ANCIENT WISDOM ON WAR AND PEACE

Aristotle | St. Augustine | Cicero | Euripides | Lao Tzu | Maximus of Tyre | Plutarch
Polybius | The Qur’an | Seneca, Lucius Annaeus | Sun Tzu | Thucydides | Titus Livius | Xenophon


The quotations that follow, except as otherwise noted, are taken from Hugo Grotius’ The Law of War and Peace (first published 1625), Francis W. Kelsey, Tr., Bobbs-Merrill, 1925. Grotius, a Dutch lawyer and writer, is known as the “father of international law.”

 Aristotle

Greek Philosopher, 384-322 BC

“Aristotle . . . condemns those nations which made warlike pursuits . . . their end and aim. Violence is characteristic of wild beasts, and violence is most manifest in war; wherefore the more diligently effort should be put forth that it be tempered with humanity, lest by imitating wild beasts too much we forget to be human.” (Grotius paraphrasing Aristotle.)

 

Saint Augustine

Early Christian father, Bishop of Hippo, 354-430 AD

 “Everyone . . . who with pain thinks on [the] evils [of war], so great, so terrible, so ruthless, must acknowledge that this is misery. If, again, anyone endures or reflects upon these things without anguish of soul, his plight is all the more wretched, because he considers himself happy, while in fact he has lost his feeling for humanity.”

Cicero

Roman philosopher and orator, 106-44 BC

“To whom without the gravest danger to all men can it be granted that he shall have the right to kill a man by whom he says he fears that he himself later may be killed?”

“Most wrongs have their origin in fear, since he who plans to do wrong to another fears that, if he does not accomplish his purpose, he may himself suffer harm.” [Grotius paraphrasing Cicero in support of Grotius’ statement, “Those who accept fear of any sort as justifying anticipatory slaying are themselves greatly deceived, and deceive others.”]

“There is this law which is not written, but born with us; which we have not learned, . . . but . . . have sucked in . . . – the law that if our life has been placed in jeopardy by any snare, or violence, or weapons . . .every possible means of securing safety is morally right.”

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Euripides

Greek dramatist, 480 – 406 BC

Whenever men proceed to vote on war
No one reflects that death hangs over him,
But each destruction for the other plans;
Had we, when casting votes, with our own eyes
The funerals beheld, the funerals as we voted,
Would not have perished war-frenzied Greece.

 

Lao Tzu

Ancient Chinese philosopher,  c604 – 531 BC, from Tao Te Ching, John C.H. Wu, tr., Barnes & Noble Books, 1997

 Fine weapons of war auger evil.
Even things seem to hate them.
Therefore, a man of Tao does not set his heart upon them.

* * *

As weapons are instruments of evil,
They are not properly a gentleman’s instruments;
Only on necessity will he resort to them.
For peace and quiet are dearest to his heart,
And to him even a victory is no cause for rejoicing.

To rejoice over a victory is to rejoice over the slaughter of men!
Hence a man who rejoices over the slaughter of men
cannot expect to thrive in the world of men.

* * *

Hence, even a victory is a funeral.

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Maximus of Tyre

Greek philosopher, Second Century BC

 “Even if you remove the element of injustice from war, the necessity of it is in itself pitiable.”

 “War seems not to be undertaken by the just except of necessity, by the unjust of their own initiative.”

 

Plutarch

Greek historian and biographer, 46 – 120 AD

 “There is no war among men which does not originate in fault. One is kindled by an eager desire for pleasures, another by avarice, another by an overmastering passion for public office or supreme power.”

 

Polybius

200 – 118 BC

Even when fighting evil ones, “it becomes good men . . . not to involve the innocent in the same punishment as the guilty, but even to spare those who are guilty for the sake of the innocent.”

 

The Qur’an

The Koran, NJ. Dawood, Tr., Viking

“Fight for the sake of God those that fight against you, but do not attack them first. God does not love the aggressors.”

 

Seneca, Lucius Annaeus

Roman statesman and philosopher, c 4 BC – 65 AD

“Just as the members of the body agree with one another, because the preservation of each conduces to the welfare of the whole, so men refrain from injuring one another because we are born for community of life. For society can exist in safety only through the mutual love and protection of the parts of which it is composed.”

“We try to restrain murders and the killing of individuals. Why are wars and the crime of slaughtering nations full of glory? Avarice and cruelty know no bounds. In accordance with decrees of the Senate and orders of the people atrocities are committed, and actions forbidden to private citizens are commanded in the name of the state.”

“It is the mark of a great soul when a man possessing unlimited power endures wrongs, and . . . nothing is more glorious than a prince who has received a wrong without avenging it.”

“What law permits, the sense of shame forbids to do.” (Agamemnon in “The Trojan Women.”)

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Sun Tzu,

Ancient Chinese philosopher and strategist, 544 – 496 BC, The Art of War, John Minford, tr., Penguin Books, 2003.

War is
a grave affair of state;
It is a place
Of life and death,
A road
To survival and extinction,
A matter
To be pondered carefully

The skillful Strategist
Defeats the enemy
Without doing battle.

 

Thucydides

Greek historian, 471-401 B.C.

“The future is still uncertain, and no one, influenced by that thought, should arouse enmities which are not future but certain.”

 “Not those who ward off force with force break the peace, but those who are the first to make the attack.”

 

Titus Livius

Roman historian, 59 BC – 17 AD

“In the effort to guard against fear, men cause themselves to be feared, and we inflict upon others the injury which has been warded off from ourselves, as if it were necessary either to do or suffer wrong.”

 “Arms are blameless for those who have no hope left save in arms.”

 

Xenophon

Greek historian and essayist, 434-355  BC

“I have known men who, becoming afraid of one another, in consequence of calumny or suspicion, and purposing to inflict injury before receiving injury, have done the most dreadful wrongs to those who had no such intention.”

 

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