Satyagraha

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The Fable of the Crafty Chief

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THERE was once a happy and prosperous tribe. Their chief was wise and fair.

A neighboring tribe became jealous of their success, and began to raid them, stealing their cattle and corn. The chief then raised an army of strong men. The next time the enemy tribe raided them, the chief and his men delivered a sound defeat, and they never attacked again. Nevertheless to discourage further mischief the tribe decided to keep a some men permanently armed and ready to defend them.

The chief grew old and his son then became leader. Unlike the father, the son was selfish and greedy. No matter how much he had, he always wanted more. He depleted the public treasury until he had amassed a great fortune. Then he began to eye the wealth of neighboring tribes, and sent raiders to steal from them. When the neighboring tribes protested and tried to defend themselves, he sent soldiers to intimidate them and demand tribute. The other tribes, weaker, began to submit.

But the people did not like this. They decided to hold an election to select a new chief.

Yet the son was crafty, and he conceived a scheme to retain his position. He went to the women of the tribe and spoke as follows: “I see how the men of the tribe oppress you women. They make you grind corn, cook, and wash clothes all day, while they enjoy hunting and sitting around the fire smoking their pipes. But if you vote for me in the election, I promise to fix things. I will improve your status relative to the men, and redress this great injustice.” This met with much approval with the women, and they agreed to vote for him.

Then the son went to the farmers and similarly spoke: “I know how much difficulty you have with the cattlemen. They steal your water, and let their cows eat and trample your crops. They grow rich while you grow poor. But if you vote for me, I will fix things. I will see to it that the cattlemen are put in their place. I will take some of their land and money for you to distribute amongst yourself.” This too met with much approval with the farmers.

And so it happened that when the election occurred, all the women and all the farmers voted for the chief; and although nobody else voted for him, he received enough votes to achieve victory. Once secure in his position, he resumed his previous behavior, only more boldly and on a larger scale. He now openly raided neighboring tribes, stealing their things. He hired mercenaries to form a large and invincible army, and taxed his people to pay for it. As the son ruthlessly plundered all the neighbors, the tribe became hated and held in contempt by all.

In time, even the weather changed. The earth would not yield her crops, and the cattle grew thin. The tribe became poor, suffered, and demanded a new leader. Yet every time an election was held, the crafty chief applied his scheme. No matter how poor the tribe became, there were always groups who believed they had less than others, and by exaggerating these disparities and promising to fix them he continued to win. And here is the paradox: that while each group acted rationally — for indeed inevitable differences in the distribution of things among the tribe occurred — when each group only sought greater justice for itself, all suffered greatly.

Thus it was that the people, by continually fighting amongst themselves about how to distribute what little resources remained, collectively had less and less, until they ceased to be a tribe at all, so that now even their name is forgotten.

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Written by John Uebersax

March 8, 2016 at 3:54 am

Moulding a Nation’s Heart

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The magnificent paragraphs below must surely rank among the best writings of the Anglo-American peace movement.

Their history is interesting.  They come from a sermon delivered by the Rev. Richard Ramsden (1761–1831) of Cambridge on March 12, 1800, on the occasion of a General Fast associated with hostilities between Great Britain and Napoleon’s France. The  sermon made a great impression on the renowned jurist, Basil Montagu (1770–1851), who by chance happened to be in attendance.  Through Montagu they found their way into the annals of the British Parliament (London, 1814). Montagu later, describing the words as “abounding with deep thought,” quoted them in a letter to his friend, Sir James Mackintosh, which appeared in Mackintosh’s published Memoirs (Mackintosh, 1836).  There they were read by the eminent statesman William Gladstone (1809–1898), who quoted them in his book, The State in Its Relations with the Church (1841), remarking of them: “If there be no full record of this magnificent production, it does not speak well for the generation to which it was given.”  Possibly from the same source they also came to the attention of the American Unitarian minister, Abiel Abbot Livermore (1864–1934), who quoted them in his work, The War with Mexico Reviewed (1850, pp. 281), the prize-winning submission in an essay competition sponsored by the American Peace Society for the best review and analysis of the much hated Mexican-American war.  Still later we find them reproduced in an installment of A Christian Treasury (Bonar, 1878); there the author is simply given as ‘Old Christian’, marking the passage of these profound and edifying words to the realm of cultural lore.

Gladstone would be heartened to know that the sermon was in fact published – once shortly after its delivery (Ramsden, 1800) and later in a collection (Ramsden, 1827).

Based on an exegesis of the vision of the four beasts in the Chapter 7 of the Book of Daniel, Ramsden likens the nations of the earth to great beasts of prey that fight against and seek to devour one another.  Nations are by nature amoral, just like lions and tigers: they have no innate law beyond that of self-interest.  We today might describe them as operating in a purely Darwinistic framework, governed by the rule of survival of the fittest.  This is the political universe of Hobbes, Machiavelli, and modern neoconservativism and realism.

Were this all to the story, it would be a bleak and nihilistic picture.  But Ramsden sees something more, and points the way to a solution suggested by Daniel 7:3-4.

[3] And four great beasts came up from the sea, diverse one from another.
[4] The first was like a lion, and had eagle’s wings: I beheld till the wings thereof were plucked, and it was lifted up from the earth, and made stand upon the feet as a man, and a man’s heart was given to it. (Dan 7:2-4; KJV)

Ramsden then proceeds explain how a “a man’s heart” may be given to nations, to soften and humanize them and mitigate their beastliness.  First he describes how, in God’s mercy, a human heart may come to a nation:

“It comes by priests, by lawgivers, by philosophers, by schools, by education, by the nurse’s care, the mother’s anxiety, the father’s severe brow. It comes by letters, by science, by every art, by sculpture, painting, and poetry; by the song on war, on peace, on domestic virtue, on a beloved and magnanimous King; by the Iliad, by the Odyssey, by tragedy, by comedy. It comes by sympathy, by love, by the marriage union, by friendship, generosity, meekness, temperance; by every virtue and example of virtue. It comes by sentiments of chivalry, by romance, by music, by decorations, and magnificence of buildings; by the culture of the body, by comfortable clothing, by fashions in dress, by luxury and commerce. It comes by the severity, the melancholy, and benignity of the countenance; by rules of politeness, ceremonies, formalities, solemnities. It comes by the rites attendant on law and religion; by the oath of office, by the venerable assembly, by the judge’s procession and trumpets, by the disgrace and punishment of crimes; by public prayer, public fasts; by meditation, by the Bible, by the consecration of churches, by the sacred festival, by the cathedral’s gloom and choir; by catechizing, by confirmation, by the burial of the dead, by the observance of the sabbath, by the sacraments, by the preaching of the Gospel, by faith in the atonement of the cross, by the patience and martyrdom of the Saints, by the sanctifying influences of the Holy Ghost.”

He next describes what this heart does, or, in his words, “how its exercise, or affection appears,” and with particular attention to tempering the warlike tendency of a nation:

The exercise of a nation’s heart appears, in its imposing on its own ferocity restraints, in its submitting to checks on the levers and limbs of its strength, in its consenting to be one of the aggregate commonwealth of nations, in its conforming to a public, general law…. It appears in the sending and receiving of embassies, and in the forming of treaties of intercourse. It appears in allowing the soldier to judge of the pleas of humanity, in not putting to death the prisoner taken in battle, in alleviating the horrors of the prison, in healing the wounded enemy, in shewing the white banner, in signing of capitulations.

And:

It deepens the lines of the impression, it has received. It goes to the temple before battle. It prays against the visitation of the sword, as a plague of God. It mourns over that, which it is about to take into its hands. It prays for forgiveness of the breaches of the public law, it has consented to be under, though not bound to such consent. In this sense it prays against its own ambition, injustice, and love of rapine. It appoints fasts before battle. It fasts against its own strength; it weakens itself, and then, so weakened, lies prostrate before the superior strength of God. It seeks in this humiliation and acknowledgment the anointing from above, before it descend on the plain to wrestle.

The human heart of a nation improves itself by promoting virtue:

Like the heart of a man, this heart of a nation inculcates on itself, what promotes the habit of its virtue. It brightens the polish, it has taken. It cherishes the science, law, and religion, by which its softness comes.

Finally, Ramsden describes whose responsibility is the moulding of this heart, or “from whom this heart takes its texture and shape”:

“Whence the heart of a nation comes, we have perhaps, sufficiently explained. And it must appear, to what most awful obligations and duty are held all those, from whom this heart takes its texture and shape, our King, our Princes, our Nobles, all, who wear the badge of office or honour; all priests, judges, senators, pleaders, interpreters of law; all instructers of youth, all seminaries of education, all parents, all learned men, all professors of science and art, all teachers of manners. Upon them depends the fashion of the nation’s heart. By them it is to be chastised, refined, and purified. By them is the state to lose the character and title of the beast of prey. By them are the iron scales to fall off, and a skin of youth, beauty, freshness and polish to come upon it. By them it is to be made so tame and gentle, as that a child may lead it….

“How ought they then to consider, what their temper and conduct are; how ought they to reflect, that by mistake, by folly, by rudeness, by bad example, by corrupt sentiment, by false philosophy, by heresy, by impenitence, by contempt of law and religion, by any sentiment or action, which is base, mean, or evil, they are fostering the brutishness of the nation, keeping up contention and strife throughout the world, encouraging war and shedding of blood, barring from God’s mercy their fellow men, the poor, their own dependants, their own sons and daughters, hindering the descent of the Holy Ghost upon earth, delaying the reign of him, who died to save and bless the world.

“How ought they to reflect on the guilt of such conduct, which is not confined to one little spot or corner, but reaches and touches by links, which go round the globe, the happiness, the refinement, the peace, the salvation of all mankind now living, and of all future generations. How ought they to reflect on the blessing and reward of a contrary conduct, which is ever contributing to banish to their own place, all malice, wrath, jealousy, envy, revenge, cruelty, which heaps coals of fire on every hard mass, and from iron brings out gold, from brass silver, from stones gems; the gold, the silver, and the gems, which form the walls, the gates, and the battlements of the last city to be built, the city of God and of his Christ.”

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References

Ed. Bonar, Horatius. The Christian Treasury. Edinburgh: Johnstone, Hunter & Co., 1872. (see p. 395).

Gladstone, William. E. The State in Its Relations with the Church. Fourth edition. London: John Murray, 1841. Vol. 1. Section 3.2.23. (see pp. 169-171).

Ed. Hansard, T. C. The Parliamentary Debates from the Year 1803 to the Present Time. Vol. 28 (June 7 to July 30, 1814). Appendix. London: 1814. (see pp. 137-140).

Livermore, Abiel A. The War with Mexico Reviewed.  Boston: American Peace Society, 1850.

Ed. Mackintosh, Robert James. Memoirs of the Life of Sir James Mackintosh. Vol. 1. London: Edward Moxon, 1836. (see pp. 158-161).

Ramsden, Richard.  Reflections on War and the Final Cessation of All Hostility: A Sermon Preached before the University of Cambridge, on Wednesday, March 12, 1800, Being the Day Appointed for a General Fast. Cambridge: J. Burges, 1800.

Ramsden, Richard. War and the Final Cessation of all Hostility.  In: Richard Ramsden, D. D., Twenty-Six Sermons, London: 1827,  pp. 237-256.

Rev. James Bicheno — The Consequences of Unjust War (1810)

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THE Rev. James Bicheno (1751-1831) was the father of James Ebenezer Bicheno, a British author, naturalist and colonial official in Australia (Tasmania).  The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1851 (Vol. 190, p. 436) describes the elder Bicheno as “an eminent dissenting minister of the Baptist persuasion and was the author of several publications of a politico-religious character.”   From the website Dissenting Academies Online we learn that Rev. Bicheno studied at Cambridge and the Bristol Baptist Academy, and are told this interesting detail: “kidnapped to America and sold to a planter in Virginia. Returned around 1774.”  His discourse on ‘The Consequences of Unjust War’ shows his eloquence and piety, as well as his knowledge of the Bible.  The work is somewhat peculiar in the strong anti-Catholic sentiments it expresses throughout.  For example, one of his concerns about the British war against Napoleon is that the French Republic had at least been a victory against “Popery.”  These expressions of personal prejudice, which remind us that even the saintliest and noblest writers retain a capacity for human error, do not, however, detract from the substance of the sermon’s message — a message clearly relevant for Americans today.

Source: Rev. James Bicheno.  The Consequences of Unjust War. London:  J. Johnson & Co., 1810.  (Subtitle:  A Discourse Delivered at Newbury, February 28, 1810, being the Day appointed by Proclamation for a General Fast.)

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“The duty of religious fasting, on suitable occasions, has been sanctioned by the practice of all ages, and is inculcated in the New Testament, as well as in the Old; and [that] national fasts, when kept without hypocrisy, and for ends worthy of God, possess that peculiar solemnity, which is calculated to impress the mind with extraordinary judgments, no enlightened Christian can doubt. And I hope there is no one here, who does not think it his duty to pray for our … government, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, in all godliness and honesty. [1Tim 2] There is not one of us, I hope, who does not consider it as his duty, habitually to pray for the peace and prosperity of our beloved country. This is an essential duty of religion; but, convinced that nothing so contaminates devotion as the passions which spring from partial self-love; knowing, that he to whom we pray is equally the father of all, and no respecter of persons or nations, neither the love of our country, nor the power of self-interest, can exclude even our enemies from an interest in our prayers; nor induce us anxiously to solicit any favour at his hand, which is inconsistent with universal charity.”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 1-2)

If we come with hearts fired with anger and revenge against our enemies, and, perverted by pride and self-love, call for fire from heaven to destroy them we hate; or, without devout consideration, not caring whether our cause be just or unjust, pray to the Father of mercies, because we may think we are commanded to do so, to go forth with our fleets and armies, and enable them to kill and burn and destroy; such services will be despised, and be more likely to bring down judgments than to avert them.
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 2-3)

“Our business to-day, then, is to satisfy ourselves (if we have not already done so) as to the character of the war we are engaged in, and what part of our conduct it is, that has been the more immediate cause of exposing us to those judgments which we are called upon to deprecate; that thus our devotions may be guided by that reason, which our Maker has given us to exercise; and have their foundation in that genuine, enlightened, piety, without which our religious services are mockery. If it should appear, on a candid examination, that our cause is decidedly just, and the war originally necessary for the defence of our country, our lives, and liberties; or should it appear to be quite the reverse, neither just nor necessary; or should the question be involved in doubt; in either of these cases, we shall then know how to order our speech before our judge [Job 37:19]; and, what to pray for as we ought [Rom 8:26].”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, p. 3)

“It appears to me to be the duty … of every man, however humble his station, who knows any thing of the worth of our constitution and liberties; and particularly of the ministers of religion, on such a day as this, to do all in their power to enable the people to form a right judgment as to the character of the present war and times; and to show them their errors and transgressions, that high and low may be undeceived, and repent, and turn, and live [cf. Ezek 18:32]. This would be to keep an acceptable fast to the Lord [cf. Isa 58:5]. But woe to them who endeavour to prolong and propagate delusion! woe to them who wish to deceive, or who are willing to be deceived!”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, p. 4)

“Now, though the dispensation of God, in different ages, and towards different people, may be dissimilar; yet he is, through all generations, the righteous governor among the nations, and the principles of his government must always be essentially the same; making a difference between the righteous and the wicked, as it respects nations, as well as individuals. And the people who maintain the purity of God’s worship and the freedom of conscience, and whose political institutions promote the distribution of impartial justice, and which are formed for the promotion of general good and happiness, may for ever be said to be on the Lord’s side; whilst the corrupters of his worship, the persecutors of conscience, and the people whose institutions are formed for the oppression of mankind, must ever be considered as the ungodly, and as those who hate the Lord.”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, p. 10)

“National departures from humanity and justice; forgetfulness of God, and contempt of the obligations of religion, we may expect to be followed by national calamities. Righteousness exalteth a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people [Prov 14:34]. They bend their tongues, like their bow, for lies; but they are not valiant for the truth upon the earth; for they proceed from evil to evil, and they know not me, saith the Lord [Jer 9:3].  — Shall I not visit them for these things? Shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this? [Jer 9:9]”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, p. 18)

“Never was the hand of God more evidently displayed, than in the surprising occurrences which have so rapidly succeeded each other in the course of the last twenty years…. If events have not convinced us that the providence of God is against us, then nothing can. Would you war yet seventeen years more to ascertain the fact? … Every expectation has been disappointed. By every effort which we have made, we have contributed to the aggrandizement of the enemy, and hastened the ruin of those we attempted to help. Calamity or dishonour has been the only fruit of all our measures. Every new exertion has only served to place us at a greater distance from every object of the war.”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 18-19)

“And after all this, are we still unconvinced, or without suspicion, that we have been fighting against the providence of God? Must you see greater calamities than you have seen, and still more striking accomplishments of God’s word, before you believe? Then, neither would you believe, though one rose from the dead [Luke 16:31]. ”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, p. 20)

“The success, or non-success, of a cause, simply and alone, proves nothing. The cause itself must be examined, and judged of by the principles of eternal wisdom and justice. This being done, then, if there appear to be those remarkable interpositions, which, as far as mortals are able to judge, bespeak the finger of God, piety will allow them their due weight. And if the judgment hang in doubt, as, to the justice or injustice of a cause, a course of very extraordinary occurrences, such as we have seen, will weigh much with every man who feels the presence of the Deity, and truly believes in this moral and Providential government.  The ways of Providence are unsearchable. The designs of Heaven are operated by a complication of means, which human penetration can but very imperfectly trace, or comprehend. We ought to adore the long-suffering mercy of God for the exclusive protection we have hitherto experienced; and we cannot be too thankful for the safety we have thus far enjoyed, from the protection of our navy. But we cannot hence conclude, either that our cause is originally or essentially good; or that our safety is likely to be perpetual. I wish not to discourage the humble hopes of the good, but it would be criminal to flatter the confidence of the presumptuous, who are ingenious to find out arguments to encourage the continuance of those measures, which have brought the nation to the brink of ruin. But is it not easy to suppose, that our temporary preservation, and naval successes, may make a part of the great scheme of divine Providence, without implying either the justice of our cause, or our perpetual safety. It is probable that, whilst our enemy is the great instrument to break to pieces the nations, we may be the instrument of Providence, at once to chastise him, and, by the aid which we afford to those to be destroyed, and by the measures we pursue, to operate, indirectly, the destruction of those whom we intended to help. They who have attentively observed the progress of things, for the last seventeen years, will not be disposed to reject this hypothesis, as undeserving of all notice.”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 21-22)

“If mere preservation and partial success be the marks of divine favour, what favourites must our enemies be!”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, p. 23)

“Let me intreat you to turn your attention to those intimations of Divine displeasure, and to those signs of hastening calamities, which exist in the very bowels of the empire, and affect its most vital parts…. Reflect on the vast accumulation of our national debt; the immensity of our annual expenditure … and the consequent burdens under which the nation groans.”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 23-24)

“Reflect on the obstinate resistance which is made to all that reform, which might preserve our constitution from degenerating into tyranny; and restore it to be in practice, what it is in theory: and thus prevent that indifference to the public welfare, in the mass of the people, which is more to be dreaded than all the legions of the enemy.—Reflect on the infatuation and imbecility which seems to direct our public affairs, and on the narrow policy and ill-timed bigotry, which insults and divides, when the common danger so imperiously demands measures of conciliation and union. Are liberal measures proposed for uniting the energies of men, of all religious opinions, and for extinguishing in the common flood of patriotism, that spirit of discord which divides and weakens?
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 24-25)

“Reflect on the general insensibility of the people, both to their danger, and to their public duties; on the dissipation and universal corruption of manners; on the great forgetfulness of God, and neglect of religious duties; and say, are there no signs of hastening ruin? are there no reasons to fear that the wrath of God is upon us, and that he hath, turned our wise men backward, and made their knowledge foolishness [Isa 44:25]? “Although the great body of the people are still blind to the hand of God; and although too many still cry for war, yet the more thoughtful are recovering from their delusion: — the mists have begun to disperse. You begin to perceive the mighty danger, as a giant advancing towards you; you feel the hollow ground on which you stand tremble; you begin to perceive the peril into which our country is brought. Ah! our Sion spreadeth forth her hands, and there is none to comfort her [Lam 1:17a]. There is none to guide her among all the sons she hath brought forth; neither is there any that taketh her by the hand of all the sons that she hath brought up [Isa 51:18]. “O my country! when we contemplate thy varied character, thy conduct, and the dangers which threaten thee, how mingled are our sensations? How many are thy charms to inspire our love, and make us cling to thy destinies! But many are the blemishes which deface thy beauty, and the magnitude of thy vices threatens thy life! — How many great and amiable qualities adorn thy character! How wise are many of thy institutions! — How pure thy courts of justice! — How numerous and extensive are thy charities! — How great thy care for the poor and needy! — But, thy children in the midst of thee, have forgotten God. There is a conspiracy of thy prophets, like a roaring lion; and thy great men are like the wolves, ravening the prey [Ezek 22:25]. — How charming are thy precepts of liberty: and under the protection of thy shield, the persecuted have found safety! But, thou hast forgotten thine own precepts, and what it was that made thee great; and for which we chiefly loved thee.”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 25-27)

I think I should sin against God and my country, if on this day, I were not to bear a faithful testimony, and say, that, unless we cleanse ourselves from our corruptions, personal and national, in church and state; unless we cease from the career we have long been running, and are directed by wiser counsels than those which have brought us to the brink of ruin, a heavy visitation must be expected.  Yes, it is our duty to humble ourselves before God, against whom we have sinned by the misimprovement of the extraordinary light with which he has distinguished us, and the abuse of our power and wealth. It is our duty to pray to God, that that delusion, which has led the nation astray, may be dissipated before it be too late; that the errors into which the nation or government may have fallen, may be pardoned; and that our great and many sins may not issue in our ruin; that all may be enlightened to know what is good to be done in this time of danger, and that every heart may be inspired with those just sentiments which are necessary to a right conduct. It is our duty to repent, and immediately enter on a thorough reformation, as the best means of averting those judgments which have fallen upon the surrounding nations…. By such a conduct, if general and sincere, we might derive a good hope that these judgments will not be necessary to our renovation; will not be necessary to bring us to that purity of manners, and to reduce us to that just and benevolent temper, that piety towards God and charity to all mankind, which our religion inculcates, as essential to the favor of God; and without which, no nation can be truly and permanently happy and prosperous; without which, wars, and commotions, and revolutions, must be expected, as the fruit and chastisement of their follies and sins.”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 27-28)

“It is incumbent on us, also, to rouse ourselves to an active attention to the duties of our several stations; and not only to those more common duties of life which occur every day, but to those political obligations that we are under…. Our duty is to bear testimony, in every legal way we can, against corruptions and war; and to lift up our voice for that political reformation, without which, neither our property, nor our liberties, nor our country, can long be safe.”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, p. 29)

“But my voice is too feeble to be heard; my efforts can be but of little use in so great a work as the salvation of [a nation] ….” True, if there were no voice but yours, it would be better to fly from danger than oppose it. But, let all the thousands who complain and murmur in solitude, discharge the duty which the constitution directs, and their voice will be powerful as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings [Rev 19:6], to appal corruption, and awake the nation from its fatal slumber. But does each, from motives of indolence, or of interest, or of fear, draw back from his duty? Of what practical worth, then, are the rights which we have received from our ancestors? If, absorbed in self, and dead to all public spirit, we fold our arms and stand silent, when the safety or the liberty of our country calls for our help, whom shall we have to accuse when the awful moment arrives, and calamities burst upon us as a flood? And whom will our children, and children’s children, have to accuse, if, regardless of our duty, and insensible to the value and use of our rights, we silently contemplate the approaching ruin without an attempt to repel its progress?”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 29-30)

Abiel A. Livermore — Learning the Lessons of War to Prevent Them in the Future

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AFTER the end of the Mexican-American War (1846-1847), the American Peace Society  sponsored an essay competition, with $500 (roughly equivalent to $15,000 today) to be awarded for the best “Review of the Mexican War on the principles of Christianity, and an enlightened statesmanship.”  The competition was won by the Unitarian minister, Abiel Abbott Livermore (1811-1892).

The following paragraphs, taken from the closing pages of Livermore’s essay, apply as much today as then.

Source:  Abiel A. Livermore, The War with Mexico Reviewed, Boston, American Peace Society, 1850, pp. 280-286.

[Note:  the material below has been slightly re-arranged, viz. the powerful last two paragraphs come from the chapter preceding the Conclusion in Livermore’s essay.]

CONCLUSION

I have been apt to think there never has been, nor ever will be, any such thing as a good war, or a bad peace.” — FRANKLIN.

Then, at least shall it be seen, that there can be no peace that is not honorable, and there can be no war that is not dishonorable.” — CHARLES SUMNER.

AN able writer of the present day has said, that “the philosophical study of facts may be undertaken for three different purposes; the simple description of the facts; their explanation; or prediction, meaning by prediction, the determination of the conditions under which similar facts may be expected again to occur.” The Mexican War is now numbered among the things of the past. What has been done, is done; and what has been written, is written. Its consequences, however, will long remain, and will mingle with future events and influences materially to affect our national prospects. A treaty may stop the war, though some symptoms are unfavorable, but it cannot stop the war-results. The question then is, how can this great evil be turned to the best account. After narrating and explaining its events, so as to get a clear idea of its origin, causes, losses of life and treasure, and its social, political, and moral evils, the next step is to state the conditions on which we may predicate the recurrence of similar mischiefs; or draw such lessons of warning and encouragement, as will tend to prevent them. This end the American Peace Society propose to accomplish by publishing a Review of the War, and pointing out clearly and impressively to the citizens of our land, what measures should be taken to save us from plunging again into like calamities. Thus reviewed, and exposed, this darkest of all the passages in our country’s history, and most ominous of evil to come, in the judgment of wise statesmen, and sage moralists, may be converted into an unexpected blessing. The wars, consequent upon the French Revolution, aroused the friends of Peace on both sides of the ocean to more positive and combined action in behalf of this cause, and induced the formation of associations to work for the grand object of a universal and perpetual pacification of the world. Much has thus been effected to enlighten both rulers and people, and to impress upon both their solemn duties. Much has been done by the devoted and untiring laborers in this department of Christian philanthropy, over which angels must rejoice, and the King of kings extend his benediction.

But the great work has but just been commenced. We cannot suppose that so “splendid” a sin as war can at once be stripped of its false and fascinating garb, that the deeply-rooted and long-revered customs of nations can be torn up in a day, martial passions and habits be checked, and a public opinion, and a public conscience and heart too be formed on the subject, of sufficient potency to sheathe the sword for-ever. But the slowness of progress, the discouragements of efforts, the violent opposition with which a good cause and its advocates meet, do not release us from our duty to that cause, or furnish in reality a solitary reason why we should fold our arms in despair. The cause of Peace only suffers a like fate from opposition, misconstruction and misrepresentation, as the other glorious causes of philanthropy, and as that parent religion of which these causes are the legitimate and hopeful offspring. We may be sure that nothing is lost, that is done in a true spirit and a high aim for the furtherance of human good, and the divine glory. God forbid that we should ever fear that “His ear is heavy that it cannot hear, or His hand shortened, that it cannot save!”

In this faith, the Mexican war is a new weapon, put into the hands of peace, wherewith to win her bloodless victories. It teaches us, were lessons wanting, the folly of all war, its sin against God, and its subversion of His great plan. It teaches us by its gory fields of carnage, and the screaming hells of its hospitals, that a retributive God sits in the heavens, and that those “who take the sword, shall perish by the sword.” If rightly interpreted and faithfully laid to heart, it is capable of showing us the emptiness of military glory, the contentious and unchristian spirit which it cherishes among the officers and soldiers of the same side, the torrent of vices that is let loose in the path of armies, and the pro-fuse waste that is made of all that men hold dear, or labor most industriously to attain. It is a lesson at home, a republican, an American lesson. It has been brought nigh to many a heart, alas, and many a home, and burnt as with a red-hot branding-iron upon the memory of thousands, by bereavements and pains, such as God only can know, and eternity measure. And we believe that all the warnings and forebodings of the opponents to the annexation of Texas now stand vindicated in the light of a fearful and guilty history. Their prophecy is now fact. They predicted a war with Mexico, the extension of slavery and the slave-power, and infuriate lust of territory, the hatching of new schemes of war and plunder, and a headlong course of conquest and aggrandizement. We are deep in these evils and their results, or waver on the brink, apparently about to plunge in deeper than ever. If these things be so, then let the predictions and warnings of the friends of peace at this time not fall, Cassandra-like, on cold hearts and insensible con-sciences. But let every patriot and Christian, every lover of liberty and man, study what he can do to help stay the hour of his country’s danger, and, perhaps, ruin. It profits little to sit still and croak, like the ill-boding raven, of ills to come; but we must forth into the field of duty, action, and influence, and by voice and vote, by pen and purse, by example and precept, by a living and by a dying testimony, whether ours be the widow’s mite or the rich man’s offering, the influence of the high, or the word of the humble, strive, as for life, to arrest the downward tendency of things, recall the promise of our young republic, relight the torch of freedom, shame modern degeneracy with the early doctrines of our history, and set in vivid contrast the heathen nation we are in danger of becoming, with the glory of a true Christian commonwealth.

Let, therefore, these awful lapses in national virtue only serve to arouse to a more comprehensive and resolute course of action the disciples of the Prince of Peace. Let them thank God and take courage, that if they cannot wholly extinguish the wide-spread conflagration of war, they can yet rescue many victims from its fiery passions and its corrupting moral code. Let them bear their testimony against evils, still too powerful to be subdued at once. Let them see the hope and beauty of a brighter to-morrow symbolized in the rainbow that spans the departing thunder-cloud. War is but one section of the kingdom of Satan that is doomed to be overthrown by the kingdom of God. There is as much encouragement in laboring to remove this sin as any other of the gigantic evils that prey upon humanity. Faith, there-fore, faith is the word; faith vivified and illuminated by hope; faith made strong, and gentle, and patient by charity; faith in Jesus Christ, our Lord, the spiritual Governor of men, in whose kingdom of liberty, righteousness, and love, all nations, races, colors, clans, and sects, will at last be harmonized, and God shall be all in all.

Yea, despite the late war, despite the belligerent symptoms of the day at home, despite the warlike aspect of Christendom abroad, though all Europe seems to be turned into barracks and camps, and every country to be resounding with the march of armies hastening to the combat, our just and reasonable confidence in the ultimate triumph of the Gospel of peace is not in the least shaken. The last thirty years of comparative pacification have not passed in vain. Darker clouds than now overhang our horizon, have in former times shut out the light of heaven and hope. If in the solid midnight of sin and superstition, when the whole world lay bound at the chariot wheels of a military despot-ism, Jesus and his apostles knew that a better day was coming, how undying should be our faith amid the breaking of the morning light! For the truth is great, and it will prevail. God is faithful, and his promise will be redeemed. The Gospel is from the Almighty, and it must prevail over man. It is light from heaven, and the darkness of earth must flee before it. Its power is infinite, and its obstacles only finite.

Though for a season then, or for ages its victory may be delayed, the final result is none the less certain, for it is guaranteed by Him who alone is True. Verily, though the world should again plunge into that gulf of horrors, called a general war; though Christian nations should apostatize, and the churches sink into corruption; though the mighty impulses of philanthropy should fail, and the missionaries of the cross should return home, and renounce the sublime hope of evangelizing the world; though our holy faith should retire from the city and the assembly of men, and hide itself from the gaze of the world, we would yet follow her in fear and darkness to her last holy retreat on earth, to the spot, where a mother was kneeling over her new-born infant, and offering up to the Father of spirits her thanks and supplications, and even there catch a new inspiration of faith and hope for the revival of Christianity. For we should remember the sacred scene, eighteen hundred years ago, when the mother of Bethlehem prayed over the babe in the manger, and blessed her Saviour-child; and angels from heaven sang the anthem of his birth; “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

Pacification of the World

And if we would inquire, how the heart of the world can be calmed, and enlarged, and inspired with the life-breath of peace; we can only say that such a heart comes from the nurture of home, and the solemnity of the church, and the tomb of the loved and gone. It comes by the closet of prayer, and the communion of nature, and the table of the Lord. It comes by a sister’s love and a brother’s example, and the memory of “the good old place.” It comes in the distilling dew of Christian instruction and the infinite sanctions of death, judgment, and eternity. It comes by the sweetness of Fenelon, and the love of Scougal ; by the majesty of Luther, and the humanity of Penn. It comes by the horror of blood, and the courage to be [wrongly] called a coward…. It comes by the testimonies of the wise, and the heroism of the good. It comes by the Beatitudes of the New Testament, and the Lord’s Prayer, and Paul’s masterpiece of Charity, and John’s epistle of Love. It comes by him who was born in a manger and died on a cross, the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, the Saviour of sinners.

By these means the weaker spirit of war may be made to yield to the mightier spirit of peace. “And,” in the words of an English divine [Rev. Richard Ramsden of Cambridge (1761-1831)], suggestive of some of the foregoing remarks, “it must appear to what most awful obligation and duty we hold all those from whom this heart takes its nature and shape, our king, our princes, our nobles, all who wear the badge of office, or honor; all priests, judges, senators, pleaders, interpreters of law, all instructors of youth, all seminaries of education, all parents, all learned men, all professors of science and art, all teachers of manners. Upon them depends the fashion of the nation’s heart. By them it is to be chastised, refined, and purified. By them is the state to lose the character and title of the beast of prey. By them are the iron scales to fall off, and a skin of youth, beauty, freshness, and polish, to come upon it. By them it is to be made so tame and gentle as that a child may lead it.”*

* Of the sermon of Richard Ramsden from which this quote comes Gladstone wrote, “If there be no full record of this magnificent production, it does not speak well for the generation to which it was given.”  Gladstone supplies a longer quote that rewards thoughtful reading.  [Update:  a later post on Satyagraha discusses this 1800 sermon of Richard Ramsden.]

Open Letter to Sen. Boxer (D-CA): Please Explain US Goals in Afghanistan

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My latest letter to Sen. Boxer (D-CA), requesting an official rationale for our continued military involvement in Afghanistan.  I will post her reply, whenever it arrives.

September 12, 2012

The Honorable Barbara Boxer
United States Senate
112 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510-0505

Dear Senator Boxer,

Subject: Please explain US goals in Afghanistan

I request a communication from your office that explains why the US is still fighting in Afghanistan.

In previous letters, you have (1) acknowledged that Al Qaeda has little if any presence in Afghanistan, and (2) suggested that our goal there is not so much to prevent domestic terrorism as it is “geopolitical” in nature.
You also alluded to “volatility” in the region.

At this time I request clarification of your references to geopolitics and volatility, as these vague terms have a wide range of possible meanings.  What, specifically, is the concern of the US in Afghanistan?  Are we trying to counter potential influence of China in the region?  Or perhaps of Russia?  Or Iran?  Or Pakistan?  Is this necessary for our national security?  Why?

Or is our goal to prevent Pakistani nuclear arms from falling into the hands of terrorists?

Or is the thinking that we need to set up a Western-style democracy in Afghanistan in order to support the general Westernization of the Caspian Sea region?  And if that is the case, are our motives humanitarian, or selfishly economic?

Rather than continue to speculate as to motives, I would prefer that you, my Senator, kindly inform me as to what they are.

I would also strongly encourage you to investigate the possibility of including moderate factions of the Taliban in negotiations aimed at ending hostilities.

Respectfully yours,

John S. Uebersax

Written by John Uebersax

September 12, 2012 at 11:40 pm

Afghanistan: Vietnam 2 — And Still We Have Not Learned

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“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
~ George Santayana (The Life of Reason)

We don’t need to make this post any longer than necessary – the title makes the message plain enough.  Just as it is obvious to anyone with common sense that the war in Afghanistan is pointless (if not suicidal) and should end.

Robert McNamara, US Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968 and a prime architect of the Vietnam war, admitted that the Vietnam war was a mistake, and had the good sense to reflect on where the nation went wrong in pursuing it.  In 1995, he published his reflections in a book, titled, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (Vintage Books, 1996. ISBN: 0679767495).  The chapter titled, “The Lessons of Vietnam” (pp. 319–336) explained eleven specific mistakes.  These mistakes are summarized below, along with obvious parallels to the current US involvement in Afghanistan.  [Note: McNamara’s words are italicized and in quotes; headings and bold text are my additions.]

“If we are to learn from our experience in Vietnam, we must first pinpoint our failures.  There were eleven major causes for our disaster in Vietnam.”

1. Exaggerated dangers

“We misjudged … the geopolitical intentions of our adversaries (in this case, North Vietnam and the Vietcong, supported by China and the Soviet Union).”

The common assumption is that we are fighting in Afghanistan to prevent terrorist attacks here.  Yet Al Qaeda is effectively removed from Afghanistan, and Osama bin Laden is dead.  We are now fighting the Taliban, an Afghan cultural and political faction, which has never attacked the US, and would appear to be only concerned with affairs in Afghanistan.

2. Misjudged people and leaders

“We totally misjudged the political forces within the country…. We [mistakenly] saw in them a thirst for – and a determination to fight for – freedom and democracy.”

What do we know about the intentions and determination of the political leaders in Kabul, except that all evidence points towards their corruption and greed?

3. Underestimated patriotism

“We underestimated the power of nationalism to motivate a people (in this case, the North Vietnamese and Vietcong) to fight and die for their beliefs and values.”

The common assumption is that the Taliban is merely a front for warlords who wish to exploit and oppress the people of Afghanistan.  But would it not conform with common sense to suppose that they see the US as an imperialistic invader, and are at this point strongly motivated by a genuine and realistic sense of nationalism and patriotism?  Our government and political system is today so plainly out of control that we ourselves seem unable to control its vicious advances.  Who, then, could doubt that there are people in Afghanistan who would fight to the death to prevent this same machine from taking over their country and subjecting them to the same dehumanizing institutional forces.  We shouldn’t suppose that the Taliban are saints, or that their motives are completely honorable.  But whatever their other failings, they are human beings, and human beings are well known to die rather than surrender their homeland to an invading force.

4. Ignorance of history and culture

“Our misjudgments of friend and foe alike reflected our profound ignorance of the history, culture, and politics of the people in the area, and the personalities and habits of their leaders.”

What do we know about the culture and politics of Afghanistan?  Are we truly so naive as to think that the cultural dynamics are as simple as the formula “Taliban = bad guys, anti-Taliban = good guys”?  In what area of life is such primitive, black-and-white thinking correct or adequate to solve a problem?

5. Machines vs. men

“We failed … to recognize the limitations of modern, high-technology military equipment, forces, and doctrine in confronting unconventional, highly motivated people’s movements.”

All available evidence and testimony points to the rural and rugged terrain of Afghanistan as decisively favoring the guerilla tactics of the Taliban, and making our approach there, based on superior technology and conventional troop actions, an impossible logistical nightmare.

6. No honest debate

“We failed to draw Congress and the American people into a full and frank discussion and debate of the pros and cons of a large-scale U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia before we initiated the action.”

The American public bought into the Afghanistan operation under the stated premise that it was to be a short-term operation (e.g., 90 days), designed to destroy terrorist training camps and to capture Osama bin Laden.  Since then there has been no “full and frank discussion” about our goals, objectives, and strategy.  Rather, the war has dragged on by institutional momentum, and by the irrational yet widespread belief that we should continue precisely because we began, and to leave would be unpatriotic or a sign of weakness.

7. No public communication

“We failed to retain popular support in part because we did not explain fully what was happening and why we were doing what we did…. A nation’s deepest strength lies not in its military prowess, but, rather, in the unity of its people.  We failed to maintain it.”

The war has created (or, we should say, increased) a deep chasm between citizens and government.  At present, polls show (as they have for some time) that most Americans oppose our continued involvement in Afghanistan.

More fundamentally, the public has no idea (and, likely, neither do members of Congress) as to the true reasons for our involvement.  Upon repeated inquiry to my US  Senator (Barbara Boxer D-CA), I finally received a short response alluding to “geopolitical objectives.”  In the face of such vague government communications, the public can only speculate.  Are our “geopolitical objectives” to place a US-style democracy adjacent to Iran? ; or next to China?  Is it to get our foot in the door of the mineral-rich Caspian Sea area?

And why have we let the war spill over into Pakistan with drone strikes? Are we trying to keep Pakistan’s nuclear arms out of the hands of Pakistani terrorists?   Have factions of the Pakistani government secretly asked our help to control their internal terrorist problem in exchange for other concessions, while at the same time they publicly denounce our drone strikes to quell the indignation of their citizens?

Or do the AfPak military operations continue merely because they line the pockets of war profiteers, who, by making large campaign contributions, control US foreign policy?

8. False sense of omniscience

“We did not recognize that neither our own people nor our leaders are omniscient.  Where our own security is not directly at stake, our judgment of what is in another people’s or country’s best interest should be put to the test of open discussion in international forums.  We do not have the God-given right to shape every nation in our own image or as we choose.”

Clearly the US government still labors under the burden of a false sense of omniscience.  And while our leaders continue to say that the Afghanistan war is not an effort in nation building, our actions and massive siphoning off of US funds – while our own infrastructure deteriorates – shows beyond doubt that this is exactly what we are attempting.

9. Unilateralism

“We did not hold to the principle that U.S. military action – other than in response to direct threats to our own security – should be carried out only in conjunction with multinational forces supported fully (and not merely cosmetically) by the international community.”

It is no secret that the so-called multinational effort in Afghanistan is indeed merely cosmetic.  Several members of the original coalition have at least had the decency to withdraw their support.

10. No easy solutions

“We failed to recognize that … there may be problems for which there are not immediate solutions…. At times, we may have to live with an imperfect, untidy world.”

Perhaps we don’t like the Taliban, and perhaps with good reason. But, ultimately, what happens in Afghanistan is not our business.  Can we not trust the innate capacity of the Afghan people to gradually work out their problems?  And if we wish to save the world, why not do so with positive efforts, like ending famine or eradicating disease – goals which, unlike a military victory in Afghanistan, are attainable?

11. Executive branch disorganization

“Underlying many of these errors lay our failure to organize the top echelons of the executive branch to deal effectively with the extraordinarily complex range of political and military issues… Such organizational weakness would have been costly had this been the only task confronting the president and his advisers….  [But] it coexisted with the wide array of other domestic and international problems confronting us.  We … failed to analyze and debate our actions in Southeast Asia – our objectives, the risks and costs of alternative ways of dealing with them.”

Two successive administrations have shown an utter lack of ability to confront the war in Afghanistan in an honest and sensible way.  And today we have even more pressing social problems than existed during the Vietnam era, problems which demand an even greater proportion of government attention.

McNamara followed his list of these errors by noting how they all interacted in a negatively synergistic fashion:

“These were our major failures, in their essence.  Though set forth separately, they are all in some way linked:  failure in one area contributed to or compounded failure in another.  Each became a turn in a terrible knot.”

He then concluded with important observations that modern Americans should take to heart:

“Above all else, the criteria governing intervention should recognize that, as we learned in Vietnam, military force has only a limited capacity to facilitate the process of nation building.  Military force by itself cannot rebuild a ‘failed state.’… External military force cannot substitute for the political order and stability that must be forged by a people for themselves.”

and:

“We must recognize that the consequences of large-scale military operations – particularly in this age of highly sophisticated and destructive weapons – are inherently difficult to predict and to control.  Therefore, they must be avoided, excepting only when our nation’s security is clearly and directly threatened.”  

“These are the lessons of VietnamPray God we learn them.”

Finally, he said:

“Can we not go beyond the culture of war that saw so many deaths from war in the 20’th century? Surely that must be not only our hope, not only our dream, but our steadfast objective.  Some may consider such a statement so naive, so simplistic, and so idealistic as to be quixotic.  But as human beings, citizens of a great nation with the power to influence events in the world, can we be at peace with ourselves if we strive for less?”

These last words deserve special attention.  As mankind has never found the ability to learn from history, we should not be greatly surprised that the same myopia afflicts the current generation. But there is a radical difference between Americans today and during the Vietnam era.  At least then people were able to set peace – and an eventual end to war – as a conscious, if distant objective.  Now the voice of conscience is utterly absent in the news media and in social discourse.  We must not compound our present errors by succumbing to the further sin of what psychologists call learned helplessness.  While under the oppression of the present political system, let us at least denounce it, and work by whatever avenues – including but not limited to prayer – are available to us to build a better world.

Written by John Uebersax

August 28, 2012 at 12:34 am

Is Cicero the Father of Just War Theory?

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Introduction

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.

Written by John Uebersax

May 24, 2012 at 11:48 pm