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Lactantius: Duties relating to warfare are accommodated neither to justice nor to true virtue

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

Greek and Roman writers on war and peace

Lactantius: Selections on war

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Lactantius
From Divine Institutes
Translated by William Fletcher

“Moreover, to reckon the interests of our country as in the first place.”

When the agreement of men is taken away, virtue has no existence at all; for what are the interests of our country, but the inconveniences of another state or nation? – that is, to extend the boundaries which are violently taken from others, to increase the power of the state, to improve the revenues, – all which things are not virtues, but the overthrowing of virtues: for, in the first place, the union of human society is taken away, innocence is taken away, the abstaining from the property of another is taken away; lastly, justice itself is taken away, which is unable to bear the tearing asunder of the human race, and wherever arms have glittered, must be banished and exterminated from thence. This saying of Cicero is true: “But they who say that regard is to be had to citizens, but that it is not to be had to foreigners, these destroy the common society of the human race; and when this is removed, beneficence, liberality, kindness, and justice are entirely taken away.” For how can a man be just who injures, who hates, who despoils, who puts to death? And they who strive to be serviceable to their country do all these things: for they are ignorant of what this being serviceable is, who think nothing useful, nothing advantageous, but that which can be held by the hand; and this alone cannot be held, because it may be snatched away.

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Whoever, then, has gained for his country these goods – as they themselves call them – that is, who by the overthrow of cities and the destruction of nations has filled the treasury with money, has taken lands and enriched his country-men – he is extolled with praises to the heaven: in him there is said to be the greatest and perfect virtue. And this is the error not only of the people and the ignorant, but also of philosophers, who even give precepts for injustice, lest folly and wickedness should be wanting in discipline and authority. Therefore, when they are speaking of the duties relating to warfare, all that discourse is accommodated neither to justice nor to true virtue, but to this life and to civil institutions; and that this is not justice the matter itself declares, and Cicero has testified. “But we,” he says, “are not in possession of the real and life-like figure of true law and genuine justice, we have nothing but delineations and sketches; and I wish that we followed even these, for they are taken from the excellent copies made by nature and truth.”

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[H]ow greatly utility differs from justice the Roman people themselves teach, who, by proclaiming war through the Fecials, and by inflicting injuries according to legal forms, by always desiring and carrying off the property of other, have gained for themselves the possession of the whole world.

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[T]hose who are inexperienced in affairs and ignorant of reason, have expelled those affections which have been given to man for good uses, and they wander more widely than reason demands. From this cause they live unjustly and impiously. They employ anger against their equals in age: hence disagreements, hence banishments, hence wars have arisen contrary to justice. They use desire for the amassing of riches: hence frauds, hence robberies, hence all kinds of crimes have originated. They use lust only for the enjoyment of pleasures: hence debaucheries, hence adulteries, hence all corruptions have proceeded…

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