An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue, Fourth Edition : Book 5, Chapter 17 : Of the Object 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.)
• "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.)
• "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.)


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Book 5, Chapter 17

Of Legislative and Executive Power



	The repelling an invader. - Not reformation -
	not restraint - not indemnification. - Nothing
	can be a sufficient object of war that is not a
	sufficient cause for beginning it. - Reflections
	on the balance of power. 

LET us pass, from the causes to the objects of war. As defense is the only legitimate cause, the object pursued, reasoning from this principle, will be circumscribed within very narrow limits. It can extend no further than the repelling the enemy from our borders. It is perhaps desirable that, in addition to this, he should afford some proof that he does not propose immediately to renew his invasion; but this, though desirable, affords no sufficient apology for the continuance of hostilities. Declarations of war, and treaties of peace, were the inventions of a barbarous age, and would probably never have grown into established usages if war had customarily gone no further than to the limits of defense.

The criminal justice, as it has been termed, of nations within themselves has only three objects that it can be imagined to have in view, the reformation of the criminal, the restraining him from future excesses, and example. But none of these objects, whatever may be thought of them while confined to their original province, can sufficiently apply to the case of war between independent states. War, as we have already seen, perhaps never originates, on the offending side, in the sentiments of a nation, but of a comparatively small number of individuals: and, were it otherwise, there is something so monstrous in the idea of changing the principles of a whole country by the mode of military execution that every man not lost to sobriety and common sense may be expected to shrink from it with horror.

Restraint appears to be sometimes necessary, with respect to the offenders that exist in the midst of a community, because it is customary for such offenders to assail us with unexpected violence; but nations cannot move with such secrecy as to make an unforeseen attack an object of considerable apprehension. The only effectual means of restraint, in this case, is by disabling, impoverishing and depopulating the country of our adversaries; and, if we recollected that they are men as well as ourselves, and the great mass of them innocent of the quarrel against us, we should be little likely to consider these expedients with complacency. - The idea of making an example of an offending nation is reserved for that God whom the church, as by law established, instructs us to adore.

Indemnification is another object of war which the same mode of reasoning will not fail to condemn. The true culprits can never be discovered, and the attempt would only serve to confound the innocent and the guilty: not to mention that, nations having no common umpire, the reverting, in the conclusion of every war, to the justice of the original quarrel, and the indemnification to which the parties were entitled, would be a means of rendering the controversy endless. The question respecting the justifiable objects of war would be liable to few difficulties if we laid it down as a maxim that, as often as the principle or object of a war already in existence was changed, it was to be considered as equivalent to the commencement of a new war. This maxim, impartially applied, would not fail to condemn objects of prevention, indemnification and restraint.

The celebrated topic of the balance of power is a mixed consideration, having sometimes been proposed as the cause for beginning a war, and sometimes as an object to be pursued in a war already begun. A war undertaken to maintain the balance of power may be either of defense, as to protect a people who are oppressed, or of prevention, to counteract new acquisitions, or to reduce the magnitude of old possessions. We shall be in little danger of error however if we pronounce wars undertaken to maintain the balance of power to be universally unjust. If any people be oppressed, it is our duty, as has been already said, as far as a favorable opportunity may invite us, to fly to their succor. But it would be well if, in such cases, we called our interference by the name which justice prescribes, and fought against the oppression, and not the power. All hostilities against a neighboring people, because they are powerful, or because we impute to them evil designs which they have not begun to carry in execution, are incompatible with every principle of morality. If one nation choose to be governed by the monarch, or an individual allied to the monarch, of another, as seems to have been the case in Spain, upon the extinction of the elder branch of the house of Austria, we may endeavor, as individuals, to enlighten them on the subject of government, and imbue them with principles of liberty; but it is an execrable piece of tyranny to tell them, 'You shall exchange the despot you love for the despot you hate, on account of certain remote consequences we apprehend from the accession of the former.' The presence of the balance of power has, in a multitude of instances, served as a veil to the intrigue of courts; but it would be easy to show that the present independence of the different states of Europe has, in no instance, been materially assisted by the wars undertaken for that purpose. The fascination of a people desiring to become the appendage of a splendid despotism will rarely occur; and, when it does, can justly be counteracted only by peaceable means. The succoring a people in their struggle against oppression must always be just, with this limitation, that to attempt it without an urgent need on their part may uselessly extend the calamities of war, and has a tendency to diminish those energies among themselves the exertion of which might contribute to their virtue and happiness. Add to this, that the object itself, the independence of the different states of Europe, is of an equivocal nature. The despotism which at present prevails in the majority of them is certainly not so excellent as to make us very anxious for its preservation. The press is an engine of so admirable a nature for the destruction of despotism as to elude the sagacity perhaps of the most vigilant police; and the internal checks upon freedom in a mighty empire and distant provinces can scarcely be expected to be equally active with those of a petty tyrant. The reasoning will surely be good with respect to war, which has already been employed upon the subject of government, that an instrument, evil in its own nature, ought never to be selected as the means of promoting our purpose, in any case in which selection can be practiced.

From : Anarchy Archives


November 30, 1792 :
Book 5, Chapter 17 -- Publication.

January 26, 2017 19:35:12 :
Book 5, Chapter 17 -- Added to

September 23, 2017 10:03:21 :
Book 5, Chapter 17 -- Last Updated on


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