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Isocrates: War zealots plunge state into manifold disasters

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

Greek and Roman writers on war and peace

Isocrates: Addicted to war, lusting after imperial power

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Isocrates
From On the Peace
Translated by George Norlin

Indeed, you have caused the orators to practise and study, not what will be advantageous to the state, but how they may discourse in a manner pleasing to you. And it is to this kind of discourse that the majority of them have resorted also at the present time, since it has become plain to all that you will be better pleased with those who summon vou to war than with those who counsel peace; for the former put into our minds the expectation both of regaining our possessions in the several states and of recovering the power which we formerly enjoyed, while the latter hold forth no such hope, insisting rather that we must have peace and not crave great possessions contrary to justice, but be content with those we have and that for the great majority of mankind is of all things the most difficult. For we are so dependent on our hopes and so insatiate in seizing what seems to be our advantage that not even those who possess the greatest fortunes are willing to rest satisfied with them but are always grasping after more and so risking the loss of what they have. Wherefore we may well be anxious lest on the present occasion also we may be subject to this madness. For some of us appear to me to be over-zealously bent on war, as though having heard, not from haphazard counsellors, but from the gods, that we are destined to succeed in all our campaigns and to prevail easily over our foes.

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But I marvel that the older men no longer recall and that the younger have not been told by anyone that the orators who exhort us to cling fast to peace have never caused us to suffer any misfortune whatsoever, whereas those who lightly espouse war have already plunged us into many great disasters. However, we have no memory for these facts but are always ready, without in the least advancing our own welfare, to man triremes, to levy war-taxes, and to lend aid to the campaigns of others or wage war against them, as chance may determine, as if imperilling the interests, not of our own, but of a foreign state.

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I maintain, then, that we should make peace, not only with the Chians, the Rhodians, the Byzantines and the Coans, but with all mankind…But first let us discuss the question of peace and consider what we should desire for ourselves at the present juncture. For if we define this clearly and intelligently, we shall take better counsel in the light of this principle regarding our other interests as well. Let me ask, then, whether we should be satisfied if we could dwell in our city secure from danger, if we could be provided more abundantly with the necessities of life, if we could be of one mind amongst ourselves, and if we could enjoy the high esteem of the Hellenes. I, for my part, hold that, with these blessings assured us, Athens would be completely happy. Now it is the war which has robbed us of all the good things which I have mentioned; for it has made us poorer; it has compelled many of us to endure perils; it has given us a bad name among the Hellenes; and it has in every way overwhelmed us with misfortune. But if we make peace and demean ourselves as our common covenants command us to do, then we shall dwell in our city in great security, delivered from wars and perils and the turmoil in which we are now involved amongst ourselves, and we shall advance day by day in prosperity, relieved of paying war-taxes, of fitting out triremes, and of discharging the other burdens which are imposed by war, without fear cultivating our lands and sailing the seas and engaging in those other occupations which now, because of the war, have entirely come to an end. Nay, we shall see our city enjoying twice the revenues which she now receives, and thronged with merchants and foreigners and resident aliens, by whom she is now deserted.

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