Erasmus on War

Desiderius Erasmus
Issue CCXL - March 19, 2010
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[An article by Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536), "Antipolemus, or, the Plea of Reason, Religion, and Humanity against War," reprinted in The Book of Peace: A Collection of Essays on War and Peace (Boston: George C. Beckwith, 1845).]

If there is in the affairs of mortal men any one thing which it is proper uniformly to explode, and incumbent on every man by every lawful means to avoid, to deprecate, 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, more unworthy of man, as formed by nature, much more of man professing Christianity. Yet, wonderful to relate! war is undertaken, and cruelly, savagely conducted, not only by unbelievers, but by Christians.

Nor are there ever wanting men learned in the law, and even divines, who are ready to furnish firebrands for the nefarious work and to fan the latent sparks into a flame. Hence, war is considered so much a thing of course, that the wonder is how any man can disapprove of it — so much sanctioned by authority and custom that it is deemed impious to have borne testimony against a practice in its principle most profligate, and in its effects pregnant with every kind of calamity.

If any one 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 beneficence? Man she brought into the world naked, weak, tender, unarmed, his flesh of the softest texture, his skin smooth, delicate, and susceptible of the slightest injury. There is nothing observable in his limbs adapted to fighting or to violence.

Unable either to speak or walk, or help himself to food, he can implore relief only by tears and wailing; so that from this circumstance alone might be collected 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 herself as to the kindness of his fellowman; 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, imitating by external signs the benignity of his 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 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 — a gift which tends more than any other to conciliate and cherish benevolence and a desire of rendering 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 at the same time most agreeable.

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, their threatening eyeballs, 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, rivers reddened with human gore!

Meanwhile I pass over 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, every thing laid waste, a prey to robbery, plunder, and violence!

Not to mention the consequences ensuing to the people after a war even the most fortunate in its event — the poor, 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.

Peace is at once the mother and the nurse of all that is good for man; war, on a sudden and at one stroke, overwhelms, extinguishes, abolishes, whatever is cheerful, whatever is 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, riches flow, pleasures smile, humanity and charity increase, arts and manufactures feel the genial warmth of encouragement, and the gains of the poor are more plentiful.

But no sooner does the storm of war begin to lower, than what a deluge of miseries and misfortune 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 burnt, 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!

To these considerations add that the advantages derived from peace diffuse themselves far and wide, and reach great numbers; while in war, if any thing turns out happily, the advantage redounds only to a few, and 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, the victorious and the vanquished, have cause to deplore. 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 to do, repented that he ever engaged in it at all.

Such and so great are the evils that are submitted to in order to accomplish an end, 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 cost attending war and that of procuring peace, we should find that peace might be purchased at a tenth part of the cares, labors, troubles, dangers, expenses, and blood that it costs to carry on a war.

But the object is to do all possible injury to an enemy! A most inhuman object! And consider whether you can hurt him essentially without hurting, by the same means, your own people. 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 how the die of war may fall in the ultimate issue.

Where are there so many and so sacred obligations to perfect concord, as in the Christian religion? Where so numerous exhortations to peace? One law Jesus Christ claimed as his own peculiar law; it was the law of love or charity. What practice among mankind violates this law so grossly as war?

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 as 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 of him to be meek and lowly.

He pronounced those happy who held riches in no esteem. He prohibited resistance of evil. In short, as the whole of his doctrine recommended forbearance and love, so his life taught nothing but mildness, gentleness, and kind affection. Nor do the apostles inculcate any other doctrine — they who had imbibed the purest spirit of Christ, and were filled with sacred draughts from the fountainhead. What do all the epistles of Paul resound with but peace, long-suffering, charity? What else do all the writers in the world who are truly Christian?

But let us observe how Christians defend the madness of war. If, say they, war had been absolutely unlawful, God would not have excited the Jews to wage war against their enemies. But 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. They fought at the express command of God; we at the command of our own passions.

But even Christians urge, that the laws of nature, of society, of custom and usage, conspire to dictate the propriety of repelling force by force, and defending life, and money too. So much I allow. But Gospel Grace, of more force than all these laws, declares in decisive words that we must do good to those who use us ill, and 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.

They also argue that, as it is lawful to inflict punishment on an individual delinquent, it must be lawful to take vengeance on an offending state. The full answer to be given to this argument would involve me in greater prolixity than is now requisite; and 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 as guilty and proceeds to inflict punishment regardless of law, judge, or jury. In the former case, the evil falls only on him who committed the wrong; in the latter case, the greatest part of the numerous evils falls on those who deserve no evil at all — on husbandmen, on old people, on mothers, on orphans and defenseless females.

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 deem it a disgrace that any should be more wicked than yourself?

Why do you not go and rob thieves? They would rob you if they could. Why do you not revile them that revile you? Why do you not hate them that 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 respects, first, that a man is slain at all, and next, that the man who slew is a Christian?

If the Christian religion be a fable, why do we not honestly and openly explode it? Why do we glory in its name? But if Christ is "the way, the truth, and the life," why do all our plans of conduct differ so far from his instructions and example? 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 in 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.

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