Erasmus on the Just War

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“The most just of wars brings with it a train of evils—if indeed any war can really be called just.” ~ Erasmus

In the first of my articles on Erasmus (“Erasmus on the Evils of War”), I wrote a brief introduction to Erasmus and his works on war and peace that should be read to better understand what Erasmus has to say here about the just war.

The concept of just war theory has been resurrected with abandon since Bush invaded Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11. It has even been used to justify those wars. The views of Erasmus on the just war are much more restrictive and much less liable to abuse. Even a war waged ostensibly to protect the innocent is unjust because it is the innocent that most heavily suffer the scourge of war.

In a 1514 letter to Antoon van Bergen, in his work The Education of a Christian Prince, and in his War Against the Turks, Erasmus questions the whole concept of war being just:

How can anything in this world be so important as to impel us to war, a thing so deadly and so grim that even when it is waged with perfect justification no man who is truly good approves it?

Some princes deceive themselves as follows: “Some wars are entirely just, and I have just cause for starting one.” First, I will suspend judgment on whether any war is entirely just; but who is there who does not think his cause just?

I teach that war must never be undertaken unless, after everything else has been tried, it cannot be avoided, because war is by its very nature such a plague that, even if undertaken by the most just of princes in the most just of causes, the wickedness of both officers and men means that it almost always does more harm than good.

The good Christian prince “must be suspicious of all wars, however just.”

Erasmus felt that a bad peace was preferable to a “good” war. As he says in his Panegyric, Parallels, and in his work A Complaint of Peace:

Add to this the fact that for the most part the greatest wars develop out of the smallest, and many wars from one, for it has never been permitted to make an end of a single war: one is linked to another, and a chain of evils impossible to break drags on unendingly. These evils are so many that they cannot be counted, so horrible that even an evil man cannot belittle them, yet we see that they are natural consequences even of a war considered wholly just; and furthermore, that the pretexts which start a war are sometimes false, often far-fetched, and for the most part dubious; then that the outcome of any battle is always at the expense of the man who had least interest in winning the battle. Consequently I would boldly declare that it would be far better policy for the conscientious prince to maintain peace, however unjust, than start on the justest of wars, for such a war will be preceded, accompanied, and followed by so vast a sea of evils, so great a Lernean swamp of vices, so black a plague on morals.

Some remedies are more unpleasant than the disease itself, so that it is better to face death than to use them in hopes of a cure: for example, to suck blood from the fresh wounds of gladiators who are at the point of death. Likewise it is sometimes better to suffer wrong in silence than to seek revenge at a still higher price, or to accept terms of peace however damaging or unfair than to enter upon a war with all its measureless evils.

If you calculate all a war would have cost and the number of citizens you will save from death, peace will seem cheap a the price, however much you paid for it; the cost of war would have been greater, quite apart from the blood lost by your subjects. You must work out how much evil you avoid and how much good you can preserve, and you will not regret the cost.

Unlike many today, Erasmus fully understood the dubious reasons whereby men make war. He mentions some in a 1514 letter to Antoon van Bergen, in his work A Complaint of Peace, and in his comments on the adages “To exact tribute from the dead” and “War is a treat for those who have not tried it”:

Indeed if you look at the matter closely, the private affairs of princes are generally the cause of war. I ask you, is it consistent with humanity for the whole world to be roused to arms every time this prince or that becomes angry, or pretends to be angry, with another prince for any reason under the sun?

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.

But I have long been hearing the sort of excuse clever men produce for their own wrongdoing. They protest that they act under compulsion and are dragged unwillingly into war. Pull off your mask, drop your pretences, examine your own heart, and you will find that anger, ambition, and folly brought you to war.

Last but not least, when all these expedients have failed to fill that great jar with holes in it, the prince’s exchequer, war is the excuse put forward; the generals all play the same game, and the unfortunate public are sucked dry to the marrow, exactly as though to be a prince was simple to run an enormous business venture.

But these days almost every war we see is caused by some “title” or other and by the ambitious alliances of princes who, in order to assert their dominion over some small town, seriously imperil their whole realm.

In his works The Education of a Christian Prince, A Complaint of Peace, War Against the Turks, On the Christian Widow, and his comments on the adage “War is a treat to those who have not tried it,” Erasmus articulated a number of what we could term just war principles:

The good prince will never start a war at all unless, after everything else has been tried, it cannot by any means be avoided. If we were all agreed on this, there would hardly ever be a war among men. In the end, if so pernicious a thing cannot be avoided, the prince’s first concern should be to fight with the least possible hard to his subjects, at the lowest cost in Christian blood, and to end it as quickly as possible.

Something so highly dangerous, more so than anything, must not be undertaken except by the consent of the whole people.

I am speaking about the wars which Christians generally fight against Christians; I take a different view of men who repel the violent attacks of barbarian invaders by their wholehearted and loyal determination, and protect the peace and security of their country at their own peril.

But if war is unavoidable, it should be conducted in such a way that the full force of its calamities must fall on the heads of those who gave cause for it. As things are now, princes wage war unscathed and their generals thrive on it, while the main flood of misfortune sweeps over the peasants and humble citizens, who have no interest in war and gave no occasion for it.

I am also utterly convinced, however, that everything else must be tried in preference to war breaking out between Christians; nor must it be undertaken for any reason, no matter how serious or just the cause, unless all possible remedies have been exhausted and it cannot be avoided. For if the craving for power, or ambition, or a private grudge, or a desire for revenge has inspired the war, then it is plainly not a war, but mere brigandage. Moreover, while it is the special responsibility of Christian princes to carry on war, yet they must not resort to this most dangerous of expedients without the consent of their citizens and of the whole nation. Finally, if absolute necessity dictates that a war must inevitable be fought, Christian clemency demands that every effort be made to involve as few as possible in the war and to finish it as quickly as possible, with the least possible bloodshed.

If the prince, imbued with Christian philosophy, having left no stone unturned in the attempt to avoid war, should none the less find it inescapable, he will conduct it with as little bloodshed as possible. He will take care that his soldiers have the least possible licence to inflict harm upon innocent victims, and he will try to see to it that the war spreads over as small an area as possible and that it not be prolonged for any period of time. Nobody wages war long who wages it unwillingly. I am unmoved by those who say, “I myself hate war; I am pushed into it by wrongs that have been done; I prefer peace, of course, if only an equitable and honourable one is offered.” In just this way thieves make excuses for themselves.

In war, in order to take revenge on a few, or even on one person perhaps, we inflict cruel suffering on so many thousands of people who in no sense deserve it. It is better for the fault of a few to go unpunished than to demand some vague punishment of one individual or another and in the process draw ourselves and our loved ones, as well as our “innocent enemies”—as we call them—into certain danger.

In his works The Education of a Christian Prince and A Complaint of Peace, Erasmus also had some rules for rulers:

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.

When the prince has made his calculations and reckoned up the total of all these woes (if indeed they could ever be reckoned up), then let him say to himself: “Shall I alone be the cause of so much woe? Shall so much human blood, so many widows, so many grief-stricken households, so many childless old people, so many made undeservedly poor, the total ruin of morality, law, and religion: shall all this be laid at my door? Must I atone for all this before Christ”?

If you are genuinely tired of war, let me give you a word of advice on how you can maintain concord. A sound peace does not rest on alliances and treaties between men, which, as we see, can often lead to war.

“Above all,” wrote Erasmus in his comments on the adage “One ought to be born a king or a fool,” a good king “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 and in his comments on the adage “War is a treat for those who have not tried it,” Erasmus recognized, with Randolph Bourne, that war is the health of the state:

It often happens that the leaders of men, more extravagant than their private resources will allow, will take a chance to stir up war in order to boost their own finances, even by pillaging their own people. This is sometimes done by princes in collusion with one another, on some trumped-up pretext, in order to weaken the people and to strengthen their own position at the expense of the state.

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.

War “must not be made an excuse for undermining the freedoms and the laws of the states,” adds Erasmus in his War Against the Turks.

I have tried to let the powerful words of Erasmus on the just war speak for themselves. Let all politicians and servicemen take heed.

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