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Verily, verily I say unto thee

From Erasmus’s Institutio Principis Christiani. The last section, On Beginning War.

The wisdom of princes will be too costly for the world if they persist in learning from experience how dreadful war is, so that when they are old men, they may say: “I did not believe that war was so utterly destructive!” But – and I call God to witness – with what countless afflictions on the whole world have you learned that idea! The prince will understand some day that it was useless to extend the territory of the kingdom and that what in the beginning seemed a gain was [in reality] tremendous loss, but in the meantime a great many thousands of men have been killed or impoverished. These things should better be learned from books, from the stories of old men, from the tribulations of neighbors: “For many years this or that prince has been fighting on for such and such a kingdom. How much more is his loss than his gain!I” Let the good prince establish matters of the sort that will be of lasting worth. Those things which are begun out of a fancy are to our liking while the fancy lasts, but the things which are based on judgment and which delight the young man, will also afford pleasure to the old man. Nowhere is this truth more to be observed than in the beginning of war…

Some princes deceive themselves that any war is certainly a just one and that they have a just cause for going to war. We will not attempt to discuss whether war is ever just; but who does not think his own cause just? Among such great and changing vicissitudes of human events, among so many treaties and agreements which are now entered into, now rescinded, who can lack a pretext – if there is any real excuse – for going to war? But the pontifical laws do not disapprove all war. Augustine approves of it in some instances, and St. Bernard praises some soldiers. But Christ himself and Peter and Paul everywhere teach the opposite. Why is their authority less with us than that of Augustine or Bernard? Augustine in one or two places does not disapprove of war, but the whole philosophy of Christ teaches against it. There is no place in which the apostles do not condemn it; and in how many places do those very holy fathers, by whom, to the satisfaction of some, war has been approved in one or two places, condemn and abhor it? Why do we slur over all these matters and fasten upon that which helps our sins? Finally, if any one will investigate the matter more carefully, he will find that no one has approved the kind of wars in which we are now commonly involved…

The Christian prince should first question his own right, and then if it is established without a doubt he should carefully consider whether it should be maintained by means of catastrophes to the whole world. Those who are wise sometimes prefer to lose a thing rather than to gain it, because they realize that it will be less costly. Caesar, I think, would prefer to give up his rights rather than seek to attain the old monarchy and that right which the letter of the jurisconsults conferred on him. But what will be safe, they say, if no one maintains his rights? Let the prince insist by all means, if there is any advantage to the state, only do not let the right of the prince bear too hard on his subjects. But what is safe anywhere while everyone is maintaining his rights to the last ditch? We see wars arise from wars, wars following wars, and no end or limit to the upheaval! It is certainly obvious that nothing is accomplished by these means. Therefore other remedies should be given a trial. Not even between the best of friends will relations remain permanently harmonious unless sometimes one gives in to the other. A husband often makes some concession to his wife so as not to break their harmony. What does war cause but war? Courtesy, on the other hand, calls forth courtesy, and fairness, fairness. The fact that he can see, from the countless calamities which war always carries in its wake, that the greatest hardship falls on those to whom the war means nothing and who are in no way deserving of these catastrophes, will have an effect on the devoted and merciful prince.

After the prince has reckoned and added up the total of all the catastrophes [which would come] to the world (if that could ever be done), then he should think over in his own mind: “Shall I, one person, be the cause of so many calamities? Shall I alone be charged with such an outpouring of human blood; with causing so many widows; with filling so many homes with lamentation and mourning; with robbing so many old men of their sons; with impoverishing so many who do not deserve such a fate; and with such utter destruction of morals, laws, and practical religion? Must I account for all these things before Christ?” The prince cannot punish his enemy unless he first brings hostile activities upon his own subjects. He must fleece his people, and he must receive [into his realm] the soldier, who has been called ruthless (and not without justification) by Vergil. He must cut off his subjects from those districts which they formerly enjoyed for their own advantage; [or else the reverse], he must shut up his subjects in order to hem in the enemy. And it frequently happens that we inflict worse sufferings upon our own people than upon the enemy. It is more difficult, as well as more desirable, to build a fine city than to destroy it. But we see flourishing cities which are established by inexperienced and common people, demolished by the wrath of princes. Very often we destroy a town with greater labor and expense than that with which we could build a new one, and we carry on war at such great expense, such loss, such zeal, and pains, that peace could be maintained at one-tenth of these costs.

Let the good prince always lean toward that glory which is not steeped in blood nor linked with the misfortune of another. In war, however fortunately it turns out, the good fortune of one is always the ruin of the other. Many a time, too, the victor weeps over a victory bought too dearly…



Erasmus was a pie-in-the-sky idealist. “The Christian prince should first question…” Ha! As if “Christian” and “question” should ever be in the same sentence together!

Indeed, he was… and though Machiavelli’s Il Principe was written 3 years before Erasmus’s Institutio it’s practical politics has this kind of idealism for lunch.

For the next 200 years you get text after text on the question of governance and kingship, either defending and pretty much repeating Erasmus or defending and repeating Machiavelli.

We get buried in this passage, though this is not new either, phrases such as this

A good prince measures everything by the advantage of his people, otherwise he is not even a prince. He does not have the same right over men as over animals. A large part of the ruling authority is in the consent of the people, which is the factor that first created kings.

Of course, despite reminding Charles V that he governs by the will of the people, somethign Leviathan will also take up, absolutism and the divine right of kings really takes root with the Spanish Hapsburg dynasty—of course, it comes fully into its own with the court of Louis XIV, but he is imitating and doing a much better job of it, it should be noticed, his uncle and father-in-law to the south.

The other reason I like this quote is that he undoes much of just war theory. Are we really going to listen to Augustine’s few comments over and above the teachings of Christ?

Ask yourself that Christian Right!

It doesn’t matter, though. The Christian Right doesn’t pay a lick of attention to Augustine; few do.

But on that note, I don’t think he undoes just war theory at all. His first claim, that Jesus’s philosophy runs counter to war, is correct; his second, that the Apostles’ testimony does likewise, is only nominally so—the Apostles were in no position (and had little apparent interest) to challenge power in the way that Jesus did. “There is no place in which the apostles do not condemn it [war]” is true because the apostles just don’t talk about states or statecraft. He’s using the negative of scriptural silence as a positive.

With that in mind, because Augustine is concerned about states and real, physical power as it may be weilded by a Christian, and because the Church was something very different in 350–430 CE than it was in 30–70 CE—something that had to consider the ways that states mattered—yes, in fact there is a very good argument to be made that we would and maybe even should listen to Augustine over Christ.

re: last paragraph of 3:

For shame! Forsaking originalism for the idea that the church is a continuity?

Hand in your Restorationist card, forwith!

you are right to point out that the apostles are a poor source for him to go to…

you are less right to say that the Christian right doesn’t pay attention to Augustine… back when the current morrass was just cheney’s desire to empty his bladder in the middle east, augustine was cited by everybody… the church isn’t against war, etc., etc. so, robertson, dobson, and the late falwell might never have cited him, but those whom they were citing were citing him.

and, though i would agree we should read more augustine (how much of the city of god have you read?); i still tend towards the 2 cities, that should be kept separate, the two cities where one is a subversive, rebel outpost that calls into question the imperialism of the other, the power grabbing of the other.

I haven’t read CoG at all, though reading Arendt has put it on my long list. Rather than lean wholly on Augustine, however, I was making a more qualitative claim about hermeneutics and understanding (what JH said in 4; speaking of, I’ve still got my card, but it’s been at the bottom of a drawer for more than a year, gathering dust. I’ll sell it on eBay sooner or later).

A two-cities model is hardly relevant, unfortunately. More akin is city/country: the city, organized; country, disjointed. If we are setting up Jesus as a model in this case, then the fact that he primarily avoided Jerusalem and refused to set it up as an outpost of justice must be significant, no?

yeah, that was a cheap ad hominem that had little to do with the issues you raise.

indeed, i would agree that the issue at stake is hermeneutics.

how are we to conceive of this relationship? that is, church and state… church and politics?

is it as simple as the flip-flopping of mr. moral minority or minimal morality: that is, his switch from getting into politics=hel to not getting into politics=hell?

are those the only two options? or is there a third, or fourth, or fifth? in which none of them lead to hell?

I can hardly see how any religion which doesn’t advocate wholesale withdrawl from civilization can ever avoid politics, nor why it should even aspire to that.

8’s only part right. “Church and state” is not really a question of church & politics because church is itself a political stance, as is state. The question is how the church associates with/gets mixed up in/decides the value of power. That association with power determines the form of the political stance.

It may sound like I’m parsing where parsing’s not necessary (it kinda feels that way) but I’ll maintain for now that there’s significant value in being precise about what we mean here.

having something of a separationist streak in me, i can certainly see why religions would want to avoid politics… especially religions that believe that afterlife is where its at and this life is just the bothersome testing ground, the extended hazing for the glorious brotherhood

now, you are right regarding religions that are not ascetic—but, my separationist streak would still say that any religion that advocates an ethic of love for other over love for self has to enter into politics with kid gloves

g, your point is taken…

though, i have just confessed to having separationist tendencies… i was not arguing for that…

i find both falwell’s early stance (though this seduces me more) and falwell’s later stance both problemfull

Of course you have separationist tendencies. I have them too. It’s the sectarian part of our blood. Anyway, I’d still rephrase what you said: any religion that advocates an ethic of love for other over love for self has already entered politics with hands open.

maybe we should just take this over to GKB?

who seems to be getting way too much love over a silly, silly post

i’m sorry you lost readers today, but bores can be way too heavy

Except for the reappearance of Scott, it’s not worth taking it there—too much posturing.

You know, It’s pretty remarkable how quickly the concern trolls came appeared…

yeah, i wish we had his wit rearing its pretty little head around here… but, we are not GKB... and the gay-haters don’t visit us much to flush out our hidden gay readers…

For that reason alone, never so much as today have I wished to be besieged by homophobes, that S, bright star of reason and sensibility, might swoop in to save the day.