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Erasmus: Of a Soldier’s Life

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

Erasmus: Selections on war

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Desiderius Erasmus
From Colloquy: Of a Soldier’s Life
Translated by N. Bailey

The Argument.The wicked Life of Soldiers is here reprehended, and shewn to be very miserable: That War is Confusion, and a Sink of all manner of Vices, in as much as in it there is no Distinction made betwixt Things sacred and profane. The Hope of Plunder allures many to become Soldiers. The Impieties of a Military Life are here laid open, by this Confession of a Soldier, that Youth may be put out of Conceit of going into the Army.

HANNO, THRASYMACHUS

HANNO.
How comes it about that you that went away a Mercury, come back a Vulcan?

THRASYMACHUS.
What do you talk to me of your Mercuries and your Vulcans for?

Ha.
Because you seem’d to be ready to fly when you went away, but you’re come limping Home.

Thr.
I’m come back like a Soldier then.

Ha.
You a Soldier, that would out-run a Stag if an Enemy were at your Heels.

Thr.
The Hope of Booty made me valiant.

Ha.
Well, have you brought Home a good Deal of Plunder then?

Thr.
Empty Pockets.

Ha.
Then you were the lighter for travelling.

Thr.
But I was heavy loaden with Sin.

Ha.
That’s heavy Luggage indeed, if the Prophet says right, who calls Sin Lead.

Thr.
I have seen and had a Hand in more Villanies this Campaign than in the whole Course of my Life before.

Ha.
How do you like a Soldier’s Life?

Thr.
There is no Course of Life in the World more wicked or more wretched.

Ha.
What then must be in the Minds of those People, that for the Sake of a little Money, and some out of Curiosity, make as much Haste to a Battel as to a Banquet?

Thr.
In Truth, I can think no other but they are possess’d; for if the Devil were not in them they would never anticipate their Fate.

Ha.
So one would think, for if you’d put ’em upon any honest Business, they’ll scarce stir a Foot in it for any Money. But tell me, how went the Battel? Who got the better on’t?

Thr.
There was such a Hallooing, Hurly-burly, Noise of Guns, Trumpets and Drums, Neighing of Horses, and Shouting of Men, that I was so far from knowing what others were a doing, that I scarcely knew where I was myself.

Ha.
How comes it about then that others, after a Fight is over, do paint you out every Circumstance so to the Life, and tell you what such an Officer said, and what t’other did, as tho’ they had been nothing but Lookers on all the Time, and had been every where at the same Time?

Thr.
It is my Opinion that they lye confoundedly. I can tell you what was done in my own Tent, but as to what was done in the Battel, I know nothing at all of that.

Ha.
Don’t you know how you came to be lame neither?

Thr.
Scarce that upon my Honour, but I suppose my Knee was hurt by a Stone, or a Horse–heel, or so.

Ha.
Well, but I can tell you.

Thr.
You tell me? Why, has any Body told you?

Ha.
No, but I guess.

Thr.
Tell me then.

Ha.
When you were running away in a Fright, you fell down and hit it against a Stone.

Thr.
Let me die if you han’t hit the Nail on the Head.

Ha.
Go, get you Home, and tell your Wife of your Exploits.

Thr.
She’ll read me a Juniper-Lecture for coming Home in such a Pickle.

Ha.
But what Restitution will you make for what you have stolen?

Thr.
That’s made already.

Ha.
To whom?

Thr.
Why, to Whores, Sutlers, and Gamesters.

Ha.
That’s like a Soldier for all the World, it’s but just that what’s got over the Devil’s Back should be spent under his Belly.

Ha.
But I hope you have kept your Fingers all this While from Sacrilege?

Thr.
There’s nothing sacred in Hostility, there we neither spare private Houses nor Churches.

Ha.
How will you make Satisfaction?

Thr.
They say there is no Satisfaction to be made for what is done in War, for all Things are lawful there.

Ha.
You mean by the Law of Arms, I suppose?

Thr.
You are right.

Ha.
But that Law is the highest Injustice. It was not the Love of your Country, but the Love of Booty that made you a Soldier.

Thr.
I confess so, and I believe very few go into the Army with any better Design.

Ha.
It is indeed some Excuse to be mad with the greater Part of Mankind.

Thr.
I have heard a Parson say in his Pulpit that War was lawful.

Ha.
Pulpits indeed are the Oracles of Truth. But War may be lawful for a Prince, and yet not so for you.

Thr.
I have heard that every Man must live by his Trade.

Ha.
A very honourable Trade indeed to burn Houses, rob Churches, ravish Nuns, plunder the Poor, and murder the Innocent!

Thr.
Butchers are hired to kill Beasts; and why is our Trade found Fault with who are hired to kill Men?

Ha.
But was you never thoughtful what should become of your Soul if you happen’d to be kill’d in the Battel?

Thr.
Not very much; I was very well satisfied in my Mind, having once for all commended myself to St. Barbara.

Ha.
And did she take you under her Protection?

Thr.
I fancied so, for methought she gave me a little Nod.

Ha.
What Time was it? In the Morning?

Thr.
No, no, ’twas after Supper.

Ha.
And by that Time I suppose the Trees seem’d to walk too?

Thr.
How this Man guesses every Thing! But St. Christopher was the Saint I most depended on, whose Picture I had always in my Eye.

Ha.
What in your Tent?

Thr.
We had drawn him with Charcoal upon our Sailcloth.

Ha.
Then to be sure that Christopher the Collier was a sure Card to trust to? But without jesting, I don’t see how you can expect to be forgiven all these Villanies, unless you go to Rome.

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