18 The Meaning of War

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015
Thomas Nemeth (ed.)Vladimir Solov’ëv’s Justification of the Moral Good10.1007/978-3-319-12775-0_19

[423]Chapter 18 The Meaning of War

Thomas Nemeth 

Old Bridge, New Jersey, USA



Thomas Nemeth

E] This chapter originally appeared with the subtitle “From moral philosophy.” In B, this, the 15th chapter, spans pp. 513–548.

Generally speaking, it seems no one doubts that health1 is a good thing and illness bad, that the former is the norm and the latter an anomaly. It is impossible even to define health as anything other than the normal state of an organism. Nor is there any other definition of illness than “a deviation of physiological life from the norm.” However, the anomaly of physiological life called an illness is not a meaningless accident or an arbitrary creation by external, evil forces outside the patient. Apart from the inevitable illnesses of growth or development, all thoughtful physicians opine that the true cause of illness lies in internal, deeply rooted changes in the organism itself and that the external immediate causes of a sickness (e.g., a cold, exhaustion, infection) are only occasions for the manifestation of the inner cause. The same symptoms that those who do not know better usually take for the illness itself (e.g., a fever, a chill, a cough, various aches, abnormal secretions) in fact express only the successful or unsuccessful struggle of the organism against the destructive action of those internal disorders. Undoubtedly, these disorders are the genuine essence of the illness, even though their ultimate basis is for the most part enigmatic. The practical conclusion from this is that the chief object of the art of medicine is not the external symptoms of an illness, but its inner causes. The art of medicine must, at least, determine their factual presence [424]and then,2 through curative actions, help the organism itself by speeding up and supplementing3 these natural processes without forcing them.

The chronic illness of humanity , international hostility, which expresses itself in war , is in a similar position. To treat its symptoms, i.e., to direct our treatments not on the internal causes, but only on their external manifestations, would even on the best occasion only be a doubtful palliative. The simple and unconditional rejection of this illness would make no real sense. External wars have taken place as long as there has been moral disorder within humanity, and they still may be necessary and useful just as fever and vomiting serve as necessary and useful symptoms of an illness that belies a deep physical disorder.

Properly speaking, concerning the issue of war we ought to pose not one, but three different questions. In addition to the general moral value of war, there is another4 question that has to do with its significance in the as yet unfinished history of humanity . Finally, there is a third question, a personal one, concerning how I, i.e., any human being who through conscience and reason recognizes the obligatory nature of moral demands, should regard here and now the fact of war and the practical consequences that follow from it. Confusing or incorrectly separating these three questions—one concerning general or theoretical morality, another the historical and finally a question of personal or practical morality—form the chief cause of all the misunderstandings and misconceptions regarding war, particularly those prevalent in recent times.5

A principled condemnation of war was already a common enough occurrence a long time ago in human development. Everyone agrees that peace is good and war evil. We automatically, as it were, utter the expression: the blessings of peace, the horrors of war. No one so much as ventures to say the opposite: “the benefits of war” or “the disasters of peace.” Prayers are said in all churches for times of peace and for deliverance from the sword or battles, which are placed alongside fire, famine, pestilence, earthquake and flood. Except for savage paganism, all religions condemn war in principle. The Jewish prophets already preached the coming pacification of all humanity and even of all nature. The Buddhist principle of compassion for all living creatures demands the same thing. The Christian commandment to love one’s enemies excludes war, since a loved enemy ceases to be an enemy, and for that reason [425]one cannot wage war on him. Even the bellicose religion of Islam looks on war as only a temporary necessity, condemning it in principle. “Fight your enemies as long as Islam is not established,” and then, “let all hostility cease,” because “God hates aggressors” (Qur’an, surah II).6

With respect to morality in general, there are not and cannot be two views on this subject. Everyone unanimously agrees that peace is normal and what should be the case, whereas war is an anomaly, i.e., what should not be the case.


Thus, as to the first question about war, there is only one undisputed answer: War is an evil. Evil can be either unconditional (e.g., a mortal sin, eternal damnation) or relative, i.e., one evil can be less evil than another and compared to this other must be considered a good (e.g., a surgical operation for saving a life).

Defining war negatively as an evil and a horror does not exhaust its meaning. There is also something positive about war—7 not in the sense that it is in itself normal, but simply in the fact that it happens to be a real necessity under the given conditions. This point of view towards abnormal phenomena in general cannot be avoided,8 but must9 be adopted owing to the direct demands of the moral principle and not in contradiction to it. So, for example, everyone will agree that throwing children from a window onto the pavement below is in itself godless, inhuman and unnatural.10 However, if in the case of a fire there is no other means to extricate unfortunate infants from a blazing house, then this terrible action becomes not only permissible but even obligatory. Obviously, the rule to throw children from a window in extreme cases is not an independent principle on the same level as the moral principle of saving those who are perishing. On the contrary, the latter moral demand remains here the sole motivation for acting. There is no deviation in this instance from the moral norm. Throwing children from a window is only a direct application of that norm in a manner that, though irregular and dangerous, turns out to be, owing to its real necessity, the only possible one under the given conditions.

[426]Does war depend upon a necessity that makes this in itself abnormal course of action permissible and even obligatory in certain circumstances? This question can be answered by turning to history. Sometimes, however, it is erroneously viewed from the broader perspective of natural science, where the necessity of war is connected with the allegedly universal principle of the struggle for existence.

In fact, though, neither in the animal kingdom nor among humans does the struggle for existence have anything in common with war. When it is said that a certain animal species has been victorious in the struggle for existence, this does not mean that it has defeated some enemies in direct clashes or in public battles. It only means that due to sufficient adaptation to the external environment or to the surrounding conditions, the species has managed to survive and multiply, which not all have equally succeeded in doing. If Siberian mammoths disappeared owing to their defeat in the struggle for survival whereas martens were victorious, this certainly does not mean that martens were braver and more powerful than mammoths and eliminated them in open combat by employing their teeth and paws. Similarly, the Jewish nation, which disarmed a long time ago and is comparatively small in numbers, has turned out to be indestructible in the historical struggle for existence, whereas military successes over many centuries did not protect the enormous Roman Empire from ruin nor those of the bellicose powers that preceded it.

The struggle for existence takes place independently of wars and utilizes other methods that have nothing in common with fighting. Similarly, war, for its part, has other grounds, independent of the struggle for a means to continue living. If the entire issue were over these means, if hostile clashes took place only for the sake of livelihood, then the primitive epoch of history would have been the most peaceful. For very few people were alive at the time, their demands were simple and a great expanse for their satisfaction stretched out before them. Fighting and mutual extermination posed only risk and no profit. In this respect, the normal outcome of any quarrel is by itself obvious. “And Abram said unto Lot, Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee, and between my herdmen and thy herdmen; for [427]we be brethren. Is not the whole land before thee? Separate thyself, I pray thee, from me: if thou wilt take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if thou depart to the right hand, then I will go to the left. And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of Jordan, that it was well watered every where, before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, even as the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt, as thou comest unto Zoar. Then Lot chose him all the plain of Jordan; and Lot journeyed east: and they separated themselves the one from the other” (Genesis 13: 8–11).

If, however, such an amicable agreement only rarely took place at the time and, in general, primitive human relations more closely resembled a “war of all against all” (as in the well-known theory of the philosopher Hobbes) ,11 then this was the result not of a necessary struggle for existence but of the free play of evil passions. Envy , not hunger, caused the fratricide with which history opens. The oldest monument of poetry that has been handed down to us—the bloody song of Cain’s grandson, Lamech—speaks not of material need, but of savage spite, revenge12 and fierce arrogance. “And Lamech said unto his wives, Adah and Zillah, Hear my voice; ye wives of Lamech, hearken unto my speech: for I have slain a man to my wounding, and a young man to my hurt. If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold” (Genesis 4: 23–24).


At a time when the human race was few in number and multiplying slowly compared to most other animals, the predominance of such feelings would have threatened humanity with quick ruin13 if the war of all against all had not been ­counterbalanced by the gentile connection. This connection, rooted in the maternal instinct, is developed by means of family feelings and relations and is strengthened in the religion of ancestor-veneration. The gentile way of life (in the broad sense),14, 15 which resulted from all this, can be considered the primitive stage of historical development, since humanity, properly speaking, never consisted of single, separate solitary individuals16 in a state of war with each other. The gentile connection [428]existed right from the start and “the war of all against all,” as a general rule, expresses a mutual relationship not between separate units,17 but only between separate gentile groups. Of course, this does not mean that each gens was in fact in18 constant war with all the others, but only that no single gens was completely secure or protected from the possibility of war with any other gens. Such a state of affairs, however, could not last forever. Only rarely did a war between gentes end with the destruction of the weaker gens. Achieving a certain equality of power, the outcome of the struggle was a religiously consecrated treaty or agreement. On the other hand, in order to avoid destruction in an unequal struggle the weaker gentile groups either separately joined a more powerful gens, agreeing to conditions of submission, or many of them together formed a union with various rights (a federation). Thus, war itself gives rise to treaties and rights as a guarantee of peace. Such gentile unions are already the embryo of the state.

From the time when we begin to have continuous historical records, a considerable part of the human race was already living under the state system. There are two fundamental types of such states: the Western or Hellenic polity, i.e., a small city community, and the vast Eastern despotism of either one nation (for example, in Egypt) or of many nations (the so called “universal monarchies”19).

Without the state, it would have been impossible to have human cultural progress based on a complex collaboration (cooperation) of many forces. To a large extent, such collaboration was impossible for isolated gentes living in a state of constant blood feud with each other. In the state, we find human masses for the first time acting in solidarity. These masses already banished war and moved it out to the wider circumference of the state. In the gentile way of life, all (adult males) are always armed, whereas in the state warriors form either a special caste or profession, or finally (with universal conscription) military service forms only a temporary occupation of the citizenry. In the state, the organization of war is the first great step towards the realization of peace . This is especially clear in the history of the vast conquering powers (the universal [429]monarchies). Each conquest meant a dissemination of peace, i.e., an expansion of the circle within which war ceased being a normal phenomenon and instead became a rare and reprehensible accident—criminal civil dissension. The “universal monarchies” strove indubitably, though also only semi-consciously, to give peace to the world by subduing all nations to one common power. The greatest of these conquering powers, the Roman Empire, frankly described itself as the peace—pax Romana.

However, there were monarchies at an earlier time that also strove for the same goal. Discoveries in the nineteenth20 century leave no doubt that the Assyrian and the Persian kings considered their true vocation to be the subjugation of all nations in order to establish a peaceful order on Earth, although their idea of this task and of the way to fulfill it was usually too simplistic. The historical plans of the Macedonian monarchy that included the entire world were more complex and productive. It rested on the superior power of the Hellenic culture, which deeply and firmly penetrated into the subjugated Eastern world. The Romans came to a completely clear idea of universal and eternal peace and firmly believed in their vocation to subjugate the entire world to the power of one single law. Virgil, in particular, immortalized this idea. Besides the very well-known expression “tu regere imperio populos”21 etc.

You, o Roman, have the right to rule over nations mightily,

To protect humbly, subduing the obstinate by arms 22

he returns to it at every opportunity in his Aeneid as the highest motive inspiring the entire poem. Jupiter is represented, for example, as saying to Venus about her descendants:

Romulus shall call that people ‘Romans,’ after his own name.

I set no limits to their fortunes and

no time; I give them empire without end.23

Aeneid I 278–294

The same supreme god tells Mercury that Aeneas, the ancestor of the Romans, is destined to conquer an Italy stirring with war [430]in order to establish the noble24 line of the Teucer, who will “place all earth beneath his laws” (The Aeneid, book IV, pp. 229–231).25

Comparing the four “universal monarchies,” we find in their succession a steady approach to the idea of universal peace, both with respect to their extension as well as with respect to inner principles. The first of these, the Assyro-Babylonian kingdom, did not extend beyond the bounds of the Near East, was supported by incessant26 devastating campaigns and its laws consisted solely of military decrees. The second “universal monarchy,” the kingdom of Cyrus and the Achaemenides, added to the Near East a significant portion of central Asia and extended in the other direction to Egypt. It rested from within on the serene religion of Ormuzd,27 which legitimated morality and justice. In the third monarchy, that of Alexander and his successors, the historical East was united for the first time with the historical West, and not only the power of the sword but also the ideal principles of Hellenic culture welded the two sides28 together. Lastly, the progress represented by the fourth monarchy, the Roman Empire, consisted not only in that the Romans extended the earlier unity all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, but also in that they gave this unity a solid political center and a stable judicial form. War played an inevitable role and armed might served as the necessary support in this whole business of establishing peace. War and peace were accurately symbolized by the two opposed but inseparable faces of the Roman god Janus.29

War proves to be the most forceful unifier of the inner forces within each warring state or union. At the same time, it serves as the condition for the subsequent rapprochement and coming together of the opponents themselves. We see both of these most clearly in the history of Greece. Only three times in its entire history did the majority of  30 the separate tribes and city-states unite for a common cause and manifest their inner national connection in a practical way. Each of these times, it was due to a war: the Trojan War at the beginning, the Persian Wars at the middle, and the campaign of Alexander the Great as its culminating achievement. It was thanks to the last that the creations of the Greek national genius finally became the common property of humanity.

The Trojan War established the Greek element in Asia Minor, where nurtured by other cultural elements, it first blossomed. [431]Greek poetry (the Homeric epos) was born on the shores of Asia Minor, and it was there that the most ancient school of their philosophy (Thales of Miletus, Heraclitus of Ephesus) arose and developed. The emergence of the united national forces in the struggle with the Persians brought forth a second, even richer blossoming of spiritual creativity, and Alexander’s conquests, which cast the ripe seeds of Hellenism onto the ancient and cultured soil of Asia and Egypt, yielded the great Hellenic-Eastern synthesis of religious and philosophical ideas. It was these ideas, along with the subsequent unification by the Roman state that created the necessary historical condition for the dissemination of Christianity. Without the Greek language and Greek ideas, as well as without the “Roman peace” and Roman military31 roads, the preaching of the Gospels could not have taken place so quickly and on such a wide scale. Greek words and ideas entered the public domain only thanks to the militaristic Alexander and his generals. Over many centuries of war, the Roman “peace” was achieved and preserved by the Roman legions, and for these legions roads were constructed and along them the apostles passed. The churches sing, “Yes verily, their sound went into all the earth, and their words unto the ends of the world.”32 This “all the earth” and these “ends of the world” are only the wide circle (orbis) that Rome’s bloody sword sketched around itself.

Therefore, all the wars of which ancient history abounds merely extended the sphere of peace, and the pagan “bestial kingdoms” 33 prepared the way for those who would announce the kingdom of the son of man.

However, in addition to this the military history of antiquity shows us important progress in the direction of peace even in another respect. Not only has war achieved peaceful ends, but with the further march of history fewer and fewer active military forces were needed to attain these ends, whereas, on the contrary, the peaceful results became ever the more numerous and important. This paradoxical fact is indisputable. In order to take Troy, an almost universal conscription among the Greeks was necessary for 10 years,34 and the direct result of this terrible exercise of its forces was insignificant. A great catastrophe [432]crowned Greek history, namely, the conquest of the East by Alexander the Great, and the universal cultural consequences of this catastrophe were not slow in coming to light. All that was required on the part of the military was a 3-year campaign with thirteen thousand warriors. Let us, on the one hand, compare the significance of the results and, on the other hand, consider the population of Greece and Macedonia under Alexander compared with the small Achaean population, which sent such a large military contingent (110,000 men) to Troy. We will see, then, in a stark fashion that after these seven centuries the relative number of human lives that had to be sacrificed to achieve historical goals decreased. Another comparison of a more general character leads to the same conclusion. The Persian kingdom, whose millions of soldiers could not ensure military success in the struggle with tiny Greece,35 was barely able to hold up under the protection of such forces for two centuries. The Roman Empire, three times as large and with a population of no less than 200 million, kept at most 400,000 legionnaires under arms for the defense of its vast borders and lasted three times longer than the kingdom of Darius and Xerxes (around six centuries). And how immeasurably more important to humanity were the fruits of civilization36 which these few legions protected compared with that for the sake of which the innumerable hordes of the king of kings assembled!

Therefore, the progress in the business of war represented by the advantages of the Macedonian phalanx and the Roman legion over the Persian hordes expressed itself, generally speaking, in the preponderance of quality over quantity and of form over matter. At the same time, it represented great moral and social progress by enormously reducing the number of the human casualties devoured by war.


From an external historical standpoint, the replacement of the Roman world (and peace) by the Christian did not immediately bring about any essential change in the status of the problem of war. True, in unconditionally condemning all hatred and hostility, Christianity in principle [433]destroyed the moral root of war. However, cutting the root is still not the same as felling the tree. Indeed, the preachers of the Gospels did not want to fell Nebuchadnezzar’s tree,37 for they knew that the Earth needed its shade until the true faith emerged from the small seed that would replace it, “the greatest among herbs”38 in whose shade both people and beasts of the field can safely hide.

The Christian missionaries did not reject the state and its vocation39 to “execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.”40 Consequently, they did not reject war. The followers of the new faith saw for themselves a great triumph in the fact that two victorious wars gave Emperor Constantine the chance to hoist the Cross of Christ over the old, unaltered edifice of the Roman Empire. Moreover, under this unaltered political exterior the secret work of spiritual forces was hidden. For the Christian, the state, even one blessed by the cross, ceased to be the highest good and the final form of life. Faith in eternal Rome, i.e., in the unconditional significance of political unity, was replaced by the expectation of a “New Jerusalem,” i.e., of an inner, spiritual union of reborn peoples and nations. However, apart from an elevation, a lifting of human consciousness to a higher level, the progress of an external real unification within the body of humanity continued, though slowly at first.

The Christian world (tota christianitas, toute la chrétienté),41 which in the Middle Ages replaced the ancient Roman Empire, covered a significantly greater expanse. True, wars were not unusual within it. (Just as in the Roman Empire, there were revolts of peoples and mutinous generals.) However, the representatives of Christian principles saw these wars as deplorable internecine conflicts and tried in every way to limit them. Also, the constant struggle between the Christian and the Moslem worlds (in Spain and in the Levant), undoubtedly had a positive cultural and progressive character. For the defense of Christianity against the Islamic offensive saved the pledge of a higher spiritual development for historical humanity instead of being absorbed by a comparatively42 lower religious principle.43 Moreover, the interaction of these two fundamentally hostile worlds could not be confined to bloodletting44 alone. In time, this interaction would lead to [434]an expansion of the intellectual outlook of both sides. The great epoch of the Renaissance of the arts and sciences and then of the Reformation was thereby prepared for Christianity.

Three general facts in modern history have the greatest significance for our problem:

(1) the emergence of nationalities, (2) the corresponding emergence of international relations of all sorts, and (3) the dissemination of cultural unity around the entire globe.

After breaking out from under the tutelage of the Catholic Church and rejecting the impotent claims of the Holy Roman Empire, the European nationalities segregated themselves into autocratic45 political units. Each national state viewed itself and was viewed by others as a perfect body, i.e., as having supremacy or absolute and full power within its borders and consequently as not being subordinate to any outside earthly tribunal. The direct consequences of this national segregation were not favorable to the cause of peace. In the first place, war even among Christian states thereby became a regular occurrence, for it served as the sole means of resolving conflicts between separate unconditionally independent46 units, which had no arbiter above them to settle disputes. In the Middle Ages, the arbiter was always in principle and sometimes in fact47 the Roman pope (and in part also the emperor). Second, when it was taken as the supreme principle of the life of nations the national idea, naturally, degenerated into national pride, the true character of patriotism became distorted and active love for one’s nation was transformed into an idolatry of the nation, conceived as the supreme48 good. This, in turn, changed into hatred and contempt for other nations and led to unjust wars as well as to the capture and oppression of other nationalities.49

However, hidden behind these negative aspects lies the positive significance of nationality. As the living organs of humanity, nationalities must exist and develop with their peculiarities. Without these organs, the unity of humanity would be empty and dead, and such a dead peace would be worse than war. The true unity of humanity and the longed-for peace must be based not on weakness and the suppression of nations, but on the highest development of their powers and on the free interaction of nationalities, which complement one another.50 [435]Despite all the efforts arising out of national selfishness,51 which strives for the hostile estrangement of nations, positive interaction between them exists and constantly penetrates deeper and increases in breadth. Previously established international relations have not disappeared, but have intensified internally, and new ones have been added. Thus, although it has lost its external power, the spiritual authority of the Roman church in the West has significantly increased. It has cleansed itself of many of52 its crude medieval abuses, and the damage that the Reformation inflicted on it deservedly has been recompensed by other spiritual53 conquests. Alongside this church and in a struggle with54 it, there arose the powerful brotherhood of freemasons but with the same broad embrace. Everything in it is mysterious except its international and universal character. Relations of another kind were established on an unprecedented scale in the economic sphere: The world market appeared. There is not one country today55 that is economically self-sufficient. Not one country today produces everything it needs without getting something from others and not giving them something in return. In this way, in this fundamental respect, the idea of an independent state as a “perfect body,” i.e., as an unconditionally independent social organism,56 turns out to be the purest fabrication. Furthermore, constant cooperation between all educated countries in scientific and technical work, the fruits of which are now becoming public property; inventions that eliminate distances; the daily press, which brings continuous news from everywhere; finally the striking increase in the international “exchange of goods” by new means of communication—all this makes civilized humanity into a single whole, which actually, even though involuntarily, lives one common life.

This, the civilized portion of humanity, is becoming more and more all of humanity. From the start of the modern era, Europeans have extended the sphere of their activity in all directions. Having seized America in the west, India in the southeast and Siberia in the northeast, the greater part of the globe with its population has already come under European control. We can now say that this power embraces the entire globe. The Islamic world is surrounded and permeated throughout with strands of European culture. Only in the tropical deserts of the Sudan can it still defend its savage independence (the Kingdom of the Dervishes)—and then without any hope57 of success. [436]The entire coastal circumference of Africa has already been divided among the European powers, and the center of the black continent has now become the arena for their rivalry. Beyond the frontiers of European influence still remains Mongolian Asia—China and Japan. However, before our very eyes this last partition in humanity is being removed. With amazing haste and success, the Japanese have in a quarter century assimilated the entire material side of European civilization58 as well as its positive-scientific side and then, above all, tried in a convincing manner to prove the necessity of such assimilation to their Mongolian brothers. The Chinese, whose self-confidence was already shaken by the English but were still slow in understanding these foreigners, understood at once their fellow tribesmen. Now, the notorious Chinese wall is no longer a symbol of enduring isolation, but only a monument to the irretrievable past.59

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