Peace, War, And Philosophy

NOTE: The following article is excerpted from The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, volume VI (New York: Macmillan, 1967), under the heading above. Readers are encouraged to see the original article in the EOP by F.S. Northedge.

Speculation about war and peace as conditions of interstate relations has tended to divide thinkers into two groups -- those who regard war as inevitable, perhaps even desirable, and those who consider it an evil capable of being replaced by lasting peace through good will or improved social arrangements. The first group is sometimes described as "realist" and the second as "idealist," but these terms have the drawback that such idealist philosophers (in the ontological sense) as Plato and Hegel often accept war as a permanent condition of human existence. It is therefore proposed here simply to call the first group "conservatives," and the second "abolitionists," though a wide spectrum of opinion clearly exists within each subdivision.

The Conservative Tradition

The Greeks. Ancient Greek thought commonly accepted war between the city-states themselves and between Greeks and "barbarians" as part of the order of nature. The Greek gods were a warlike breed who had come to power after a brutal struggle with the Titans...A view of war widely prevalent in Greece was that of Heraclitus of Ephesus. War, Heraclitus taught, was the 'father of all and king of all,' and it was through war that the present condition of mankind, some men free and some enslaved, had evolved. If strife between the warring elements in nature were abolished, nothing could exist; 'all things,' according to Heraclitus, 'come into being and pass away through strife'...

Christianity and natural law. The conservative acceptance of war as a fact of life was also basic to the intellectual attitudes of the Roman Republic and Empire was sustained during the Middle Ages, when Catholic writers wrestled with the problem of the conditions on which ecclesiastical approval could be given to the wars of secular monarchs. St. Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica (Question 40), while claiming that peace was the greatest aim toward which man should strive in fulfillment of his natural ends, nevertheless placed on monarchs the duty to defend the state. Similarly, Dante contended in De Monarchia that 'peace was the target at which all shafts were sped' but that it was to be attained by the imposition of a world law, if necessary by force, issuing from a revived Roman Empire. The legacy of Christian teaching which had the most lasting influence, however, concerned the application of natural law, strongly tinged by Christian ethics, to the conduct of war.

The Spanish Jesuit theologian Francisco Suarez held that war is not instrinsically evil and that just wars may be waged. Suarez defined three conditions of legitimate war. It must be waged by lawful authority -- that is, by the supreme sovereign; the cause of making war must be just, and other means of achieving justice must be lacking; and war must be conducted and peace imposed with moderation. A similar view was taken by Hugo Grotius, who held that far from war's being a breakdown of the law of nations, it is, in fact, a condition of life to which law is as applicable as it is to the conditions of peace. War, Grotius argued in his De Iure Belli ac Pacis Libri Tres (1625), should not be fought except for the enforcement of rights and, when fought, should be waged only within the bounds of law and good faith. This conception survives in the assumption behind such twentieth-century international organizations as the League of Nations and the United Nations that only wars fought on behalf of international interests, such as the maintenance of world peace, are just...

The militarists. Friedrich Nietzsche may be judged as an extreme representative of the romantic cult of war and as marking the transition to modern totalitarian militarism. Nietzsche was capable of deploring the wastefulness of war; however, in his fully mature writings, Thus Spake Zarathustra (1892) and The Will To Power...he glorified war and the dangerous life. The phrase 'a good war hallows every cause' (Thus Spake Zarathustra), may be taken as typical of this attitude. For Nietzsche's supermen war is a natural activity, the supreme witness to their superior quality; they should never succumb to the 'slave morality' of Christianity, with its accent on humility, submissiveness, and turning the other cheek...

The Abolitionists

The premodern age...The outstanding opponent of war during the Renaissance was the great humanist Desiderius Erasmus, though it is incorrect to speak of him as an absolute pacifist. In his Anti-polemus, or the Plea of Reason, Religion and Humanity Against War (1510), Erasmus argued that every man's duty was to spare no pains to put an end to war. War was directly opposed to every purpose for which Erasmus conceived man to have been created; man is born not for destruction but for love, friendship, and service to his fellow men.

Nineteenth-century peace movements. The nineteenth century was even more prolific in its plans for organizing the nations to ensure peace. In Europe and the United States there arose strong unofficial peace movements which urged the creation of agencies for the arbitration of interstate differences and the equitable settlement of political issues, together with the strengthening and codification of international law. In the atmosphere of harmony that followed the Congress of Vienna the Great Powers of Europe met regularly to deal with threats to peace, while such functional organizations as the European river commissions and the Universal Postal Union (1875) dealt quietly with matters of practical concern to the nations. The hope of a permanent international assembly which might develop into a world legislature was held out at the Hague conferences of 1899 and 1907, and it seemed likely that the growing stake of nations in peaceful intercourse would soon render war obsolete.

The English utilitarians, such as Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, and John Stuart Mill, provided much of the theoretical background of the peace movements. They contended that war was an anachronistic encumbrance on a free society, benefiting no one but aristocrats and professional soldiers. Richard Cobden voiced the commercial classes' distaste for war in his pamphlet Russia (1836). Herbert Spencer, an extreme opponent of laissez-faire society, denounced war in his Social Statics (1851) as an outcome of excessive government authority; with the functions of government reduced and individual liberty restored, all reason for war would disappear. This liberal, economic case for peace culminated in the striking claim by Norman Angell in The Great Illusion (1908) that war had become so destructive of all economic values that nations would never again engage in it.