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Erasmus and Pacifism

(From War and the Liberal Conscience [1978] , by Michael Howard, Chapter I, “The Growth of the Liberal Conscience”, 1500-1792.)

War and its horrors

It is likely that ever since the origins of human society, men — or at least some men, and most women — have intermittently lamented the existence of war… Erasmus’s diatribes contain many lamentations about its incidental horrors which were not in themselves unusual. He did not himself have any significant experience of war. He did indeed write an account of a battle, a kind of literary parallel to Uccello’s picture ‘The Rout of San Romano’, but this appears to have been based on a letter from a friend describing Henry VIII’s expedition to France in 1512.

…The barbarous cohorts whose very faces and shouts strike terror to the heart; the iron-clad troops drawn up in battle-array, the terrifying clash and flash of arms, the hateful noise and bustle of a great multitude, the threatening looks, harsh bugles, startling peal of trumpets, thunder of bombards… a mad uproar, the furious shock of battle, and then wholesale butchery, the cruel face of the killers and the killed, the slaughtered lying in heaps, the fields running with gore, the rivers dyed with human blood…

Erasmus’s disgust at war in fact was probably provoked, as is so often the case, far more by a purely personal, emotional shock: the death of his beloved pupil Alexander, son of King James IV of Scotland, a beautiful, wise, learned young man who was killed with his father at the Battle of Flodden: ‘Tell me’, lamented Erasmus in his threnody, ‘what had you to do with Mars, the stupidest of all the poet’s gods, you who were consecrated to the Muses, nay to Christ? Your youth, your beauty, your gentle nature, your honest mind — what had they to do with the flourishing of trumpets, the bombards, the swords?’

Contempt for the military

‘The stupidest of all the gods’: that surely is a new note. War was stupid. It was irrational. It was neither glorious nor necessary. Those who conducted it were worthy not of admiration but of contempt. Erasmus despised the profession of arms with a scorn which generations of intellectuals were to inherit. ‘Military idiots,’ he called them, ‘thick-headed lords… not even human except in appearance.’ ‘Among the soldiers,’ he wrote bitterly, ‘the one who conducted himself with the most savagery is the one who is thought worthy to be captain in the next war.’

Such a view went against the whole grain of contemporary culture. Virtù, the all-round excellence to which Renaissance Man aspired, displayed itself as much on the battlefield as in the study and the boudoir, as Baldassare Castiglione’s Cortigiano makes clear; while more popular images of chivalry were still based on the romances of Malory, of Ariosto and of Amadis de Gaul.

Erasmus’s attack on war was emotional rather than reasoned. ‘There is nothing more wicked,’ he wrote, ‘more disastrous, more widely destructive, more deeply tenacious, more loathsome, in a word more unworthy of man, not to say a Christian.’ The priority is interesting. It is primarily on grounds of humanity that Erasmus condemns war, not those of religion; in the same way as he saw his pupil consecrated to the Muses, with Christ added almost as an afterthought.

The birth of pacifism

But he also developed rational arguments against war which were later to become the commonplaces of liberal pacifism. Princes who wished to display their power and glory, suggested Erasmus, would be better employed developing the welfare of their own kingdoms rather than extending their boundaries at the price of untold suffering.

War, he suggested, was ‘unnatural’: animals did not make war on one another. ‘Whoever herd of a hundred thousand animals rushing together to butcher each other, as men do everywhere?’ It was a mask behind which governments could extend their powers over their subjects, since ‘once war has been declared, then all the affairs of the State are at the mercy of the appetites of a few.’

Even ‘just’ wars he regarded as unacceptable, for reasons which are of continuing relevance. ‘If a claim to possession is to be reckoned sufficient reason for going to war,’ he wrote, ‘then in such a disturbed state of human affairs, so full of change, there is no one who does not possess such a claim. What people has not, at one time or another, been driven out of its lands, or driven others out?’ And were not the costs of defending even a righteous cause likely to be excessive? If you find, by balancing one set of advantages and disadvantages with another, that an unjust peace is preferable to a just war, why do you want to try the fortunes of Mars ?’

War unnatural and irrational

These are arguments which we will repeatedly meet again: war is both unnatural and irrational; it is a wasteful diversion of resources from welfare to destruction; it is engineered by governments for evil reasons of their own; even the most apparently laudable of ends can never justify the means involved. Erasmus did not concede, indeed, that there could be any circumstances under which war would be justified, and when one considers the nature of the wars being fought in the Europe of his time — the extravagant parades of Henry VIII and Francis I, the bellicose trumpetings of Pope Julius II — one can understand why.

The medieval ideal, that force could be justly used only by Christian chivalry for the defence of Christendom and for the maintenance of God’s justice within its borders, was virtually dead. The modern concept of force as a necessary instrument in preserving an orderly system of states was only beginning to appear — in the most shadowy of forms — in the work of Machiavelli. War in Europe at the dawn of the sixteenth century was largely a matter of competitive display of virtù in its most debased and ludicrous form.

Beyond these surface manifestations, with all their terrible consequences, Erasmus did not enquire. With all his genius he was not a profound political analyst, nor did he ever have to exercise the responsibilities of power. Rather he was the first in that long line of humanitarian thinkers for whom it was enough to chronicle the horrors of war in order to condemn it; men who may command one’s instinctive agreement, but provide little constructive advice as to how to deal with the phenomenon which they find so abhorrent to nature and reason. (13-16)

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