Is Cicero the Father of Just War Theory?
Who is the father of Just War Theory? Some occasional nods in the direction of Plato and Aristotle notwithstanding, this honor usually falls to St. Augustine, but there are good reasons to question that choice. Here we shall consider arguments for selecting the great Roman politician, orator and philosopher, Cicero (106 BC – 43 BC) for the distinction. At the same time we shall explore a second question, one of perhaps more practical relevance, namely whether Cicero’s writings may have unique value to inform and clarify modern concepts of just warfare.
The Father of Just War Theory?
First we should note that Cicero (who wrote four centuries before St. Augustine), presents a clear just war theory, acknowledging virtually all the commonly recognized principles associated with the just war tradition. It helps that his main treatment of the subject occurs in one source, Book 1 of On Moral Duties (De officiis), written close to the end of his life. There his just war theory is fully integrated within a larger, cogent and consistent ethical framework. An integral connection of his just war theory to his political thought is similarly found in a single source, his On the Commonwealth (De res publica).
We should further consider the several ways in which Cicero was in a unique position to formulate a just war theory. To begin, there is his political experience. Rising through the ranks of the Roman cursus honorum, Cicero held progressively more responsible civil appointments, including that of consul (i.e., one of two annually elected ‘presidents’ of the Roman Republic) in 63 BC, senatorship thereafter, and, in 51 BC, governorship of the Roman province of Cilicia in Northern Turkey (where he directly oversaw and participated in military actions.)
Cicero was also a direct witness and participant in the tumultuous political changes that marked the transition between the Roman Republic and Roman Empire. These included numerous civil wars and insurrections, international wars, conquests, threats of invasions, and, in general, military conflicts of every form and scope. Moreover, Cicero was an intimate friend, relation, or working colleague of many of the other Roman leaders and generals of the age, including Julius Caesar, Pompey, Octavian, Cato the Younger, Brutus and Cassius. Combining this with his excellent knowledge of Greek history, Cicero could command an immense amount of knowledge about warfare, politics, and law in formulating his just war theory.
It is of further help to us that Cicero was not just an excellent writer, but, in the estimation of many, one of the greatest literary geniuses of history, being noted for exceptionally clear prose.
To these credentials we should add another important one: his unique command of the entire Greek philosophical tradition since Socrates. Educated by the best philosophers of the times, Cicero freely took and integrated what was best in each of the dominant philosophical schools that emerged in the wake of Socrates: Platonism, Stoicism, Aristotelianism, and (to a lesser extent) Epicureanism. The Socratic philosophical tradition has obviously exerted enormous impact on the Western mind, and it was Cicero who first integrated this into something like a coherent whole and considered its practical implications.
One might ask, If Cicero is so important for Just War Theory, why hasn’t his role been emphasized previously? To address this we must first recognize that today’s Just War Theory has evolved almost exclusively in the Christian tradition, and Cicero has, generally, been problematic for Christian writers. Dismissing the superficial and somewhat irrelevant complaints lodged against him (e.g., that he divorced his wife unfairly, or was either too eager, or too hesitant, to oppose the ambitious reforms of Julius Caesar), some Christian writers have found it awkward to recognize the virtue and lofty morality of the pagan, Cicero. As often happened, Cicero’s ideas were absorbed by Christianity, without due credit being given.
Not just Christian writers, but secular writers since the Enlightenment have also generally found little use for Cicero, perhaps because they have deprecated his strong religious orientation. A contributing factor is that one of Cicero’s most important political works, On the Commonwealth (De res publica) was lost for over a millennium until its rediscovery in 1820. The net result of these factors is that Cicero’s ideas on just war are much less known today than they deserve. A corollary of this, however, is that, as his contributions become better known, they will almost certainly achieve greater appreciation.
Before proceeding further we should perhaps back up the claim that Cicero’s writings include all the main elements of what today we call Just War Theory. This topic is broadly treated by John Mark Mattox in St. Augustine and the Theory of Just War, who supplies examples from Cicero’s writings of the specific principles of just cause, last resort, comparative justice, right intention, public declaration, proportionality, discrimination, and good faith. One may also easily identify these principles for oneself with reference to a single, short section, On Moral Duties 1.11.33 – 1.13.41. A fuller treatment of Cicero’s just war principles and theory, however, rightly deserves a dedicated article or book.
A Modern Foundation?
As already suggested, precisely because Cicero’s just war writings have been neglected by both Christian and modern writers, his works now offer the general advantage of a fresh perspective with many unique ideas. We may point to several specific examples of this, as described below.
The similarities between Cicero’s Rome and today’s United States are numerous, striking, and important. Like today, Cicero’s times were ones of immense cultural and political upheaval. Rome was emerging as something like an unrivaled global super-power. The Roman military machine was unparalleled in technological sophistication. Like today, imperial expansion was judged as an economic necessity. But also like contemporary America, Cicero’s Rome was marked by a distinct sense of exceptionalism, and a conviction that imperial ambitions were not entirely selfish. That is, they were partly justified (or perhaps rationalized) as a humanitarian and mutually beneficial attempt to unite all nations in a single, civilized community, where Rome was only a ‘first among equals’.
Not only was Cicero an experienced politician himself, but the work that contains the essence of his just war theory, On Moral Duties, was written specifically as a long letter of advice to his son. Cicero had every reason to expect his son would, like him, one day reach a position of leadership (the younger Cicero did, in fact, later become consul). Cicero thus imbued this work with the kind of loving attention and inspired wisdom characteristic of a parent. It is a very practical and honest work.
These complex factors, when blended with Cicero’s characteristic warmth, kindness, humanitarianism and love of country, produced a highly nuanced just war theory, something we might call semi-realist in orientation, in contrast with the hard-line Realpolitik so typical today. For example, at the same time Cicero can regret as inhumane and unnecessary the Roman destruction of Corinth, yet accept as necessary (and, hence, just) the similar razing of Carthage. The difference was that Carthage was a genuine threat and (in the Romans’ eyes) a brutal enemy, while Corinth was merely a potential threat to Roman hegemony.
Last, we must give special attention to the distinctly religious orientation of Cicero’s works. Modern cultural commentators have pointed to the desirability of developing a non-sectarian spiritual framework for understanding and coping with the problems of the modern world. Ideally such a framework should be compatible with basic religious beliefs common to all religions, and also congenial to secular institutions like governments, public universities, etc. Cicero’s just war theory, along with the rest of his ethical writings, is firmly rooted in Platonic-Stoic religious ideas and virtue ethics. In particular, it is wedded to Stoic Natural Law theory; this holds, basically, that all that happens in the world is orchestrated by a Divine Intelligence, and that both justice and personal happiness are achieved by acting in concord with this plan. Failure to do so – for example, to wage war unjustly – must necessarily meet with divine disapproval and corrective punishment. This provides an additional incentive for nations to act justly. Importantly, this framework establishes a basis for judging an action moral or immoral that is absolute, not relative or merely based on expedience or utility. Indeed, one of Cicero’s main philosophical achievements is to drive home the point that (in war, as generally), what is immoral can never truly be expedient or advantageous.
A second, related legacy of Cicero’s Stoic leanings is his emphasis on cosmopolitanism. That is, for Cicero, all human beings, enemies included, are part of the human family, to all of whom we have strong moral responsibilities.
As part of a non-sectarian religious philosophy, Cicero’s just war theory is something that can be discussed and developed by members of all religions on an equal footing – something equally acceptable to Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, New Age hippies, and agnostic theists alike. At present, any serious discussion of religious or spiritual moral principles by government officials, intellectuals, or public news media is a taboo. In consequence we have totally dissociated Just War Theory from spiritual and transcendental principles, which is both ineffective and absurd.
Let us, then, give Cicero’s just war theory a unprejudiced and thorough look. We may discover that Providence has, in his works, supplied many treasures.