An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue, Fourth Edition : Book 5, Chapter 16 : Of the Causes of War
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(1756 - 1836) ~ Respected Anarchist Philosopher and Sociologist of the Enlightenment Era : His most famous work, An Inquiry concerning Political Justice, appeared in 1793, inspired to some extent by the political turbulence and fundamental restructuring of governmental institutions underway in France. Godwin's belief is that governments are fundamentally inimical to the integrity of the human beings living under their strictures... (From : University of Pennsylvania Bio.)
• "Fickleness and instability, your lordship will please to observe, are of the very essence of a real statesman." (From : "Instructions to a Statesman," by William Godwin.)
• "Anarchy and darkness will be the original appearance. But light shall spring out of the noon of night; harmony and order shall succeed the chaos." (From : "Instructions to a Statesman," by William Godwin.)
• "Courts are so encumbered and hedged in with ceremony, that the members of them are always prone to imagine that the form is more essential and indispensable, than the substance." (From : "Instructions to a Statesman," by William Godwin.)
Book 5, Chapter 16
Offensive war contrary to the nature of democ- racy. - Defensive war exceedingly rare. - Erron- eousness of the ideas usually annexed to the phrase, our country. - Nature of war delineated. - Insufficient causes of war - the acquiring a healthful and vigorous tone to the public mind - the putting a termination upon private insultss - the menaces or preparations of our neighbors - the dangerous consequences of concession - the vindication of national honor. - Two legitimate causesof war.
EXCLUSIVELY of those objections which have been urged against the democratic system, as it relates to the internal management of affairs, there are others, upon which considerable stress has been laid, in relation to the transactions of a state with foreign powers, to war and peace, and to treaties of alliance and commerce.
There is indeed an eminent difference, with respect to these, between the democratic system and all others. It is perhaps impossible to show that a single war ever die! or could have taken place, in the history of mankind, that did not in some way originate with those two great political monopolies, monarchy and aristocracy. This might have formed an additional article, in the catalog of the evils to which they have given birth, little inferior to any of those we have enumerated. But nothing could be more idle than to overcharge a subject the evidence of which is irresistible.
What could be the source of misunderstanding between states, where no man, or body of men, found encouragement to the accumulation of privileges to himself, at the expense of the rest? Why should they pursue additional wealth or territory? These would lose their value the moment they became the property of all. No man can cultivate more than a certain portion of land. Money is respresentative, and not real wealth. If every man in the society possessed a double portion of money, bread, and every other commodity, would sell at double their present price, and the relative situation of each individual would be just what it had been before. War and conquest cannot be beneficial to the community. Their tendency is to elevate a few at the expense of the rest; and consequently they will never be undertaken but where the many are the instruments of the few. But this cannot happen in a clemocracy till the democracy shall become such only in name. If expedients can be devised for maintaining this species of government in its purity, or if there be anything, in the nature of wisdom and intellectual improvement, which has a tendency daily to make truth more prevalent over falsehood, the principle of offensive war will be extirpated. But this principle enters into the very essence of monarchy and aristocracy.
It is not meant here to be insinuated that democracy has not repeatedly been a source of war. It was eminently so among the ancient Romans; the aristocracy found in it an obvious expedient for diverting the attention and encroachments of the people. It may be expected to be so wherever the form of government is complicated, and the nation at large is enabled to become formidable to a band of usurpers. But war will be foreign to the character of any people in proportion as their democracy becomes simple and unalloyed.
Meanwhile, though the principle of offensive war be incompatible with the genius of democracy, a democratic state may be placed in the neighborhood of states whose government is less equal, and therefore it will be proper to inquire into the supposed disadvantages which the democratic state may sustain in the contest. The only species of war in which it can consistently be engaged will be that the object of which is to repel wanton invasion. Such invasions will be little likely frequently to occur. For what purpose should a corrupt state attack a country that has no feature in common with itself upon which to build a misunderstanding and that presents, in the very nature of its government, a pledge of its inoffensiveness and neutrality? Add to which, it will presently appear that this state which yields the fewest incitements to provoke an attack will prove a very undesirable adversary to those by whom an attack shall be commcnccd.
One of the most essential principles of political justice is diametrically the reverse of that which impostors, as well as patriots, have too frequently agreed to recommend. Their perpetual exhortation has been, 'Love your country. Sink the personal existence of individuals in the existence of the community. Make little account of the particular men of whom the society consists, but aim at the general wealth, prosperity and glory. Purify your mind from the gross ideas of sense, and elevate it to the single contemplation of that abstract individual, of which particular men are so many detached members, valuable only for the place they fill.'1
The lessons of reason on this head are different from these. 'Society is an ideal existence, and not, on its own account, entitled to the smallest regard. The wealth, prosperity and glory of the whole are unintelligible chimeras. Set no value on anything but in proportion as you are convinced of its tendency to make individual men happy and virtuous. Benefit, by every practicable mode, man wherever he exists; but be not deceived by the specious idea of affording services to a body of men, for which no individual man is the better. Society was instituted, not for the sake of glory, not to furnish splendid materials for the page of history, but for the benefit of its members. The love of our country, as the term has usually been understood, has too often been found to be one of those specious illusions which are employed by impostors for the purpose of renclering the multitude the blind instruments of their crooked designs.'
In the meantime, the maxims which are here controverted have had by so much the more success in the world as they bear some resemblance to the purest sentiments of virtue. Virtue is nothing else but kind and sympathetic feelings reduced into principle. Undisciplined feeling would induce me, now to interest myself exclusively for one man, and now for another, to be eagerly solicitous for those who are present to me, and to forget the absent. Feeling ripened into virtue embraces the interests of the whole human race, and constantly proposes to itself the production of the greatest quantity of happiness. But, while it anxiously adjusts the balance of interests, and yields to no case, however urgent, to the prejudice of the whole, it keeps aloof from the unmeaning rant of romance, and uniformly recollects that happiness, in order to be real, must necessarily be individual.
The love of our country has often been found to be a deceitful principle, as its direct tendency is to set the interests of one division of mankind in opposition to another, and to establish a preference built upon accidental relations, and not upon reason. Much of what has been understood by the appellation is excellent, but perhaps nothing that can be brought within the strict interpretation of the phrase. A wise and well informed man will not fail to be the votary of liberty and justice. He will be ready to exert himself in their defense, wherever they exist. It cannot be a matter of indifference to him when his own liberty and that of other men with whose merits and capacities he has the best opportunity of being acquainted are involved in the event of the struggle to be made. But his attachment will be to the cause, as the cause of man, and not to the country. Wherever there are individuals who understand the value of political justice, and are prepared to assert it, that is his country. Wherever he can most contribute to the diffusion of these principles and the real happiness of mankind, that is his country. Nor does he desire, for any country, any other benefit than justice.
To apply these principles to the subject of war. - And, before that application can be adequately made, it is necessary to recollect, for a moment, the force of the term.
Because individuals were liable to error, and suffered their apprehensions of justice to be perverted by a bias in favor of themselves, government was instituted. Because nations were susceptible of a similar weakness, and could find no sufficient umpire to whom to appeal, war was introduced. Men were induced deliberately to seek each other's lives, and to adjudge the controversies between them, not according to the dictates of reason and justice, but as either should prove most successful in devastation and murder. This was no doubt in the first instance the extremity of exasperation and rage. But it has since been converted into a trade. One part of the nation pays another part, to murder and be murdered in their stead; and the most trivial causes, a supposed insult, or a sally of youthful ambition, have sufficed to deluge provinces with blood.
We can have no adequate idea of this evil unless we visit, at least in imagination, a field of battle. Here men deliberately destroy each other by thousands, without resentment against, or even knowledge of, each other. The plain is strewed with death in all its forms. Anguish and wounds display the diversified modes in which they can torment the human frame. Towns are burned; ships are blown up in the air, while the mangled limbs descend on every side; the fields are laid desolate; the wives of the inhabitants exposed to brutal insult; and their children driven forth to hunger and nakedness. It is an inferior circumstance, though by no means unattended with the widest and most deplorable effects, when we add, to these scenes of horror, and the subversion of all ideas of moral justice they must occasion in the auditors and spectators, the immense treasures which are wrung, in the form of taxes, from those inhabitants whose residence is removed from the seat of war.
After this enumeration, we may venture to inquire what are the justifiable causes and rules of war.
It is not a justifiable reason 'that we imagine our own people would be rendered more cordial and orderly, if we could find a neighbor with whom to quarrel, and who might serve as a touchstone to try the characters and dispositions of individuals among ourselves'.2 We are not at liberty to have recourse to the most complicated and atrocious of all mischiefs, in the way of an experiment.
It is not a justifiable reason, 'that we have been exposed to certain insults, and that tyrants, perhaps, have delighted in treating with contempt, the citizens of our happy state who have visited their dominions'. Government ought to protect the tranquility of those who reside within the sphere of its functions; but, if individuals think proper to visit other countries, they must be delivered over to the protection of general reason. Some proportion must be observed between the evil of which we complain and the evil which the nature of the proposed remedy inevitably includes.
It is not a justifiable reason 'that our neighbor is preparing, or menacing, hostilities'. If we be obliged to prepare in our turn, the inconvenience is only equal; and it is not to be believed that a despotic country is capable of more exertion than a free one, when the task incumbent on the latter is indispensable precaution.
It has sometimes been held to be sound reasoning upon this subject 'that we ought not to yield little things, which may not, in themselves, be sufficiently valuable to authorize this tremendous appeal, because a disposition to yield only invites further experiments,. Much otherwise; at least when the character of such a nation is sufficiently understood. A people that will not contend for nominal and trivial objects, that adheres to the precise line of unalterable justice, and that does not fail to be moved at the moment that it ought to be moved, is not the people that its neighbors will delight to urge to extremities.
'The vindication of national honor' is a very insufficient reason for hostilities. True honor is to be found only in integrity and'. justice. It has been doubted how far a view to reputation ought, in matters of inferior moment, to be permitted to influence the conduct of individuals; but, let the case of individuals be decided as it may, reputation, considered as a separate motive in the instance of nations, can perhaps never be justifiable. In individuals, it seems as if I might, consistently with the utmost real integrity, be so misconstrued and misrepresented by others as to render my efforts at usefulness almost necessarily abortive. But this reason does not apply to the case of nations. Their real story cannot easily be suppressed. Usefulness and public spirit, in relation to them, chiefly belong to the transactions of their members among themselves; and their influence in the transactions of neighboring nations is a consideration evidently subordinate - The question which respects the justifiable causes of war would be liable to few difficulties, if we were accustomed, along with the word, strongly to call up to our minds the thing which that word is intended to represent.
Accurately considered, there can probably be but two causes of war that can maintain any plausible claim to justice; and one of them is among those which the logic of sovereigns, and the law of nations, as it has been termed, have been thought to proscribe: these are the defense of our own liberty, and of the liberty of others. The well known objection to the latter of these cases is 'that one nation ought not to interfere in the internal transactions of another'. But certainly every people is fit for the possession of any immunity, as soon as they understand the nature of that immunity, and desire to possess it and it is probable that this condition may be sufficiently realized in cases where, from the subtlety of intrigue, and the tyrannical jealousy of neighboring kingdoms, they may be rendered incapable of effectually asserting their rights. This principle is capable of being abused by men of ambition and intrigue; but, accurately considered, the very same argument that should induce me to exert my self for the liberties of my own country is equally cogent, so far as my opportunities and ability extend, with respect to the liberties of any other country. But what is my duty in this case is the duty of all; and the exertion must be collective, where collective exertion only can be effectual.
1Du Contrat Social, etc. etc. etc.
2 The reader will easily perceive that the presences by which the people of France were instigated to a declaration of war, in April 1792, were in the author's mind in this and the two following articles. Nor will a few lines be misspent in this note in stating the feelings of a dispassionate observer, upon the wantonness with which they have appeared ready, upon different occasions, to proceed to extremities. If policy were in question, it might be doubted whether the confederacy of kings would ever have been brought into action against them, had it not been for their precipitation; and it might be asked, what impression they must expect to find produced upon the minds of other states; by their intemperate commission of hostility? But that equal humanity, which prescribes to us never, by a hasty interference, to determine the doubtful balance in favor of murder, is a superior consideration, in comparison with which policy is scarcely worthy to be named.
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