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Hugo Grotius (1583–1645). The Rights of War and Peace. 1901.

Book II

Chapter XXII: On the Unjust Causes of War

  • Differences between real and colourable motives—War atrocious without either of these motives—Wars of plunder, under the most plausible pretexts, not justifiable—Causes apparently, but not really just—Unnecessary advantage—Desire of a better soil—Discovery of things belonging to others—Incapacity of the original owners—War not always justifiable under the pretext of asserting liberty—Or of imposing a beneficial government upon a people against their will—Emperor’s pretensions to universal empire refuted—Pretensions of the Church—Imperfect obligations—Difference between wars originally unjust and those afterwards becoming so.

  • I. IN a former part of this work, where the justice of war was discussed, it was observed that some wars were founded upon real motives and others only upon colourable pretexts. This distinction was first noticed by Polybius, who calls the pretexts, [Greek], and the real causes, [Greek]. Thus Alexander made war upon Darius, under the pretence of avenging the former wrongs done by the Persians to the Greeks. But the real motive of that bold and enterprising hero, was the easy acquisition of wealth and dominion, which the expeditions of Xenophon and Agesilaus had opened to his view.

    In the same manner, a dispute about Saguntum furnished the Carthaginians with COLOURABLE MOTIVES for the second Punic war, but, in REALITY, they could not brook the indignity of having consented to a treaty, which the Romans had extorted from them at an unfavourable moment; and more especially as their spirits were revived by their recent successes in Spain. The real causes assigned by Thucydides for the Peloponnesian war, were the jealousies entertained by the Lacedaemonians of the then growing power of the Athenians, though the quarrels of the Corcyreans, Potidaens, and other secondary states were made the ostensible reasons.

    II. There are some who have neither ostensible reasons, nor just causes to plead for their hostilities, in which, as Tacitus says, they engage from the pure love of enterprise and danger. A disposition to which Aristotle gives the name of ferocity. And in the last book of his Nicomachian Ethics, he calls it a bloody cruelty to convert friends into enemies, whom you may slaughter.

    III. Though most powers, when engaging in war, are desirous to colour over their real motives with justifiable pretexts, yet some, totally disregarding such methods of vindication, seem able to give no better reason for their conduct, than what is told by the Roman Lawyers of a robber, who being asked, what right he had to a thing, which he had seized, replied, it was his own, because he had taken it into his possession? Aristotle in the third book of his Rhetoric, speaking of the promoters of war, asks, if it is not unjust for a neighbouring people to be enslaved, and if those promoters have no regard to the rights of unoffending nations? Cicero, in the first book of his Offices, speaks in the same strain, and calls “the courage, which is conspicuous in danger and enterprise, if devoid of justice, absolutely undeserving of the name of valour. It should rather be considered as a brutal fierceness outraging every principle of humanity.”

    IV. Others make use of pretexts, which though plausible at first sight, will not bear the examination and test of moral rectitude, and, when stripped of their disguise, such pretexts will be found fraught with injustice. In such hostilities, says Livy, it is not a trial of right, but some object of secret and unruly ambition, which acts as the chief spring. Most powers, it is said by Plutarch, employ the relative situations of peace and war, as a current specie, for the purchase of whatever they deem expedient.

    By having before examined and established the principles of just and necessary war, we may form a better idea of what goes to constitute the injustice of the same. As the nature of things is best seen by contrast, and we judge of what is crooked by comparing it with what is straight. But for the sake of perspicuity, it will be necessary to treat upon the leading points.

    It was shewn above that apprehensions from a neighbouring power are not a sufficient ground for war. For to authorize hostilities as a defensive measure, they must arise from the necessity, which just apprehensions create; apprehensions not only of the power, but of the intentions of a formidable state, and such apprehensions as amount to a moral certainty. For which reason the opinion of those is by no means to be approved of, who lay down as a just ground of war, the construction of fortifications in a neighbouring country, with whom there is no existing treaty to prohibit such constructions, or the securing of a strong hold, which may at some future period prove a means of annoyance. For as a guard against such apprehensions, every power may construct, in its own territory, strong works, and other military securities of the same kind, without having recourse to actual war. One cannot but admire the character, which Tacitus has drawn of the Chauci, a noble and high-spirited people of Germany, “who, he says, were desirous of maintaining their greatness by justice, rather than by acts of ungovernable rapacity and ambition—provoking no wars, invading no countries, spoiling no neighbours to aggrandize themselves,—yet, when necessity prompted, able to raise men with arms in their hands at a moment’s warning—a great population with a numerous breed of horses to form a well mounted cavalry—and, with all these advantages, upholding their reputation in the midst of peace.”

    VI. Nor can the advantage to be gained by a war be ever pleaded as a motive of equal weight and justice with necessity.

    VII. and VIII. Neither can the desire of emigrating to a more favourable soil and climate justify an attack upon a neighbouring power. This, as we are informed by Tacitus, was a frequent cause of war among the ancient Germans.

    IX. There is no less injustice in setting up claims, under the pretence of newly discovered titles, to what belongs to another.

    Neither can the wickedness, and impiety, nor any other incapacity of the original owner justify such a claim. For the title and right by discovery can apply only to countries and places, that have no owner.

    X. Neither moral nor religious virtue, nor any intellectual excellence is requisite to form a good title to property. Only where a race of men is so destitute of reason as to be incapable of exercising any act of ownership, they can hold no property, nor will the law of charity require that they should have more than the necessaries of life. For the rules of the law of nations can only be applied to those, who are capable of political or commercial intercourse: but not to a people entirely destitute of reason, though it is a matter of just doubt, whether any such is to be found.

    It was an absurdity therefore in the Greeks to suppose, that difference of manners, or inferiority of intellect made those, whom they were pleased to call barbarians, their natural enemies. But as to atrocious crimes striking at the very root and existence of society, the forfeiture of property ensuing from thence is a question of a different nature, belonging to punishments, under the head of which it was discussed.

    XI. But neither the independence of individuals, nor that of states, is a motive that can at all times justify recourse to arms, as if all persons INDISCRIMINATELY had a natural right to do so. For where liberty is said to be a natural right belonging to all men and states, by that expression is understood a right of nature, antecedent to every human obligation or contract. But in that case, liberty is spoken of in a negative sense, and not by way of contrast to independence, the meaning of which is, that no one is by the law of nature doomed to servitude, though he is not forbidden by that law to enter into such a condition. For in this sense no one can be called free, if nature leaves him not the privilege of chusing his own condition: as Albutius pertinently remarks, “the terms, freedom and servitude are not founded in the principles of nature, but are names subsequently applied to men according to the dispositions of fortune.” And Aristotle defines the relations of master and servant to be the result of political and not of natural appointment. Whenever therefore the condition of servitude, either personal or political, subsists, from lawful causes, men should be contented with that state, according to the injunction of the Apostle, “Art thou called, being a servant, let not that be an anxious concern?”

    XII. And there is equal injustice in the desire of reducing, by force of arms, any people to a state of servitude, under the pretext of its being the condition for which they are best qualified by nature. It does not follow that, because any one is fitted for a particular condition, another has a right to impose it upon him. For every reasonable creature ought to be left free in the choice of what may be deemed useful or prejudicial to him, provided another has no just right to a controul over him.

    The case of children has no connection with the question, as they are necessarily under the discipline of others.

    XIII. It would scarce have been necessary to refute the foolish opinion of some, who have ascribed to the Roman Emperors dominion over the most remote and unknown nations, if Bartolus, deemed a lawyer of the first eminence, had not pronounced it heresy to deny those pretensions. This opinion has been built upon the Roman Emperor’s some times having styled himself Sovereign of the whole world; a term which it was not unusual for many people to apply to their own country. Thus in the scriptures we find Judea frequently called the whole inhabited earth; therefore when the Jews, in their proverbial expression, called Jerusalem the centre of the world, nothing more is to be implied than that it was situated in the middle of Judea.

    As to the argument in favor of universal dominion from its being so beneficial to mankind, it may be observed that all its advantages are counterbalanced by still greater disadvantages. For as a ship may be built too large to be conveniently managed, so an empire may be too extensive in population and territory to be directed and governed by one head. But granting the expediency of universal empire, that expediency can not give such a right, as can be acquired only by treaty or conquest. There were many places formerly belonging to the Roman Empire, over which the Emperor has at present no controul. For war, treaty, or cession have made many changes, by which the rights of territory have passed to other states or sovereign princes, and the standards of different communities, whether kingdoms or commonwealths, now wave in places, which the Roman Eagle once overshadowed with his wings. These are losses and changes, that have been experienced by other powers no less than that, which was once mistress of the world.

    XIV. But there have been some, who have asserted the rights of the church over unknown parts of the world, though the Apostle Paul himself has expressly said that Christians were not to judge those who were without the pale of their own community. And though the right of judging, which belonged to the Apostles, might in some cases apply to worldly concerns, yet in its general nature it was of a celestial rather than an earthly kind—a judgment not exercised by fire and sword, but by the word of God, proposed to all men and adapted to their peculiar circumstances—a judgment exercised by displaying or withholding the seals of divine grace, as it might be most expedient—lastly, it was a judgment exercised in supernatural punishments; in punishments proceeding from God, like the punishments of Ananias, Elymas, Hymenaeus, and others.

    Christ himself, the spring, from whence all the power of the church was derived, and whose life is the model for the church to follow, said, his kingdom was not of this world, that is, was not of the same nature, with other kingdoms, otherwise, like the rest of sovereigns, he would have maintained his authority by the power of the sword. For if he had pleased to call up the aid of Legions; he would have called up hosts of Angels and not of men. And every exercise of his right was performed by the influence of divine, and not of human power; even when he drove the sellers out of the temple. For the ROD was the EMBLEM and not the INSTRUMENT of divine wrath, as UNCTION was once a SIGN of healing, and not the HEALING POWER ITSELF. St. Augustin on the xviii Chapter of St. John, and 36 ver. invites Sovereign Princes into this kingdom, in these terms, “Hear, O Jews, and Gentiles, hear, O earthly Sovereigns, I will not obstruct your authority, for my kingdom is not of this world. Be not alarmed, like Herod, who trembled, when he heard that Christ was born, and slew so many innocent children, hoping to include the Saviour in that calamity. His fear shewed itself in cruel wrath. But my kingdom, says Christ, is not of this world. Therefore enter this kingdom without fear. Come with faith, and provoke not the king to anger by your delay.”

    XV. There is a caution too necessary to be given, against drawing too close a parallel between ancient and modern times. For it is but seldom that any one can adduce a case exactly conformable to his own circumstances. To draw such pretexts from the interpretation of prophecy is the highest presumption. For no prophecy that is yet to be fulfilled can be unfolded without the aid of a prophetic spirit. The times even of events, that are certain, may escape our notice. Nor is it every prediction, unless it be accompanied with an express command from God, that can justify recourse to arms: sometimes indeed God brings his predicted designs to their issue by the means of wicked instruments.

    XVI. As the imperfect obligations of charity, and other virtues of the same kind are not cognizable in a court of justice, so neither can the performance of them be compelled by force of arms. For it is not the moral nature of a duty that can enforce its fulfilment, but there must be some legal right in one of the parties to exact the obligation. For the moral obligation receives an additional weight from such a right. This obligation therefore must be united to the former to give a war the character of a just war. Thus a person who has conferred a favour, has not, strictly speaking, a RIGHT to demand a return, for that would be converting an act of kindness into a contract.

    XVII. It is necessary to observe that a war may be just in its origin, and yet the intentions of its authors may become unjust in the course of its prosecution. For some other motive, not unlawful IN ITSELF, may actuate them more powerfully than the original right, for the attainment of which the war was begun. It is laudable, for instance, to maintain national honour; it is laudable to pursue a public or a private interest, and yet those objects may not form the justifiable grounds of the war in question.

    A war may gradually change its nature and its object from the prosecution of a right to the desire of seconding or supporting the aggrandizement of some other power. But such motives, though blamable, when even connected with a just war, do not render the war ITSELF unjust, nor invalidate its conquests.