The Great Conversation:
War and Peace—Part I

By Matt McKeown

War is one of the most ancient and persistent features of human civilization.

The earliest name on our author bank is that of Homer, who composed the Iliad. The society that he depicts already knows warfare as an ancient thing, with customs and conventions proper to it. In this literature, war primarily revolves around two motives: profit (in the form of money, goods, and slaves taken from the losing side) and pride (in the sense of getting glory as a talented warrior or of avenging one’s honor). This latter motive forms both the implied background and the principal theme of the Iliad: the cause of the siege of Troy is to recapture Helen and avenge Menelaus’ honor on the city, while the plot of the epic itself revolves around the wounded pride of Achilles and its consequences for the Greeks.

The Biblical book of Joshua, which probably dates to a similar period, frames war—or rather, the particular war it depicts—quite differently. Here the war is one of conquest, but it is divinely ordained, in order to unite an elect people with their sacred homeland. The Æneid adopts a similar motif, casting the Romans rather than the Hebrews and Italy rather than Palestine as the divinely chosen people and place. Within the first few dozen lines of his epic, Virgil repeatedly invokes the Fates as willing the foundation of Rome, even in despite of the enmity of the goddess Juno.

Imperialism could spring from the profit motive, the pride motive, or the destiny motive, and often united all three. The age of European exploration, stretching from the voyage of Columbus in 1492 to the late seventeenth century, overlapped heavily with colonization of the Americas, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and Australasia. The exploitation of these realms’ resources and populace were obvious motives (discussed at length by Bartolomé de las Casas in his Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies), nowhere more so than in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This was frequently paired with Christian missionary activity, and led to a fraught relationship between the colonizers, the indigenous peoples, and the churches, which sometimes defended the rights of the indigenous and sometimes abetted their exploitation. In any event, wars of imperial conquest were among the principal means by which the British, Dutch, French, Spanish, and Russian empires came into being.

I can picture in my mind a world without war, a world without hate. And I can picture us attacking that world, because they'd never expect it.

However, many centuries earlier, a different strain of thought had entered the European tradition with Christianity. The early Christians seem to have been committed to non-violence; martyrs were heroized precisely for not resisting injustice with violence, according to the example set by Jesus, and converts were forbidden to join the army. However, when the Roman Empire was Christianized over the fourth and fifth centuries, the Church was confronted with a problem that never faced it as the faith of a small segment of the populace: how was a Christian state supposed to function? Was war something a Christian society could ever countenance?

St. Augustine grappled with this problem, and proposed certain conditions that had to be fulfilled before resorting to war could be justified: for instance, defending the state against invasion was acceptable, but wars of self-aggrandizing conquest were not. These premises were elaborated by later theologians, notably St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologiæ and by the School of Salamanca during the Renaissance; this developed into what is known as just war theory. Some of its salient requirements are that a war must have a just cause, that it must be a last resort after peaceful means of reconciliation have failed, and that non-combatants (even those who work for the enemy military, like medics and prisoners of war) must not be harmed.

Some thinkers, whether they subscribed to just war theory or not, have argued that any peace is preferable to any war. Cicero wrote in one of his letters, “I do not cease to urge for peace; even on unjust terms, it is more expedient than the most righteous of civil wars”; fifteen centuries later, Erasmus likewise said that “The most disadvantageous peace is better than the most just war.” But others have pushed back against this view, insisting that peace is something more and other than the mere absence of war. The civil rights slogan “No justice, no peace” summarizes the idea: insofar as a society functions by restricting or removing the rights of one part of the populace, whether legally or just by social convention, it is engaged in a metaphorical war—one that can result in literal deaths if the oppression in question is severe enough, as with lynchings during the Jim Crow period of American history. What, then, of this other side to the “war and peace” dyad?

Go here for Part II.

Suggested reading:
Herodotus, The Histories
Sun Tzu, The Art of War
The Song of Roland
Francisco de Vitoria, On the Law of War
Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 6
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace


If you liked this post, take a look at some of our other pieces here at the Journal, like these author profiles of Epictetus and Jane Austen, this two-parter on the importance of “useless” subjects, or this student essay on balancing mercy and justice. And be sure to take a listen to our weekly podcast on education, policy, and culture, Anchored, hosted by our founder Jeremy Tate.

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