The oldest Babylonian tablets mark battles fought, both defensive and offensive, as does the Epic of Gilgamesh, the west’s oldest complete literary work. And the annals of western history never stop reporting on wars and rumors of wars. Douglas MacArthur once calculated that in 3,400 years of human history, only 239 had been years of peace. Some consider that estimate charitable. Aristotle says that we wage war so that we may live in peace. If so, we seem never to enjoy the fruits of our labor.
Why does war beset us? Is there any way to end it?
Plato offers a succinct account of the origin of war in Book 2 of the Republic. Socrates describes an ideal city in which the inhabitants divide up the labor so that everyone’s needs are met by communal effort. Each works according to his talents and capacities, and all together enjoy the fruits of a harmonious collaboration. Since all needs are met, the people have ample leisure to enjoy the pleasures of simple arts and to praise the gods for their good fortune.
Having heard the description, however, Glaucon calls this “a city of pigs,” because the citizens lack “the comforts of life—sofas and tables, also sauces and sweets.” Now Socrates, in a few sentences, shows how war arises: “Then the fine arts must go to work—every conceivable instrument and ornament of luxury will be wanted. There will be dancers, painters, sculptors, musicians, cooks, barbers, tire-women, nurses, artists; swineherds and cowherds too for the animals, and physicians to cure the disorders of which luxury is the source. To feed all these superfluous mouths we shall need a part of our neighbor’s land, and they will want a part of ours. And this is the origin of war, which may be traced to the same causes as other political evils. Our city will now require the slight addition of a camp, and the citizen will be converted into a soldier.”
Of course, Plato means this to be taken as tongue-in-cheek, but only on first reading. There is something serious behind this effortless linking of the desire for luxuries and the outbreak of war. If we cannot control our appetites, we will—sooner or later—be forced to take from others in order to continue trying to satisfy our wants.
How do we manage people’s wants so that they don’t end up killing one another? Among the citizens of a city or a country, the laws perform this function. But, as Hobbes and Locke and others pointed out, there is no common law among sovereign states. When nations cannot agree, there seems to be no recourse but war. The enemy nation must be reduced to helplessness, so that its people will obey the will of the conqueror.
Among the ancients, there are hints that this situation may not be irremediable. Socrates and Marcus Aurelius talk about being “citizens of the world” on the basis of their common affinity with all human beings. They seem to be thinking of the entire world as a single vast political entity. Such a polity, if it could exist, would have laws that could mediate disputes among nations.
Before the twentieth century, only a few thinkers seemed to give serious thought to the notion of world-wide laws. One was Dante, who, in his De monarchia, produced a vision of a world-encompassing, law-based society. Another was Immanuel Kant, who, in his essays “Perpetual Peace” and “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Intent,” broached the possibility of a world-wide federation of nations abiding by a single legal code. Kant’s practical inspiration for such a thing was, of course, the United States Constitution, although he did not believe that the nations of the whole world, in contrast with the states of America, could be federated under a single absolute document.
In the twentieth century, though, war became so brutal, so impersonal, and so mechanical (and eventually, with nuclear proliferation, so absurd) that international steps were taken to try to eliminate it. The failed League of Nations and the current United Nations grew out of those attempts. So far, these institutions have been unable to stop war, although the existence of a forum where the nations of the earth can at least attempt to settle their differences is a great advance. Often, they succeed. An optimist sees hope in both the successes and the failures. In the long course of human history, the rule of reason in world affairs is still in its infancy. An infant must rise and fall many times before it learns to walk.
When this is necessary, America must still call up warriors to meet the challenge. So far, in every generation, men and women have answered, and continue to answer, the call with courage, fortitude, and selflessness. Had this not been so, America would have ceased to exist long ago. All living Americans owe our warriors, past and present, a debt that can never be repaid, a debt that nonetheless binds us forever to do our utmost to repay it.
On Veterans Day, we honor our surviving warriors. We rightly give thanks to those who have sacrificed their personal peace for the survival of the nation. And we rededicate ourselves to fulfilling the pledge that Abraham Lincoln made, on our behalf, in his second Inaugural Address—“to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.”
This essay was originally published on St. John’s College SignPosts for Liberal Education (November 2015) and appears here with permission.
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