Virtues of War – Story of War 2

A background question underwriting this course, as we trace the martial community through time, has been whether the category “veteran” or “soldier” has any essential substance. In other words, if we learn something true about ancient veterans, then we learn something about contemporary veterans.  If we can, then there is something timeless and fundamental about military experience. This is the hope of thinkers like Jonathan Shay, who uses Homer’s epics to narrate combat trauma in a modern light, as well as Meagher, whose Herakles Gone Mad similarly leverages ancient sources for illuminating contemporary issues surrounding veterans and war.

In all honesty, it is a hope I share, that there is something constant about military training and service. This hope may be a kind of argument by silence; I am animated more by the fear that, if I am wrong, then I and other moral stakeholders have to continually re-invent solutions to constantly changing and ever-new moral problems. The danger is one of being condemned to never-ending intellectual and moral drift. This danger is related to Emotivism, MacIntyre’s name for the problem of the modern age. The Emotivist world is one simultaneously demanding detached rationalism on the one hand and moral, even chronological, or historical relativism on the other. Emotivists believe they have no story other than the one they write themselves.

The opposing impulse, to objectivity and scientific categorization, is no less a modern construction. Dictionaries were not enforcing language until the 18th century. (Western) Medicine, with its emphasis on anatomical mechanics, is even younger as a discipline. History only recently demanded objective standards of excellence and jettisoned rhetorical elements present in its ancient forms. Moral philosophy may not have been immune to this trend toward empiricism, hell, it may have even birthed it.

Most modern scholars see Thomas’ Summa, written well before the empirical turn in other disciplines, as moral philosophy par excellence. But have you read it? Even Thomas came to dismiss it all as straw, and that should say something! Most, if not all, political scientists or theologians cite the Summa as a starting point in providing a moral account of war, and it is to question forty of the Secunda Secundæ Partis that they often turn.

Skimming past the scholastic “objections,” Thomas’ own position on war frontloads Augustine of Hippo, a fourth century African bishop. In the sed contra before his respondeo, Thomas cites not a systematic treatise, but what he calls a “sermon” but which we would probably call a letter.[1] Before we get to that letter, let’s look at Thomas’ response to the first article of the fortieth question; “Whether it is Always Sinful to Wage War?”

Thomas gives just three criteria by which a war is considered to be in accord with justice: Legitimate authority; Just cause; Right intent. Nowhere in his respondeo or replies to objections does he cite any non-biblical source except Augustine.[2] The sources that Thomas leans on from the man he often refers to as simply “The Theologian” are

  • A treatise Contra Faustus (thrice)
  • Letter 138, to Marcellus of Carthage (twice)
  • Letter 189, to Count Boniface (once)
  • Two obscure texts; “ in Hept., qu. x, super Jos” in his respondeo and “De Serm. Dom. in Monte i, 19” in reply 2

The English translation exhibits a higher volume of material borrowed from the Letters (174 words; 130 from Letter 138 and 44 from Letter 189) than from the polemic Against Faust (89 words). With Augustine, as well as Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero before him, Thomas finds that it is not always sinful, or morally wrong, to wage war. Carefully and rationally deliberating moral concerns in the rigid and objective way Thomas does, however, is in fact a category mistake, one which detaches the context of Augustine’s words in favor of universalizing claims made within particular settings for particular purposes. This particularity does not easily mesh with the universalizing effect of the Summa, or if it does, Thomas does not show his work.

If I am right, then nearly the entire modern corpus of moral philosophies around war have been a hermeneutical miscarriage

It is my claim, in the reading assigned for today, that it is only by a kind of detached rational appraisal of this material that one can come to ignore the particularities of the sources upon which Thomas and subsequent moral philosophers have come to justify war. Put another way, the modern systematization of moral frameworks (in the sense of formal criteria used as a kind of public policy checklist) are the inheritance of a (scholastic) method which may be a precursor to the detachment modern emotivism.

Let me put it more simply.

When I taught Biblical Literature at Methodist University, I taught my students that not all books of the Bible are the same. One should not read Psalms in the same way one reads Genesis, for example, and one must not read the Song of Solomon, a highly erotic work, in the same way one reads the beatitudes, in which Jesus gives instructions on how to live. I tried to teach them that the original author or authors had a specific set of reasons to write to a specific audience, and that that consideration was centrally important to properly interpreting primary materials.

Thomas, then, may be like the person who assumes that, if they can find somewhere in the Bible that says or implies that adultery is okay (and there are plenty of examples), then the commandment against sleeping around in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 loses its authority. But this is sloppy interpretation. The excellent interpreter takes into account the varying forms that communication takes, that not all words are created the same; they know that a Tweet is different than an Op Ed, and that a collection of poetry is different than a dictionary. That same interpretive attention would affect how one uses Augustine, or any highly cited author. The same care, I hope, has been taken in differentiating between autobiographies of veterans and feature films produced with varying degrees of credibility.

If I am right, then nearly the entire modern corpus of moral philosophies around war have been a hermeneutical miscarriage, a mistake made sometime in the past that has been repeated as truth almost entirely because of the names attached to it. But how these names acquire the following they do is not always by merit, sometimes it is by propagation. Sometimes writings are preserved or distributed not by genuine popularity or rhetorical persuasion, but by invisible hands of power, as in Octavian’s support of Virgil’s Aeneid. Democratically inclined people should not overlook the fact that it was compiled and passed on scribally, a profession influenced by wealthy elites, rather than orally, which was dependent upon popular support (and revision). We may well question how it would have fared had it not been propagated by the Emperor Octavian, whom Virgil had met when they were both students at the academy of Epidius in Rome.

It is hard for me, after having seen combat first hand, to not read Thomas as basically assuming “Augustine said it, so it must be true!” As history unfolded, subsequent scholars just repeated that same basic assumption without critical assessment of the veracity of any underlying claim. Usually, little to no attention is paid to the political or socio-ecclesiastical factors that may have influenced Thomas’ tacit endorsement of the Crusades, for example. Nobody asks on what ground he,or Augustine, for that matter, paraded speculative knowledge around as practical knowledge. Read the story closely enough, and you’ll find that Augustine was doing the same thing; “Cicero said it, so it must be true!” and, before that, “Plato said it, so it must be true!”

To be fair, Cicero fought for a measly two years, and he would later challenge his former commander, Sulla, in his first case defending a young rustic farmer. But his was an odd case, as military service in Rome was usually a career, sometimes spanning at least 25 years. Plato, to round out my list above, did not serve in a battle that I can determine, but Socrates, his mentor, did. In fact, he received an award for saving the life of a high ranking general (not unlike Joe Angelo saved the life of George Patton).

In our own day, I cannot help but sympathize with Meagher and other pacifists who see the deformed progeny of a few millennia of name-dropping and have a terrible taste in their mouths. The same taste is in my own mouth, but I don’t spit the bitter out in favor of the sweet; I don’t blame ideas or concepts for the way people abuse them. Meagher wants to throw the just war tradition away, and he’s not the only Christian who does.

In April 2016, pacifists convened the Gathering on Nonviolence and Just Peace in Rome. Their aim, stated in the press release preceding the event, was the “explicit rejection of ‘just war.’” One of the main sponsors of the conference declared “We believe that there is no ‘just war.'” In follow up media around the event, Sojourners asked excitedly if the Pope was going to “Throw Out” the tradition which gave birth to formal ‘just war’ doctrine for Roman Catholics.

That sounded like a very small tent, so I emailed two of the organizers, asking why “soldiers [were] being written out of being partners in peacemaking.” One never replied and another insisted there was future “possibilities for common ground,” which have thus far failed to materialize.

This instinct to dispose of the tradition is misguided. Although frequently degraded by progressives as a “theory,”  it is a product of human minds and therefore can be revised and augmented by the same. Getting angry at ink on paper seems conveniently distracting in a world whose warriors have suffered such profound infiltrated consciousnesses that they take their own lives at unprecedented rates. Making the problem about an intellectual trajectory seems the least of our worries if we want to see justice and advocate for the oppressed.

Fuck it though, I’ll play that game. Let’s really dig in, and I mean to the roots, to use Meagher’s terminology. Given the same rudimentary constraints I gave my reluctant Methodist University religion students, we cannot possibly come up with what has passed for “Just War” in the last several centuries. Even pretending that Aquinas is something like a representative of the modern problem, of the illusion of objectivity, we can’t trace it any further back. I say this because, out of the gate, he cites someone with purely speculative knowledge. Even Augustine never have the audacity to write about war systematically or in any sustained rational way.

Contra Faustus is a polemic, aimed at a specific problem and fashioned for a specific rhetorical purpose. His letters, to high ranking military officials, make no attempt at usurping the expertise of its recipients. Augustine writes as a pastor, and in his letter to Boniface, he is advising someone about the monastic life. Marcellinus, on the other hand, to whom his City of God is dedicated, is also an experienced soldier, and nowhere does Augustine try to engage in a sustained way with the subject of war. When he does, he most often borrows from Cicero, whom both generals would have read in their youth. In effect, Augustine discloses that he accepts Cicero’s premises rather than claiming to have some new or distinctively “Christian” way of thinking about war. He even avoids the absolute pacifism of his Greek forebears, Tertullian and Origen.

So what IS Augustine good for? Well, he’s a bishop. He is responding to people within the specific function of his role in society. This seems particularly clear in the letters to Boniface, who wrestles with leaving civilization to live the monastic life. Augustine forbids it not because of any political duty to the state, but because he has a wife who has, apparently, not been consulted…

If we take the pastoral elements of Augustine’s letter, even of his wider vocation, the function of his letters (and therefore their proper rhetorical and narrative purpose) does not support their modern use. This should take us back to MacIntyre and Anscombe who warned us early in the semester against accepting wholesale “the survival of those concepts outside the frameworks of thought that made them intelligible.” The story of war, as with the story of soldiers, it may appear, is one of dislocation, of having had its trajectory severed or, at worst, co-opted by powers disinterested or detached from the interests of those who have the most to lose by getting it wrong.


[1] https://thomistica.net/news/2012/6/5/how-to-read-an-article-in-aquinass-summa-theologiae.html on how to read Thomistic writing.

[2] The exceptions are in Reply 4 (where he believes he is citing Jerome, but is in fact using Vegetius), and Reply 3

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