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Plato: The highest good is not war but peace

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Greek and Roman writers on war and peace

Plato: Selections on war

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Plato
From Laws
Translated by R.G. Bury

plato

Athenian
Which of the two would be the better – a judge who destroyed all the wicked among them and charged the good to govern themselves, or one who made the good members govern and, while allowing the bad to live, made them submit willingly to be governed? And there is a third judge we must mention (third and best in point of merit), – if indeed such a judge can be found, – who in dealing with a single divided family will destroy none of them but reconcile them and succeed, by enacting laws for them, in securing amongst them thenceforward permanent friendliness.

Clinias
A judge and lawgiver of that kind would be by far the best.

Athenian
But mark this: his aim, in the laws he enacted for them, would be the opposite of war.

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Athenian
And would anyone prefer that the citizens should be obliged to devote their attention to external enemies after internal concord had been secured by the destruction of one section and the victory of their opponents rather than after the establishment of friendship and peace by terms of conciliation?

Clinias
Everyone would prefer the latter alternative for his own State rather than the former.

Athenian
And would not the lawgiver do the same?

Clinias
Of course.

Athenian
Would not every lawgiver in all his legislation aim at the highest good?

Clinias
Assuredly.

Athenian
The highest good, however, is neither war nor civil strife – which things we should pray rather to be saved from – but peace one with another and friendly feeling. Moreover, it would seem that the victory we mentioned of a State over itself is not one of the best things but one of those which are necessary. For imagine a man supposing that a human body was best off when it was sick and aged with physic, while never giving a thought to the case of the body that needs no physic at all! Similarly, with regard to the well-being of a State or an individual, that man will never make genuine statesman who pays attention primarily solely to the needs of foreign warfare, nor will he make a finished lawgiver unless he designs his legislation for peace rather than his peace legislation for war.

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[V]ictory or defeat in battle could never be called a decisive, but rather a questionable, test of the goodness or badness of an institution.

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While education brings also victory, victory sometimes brings lack of education for men have often grown more insolent because of victory in war, and through their insolence they have become filled with countless other vices; and whereas education has never yet proved to be Cadmeian, the victories which men win in war often have been, and will be, Cadmeian.

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