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Ancient and modern

Ancient & modern

The Chilcot enquiry into the Iraq war raises the old question of what constitutes a ‘just’ war. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas are the authorities here, but they have their eyes on their predecessors.

30 December 2009

5:00 PM

30 December 2009

5:00 PM

The Chilcot enquiry into the Iraq war raises the old question of what constitutes a ‘just’ war. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas are the authorities here, but they have their eyes on their predecessors.

The Chilcot enquiry into the Iraq war raises the old question of what constitutes a ‘just’ war. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas are the authorities here, but they have their eyes on their predecessors.


Ancient Greeks had little to say about the concept but, contrary to received opinion, they were not (for the most part) committed warmongers. Just over one third of the Iliad is taken up with battle scenes (about 300 encounters), but Ares the war god is the most hated divinity of all, and when a duel between Menelaus (husband of Helen) and Paris, her seducer, is proposed to settle the issue once and for all, the troops on both sides are delighted, remove their arms and settle down to watch. The historian Herodotus, saying no one is so foolish as to choose war over peace, pinpoints the dreadful personal price: fathers burying their sons. Plato states the obvious that ‘the greatest good is neither war nor civil war (God forbid we should ever need to resort to either) but peace and goodwill among men’; while Aristotle points out that ‘no one chooses to be at war, or provokes war, for the sake of being at war… we make war to live in peace’.

That said, Aristotle does come up with the interesting argument that no war can be said to be just unless it is fought ‘against men who, though intended by nature to be governed, will not submit’. This comes close to the doctrine still prevailing in the West, that the only form of just governance is elective oligarchy (aka ‘democracy’), which we must impose on all those who disagree.

Cicero defines a just war as follows. Its aim must be that ‘we may live in peace, unharmed’. A demand for satisfaction must be submitted, or warning given and declaration made; and only legally enlisted soldiers can fight. War for glory and empire must be fought less bitterly than one for survival, and those who surrender must be treated mercifully. So too must the vanquished, as long as they have not acted barbarically. Finally, all promises must be kept.

Cicero’s view is controlled entirely by self-interest, as it would be for an imperialistic state like Rome. But it raises the question of the meaning of a ‘just war’. ‘Just’ in whose eyes? And justiciable too? Or does it mean simply ‘justifiable’? Or ‘ultimately justified’?


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