Erasmus on the Evils of War

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“Since we see that there is hardly ever any respite from wars, which normally arise from the ambition or anger of princes and thus are usually fought for the worst reasons, in my writings I frequently frighten people away from warfare, and in doing so I follow the example of the ancient Doctors of the church.” ~ Erasmus

The Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus (c.1466-1536) was one of the most prolific writers in history. It has been said that in him we see the union of classical scholarship with Christian piety. The eclectic nature of his writings is quite remarkable. Since 1974, the University of Toronto Press has been in the process of issuing “an accurate, readable English text of Erasmus’ correspondence and his other principal writings in an edition of 89 volumes.” New and used copies of most of the available volumes can be found on Amazon.

In a letter written in 1500, Erasmus correctly related the significance of his writings:

Please explain to her [Lady Anna van Borssele] how much greater is the glory she can acquire from me, by my literary works, than from the other theologians in her patronage. They merely deliver humdrum sermons; I am writing books that may last for ever. Their uneducated nonsense finds an audience in perhaps a couple of churches; my books will be read all over the world, in the Latin west and in the Greek east and by every nation.

In a letter written in 1515, Erasmus explained that he wrote in order to serve “some useful purpose.” One of the most useful purposes of Erasmus’s writings is the insight he gives on war and peace. As the translator and annotator of one of Erasmus’ Colllquies wrote: “His writings had little or no direct political effect. Nevertheless as a propagandist for peace he produced some of the best and most widely read arguments on war and peace, and they are still worth reading.”

It is precisely because Erasmus’s arguments on war and peace are still worth reading that for several years now I have been perusing the Collected Works of Erasmus. The things that Erasmus said regarding war and peace are profound and highly relevant. I have recorded what I consider to be the most significant things he said about war and peace and organized them into four articles as follows:

Erasmus on the Evils of War

Erasmus on Christianity and War

Erasmus on the Wickedness of Soldiers

Erasmus on the Just War

All quotations are from the following works as they appear in the Collected Works of Erasmus. The University of Toronto Press is to be commended for not only undertaking this incredible collection of Erasmus’s works, translated into English for the benefit those of us who don’t know Latin, but for the valuable introductions, annotations, notes, and indexes that are included with each volume. Many public and university libraries have purchased some of the volumes of the Collected Works of Erasmus over the years. Please encourage whatever library is near you to complete its set of available volumes.

Some of Erasmus’s writings are specifically on the folly of war. Most of the excerpts in this series of articles are from these works. In his other works he just mentions something about war or soldiers that I considered to be profound or relevant. Erasmus never wavered from his conviction that war was evil and un-Christian. The following are the works of Erasmus that I quote from.

The Collected Works of Erasmus contains fifteen volumes of letters written by him and to him, with more volumes yet to come. Erasmus’s correspondence has been said to constitute “a source of inestimable value, not only for the biography of the great humanist himself, but also for the intellectual and religious history of the northern Renaissance and the Reformation.” I quote from four of Erasmus’s letters.

Parallels (Parabolae sive similia) is a collection of aphorisms and metaphors illustrated by comparison with some historical incident, life experience, or nature.

The Antibarbarians (Antibarbarorum liber) is an attack on barbarism and a defense of the study of the classics in the form of a dialogue between Erasmus and his friends.

Copia: Foundations of the Abundant Style (De duplici copia verborum ac rerum commentarii duo) is a work in two books, Copia verborum, which “shows the aspiring writer how to express himself fluently but with propriety and precision,” and Copia rerum, which illustrates the uses and effects of different kinds of material such as examples from history, allegory, fables, or legends.”

A Declamation on the Subject of Early Liberal Education for Children (De pueris statim ac instituendis declamatio) is a statement of Erasmus’s ideals and principles for the education of children. It has been termed “a Christian humanist reformulation of the classical ideal of a liberal education and, more specifically, of the recommendations made by some of the major pedagogical works of Greek and Roman antiquity on the raising and education of children.”

Included in a volume of Erasmus’s Controversies is his Apology against the Patchworks of Alberto Pio (Apologia adversus rhapsodies Alberti Pii). This contains his reply what Alberto Pio, the French diplomat and ambassador to the papacy, said that Erasmus wrote about war.

Clarifications Concerning the Censures Published at Paris in the Name of the Theology Faculty There (Declarationes ad censuras Lutetiae vulgates sub nominee facultatis theologiae Parisiensis) presents Erasmus’s final arguments in a long controversy with the theologians of the University of Paris.

A Most Useful Discussion Concerning Proposals for War Against the Turks, Including an Exposition of Psalm 28 (Consultatio de bello Turcis inferendo, et obiter enarratus psalmus 28) deals with the real future threat posed by the Turks after Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent abandoned his siege of Vienna in 1529. Erasmus urged Christians to think before rushing off to war against the Turks.

The Education of a Christian Prince (Institutio principis christiani) was dedicated to a young Prince Charles, the future Charles V. In it Erasmus gives him advice on how to be a good and wise prince. It contains an important section called “On starting war.”

Praise of Folly (Moriae encomium), one of Erasmus’s most famous—and controversial—works, is a satirical work narrated by Folly herself that sharply criticizes the follies and irrationalities of all manner of men, including the religious.

A Complaint of Peace Spurned and Rejected by the Whole World (Querela pacis undique gentium ejectae profligataeque) is one of Erasmus’s major works on war and peace. In it Peace personified speaks about the blessings of peace and the inhumanity of war.

The Handbook of the Christian Soldier (Enchiridion militis christiani) was said by Erasmus to be “a kind of summary guide to living.” The Christian soldier is a biblical metaphor, and is not a reference to a Christian in the military.

On the Christian Widow (De vidua Christiana) is dedicated to the recently widowed Mary of Hungary, the sister of Charles V. Yet, it was written for the benefit of all widows.

Panegyric for Archduke Philip of Austria (Panegyricus ad Philippum Austriae ducem) contains, as part of a formal eulogistic composition, Erasmus’s thoughts on the proper use of political power by a Christian ruler and his duty to maintain peace and avoid war.

The Colloquies (Familiarium colloquiorum formulae) are literary works in dialogue form that include “debates on moral and religious questions: lively arguments on war, government, and other social problems; advice on how to train husbands, wives, and children; discourses on innkeepers, beggars, pets horse thieves; on methods of study or of sleep or of burial; on diet and on sermons.” I quote from five of Erasmus’s Colloquies: “Military Affairs,” “The Knight without a Horse,” “The Soldier and the Carthusian,” “Charon,” and “A Fish Diet.” In his statement on the usefulness of the Colloquies, Erasmus says that in “Military Affairs” he condemns “the wicked deeds and ungodly confession of soldiers, to deter young men from such behaviour.” In “The Knight without a Horse” he depicts “a class of men who think they can get away with anything under the semblance of nobility.” In “The Soldier and the Carthusian” he depicts “at one stroke both the folly of young fellows who run off to war and the life of a holy Carthusian.” In “Charon” he denounces “war among Christians.” In “A Fish Diet” he takes up the question of human and divine ordinances. 

The Adages (Adagia) is a collection of thousands of popular sayings, epigrams, proverbs, and anecdotes that Erasmus gathered from Greek and Latin sources and commented on. It was first published with 818 adages as the Adagiorum Collectanea in 1500. This grew to 3,260 adages with longer comments in the Adagiorum Chiliades of 1508. The expanded edition of 1515 was said by Erasmus to be “so much enriched that it might be thought a new book.” More editions followed until the last one of 1536, which brought the total of adages up to 4,151. I quote from four of Erasmus’s Adages: “To exact tribute from the dead” (A mortuo tributum exigere), “War without tears” (Bellum haudquaquam lachrymosum), “One ought to be born a king or a fool” (Aut regem aut fatuum nasci oportere), and “War is a treat for those who have not tried it” (Dulce bellum inexpertis).

This latter adage is Erasmus’s most celebrated statement on war. By the edition of 1515, it was the longest entry in the Adages and began to be published separately. It was first translated into English in 1534. Some of its arguments appear in a 1514 letter of Erasmus to Antoon van Bergen, abbot of St. Bertin. And some of the arguments no doubt appeared in a work Erasmus wrote during a stay in Rome in 1509 against the proposal to declare war on Venice. Erasmus mentions in Dulce bellum inexpertis that he intends to “publish my book, which I have entitled Antipolemus.” But in a 1523 letter to Johann von Botzheim in response to a request for a catalog of his works, Erasmus says that “the original text was lost” and that he had “begun again to jot down some of the heads of the argument from memory.” In London in 1794, minister and peace advocate Vicesimus Knox (1752-1821) published a version of Dulce bellum inexpertis that he titled Antipolemus, or the Plea of Reason, Religion, and Humanity against War. He called it a Fragment on War. He say he “found it accidentally; and, struck with its excellence, translated it freely; modernizing it, and using, where perspicuity seemed to require, the allowed liberty of occasional paraphrase.” J. W. Mackail, author of the introduction to the 1907 publication of the 1534 English translation of Dulce bellum inexpertis that was titled Erasmus Against War, describes Knox’s work as “a version of the treatise against war, made from the Latin text of the Adagia with some omissions.” He also says that Knox “added a few extracts from other writings of Erasmus on the same subject.”

This first article is on Erasmus on the evils of war.

In a 1514 letter to Antoon van Bergen, Erasmus wonders: “What is it that drives the whole human race, not merely Christians, to such a pitch of frenzy that they will undergo such effort, expense, and danger for the sake of mutual destruction. Indeed, what do we do but wage war, all our lives long?” He asks us to think “of all the crimes that are committed with war as a pretext, while good laws ‘fall silent amid the clash of arms’—all the instances of sack and sacrilege, rape, and other shameful acts, such as one hesitates even to name.” And “even when the war is over, this moral corruption is bound to linger for many years.”

In his On the Christian Widow, Erasmus begins with a denunciation of war:

I have always thought that there is no evil harsher or more ruinous than war, which is all the more hateful because it generally arises from the hostility of one man to another.

But although war, purveyor of deaths and funerals, sweeps along with itself a huge armed column of all imaginable evils, there is scarcely any among its evils more fearful and cruel than the way it tears apart those who have been tied together by the closest of bonds.

For who will not agree that there is nothing more cruel in the world than the slaying of one man by another? But it is also in the evil nature of war that it carries off none more frequently than the very best and most deserving of life—and spares none more often than those whose well-being is not of the slightest values to anyone, and most particularly those whose death would have been a positive service to humanity.

In one of his most celebrated works on war and peace, A Complaint of Peace, Peace describes war as “a kind of encircling ocean of all the evils in the world.” War is “so unholy a thing that it is the greatest immediate destroyer of all piety and religion.” Through war’s inherent wickedness “prosperity immediately declines, increase dwindles, towers are undermined, sound foundations are destroyed, and sweetness is embittered.” Once started, “a conflict cannot be stopped from progressing from small beginnings involving a single issue and no actual bloodshed into a great, complex, and bloody war.” Peace contrasts itself with war:

Are you longing for war? First take a look at what peace and war really are, the gains brought by one and the losses by the other; this will enable you to calculate whether there is anything to be achieved by exchanging peace for war. If it is something for admiration when a kingdom is prosperous throughout, with its cities soundly established, lands well cultivated, excellent laws, the best teaching, and the highest moral standards, consider who you will necessarily destroy all this happiness if you go to war. By contrast, if you have ever seen towns in ruins, villages destroyed, churches burnt, and farmland abandoned and have found it a pitiable spectacle, as indeed it is, reflect that all this is the consequence of war.

Peace also asks a series of questions:

If you abominate robbery, this is what war teaches; if you abhor murder, this is the lesson of war. For who will shrink from killing one man in hot blood when he has been hired for a pittance to slaughter so many? If neglect of the law is the most imminent threat to civil authority, why, ‘the law says nothing when arms hold sway.’ If you believe that fornication, incest, and worse are loathsome evils, war is the school where these are taught. If irreverence for and neglect of religion is the source of every evil, religion is entirely swept away by the storm of war. If you judge the state of your country to be worst when the worst people in it have the most power, in time of war the lowest kinds of criminal are the rulers; was has most need of those whom in time of peace you would nail to the cross.

And finally, Peace concludes with a profound statement that is even more true today: “The majority of the common people loathe war and pray for peace; only a handful of individuals, whose evil joys depend on general misery, desire war.”

In the second book of his Copia: Foundations of the Abundant Style, Erasmus uses the subject of war in one of his examples of using rhetorical propositions in discussing a course of action. Although it is just an example he uses in the course of giving instruction in rhetoric, judging from his other writings, it no doubt expresses Erasmus’s true opinions of war:

To take yet another example: If someone were trying to persuade some king not to undertake a war against the most Christian king of France, he could construct his line of argument with propositions of this sort: first, to engage in war is not natural to man who was born to feel good will, but to brute beasts whom nature has supplied with weapons of a sort (a general proposition). The next proposition will reinforce this one: it is not natural to all beasts, but only to wild ones; and the next again supports this one: and not even wild beasts fight among themselves in the way that mortal men do: tiger does not war with tiger, nor lion with lion; but man does not show to any other animal the savagery that he shows to his fellow men; wild beasts only fight to defend their young, or when driven mad by hunger; man is incited to bloody wars by vain ambition and foolish and pretentious titles. The next proposition will be more specific, and will function as a new stage: Granted that men do make war, it is the mark of uncivilized ones to do so, men not all that different from wild beasts, not of those that live under the rule of law. A fifth point could be that, even if civilized men make war, it is not the mark of Christian men to do so, seeing that the Christian faith is peace pure and simple. As a sixth we could say: Even if it were proper to undertake the war, it would not be to your advantage because, when all is weighed up, the evils that are endured for the sake of war are far greater in number than the advantages that even the victor secures. (This will have to be argued out.) Seven: Even if it were advantageous, it would not be safe, as the outcome of war is always uncertain, nor do those always win whose cause is the better, or whose equipment is superior, and quite often the troops turn their arms against their own leader.

In his Praise of Folly, Erasmus has this paragraph on the evils of war:

War is something so monstrous that it befits wild beasts rather than men, so crazy that the poets even imagine that it is let loose by Furies, so deadly that is sweeps like a plague through the world, so unjust that it is generally best carried on by the worst type of bandit, so impious that it is quite alien to Christ; and yet they leave everything to devote themselves to war alone. Here even decrepit old men can be seen showing the vigour of youths in their prime, undaunted by the cost, unwearied by hardship, not a whit deterred though they turn law, religion, peace, and all humanity completely upside down. And there’s no lack of learned sycophants to put the name of zeal, piety, and valour to this manifest insanity, and to think up a means whereby it is possible for a man to draw a murderous sword and plunge it into his brother’s vitals without loss of the supreme charity which in accordance with Christ’s teaching every Christian owes his neighbour.

In his Panegyric, Erasmus contrasts peace and war: “In time of peace the arts thrive, honest studies flourish, respect for the law is strong, religious observance is firm, wealth increases, moral discipline prevails. In war all these things collapse and are swept away in confusion, and every kind of moral corruption rushes in along with all sorts of disaster.” Then he adds about war:

Holy places are desecrated, divine worship is neglected, justice is replaced by violence; for the laws are silent under arms (as Cicero says), or if they say anything salutary, they cannot be heard (as Marius neatly put it) for the clash of arms.

Meanwhile wretched old men are quickly plunged into cruel mourning, children bereft of their fathers, wives robbed of their husbands, the countryside laid waste, villages deserted, shrines set on fire, towns destroyed, houses looted, and the fortunes of every honest man pass into the hands of brigands of the most criminal kind. And the greatest part of these evils always falls on the most innocent men.

But even that is not the worst thing about war:

So much for these miseries; even more serious are those mortal evils too which God himself would find it difficult to repair, when adultery becomes widespread, women forget chastity, virgins are raped everywhere, young men (who are disposed to vices by nature), once order is destroyed and impunity is open to them, learn to think that nothing matters and are carried headlong into crimes of all kinds. And indeed, if any spirit of reverence used to dwell amongst mortals, it abandons us straight away. The Furies burst out from the underworld to create universal uproar, chaos, and confusion by means of anger, frenzy, murder, bloodshed, and crime. Times of peace, to be sure, have certain vices of their own, but these belong to comedy; whereas in war an army of all the evils of tragedy moves like a sea in flood, sweeping over everything at the same moment, overwhelming all in waves of disaster and crime. Besides, whatever notorious crimes are committed in times of peace, and are punished by law with the utmost severity, are all the outcome and legacy of warfare. The fields scarcely ever get rid of the salt deposit if they have ever been flooded by seawater. This, I say, this is the source from which bubbles forth that loathsome, filthy mixture of criminal men: robbers, rapists, pimps, brigands, pirates, thieves, assassins, poisoners, rogues, embezzlers, cattle-rustlers, agitators, traitors, temple-robbers, perjurors, blasphemers, and also vicious prostitutes, whores, and bawds. My voice would give out faster than I could even recount the names of the monsters which are the spawn of war.

And as people often forget: “Then too the vices of war long precede the actual war and also carry on for a long time afterwards, so that the aftermath of war is almost more loathsome that the war itself, and quite often even the victors regret having fought it.”

In another of his notable works on war and peace, his extended comments on the adage “War is a treat for those who have not tried it,” Erasmus likewise contrasts war and peace:

Peace is the mother and the nurse of all that is good. War immediately and once and for all buries, extinguishes and destroys all that is joyous and beautiful, and pours out a veritable Lerna of evils into the lives of men. In times of peace it is just as if a fresh spring sun has begun to shine on human affairs; fields are cultivated, gardens turn green, flocks graze contentedly, farms are established and towns rise, fallen buildings are restored, others ornamented and enlarged, wealth increases, pleasures are nurtured, law is in repute, statecraft flourishes, religion is fervent, justice reigns, goodwill prevails, artisans practise their crafts with skill, the earnings of the poor are greater and the opulence of the rich more splendid. The study of the most noble subjects thrives, youth is educated, old age enjoys a peaceful leisure, girls are happily married, “Young mothers are praised for children who resemble their fathers.” Good men prosper, bad men are less bad. But as soon as the raging storn of war irrupts, ye gods, what a monstrous sea of troubles rushes in, flooding and overwhelming everything. Flocks are driven off, crops trampled, farmers slaughtered, farms burned, flourishing cities built over so many centuries are overturned by a single onslaught, so much easier is it to do harm than good! Citizens’ wealth falls into the hands of damnable brigands and assassins; homes grieve with fear, mourning, and complaints; everything is filled with lamentations. The skills of craftsmen grow cold, the poor must starve or resort to wicked means. The rich either mourn their plundered wealth or tremble for what they have left, much to be pitied in either case. If girls marry, they do so with sadness and foreboding. Deserted wives remain childless in their homes, the laws are silent, goodwill is mocked, there is no place for justice, religion is a subject of scorn, there is no distinction at all between sacred and profane. Youth is corrupted with every sort of vice, the old weep and curse the length of their days. Study and learning are without honour. In short, we find more evils in war than any man’s words can express, still less any words of mine.

He also says about war:

If there is any human activity that should be approached with caution, or rather that should be avoided by all possible means, resisted and shunned, that activity is war, for there is nothing more wicked, more disastrous, more widely destructive, more persistently ingrained, more hateful, more unworthy in every respect of a man, not to say a Christian.

Do you want to know what a savage, foul thing war is, how unworthy of man? Have you ever seen a lion forced to fight a bear? What grimaces, what roaring, what growling, what ferocity, what tearing of flesh! It strikes horror in anyone who sees it even from a safe distance. But how much more loathsome, how much more savage, is the sight of a man fighting a man armed with so many weapons and so many missiles. I ask you, how would believe these were human beings if familiarity with the evil had not taken away our sense of wonder? Their eyes burn, their faces are pale, their step betokens madness, the voice grates, the shouting is mindless, the man is entirely turned to iron; their weapons clang, their cannons spout flashes of lightning. It would be more humane if man devoured man for food and drank his blood; some indeed have even gone this far, doing out of hatred what custom or necessity would have rendered more excusable. But now the same thing is done in a crueler way, with poisoned darts and hellish machines. There is no trace of man in it anywhere.

Much of what Erasmus says in his comments on “War is a treat for those who have not tried it” is extremely relevant to today. He asks the question: “If it is criminal for a man to attack another with the sword, how much more destructive it is, how much more criminal for the same deed to be done by so many thousands of men?” It is, of course, more criminal. But the mindset of many Americans is just as Voltaire described it over two hundred years ago: “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.” And just like it is today, Erasmus laments that “war is now such an accepted thing that people are astonished to find anyone who does not like it, and such a respectable thing that it is wicked and, I might almost say, ‘heretical’ to disapprove of this, which of all things is the most abominable and the most wretched.” Erasmus likewise points out the role of the state in bringing on war: “There are some whose only reason for inciting war is to use it as a means to exercise their tyranny over their subjects more easily. For in times of peace the authority of the assembly, the dignity of the magistrates, the force of the laws stand in the way to some extent of the ruler being allowed to do what he likes. But once war is declared then the whole business of state is subject to the will of a few.”

In contrast to government tyranny, Erasmus, in his comments on the adage “One ought to be born a king or a fool,” says that a good prince “is to shun war in every way; other things give rise to this or that calamity, but war lets loose at one go a whole army of wrongs.”

In his The Education of a Christian Prince, Erasmus has much to say about a good prince and war:

Friendship will exist between good and wise princes even if there is no treaty between them, but war will arise between bad and foolish princes out of the very treaties designed to prevent war, when one of them complains that one or other of the innumerable clauses has not been observed. Treaties are supposed to be made to put an end to war, but nowadays an agreement to start war is called a treaty. Alliances of this kind are no more than stratagems of war, and as the situation develops, the treaties fall into line with it.

The good and wise prince will try to be at peace with all nations but particularly with his neighbours, who can do much harm if they are hostile and much good if they are friendly; no state can survive for long without good relations with them.

Erasmus also has a special section in The Education of a Christian Prince titled “On starting war:”

Although the prince will never make any decision hastily, he will never be more hesitant or more circumspect than in starting a war; other actions have their different disadvantages, but war always brings about the wreck of everything that is good, and the tide of war overflows with everything that is worst; what is more, there is no evil that persists so stubbornly. War breeds war, from a small war a greater is born, for one, two; a war that begins as a game becomes bloody and serious; the plague of war, breaking out in one place, infects neighbours too and, indeed, even those far from the scene.

But could there be a greater and more immediate threat to morality than war? The prince should pray for nothing more fervently than to see his subjects secure and prosperous in every war. But while he is learning to wage war, he is compelled to expose young men to all kinds of peril and to make countless orphans, widows, and childless old people, and to reduce countless others to beggary and misery, often in a single hour.

The godly and merciful prince will also be influenced by seeing that the greatest part of all the great evils which every war entails falls on people unconnected with the war, who least deserve to suffer these calamities.

In Erasmus’s colloquy “Charon,” Alastor, a destructive, avenging sprit, says to Charon, the ferryman of souls across the river Styx to Hades: “The Furies have done their work zealously as well as successfully. Not a corner of the earth have they left unravaged by hellish disasters, dissensions, wars, robberies, plagues.” After mentioning the Furies again, Charon asks Alastor, “Who are those?” Alastor then explains who they are and what they do:

Certain creatures in black and white cloaks and ash-gray tunics, adorned with plumage of various kinds. They never leave the courts of princes. They instill into their ears a love of war; they incite rulers and populace alike; they proclaim in their evangelical sermons that war is just, holy, and right. And—to make you marvel more at their audacity—they proclaim the very same thing on both sides. To the French they preach that God is on the French side: he who has God to protect him cannot be conquered. To the English and Spanish they declare this war is not the emperor’s but God’s: only let them show themselves valiant men and victory is certain. But if anyone is killed, he doesn’t perish utterly but flies straight up to heaven, armed just as he was.

Charon replied: “And people believe these fellows?” A little later Alastor again says to Charon: “None of those who die in a just war come to you, I believe. For these, they say, fly straight to heaven.” This time Charon says: “Where they may fly to, I don’t know. I do know one thing: that whenever a war’s on, so many come to me wounded and cut up that I’d be surprised if any had been left on earth. They come loaded not only with debauchery and gluttony but even with bulls, benefices, and many other things.” This idea that Erasmus mocks that soldiers fighting for some supposed just cause are to be identified with martyrs and go straight to heaven can be found among some Christian warmongers today, although it smacks of Islamism.

Another erroneous opinion that some warmongers hold today, although they would never admit to doing so, is found in the colloquy “The Knight without a Horse”: “As ‘the sea washes away all the sins of mankind,’ so war covers over the dregs of every crime.”

I have tried to let the powerful words of Erasmus on the evils of war speak for themselves. Let all mankind take heed.

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