The Law of War and Peace (1625)

by Hugo Grotius

Warnings Not to Undertake War Rashly, Even for Just Causes

I.     Often a right should be given up in order to avoid war.
1.   Although it does not seem properly to be a part of this work, which is entitled On the Law of War, to inquire what other virtues enjoin or admonish with regard to war, nevertheless we must proceed to correct an error, in order to prevent any one from thinking that, where a right has been adequately established, either war should be waged forthwith, or even that war is permissible in all cases. On the contrary it frequently happens that it is more upright and just to abandon one’s right.

That we may honorably neglect the care of our own lives in order that, to the best of our ability, we may safeguard the life and eternal salvation of another, has been stated above in its proper place. Such conduct is above all becoming for Christians. In this they imitate the most perfect example set by Christ, for He was willing to die for us who were as yet ungodly and hostile (Romans 5:6). This fact of itself much the more urges us not to follow up our own interests, or what may be due to us, so far as to cause others the suffering that wars bring with them.

2.   That war is not to be undertaken for every just cause is the advice of Aristotle and of Polybius. The ancients did not praise Hercules because he made war on Laomedon and Augeas on account of the failure to receive recompense for his toil. Dio of Prusa, in his oration On War and Peace, says that it is customary not only to inquire ‘whether an injury has been done by those upon whom it is proposed to make war,’ but also ‘how great is the estimate of the damage done.’

II.     Especially the right to inflict punishments ought to be given up in order to avoid war.
1.   There are in truth many reasons which admonish us to forgo punishments. Let us observe how many things fathers pass over in their sons; with regard to this there is a discourse of Cicero in Dio Cassius. As Seneca says: ”Unless many great wrongs have overcome his patience, unless what he fears is more than what he condemns, a father will not take up the pen for condemnation.’ This differs but little from the saying of Phineus, in the account of Diodorus Siculus: ‘No father willingly exacts punishment from his sons, unless by the enormity of their wicked deeds they overcome the natural love of parents for their children’; and from that of Andronicus of Rhodes: ‘No father cuts off his son unless he should be excessively wicked.’

2.   Now whoever wishes to punish another assumes in some measure the character of a ruler, that is of a father. With this in mind, Augustine said to Count Marcellinus: ‘Perform, 0 Christian judge, the function of a dutiful father.’ The Emperor Julian praises the saying of Pittacus, ‘who sets pardon above vengeance.’ Libanius, in his oration on the riot at Antioch, says,’ Let him,’ who desires to be like unto God, ‘take delight rather in forgoing punishments than in exacting them.’

3.   At times the circumstances of the case are such that to refrain from the exercise of one’s right is not merely praiseworthy, but even obligatory, by reason of the love which we owe even to men who are our enemies, whether this be viewed in itself or as the most sacred law of the Gospel demands. From that point of view we have said that there are some persons for whose safety we ought to desire to die, even if they should restrain us, because we know that they are necessary, or extremely useful, to mankind in general. If Christ desires that some things be overlooked in order to avoid engaging in lawsuits, then in proportion as a war is more harmful than a lawsuit the more earnestly must we believe that He desired us to pass over greater things in order to avoid going to war.

4.   ‘For a good man to surrender a part of his right is not only generous, but generally advantageous also,’ is the saying of Ambrose. Aristides advises states to ‘come to terms and to pass over whatever is of only moderate importance.’ As a reason he adds, ‘For among private persons also, you praise those who are complaisant, and prefer to suffer some wrong rather than to dispute with any one.’ Xenophon in the sixth book of his Greek History says: ‘It is the duty of wise men not to undertake war, even if the differences are no mean matters.’ And Apollonius in Philostratus advises: ‘War ought not to be waged even for great things.’

III.     A right should be given up, especially by a king who has been wronged, in order to avoid war.
1.   Regarding punishments it is first of all our duty, if not ‘;as men, assuredly as Christians,’ readily and gladly to pardon the wrongs done to us, just as God pardons us in Christ (Ephesians 4:32). ‘To be free from anger,’ says Josephus,’ ‘in respect to the things for which guilty men are liable to the penalty of death, approaches the nature of God.’

2.   Seneca says of the prince:

Let him be far more ready in forgiving the wrongs done to himself, than those done to others. For, just as the generous man is not one who gives from what belongs to another but one who gives to another what he takes from himself so I shall not call that prince gentle who is easy-going when another suffers, but him who, when goaded by personal injuries, does not lose self-mastery; who perceives that it is the mark of a great soul when a man possessing unlimited power endures wrongs, and that nothing is more glorious than a prince who has received a wrong without avenging it.

Quintilian says: ‘We shall persuade the prince to desire the praise won by humanity rather than the pleasure derived from vengeance.’ In his praises of Gaius Caesar, Cicero puts in the first place the fact that he was ‘wont to forget nothing except the wrongs’ done to himself.

According to Dio, in addressing Augustus, Livia said: ‘Most persons think that rulers should punish those who do harm to the common interest, but should bear with those who cherish some enmity against them.’ Antoninus the philosopher,’ in a speech to the senate, declared: ‘For in the case of an Emperor the avenging of his own suffering is never pleasing; the more just it is, the more harsh it seems.’ Ambrose in a letter to Theodosius wrote: ‘You have made a gift of your injury to the men of Antioch.’ In his eulogy of the same Theodosius to the senate Themistius said: ‘The good king should show himself superior to those who have wronged him, not in repaying injury, but in conferring kindness.’

3.   Aristotle declares that one who is magnanimous is not ‘mindful of his wrongs.’ This is expressed by Cicero in the words ‘Nothing is more worthy of a great and outstanding man than readiness to be appeased, and forbearance.’ Signal examples of this exalted virtue are presented to us in Holy Writ, in the case of Moses (Numbers 11:12) and of David (2 Samuel 16:7).

This obligation to pardon rests upon us with greatest weight when either we too are conscious to ourselves of some sin, or when the sin committed against us is the result of some human and pardonable weakness, or when it is sufficiently clear that he who has wronged us is repentant. ‘There is a limit of avenging and punishing,’ said Cicero, ‘and I do not know but that it is sufficient that he who has wronged us should repent of his wrong-doing.”The wise man,’ said Seneca, ‘will remit many penalties; he will save many persons whose character is not sound but is curable.’

These reasons for refraining from war have their origin in the love which we either owe to our enemies or rightly manifest toward them.’

IV.     Even for the sake of one’s self and one’s dependants a ruler must often refrain from war.
1.   Often indeed we find an obligation resting on ourselves and ours s to prevent a recourse to arms. Plutarch, in his Life of Numa, says that, after the Fetiales had declared that war could justly be undertaken, the senate debated whether it would be advantageous to undertake the war.’ In one of Christ’s parables it is said that, if a king has to strive in war with another king, he will first sit down, as is the custom of those who take counsel seriously, and will weigh within himself whether he who has ten thousand soldiers can be a match for an enemy who leads twice that number. If he sees that he will not be a match for his adversary, before the foe comes within his borders he will send an embassy with instructions to arrange a peace.

2.   In this way the people of Tusculum, by yielding everything and refusing nothing, gained peace from the Romans. In Tacitus we find: ‘In vain was a cause of war sought against the Aedui. When ordered to surrender money and weapons, of their own accord::they offered supplies in addition.’ Likewise Queen Amalasuntha informed the envoys of Justinian that she would not resist with armed force.

3.   A limit in yielding may also be manifested, as Strabo records of Syrmus, king of the Triballi, who forbade Alexander of Macedon to enter the island of Peuce, and at the same time honored him with presents in order to show that he did what he did from a just cause of fear, and not from hatred or contempt of Alexander.

What Euripides said concerning the states of Greece, you may apply to any others you may wish:

      Whenever men proceed to vote on war
      No one reflects that death hangs over him,
      But each destruction for the other plans;
      Had we, when casting votes, with our own eyes
      The funerals beheld, the funerals as we voted,
      Would not have perished war-frenzied Greece.

In Livy we read: ‘Place before your mind not only your resources, but also the power of fortune, and War’s uncertainty.’ Also in Thucydides: ‘Reflect on the unexpected element in warfare before you engage in it.’

V.     Rules dictated by prudence regarding the choice between things that are good.
1.   When men weigh such matters as those mentioned, they deliberate in part regarding ends, not indeed intermediate but ultimate ends; and in part regarding the means which lead thereto. The end is always something good, or at least an avoidance of evil, which may take the place of a good. Moreover, the means which lead to this or that end are not sought for their own sake but only in so far as they lead to the ends in view. Wherefore, in deliberations the ends must be compared with one another; and also the means which may be employed, the effective power of each for contributing to the end, must be considered. For, as Aristotle rightly said, On the Movement of Animals: ‘The purposes which produce actions are of two kinds, those arising from that which is good and those arising from that which can be accomplished.’

For this sort of comparison there are three rules.

2.   The first of the rules is this. If, from the moral point of view at any rate, the matter under consideration seems to have an equal effectiveness for good and for evil, it is to be chosen only if the good has somewhat more of good than the evil has of evil. That is what Aristides states thus: ‘When the good is less than the evil, it is better to give up the good.’ In his description of a large-souled man, Andronicus of Rhodes says that he will not incur dangers for any and every cause, but only for causes that are of the highest importance.

3.   The second rule is: if the good and evil, which may proceed from the matter under consideration, seem to be equal, it is only to be chosen if its effectiveness for good be greater than for evil.

The third is: if the good and the evil seem to be unequal, and the effectiveness for these things not less unequal, then the thing is to be chosen only if its effectiveness for good is greater when compared with its effectiveness for evil than the evil itself compared with the good; or if the good is greater in comparison with the evil than the effectiveness for evil compared with that for good.

4.   These ideas we have presented in rather studied terms; but Cicero moves toward the same goal by a more direct path when he says that we must avoid offering ourselves to dangers without cause, for nothing could be more foolish than that; consequently in approaching dangers we should imitate the practice of physicians, who cure by light treatments those who are not seriously ill, but are compelled to apply dangerous and doubtful remedies to more serious diseases. Wherefore he says that it is the part of a wise man, when a storm arises, to withstand it with all possible means,’ especially if you gain more good from a successful issue than evil from the risk incurred.’

5.   In another place Cicero says: ‘When no great advantage can be won, and even a slight failure may do harm, what need is there to incur danger?’ Dio of Prusa in his Second Tarsus oration has this: ‘Granted that that which is to be borne may be hard and unjust. Yet, if something unjust happens, we ought not on that account to expose ourselves to misfortunes by striving against it.’ The same writer, further on: ‘Just as, if such burdens press so heavily upon us that we are unable to sustain them, we seek to cast them off; yet, if we are weighed down only moderately and with such burdens that we see that either these or others more grievous must be borne, we adjust ourselves so as to follow with our load as light as possible.’ Aristides, in his Second Sicilian Oration, says: ‘Whenever fear is greater than hope, why is it not right to take precautions? ‘

VI.     An example in a deliberation between devotion to freedom and devotion to peace; whereby the slaughter of a people may be avoided.
1.   Let us draw an illustration from the question which, as Tacitus relates, was once debated by the Gallic states: ‘Whether they desired freedom or peace.’

By freedom, understand civil liberty, that is, the right of a state to be governed by itself. This right is complete in a democratic state, but limited in an aristocratic state; it is especially complete in a state where no citizen is excluded from office.

By peace, again, understand such a peace as will obviate a war of annihilation, that is, as Cicero somewhere says in explaining this problem in the Greek tongue: ‘If the city should be likely for this cause to endanger the lives of all.’ An example is where a correct forecast of the future seems to augur almost no alternative but the ‘:destruction of a whole people. Such was the condition of the people of Jerusalem when besieged by Titus. Everybody knows what Cato, who preferred to die rather than obey a sole ruler, would have said ‘in this case. Here also apply the lines:

      How easy is the virtuous act
      By one’s own hand to flee from slavery;

and many other things of this sort.

2.   But right reason teaches otherwise. Life, to be sure, which affords the basis for all temporal and the occasion for eternal blessings, is of greater value than liberty. This holds true whether you consider: each aspect in the case of an individual or of a whole people. And so ‘:God Himself reckons it as a benefit that He does not destroy men but casts them into slavery. And again, through the prophet He advises the Jews to yield themselves as slaves to the Babylonians that they may not perish of hunger and disease.’ Wherefore, although praised by the ancients,

      The ills Saguntum hath, by Punic soldiery besieged,

should not be approved, nor the considerations leading thereto.

3.   The slaughter of a people in a case of this kind ought to be considered as the greatest possible evil. Cicero in the second book On Invention gives an example of necessity. He says that it was necessary for the people of Casilinum to surrender to Hannibal, although the necessity had this qualification, ‘unless they preferred to perish by famine.’ On the Thebans who lived in the time of Alexander of Macedon there is preserved this judgement of Diodorus Siculus: ‘They brought complete destruction upon their country, in a spirit of courage rather than of prudence.”

4.   On Cato, whom we have mentioned, and on Scipio, both of whom declined to yield to Caesar after his victory at Pharsalus, we find the following judgement in Plutarch: ‘They are to be blamed for the needless destruction of many good men in Libya.’

5.   What I have said regarding liberty I wish to apply also to other desirable things, if the expectation of a greater evil from the opposite side is warranted in a greater, or even in an equal, degree. As Aristides rightly says, it is the custom to save the ship by casting out the cargo, not the passengers.

VII.     He who is not much the stronger ought to refrain from exacting penalties.
In exacting penalties; moreover, this must be observed particularly, that war is not to be waged on such a pretext against him whose forces are equal to our own. For, as in the case of a civil judge, he who wishes to avenge crimes by armed force ought to be much more powerful than the other party.

Not merely prudence, in truth, or love of one’s own people, ordinarily demands that we refrain from a dangerous war, but oftentimes justice also requires it; that is, rectorial justice, which from the very nature of government binds the superior to care for his inferiors no less than it binds the inferiors to obedience. From this follows the view rightly handed down by the theologians, that the king who undertakes a war for trivial reasons, or to exact unnecessary penalties, is responsible to his subjects for making good the losses which arise therefrom. For he perpetrates a crime, if not against the foe, yet against his own people, by involving them in so serious an evil on such grounds. According to Livy: ‘War is just for those for whom it is necessary, and arms are blameless for those who have no hope left save in arms.’ Such a condition Ovid, in the first book of the Fasti, hopes for:

      Arms let the soldier bear, that arms
      He may restrain.

VIII.     It results that war is not to be undertaken, unless of necessity.
Therefore a cause for engaging in war which either may not be passed over, or ought not to be, is exceptional; as for example when, as Florus says, rights are more cruel than arms. Seneca says: ‘It is right to rush into dangers when we fear like evils if we remain quiet.’ This idea is expressed by Aristides in the following way: ‘Then must one choose to take the path of danger, even if the future is unknown, whenever it is evidently worse to follow a peaceful course.’

‘A miserable peace is well exchanged for war,’ says Tacitus, certainly when, as he says,’ either liberty will follow those who dare, or if conquered their condition will be the same ‘; or ‘when,’ as ‘Livy declares, ‘peace is more burdensome to those who are in servitude than war to freemen.’ The last statement does not hold if the outcome appears to be such that, as Cicero has it, if you are beaten you will be proscribed; and if you gain the victory you will still be a slave.

IX. Again, war is not to be undertaken save from a most weighty cause at a most opportune time.
A second occasion to engage in war is when, after inquiring into the matter as one ought, the war is found to be in accordance with right, and at the same time – which is of the highest importance – the necessary resources are available. This is what Augustus used to Arms let the soldier bear, that arms He may restrain. say, that war ought not to be undertaken save when the hope of gain was shown to be greater than the fear of loss. What Scipio Africanus. and Lucius Aemilius Paulus were wont to say about risking a battle may be fittingly applied here: ‘One should not fight unless a supreme: necessity or a most favorable opportunity should be presented.’

Such an opportunity will be found particularly when there is hope that the matter may be settled by inspiring fear and on the strength of reputation, with little or no risk, as Dio advised for liberating Syracuse. In Pliny’s Letters occurs the statement ‘He subdued by fear, which is the most excellent kind of victory.’

X. The evils of war placed before our eyes.
1.   War is a cruel thing, says Plutarch, and it drags in its train a mass of wrongs and insults. Augustine stated the case wisely:

If I should wish worthily to portray the many and manifold disasters, the bitter and hard necessities resulting from these evils [he is speaking of those that arise from war], although I am by no means equal to the task, what would be the limit of my discourse, extended though it might be? But, they say, the wise man will wage wars that are just. As if, provided he remembers that he is a man, he will not much rather grieve that the necessity of just wars has arisen; for if they were not just he would not have to wage them, and in that case there would be no wars for the wise man. It is the wrong-doing of the opposing party which forces the wise man to wage just, and indeed necessary, wars.

This wrong-doing is to be deplored by a man, because it is human, even if no need of waging war should arise from it. Everyone, then, who with pain thinks on these evils, so great, so terrible, so ruthless, must acknowledge that this is misery. If, again, anyone endures or reflects upon these things without anguish of soul, his plight is all the more wretched, because he considers himself happy, while in fact he has lost his feeling for humanity.

The same author in another passage says: ‘To carry on war seems to bad men felicity, to good men a necessity.’ Maximus of Tyre declares: ‘Even if you remove the ‘element of injustice from war, the necessity of it is in itself pitiable.’ The same Maximus, again: ‘War seems not to be undertaken by the just except of necessity, by the unjust of their own initiative.’

2.   To this we must add the saying of Seneca, that it is not for a man to put his fellow man to wasteful use. Philiscus advised Alexander to pursue renown indeed, but upon this condition, that he should not make himself a plague or a violent disease. He meant that the slaughter of peoples and the wasting of cities are the work of a pestilence, but that nothing is more befitting a king than to have regard for the safety of all; and this is accomplished by peace.

If by the Hebraic law even he who involuntarily slew a man was obliged to flee; if God forbade David, who is said to have waged blameless wars, to build His Temple, because he had shed much blood; if among the ancient Greeks even those had need of expiation who had innocently stained their hands with bloodshed, who does not see, especially if he be a Christian, how unfortunate and ill-omened the matter is, and with what effort a war, even if not unjust, is to be avoided? At any rate the Greeks who professed Christianity long observed the canon by which those who had killed an enemy in a war of any sort whatever were for a time excluded from the sacraments.