Home > Uncategorized > Johann Gottfried von Herder: Peace, not war, is the natural state of mankind

Johann Gottfried von Herder: Peace, not war, is the natural state of mankind


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

German writers on peace and war

Johann Gottfried von Herder: Selections on war


Johann Gottfried von Herder
From Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind
Translated by T.O. Churchill

Peace, therefore, not war is the natural state of mankind when at liberty; war is the offspring of necessity, not the legitimate child of enjoyment…

In proportion as reason increases among mankind, man must learn from their infancy to perceive that there is a nobler greatness than the inhuman greatness of tyrants; and that it is more laudable, as well as more difficult, to form than to ravage a nation, to establish cities than to destroy them. The industrious Egyptians, the ingenious Greeks, the mercantile Phoenicians not only make a more pleasing figure in history, but enjoyed, during the period of their existence, a more useful and agreeable life than the destroying Persians, the conquering Romans, the avaricious Carthaginians. The remembrance of the former still lives with fame, and their influence upon Earth will continue eternally with increasing power; while the ravagers, with their demoniacal might, reaped no farther benefit than that of becoming a wretched, luxurious people amid the ruins of their plunder, and at last quaffing off the poisoned draught of severe retaliation.

Such was the fate of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Romans: even the Greeks received more injury from their internal dissensions, and from their luxury in many cities and provinces than from the sword of the enemy. Now as these are fundamental principles of a natural order, which not only shows itself in particular cases of history or in fortuitous instances; but is founded on its own intrinsic properties, that is, on the nature of oppression and an overstretched power, or on the consequences of victory, luxury and arrogance, as on the laws of a disturbed equiponderance, and holds on coeternally with the course of things: why must we be compelled to doubt that this law of Nature is not as generally acknowledged as any other, and does not operate, from the forcibleness with which it is perceived with the infallible efficacy of a natural truth? What may be brought to mathematical certainty, and political demonstration, must be acknowledged as truth, soon or late; for no one has yet questioned the accuracy of the multiplication table or the propositions of Euclid.

Even our brief history already demonstrates beyond all doubt that the increased diffusion of true knowledge among people has happily diminished their inhuman, mad destroyers. Since the downfall of Rome there has arisen no other cultivated nation in Europe which has founded the whole of its constitution on war and conquest; for the military nations of the Middle Ages were rude and savage. In proportion as they advanced in civilization, and learned to have a regard for their property, the more amiable and peaceful spirit of industry, of agriculture, of trade, and of science forced itself upon them unnoticed, or indeed often against their wills. Men learned to use without destroying, as what was destroyed was no longer capable of being used; and thus in time, from the nature of the case itself, a peaceful balance between nations took place; for, after centuries of wild warring all began to perceive, that the object of every one’s wish was not to be attained, unless they contributed to promote it in common. Even that, which of all things appeared most to require exclusive possession, commerce, could take no other way; as it is a law of nature, against which passions and prejudice are ultimately of no avail. Every commercial nation of Europe now laments, and will hereafter lament still more, what envy or superstition once prompted it foolishly to destroy. As reason increases, the object of navigation will proportionally turn from conquest to trade; which is founded on reciprocal justice and courtesy, on a progressive emulation to excel in arts and industry, in short, on humanity and its eternal laws.

Our minds feel inward satisfaction when they not only perceive the balm which flows from the laws of human nature, but see it spread and make its way among mankind, even against their wills, from its natural force. God himself could not divest man of the capability of error; but he implanted this in the nature of human mistakes, that soon or late they should show themselves to be such, and become evident to the calculating creature. No prudent sovereign of Europe now governs his provinces as did the kings of Persia, or even the Romans themselves; if not from philanthropic motives, yet from a clearer insight into the business, as with the course of time political calculation has become more certain, easy, and perspicuous. A madman only would build Egyptian pyramids in our days; and any one that should attempt such useless enterprises would be deemed insane by all the rational part of the World, if not from his want of love for the people, yet from considerations of economy. The bloody combats of gladiators and barbarous fights with animals are no longer suffered among us: the human species has run through these wild tricks of youth and learned at length to see that its mad frolics cost more than they are worth. In like manner, we no longer require the poor oppressed slaves of the Romans or helots of Sparta; because in our constitutions we know how to obtain more easily from free beings what they accomplished with more danger, and even expense, by means of human animals: nay the time must come when we shall look back with as much compassion on our inhuman traffic in Negroes as on the ancient Roman Slaves or Spartan helots; if not from humanity, yet from calculation. In short, we have to thank God for having given us, with our weak fallible nature, reason, that immortal beam from his sun the essence of which it is to dispel night and show things in their real forms.


Man-devouring war, for example, was during ages the trade of robbery rudely exercised. It was long the practice of men swayed by turbulent passions; for while personal strength, cunning, and address were its requisites, it could cherish only the dangerous virtues of robbers and
murderers, even in those who possessed the most laudable qualities; as the wars of ancient times, of the Middle Ages, and even some of modern date abundantly testify. But in the midst of this depraving trade the art of war was invented, perhaps involuntarily; for the inventors of this art perceived not that it would sap the foundations of war itself. In proportion as the art of fighting became a profound study and various mechanical inventions were introduced into it, the passions and brute strength of individuals became useless. Soldiers were converted into mere machines, moved by the mind of a single general, and at the order of a few commanders; till at length sovereigns alone were permitted to play this dangerous and costly game, while in ancient times almost all warlike nations were continually in arms. We have seen proofs of this in several Asiatic nations, and not less in the Greeks and Romans. The latter were for centuries almost constantly in the field: the Volscian war continued 106 years; the Samnite, 71: the city of Veii was besieged ten years, like a second Troy: and the destructive Peloponnesian war of 28 years among the Greeks is sufficiently known. But as in all wars, to fall in battle is the least of evils, while the diseases and devastation that attend the motions of an army or the siege of a town, with the lawless spirit of plunder, that then pervades all ranks and conditions, are much greater evils, which passion-stirring war calls forth in a thousand frightful forms…



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