human beings; if we have an adequate idea of the difficulty of transforming, as it were, a man into a god; if we have been so cleansed by continual meditation from the pollutions of this world that, when our bodies are laid down in the dust, we may emigrate to the society of angels; if we exhibit these three qualities, without which no man can deserve to be called a Christian: innocence, that we may be free from vice, charity, that we may deserve well of all men, and patience, that we may bear with those who treat us badly, and, if possible, bury injuries by an accumulation of benefits on the injured party; if all these things are true, then I ask: what war can possibly arise hereafter for any trifles that the world contains?
If the Christian religion is a fable, why do we not honestly and openly expose it? Why do we glory and take a pride in its name? But if Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, why do all our schemes of life and plans of conduct deviate so from this great exemplar? If we acknowledge Christ to be our Lord and Master, who is Love itself, and who taught nothing but love and peace, let us exhibit his model, not by assuming his name or making an ostentatious display of the mere emblematic sign, his cross, but by our lives and conversation. Let us adopt the love of peace, that Christ may recognize his own, even as we recognize him to be the teacher of peace. Let this be the study of pontiffs, of princes, and of whole nations. By this time, there has been enough Christian blood spilled in war. We have given pleasure enough to the enemy of the Christian name. But if the people, the rude and uninstructed people, are still disposed to riot and tumult, to disorder and war, let them be restrained by their own respective princes, who ought to be, to the state, what the eye is to the body, and reason is to the soul. Again, if princes themselves breed confusion and violate peace, undoubtedly it is the duty of pontiffs and bishops, by their wisdom and authority, to tranquillize the commotion. Satiated with everlasting wars, let us indulge at length a longing after peace.
The greatness of the calamity itself urges us to seek peace, and pursue it. The world, wearied out with woes, demands it. Christ invites to it. The great pontiff, Leo the Tenth, exhorts to it – he who, from his pacific disposition, may be deemed the true representative of the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ; he who is a lamb to the innocent, but a lion against all that opposes true piety; all whose wishes, all whose counsels, and all whose labors tend to this one point: that those who are bound together by one common faith may be closely cemented in one common charity. The scope of all his endeavors is that the church may flourish, not in riches, and not in power, but in its own appropriate excellencies and endowments. This is a most glorious undertaking, and is in every way worthy a man so truly great – descended from the celebrated family of the Medici, a family by whose political wisdom the famous state of Florence flourished in a long continued peace, and whose enlightened generosity has ever afforded protection to all the fine and liberal arts which embellish human life.
Blessed by nature with a mild and gentle disposition, he was initiated at the earliest age in polite letters, the studies of humanity, the cultivation of poetry, and in all those arts that have so powerful an influence in softening and ameliorating the sentiments of the heart. Thus educated among men of the first character for learning, and nursed, as it were, in the lap of the Muses, he brought a blameless life and an unspotted reputation with him to the supreme pontificate, though he was in the midst of a licentious city like Rome. Upon this high and honorable office he by no means obtruded himself. He had not the least expectation of possessing it, but seems to have been nominated to it by the voice of God, that he might bring relief to a suffering world, distressed and harassed, as it was, by the unceasing tempest of war.
Let his predecessor, Julius, enjoy all the glory of war, let him boast his unenvied victories, and let him enjoy all the honor of his magnificent triumphs – all which, how very little they become a Christian pontiff, it is not for persons in my humble station to enumerate. But this I will venture to say: his glory, however great, was founded on the sorrows, the sufferings, and the destruction of multitudes. Infinitely more glory will redound to our Leo, from the restoration of peace to the world, than to Julius, from all his wars all over Christendom, however valiantly excited and fortunately conducted they may have been.
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 Transcriber’s note – In Greek mythology, Polemus, or Polemos, was the spirit of war, so the literal meaning of the title is “Against War.”
 Transcriber’s note – Having a thousand names, and a thousand ways of working evil.
 Transcriber’s note – The Greek conception of Hell, which was even lower in the underworld than Hades.
 Transcriber’s note – A minor Greek goddess of magic who used potions to turn her enemies into animals.
 Transcriber’s note – No one ever became thoroughly bad in one step.
 Transcriber’s note – That harmless, honest, guileless animal.
 Transcriber's note – In Roman mythology, Cacus was a fire-breathing monster that lived on human flesh and nailed the heads of its victims to the doors of its cave. In Greek mythology, Busiris was an evil Egyptian king who sacrificed all visitors to his gods.
 Transcriber’s note – Foolish soldiers.
 Transcriber’s note – Empedocles (490-430BC) and Democritus (460-370BC) were pre-Socratic Greek philosophers.
 Transcriber’s note – Erasmus presents and unrealistically romantic view of ancient conflict. Enslavement, genocide, and mass deportation were not unusual.