War is an act which comes naturally to man. We have fought wars since the dawn of time and will do so to the very end. It is in our blood, irresistibly calling us to take up arms and do battle with one another.
For as long as men have fought wars, men have talked about wars. Every nation that has recorded its history has given a prominent place in that history to the battles it has fought and won. The gallantry of soldiers has long been the subject matter of poets and songwriters. Centuries before Herodotus and Thucydides wrote their historical accounts of the Greco-Persian and Peloponnesian Wars, Homer had immortalized the heroes of the Trojan War in his epic poem The Illiad. The Hebrew Scriptures are also full of accounts of war: the book of Joshua tells of the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites after their wandering in the wilderness, the subsequent historical books tell of the wars the Israelites fought, first under the leadership of judges, then of their kings, against the invading forces of surrounding nations, and finally of how the ancient empires of Assyria and Babylon invaded and conquered the divided kingdom. When the book of Exodus tells of God’s miraculous intervention to rescue the Israelites from the pursuing armies of a vengeful Pharaoh, Israel’s response of praise to God is in the form of the song of Moses, which lauds Him as a military hero:
I will sing unto the LORD, for he hath triumphed gloriously: the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea. The LORD is my strength and song, and he is become my salvation: he is my God, and I will prepare him an habitation; my father's God, and I will exalt him. The LORD is a man of war: the LORD is his name. (Exodus 15:1-3, the song continues to verse 19)
What was true of ancient civilizations has been true of every society and every civilization since. Accounts of war continue to occupy a large amount of space in our history books. In the early 20th Century, the first World War inspired the verse of soldier-poets such as the British Rupert Brooke and our own Canadian John McCrae. If less poetry has been written about subsequent wars this is not because we have lost our fascination with war. It is because creative minds now tend to express that fascination through newer media.
War, however, has not been the only topic on the minds, tongues, and pens of our historians, poets, and other writers from time immemorial. For as long as men have been fighting wars, and thinking and talking about the wars we fight, we have also been thinking and talking about peace.
Plato’s last dialogue was The Laws, written around 360 BC. (1) In this dialogue an Athenian stranger joins a Cretan named Cleinias, and a Lacedaemonian named Megillus, on a pilgrimage from the Cretan capital of Knossos to the cave of Zeus. The Athenian stranger is unnamed but he behaves the way Socrates does in Plato’s other dialogues. (2) The dialogue begins with him asking the other two whether their laws are said to have been authored by a god or a man. After hearing their answer he proposes that they spend their journey informing him about their laws and political institutions. They agree to this, and the first question the Athenian stranger puts to them is “why the law has ordained that you shall have common meals and gymnastic exercises, and wear arms.” Cleinias answers that the reason is obvious, that “these regulations have been made with a view to war.” The Cretan legislator, he explains, believes that “in reality every city is in a natural state of war with every other, not indeed proclaimed by heralds, but everlasting” and for that reason “all institutions, private as well as public, were arranged by him with a view to war.” Needless to say, his Spartan companion agreed wholeheartedly with this assessment.
The Athenian stranger, however, proceeds to interrogate his companions further. After establishing that there is a struggle between the good and the bad, not just between cities, but families, individuals, and even within the individual himself, the Athenian stranger asks Cleinias:
Now, which would be the better judge-one who destroyed the bad and appointed the good to govern themselves; or one who, while allowing the good to govern, let the bad live, and made them voluntarily submit? Or third, I suppose, in the scale of excellence might be placed a judge, who, finding the family distracted, not only did not destroy any one, but reconciled them to one another for ever after, and gave them laws which they mutually observed, and was able to keep them friends.
The answer, he receives, is that “The last would be by far the best sort of judge and legislator.” The Athenian stranger then points out that the goal of laws, established by this sort of governor, would be the opposite of war. From here he proceeds to ask a series of questions that culminate in the declaration that:
[W]ar, whether external or civil, is not the best, and the need of either is to be deprecated; but peace with one another, and good will, are best. Nor is the victory of the state over itself to be regarded as a really good thing, but as a necessity; a man might as well say that the body was in the best state when sick and purged by medicine, forgetting that there is also a state of the body which needs no purge. And in like manner no one can be a true statesman, whether he aims at the happiness of the individual or state, who looks only, or first of all, to external warfare; nor will he ever be a sound legislator who orders peace for the sake of war, and not war for the sake of peace.
In the first century BC, Rome, which had become the ruler of the Mediterranean world with its final triumphs over Carthage and Macedon in the second century BC, saw its generals fight a series of civil wars for control of the republic and its empire. Alliances were formed and broken, and it ultimately culminated in the rise of Octavian to the imperial throne in 27 BC. He set about to bring order and peace to the Roman Empire. Upon his return to Rome after consolidating his rule, the Ara Pacis Augustae – Altar of the Augustan Peace – was commissioned, built and consecrated. The Pax Romana had begun. It would last for two centuries.
What Augustus Caesar had accomplished in the Pax Romana, was more or less what Plato had been talking about in his Laws – the civil organization of a society – or in this case a world empire - including its martial institutions and activities, towards the end of peace. As an example of this kind of politically constructed peace, the Pax Romana was exemplary and it has inspired numerous imitations since. It could not and did not last forever, however. The Hebrew prophets, envisioned a different sort of peace.
The prophetic writings within the Hebrew Scriptures contain rebukes of idolatry and wickedness in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, warnings of the divine judgement that would befall these kingdoms in the form of the invading Assyrians and Babylonians, and promises of restoration both immediate, under Cyrus and the Persians, and ultimate, with the coming of the Messiah, establishment of the New Covenant, and the kingdom of God on earth. These promises include a vision of future peace. The prophet Isaiah, for example, proclaimed that in the last days all the peoples of the world would come to the Lord’s house, to learn of His ways and be judged by Him, and said that:
they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)
Isaiah calls the Messiah the Prince of Peace (9:6) and in another famous passage describes the peace of His reign as extending even to the animal kingdom:
The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice' den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea. (11:6-9)
This vision of peace is eschatological, i.e., it describes events that are to be directly accomplished by God Himself, in a future beyond the history of this present world. The Scriptures, Hebrew and Christian, also contain warnings about attempts to counterfeit God’s eschatological peace by human means within history (Daniel 8:25, 1 Thess. 5:3). Nevertheless, in the Psalms, the sacred song book of Jews and Christians alike, we are told to seek and pursue peace (34:14) and to pray for the peace of Jerusalem (122:6). The Psalmist expresses his faith that the Lord will bless His people with peace (29:11) and that the end of the perfect man is peace (37:37).
With the Hebrew Scriptures, which became the Old Testament, Christianity inherited both the vision of an eschatological peace to be established by God in His eternal kingdom, and the exhortations to pursue peace in this world. Peace is also a theme of the Christian Scriptures.
In St. Luke’s account of the birth of Christ, after the angelic herald announces the birth of the Messiah to the shepherds, the angel host proclaim the glory of God by saying “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” (2:14) In the Beatitudes, the blessings which begin Jesus’ most famous Sermon, He proclaimed a blessing upon “the peacemakers”, saying that they shall be called the “children of God” (Matthew 5:9). St. John records how Jesus, speaking to His Apostles at the Last Supper, said “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid”. (14:27). St. Paul, wrote to the church in Rome that the Kingdom of God is “not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (14:17) and that they therefore ought to “follow after the things which make for peace” (14:19). To the church in Ephesus, he described the unity of Jew and Gentile in the church, as a peace established by Christ (2:14-15, cf. Col. 1:20) and he wrote to the Corinthian church (2 Cor. 13:11) that they ought to live in peace.
It is customary for Jews to greet each other with the blessing “Shalom Aleichem” which means “peace to you”. (3) This is an ancient tradition, with roots in the Hebrew Scriptures, which was well established by the first century AD. Jesus Himself uses it (Lk. 24:36, Jn. 20:19, 21, 26), along with a similar blessing “go in peace” at the departing of ways. It can be found opening or closing almost every New Testament epistle, usually with grace and in some cases mercy and or love, added to the blessing, and it is part of Jesus’ salutation to the churches of Asia Minor in the Book of Revelation. The liturgical salutation Pax Vobis (4) and the Kiss of Peace or Sharing of the Peace in the Eucharist are Christian variations of this Jewish custom.
The hope of peace has other Christian liturgical expressions as well. Within the Anglican tradition, for example, the Collect of the Day is followed by a Collect for Peace in the order of both Morning and Evening Prayer. The Mattins Collect for Peace is:
O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom: Defend us thy humble servants in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defence, may not fear the power of our adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (5)
The Collect for Peace in Evensong is:
O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed: Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give; that our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments, and also that by thee we being defended from the fear of our enemies may pass our time in rest and quietness; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.
It should be obvious, from the examples given of the ways in which peace has been talked about in the Jewish and Christian tradition, and even the examples from Plato and Roman history, that peace is more than just “the absence of war”. War and peace are the opposites of each other but there are different ways in which things can be opposites. Male and female are opposites in a complementary way that differs from the way east and west are opposites. Both of these differ from how light and darkness are opposites. We tend to think of war and peace as having the same relationship with each other as light and darkness have, and it is easier to explain peace by referring to war than it is to explain war by referring to peace. Nevertheless, as we have seen peace has traditionally been spoken of as a positive good, towards the achievement of which a state ought to order its laws and institutions, which we ought in goodwill to wish towards our fellow man, and which will be ultimately established by God in the next world. All of this suggests that it would be more appropriate to think of peace as something substantial and not just a term invented to denote the absence of something else.
The words that are traditionally used for peace would also suggest this. In both Hebrew and Latin, the word used for such an agreement is also used to refer to a general state of wellbeing. Both the Hebrew and the Latin words for peace have a double meaning. They can refer to an agreement of friendship between two peoples, a covenant or a treaty. They can also refer to a state of health, soundness, wellbeing, tranquility, or calmness. The English word peace has both of these meanings as well. This points to a widely recognized relationship between harmonious agreement among people and internal wellbeing and health.
There are those who detect a contradiction in the ongoing discussion of war and peace. We say that peace is something which is good and desirable, we express our goodwill towards others by wishing it upon them, we pray for it and look to God to bestow it upon us in His eternal kingdom. We also erect monuments to warriors, sing the praises of feats of bravery in war, and regularly honour those have fought our country’s wars for us. Does the way we talk about war contradict the way we talk about peace?
We will consider that question in War and Peace: Part Two, in which we will take a look at other parts of the traditional discussion of war and peace, in particular the dialogue about the justness of war.
(1) Quotations from Plato’s The Laws are taken from the Benjamin Jowett translation. All quotations come from Book One of the dialogue.
(2) Socrates was, of course, an Athenian.
(3) The customary response is to invert the two words and say “Aleichem Shalom”.
(4) The literal way of saying “Shalom Aleichem” in Latin. Pax Vobiscum is also used, in which the meaning is slightly altered to “peace be with you”.
(5) Both Collects are taken from the 1962 Canadian edition of the Book of Common Prayer.
A Protestant Christian, patriotic Canadian, and a reactionary High Tory with a libertarian streak, at the same time a monarchist, indeed a royal absolutist, and a minarchist.
You can e-mail me at gerrytneal(at)hotmail(dot)ca