A Plea for Peace: Erasmus on the Folly of War

In an age of violent passions and bloody conflicts, the words of Desiderius Erasmus (c.1466-1536) were ever measured and reasonable. A classical humanist of the highest water, a priest, moralist, and theologian, he dedicated his life to the pursuit of pure scholarship. Revered (and often reviled) by both sides in the Reformation debate, his was the voice of tolerance. Possessed of a razor wit and a keen sense of irony, he was ever ready to explode the abuses and follies of the church; yet unlike Luther, he was content to reform the church from within.

In the sixteenth century, when kings and even popes engaged in armed conflict with little provocation, the church was often silent on the subject, if not actually beating the drum of war. Horrified, Erasmus called for reason and sanity, rebuking his fellow Christians for abandoning the gospel of peace and the clear teachings of Christ. In the last two decades of his life, he wrote passionately about the grim realities of war, as one who had experienced them. In a 1525 pamphlet Dulce bellum inexpertis (“War Is Sweet to Those Who Have Never Experienced It”), he pleads:

If there is in the affairs of mortal men any one thing which it is proper uniformly to explode; which it is incumbent on every man, by every lawful means, to avoid, to deprecate, to oppose; that one thing is, doubtless, WAR. There is nothing more unnaturally wicked, more productive of misery, more extensively destructive, more obstinate in mischief, more unworthy of man, as formed by nature, much more of man professing Christianity.

Yet wonderful to relate! in these times, war is everywhere rashly, and on the slightest pretext, undertaken; cruelly and savagely conducted, not only by unbelievers, but by Christians; not only by laymen, but by priests and bishops; not only by the young and inexperienced, but even by men far advanced in life, who must have seen and felt its dreadful consequence; not only by the lower order, fickle in their nature, but above all by princes, whose duty it is to compose the rash passions of the unthinking multitude by superior wisdom, and the forces of reason. Nor are there ever wanting men, learned in the law, and even divines, who are ready to furnish firebrands for the nefarious work, and to fan the latent sparks into a flame.

Hence it happens that war is now considered so much a thing of course, that the wonder is how any man can disapprove it; so much sanctioned by authority and custom, that it is deemed impious (I had almost said heretical) to have borne testimony against a practice in its principle most profligate and in it effects pregnant with every kind of calamity…

…But since the time that Jesus Christ said, “Put up thy sword into its scabbard,” Christians ought not go to war, unless it be in that most honourable warfare, with the vilest enemies of the Church, the inordinate love of money, anger, and ambition. These are our Philistines, these our Nebuchadnezzars, these our Moabites and Ammonites, with whom we ought never to make a truce; with these we must engage without intermission till the enemy being utterly extirpated, peace may be firmly established. Unless we subdue such enemies as these, we can neither have peace with ourselves, nor peace with any one else. This is the only war which tends to produce a real and a lasting peace. He who shall have once conquered foes like these, will never wish to wage war with any mortal man upon the face of the earth…

… But let us observe how Christians defend the madness of war. If, say they, war had been absolutely unlawful, God would not have excited the Jews to wage war against their enemies. But the Jews scarcely ever waged war, as the Christians do, against each other, but against aliens and infidels; we Christians draw the sword against Christians. They fought at the express command of God; we at the command of our own passions.

But even Christians urge, that the laws of nature, of society, of custom and usage, conspire to dictate the propriety of repelling force by force, and defending life, and money too. So much I allow. But Gospel Grace, of more force than all these laws, declares in decisive words that we must do good to those who use us ill, and should also pray for those who design to take away our lives. All this, they tell us, had a particular reference to the apostles; but I contend that it also refers to all Christian people.

They also argue that, as it is lawful to inflict punishment on an individual delinquent, it must be lawful to take vengeance on an offending state. The full answer to be given to this argument would involve me in greater prolixity than is now requisite; and I will only say that the two cases differ widely in this respect: he who is convicted judicially suffers the punishment that the laws impose, but in war each side treats the other as guilty and proceeds to inflict punishment regardless of law, judge, or jury. In the former case, the evil falls only on him who committed the wrong; in the latter case, the greatest part of the numerous evils falls on those who deserve no evil at all – on husbandmen, on old people, on mothers, on orphans and defenseless females.

But the objector repeats, “Why may I not go and cut the throats of those who would cut our throats if they could?” Do you then deem it a disgrace that any should be more wicked than yourself?

Why do you not go and rob thieves? They would rob you if they could. Why do you not revile them that revile you? Why do you not hate them that hate you? Do you consider it as a noble exploit for a Christian, having killed in war those whom he thinks wicked, but who still are men for whom Christ died, thus to offer up victims most acceptable to the Devil, and to delight that grand enemy in two respects, first, that a man is slain at all, and next, that the man who slew is a Christian?

If the Christian religion be a fable, why do we not honestly and openly explode it? Why do we glory in its name? But if Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life,” why do all our plans of conduct differ so far from his instructions and example? If we acknowledge Christ to be our Lord and Master, who is love itself and who taught nothing but love and peace, let us exhibit his model in our lives and conversation. Let us adopt the love of peace, that Christ may recognize his own, even as we recognize him to be the Teacher of Peace.

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One response to “A Plea for Peace: Erasmus on the Folly of War

  1. Peter

    So applicable today!

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