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Isocrates: Addicted to war, lusting after imperial power


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

Greek and Roman writers on war and peace

Isocrates: War zealots plunge state into manifold disasters


From On the Peace
Translated by George Norlin

And those who claim the right to stand at the head of the Hellenes ought to become leaders of such enterprises much rather than of war and of hireling armies, which at the present time are the objects of our ambition.


I could wish that, even as to praise virtue is a facile theme, so it were easy to persuade hearers to practise it. But as things are I am afraid that I may be expressing such sentiments to no purpose. For we have been depraved for a long time by men whose only ability is to cheat and delude – men who have held the people in such contempt that whenever they wish to bring about a state of war with any city, these very men who are paid for what they say have the audacity to tell us…


[A]lthough we seek to rule over all men, we are not willing to take the field ourselves, and although we undertake to wage war upon, one might almost say, the whole world, we do not train ourselves for war but employ instead vagabonds, deserters, and fugitives who have thronged together here in consequence of other misdemeanours, who, whenever others offer them higher pay, will follow their leadership against us.


We are concerned about our polity no less than about the safety of the whole state and we know that our democracy flourishes and endures in times of peace and security while in times of war it has twice already been overthrown, but we are hostile to those who desire peace as if suspecting them of favouring oligarchy while we are friendly to those who advocate war as if assured of their devotion to democracy.


I know, however, that it is difficult for one who attempts to denounce that imperial power which all the world lusts after and has waged many wars to obtain to impress his hearers as saying anything which is not intolerable. Nevertheless, since you have endured the other things which I have said, which, although true, are offensive, I beg you to be patient also with what I shall say upon this subject and not to impute to me the madness of having chosen to discourse to you on matters so contrary to the general opinion without having something true to say about them. Nay, I believe that I shall make it evident to all that we covet an empire which is neither just nor capable of being attained nor advantageous to ourselves.


And they became so addicted to war and the perils of war that, whereas in times past they had been more cautious in this regard than the rest of the world, they did not refrain from attacking even their own allies and their own benefactors…

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