Against war

by Desiderius Erasmus

Is a treatise that extols men to stop fighting and the writer is critical especially to religion of his age where Christian is killing Christian as it still happens in our time, where we have the same repeated for example in Rwanda, in Kenya after the botched election and so many other instances of religious wars.

This book was written between 1514-15 and can be classified as a treatise in favour of the humanist ideal, the ideal that many secular humanists represent today.

He pleads for peace among human beings. His cry is that it is better to have unjustified peace than a just war.

The author says he had to deal with three issues; war, pestilence and the theologians.

He believed war was at once a sin, a folly and a scandal. He writes

nothing is either more wicked or more wretched, nothing doth become a man than war

He raises a very curious point; if both sides in a war have invoked god and one side wins, they victors will begin to believe that god has endorsed their actions.

To this mind, war was impious, inhuman, ugly and it was in every sense barbarous.

He writes, and yours truly agrees, that

the majesty of man resides above in his capacity to behold the very pure strength and nature of things.

in essence, that man is no fallen creature but a piece of workmanship.

He believes and it is hard to disagree with him that strife and warfare are naturally repugnant to man. That our frames are tender and weak but that we are born to love and amity. He argues that our chief end is cooperant labour in pursuit of knowledge. He continues to say that war comes out of ignorance and to ignorance it leads and of it comes contempt of virtue and godly living.

He begins his wonderful treatise with a proverb, dulce bellum inexpertis, that is to say, war is sweet to them that know it not.

He writes

Then first of all if one would consider well but the behaviour and shape of man’s body shall he not forthwith perceive that Nature, or rather God, hath shaped this creature, not to war, but to friendship, not to destruction, but to health, not to wrong, but to kindness and benevolence? For whereas Nature hath armed all other beasts with their own armour, as the violence of the bulls she hath armed with horns, the ramping lion with claws; to the boar she hath given the gnashing tusks; she hath armed the elephant with a long trump snout, besides his great huge body and hardness of the skin; she hath fenced the crocodile with a skin as hard as a plate; to the dolphin fish she hath given fins instead of a dart; the porcupine she defendeth with thorns; the ray and thornback with sharp prickles; to the cock she hath given strong spurs; some she fenceth with a shell, some with a hard hide, as it were thick leather, or bark of a tree; some she provideth to save by swiftness of flight, as doves; and to some she hath given venom instead of a weapon; to some she hath given a much horrible and ugly look, she hath given terrible eyes and grunting voice; and she hath also set among some of them continual dissension and debate–man alone she hath brought forth all naked, weak, tender, and without any armour, with most soft flesh and smooth skin. There is nothing at all in all his members that may seem to be ordained to war, or to any violence.

He continues to write

And for this cause Nature would, that a man should not so much thank her, for the gift of life, which she hath given unto him, as he should thank kindness and benevolence, whereby he might evidently understand himself, that he was altogether dedicate and bounden to the gods of graces, that is to say, to kindness, benevolence, and amity. And besides this Nature hath given unto man a countenance not terrible and loathly, as unto other brute beasts; but meek and demure, representing the very tokens of love and benevolence. She hath given him amiable eyes, and in them assured marks of the inward mind. She hath ordained him arms to clip and embrace. She hath given him the wit and understanding to kiss: whereby the very minds and hearts of men should be coupled together, even as though they touched each other. Unto man alone she hath given laughing, a token of good cheer and gladness. To man alone she hath given weeping tears, as it were a pledge or token of meekness and mercy.

He makes a strong argument for peace. He writes

Peace is the mother and nurse of all good things.

In his arguments against war he writes

There is no part of the world, that is not subject to peril and danger of man’s life, which life of itself also is most fugitive. So manifold mischances and evils assail man on every side that not without cause Homer did say: Man was the most wretched of all creatures living.

and wonders why to these sufferings that nature has in store for us, why add war to it?

Go read it.

About makagutu

As Onyango Makagutu I am Kenyan, as far as I am a man, I am a citizen of the world

27 thoughts on “Against war

  1. themodernidiot says:

    Dude that was exquisite


  2. aguywithoutboxers says:

    An appropriate and applicable selection, my Nairobi brother, considering it was written 500 years ago.It is valid today as the same belief system spews forth so much condemnation, exclusion and hate towards members of the same species. Proof that the alleged believers have no confidence in their own teachings. Excellent offering, my friend.
    Much love and naked hugs! 🙂


  3. Eric Alagan says:

    The search for utopia has been on going and me thinks, shall go on ever more – it is the nature of the beast and curse of human emotion.


  4. Arkenaten says:

    And this is why numerous religious apologists seem to go to extreme lengths to demonstrate just why religion is not the primary cause of so many so called religious wars.


  5. john zande says:

    That was impressive. Well deserving of the title, “Prince of the Humanists”

    What do you think he means by “unjustified peace”?


    • makagutu says:

      John, I had to go back to check where he writes this. He writes, after asking his audience what Jesus taught whether to hate those who hate you?,

      [..] even if war were justifiable, think of the price that has to be paid for it. On this ground alone an unjust peace is preferable to a just war.

      I think he is saying it would rather men lived in peace even if it meant not fighting a just war. He calls this peace an unjust one.
      I agree, I think he was well deserving of the title.


      • john zande says:

        OK, so its the temporary peace that war might afford; the few decades or so before we tumble back into the flames. It’s a great point, and one worth repeating. We’ve never, ever achieved anything like true peace, just temporary reprieves, which he calls an unjust peace.

        Now i’m doubly impressed!


        • makagutu says:

          We have fine reasons to go to war, but at the end we can’t ever talk about who was right only who is left and it is a sad picture.
          I wish men would grow reasonable, maybe we would solve our problems reasonably and not violently.
          He is impressive


          • archaeopteryx1 says:

            I will say this, and upon consideration, I believe most should agree – when compared to the near-constant warfare of the Mesopotamian city-states, all the way through Greco-Roman times, to the wars of Europe of the first two millennia, I do believe – especially since the invention of weapons that can destroy us all, that wars have decreased in number and frequency and diminished in scope. Possibly we are beginning to grow up.


            • makagutu says:

              I would agree with you. I think what we have now are inter tribal wars like what we are having in the Congo, the Taliban insurgencies and the Boko Haram of Nigeria among others and yes these pale in comparison to the march by Xerxes to Athens or of Themistocles among others.


  6. Excellent post my friend.


  7. archaeopteryx1 says:

    A couple of interesting things here – you DO realize, I would hope, that this is the same Erasmus commissioned by the Church to translate the Bible, and who brought us the Textus Receptus, a dual Greek/Latin version, which, sadly, was full of errors, and not traceable to particular Greek originals.

    I especially found it interesting that he appears to attribute to, “Nature, or rather God” – he seemingly corrects himself, then surprisingly, goes back to “Nature” in his discussion, and remains with “her” throughout.

    That may not “mean” anything, I just found it interesting that he didn’t stick with “God” through the entirety.


  8. Tish Farrell says:

    I love the way you post these excerpts of classic literature. It’s good to keep widening our perspectives, re-visiting the works of past great thinkers. Whether one agrees with all their arguments or not, it’s an interesting path to follow, another human trying to make sense of the world.


    • makagutu says:

      Oh yes, I agree with you.
      There is something to learn from the past.
      And even if the dream of no wars is a Utopian one, it is a good one to hope for.


  9. violetwisp says:

    That’s really interesting … and nice “That our frames are tender and weak but that we are born to love and amity.”


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