Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Essay on War

by Christopher Dawson


In this essay, Christopher Dawson (1889-1970), widely regarded as one of the great historians of the 20th century, reflects on the tragedy of war. He begins by briefly surveying some of the various attitudes toward war and peace, especially those of Catholics and those connected with the English liberal tradition of the 18th and 19th centuries.

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Urbi et Orbi Communications, New Hope, KY, November 2004

Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) is widely regarded as one of the great historians of the 20th century. The poet T.S. Eliot credited his ideas with exerting "the most powerful intellectual influence in England" in the years before and following World War II.

Born into an Anglican family, he entered the Catholic Church in 1914, just as he was beginning his extraordinary series of historical works.

Among the best known of these books are: Progress and Religion (1929), The Making of Europe (1932), Religion and Culture (1948) and The Rise of the Western Culture (1950).

The 1937 selection we reprint comes out of the turbulent decade when Hitler was beating the drums of war and many in England, still in shock from the slaughter of 1914-1918, wanted peace at any price.

Essentially, the essay argues against extreme pacifism and for a view of war that combines the prophetic Hebraic-Christian tradition with a close examination of history and of the impact of the new conditions in armaments and international relations.

Dawson begins by briefly surveying some of the various attitudes toward war and peace over the centuries, especially Catholic attitudes and those connected with the English liberal tradition of the 18th and 19th centuries.

While he argues that war is part of human history and not likely to disappear, he also notes that the movement of history has brought us to the point where "modern war . . . is unnecessary and avoidable." He sees the best possibility for realizing that opportunity in an organization of nations that could address the crises arising out of the inevitable narrow self-interest of individual states.

Central to his treatment of the Catholic position are the Bible's prophetic teachings as fulfilled in the New Testament. In a typical Dawsonian summing up he states: "History is not made by man, but neither is it determined by Fate. It is ruled by God, and war is God's instrument for working His purposes."

The belief in an omnipotent divinity guides Dawson's thinking about war and peace. To make God's sovereignty clearer, he draws on Isaiah's image of God as the potter and man as his clay.

And he concludes his essay by presenting Jeremiah as one of those rare humans who grasp the wisdom that real peace can only come from God. He says of Jeremiah: "There has never been a more courageous conscientious objector than the Jewish prophet who preached non-resistance to his people when the enemy were at the gates of the Holy City. Yet he was the same man who denounced those who 'healed the wound of my people lightly saying Peace, peace; when there is no peace.'"

Why did Jeremiah preach non-resistance to Israel as the invading army of Babylon gathered against it?

What was "the wound" of the people that needed healing?

Israel was wounded because it had turned away from God and become totally corrupt. Jeremiah accused the leaders of Israel of behaving like insatiable stallions lusting for their neighbors' wives (Jeremiah 5:8), giving no help to the poor and weak (5:28), even enslaving their own people (34:8) in violation of the Deuteronomic law.

As in our own time, evil had become so commonplace that the nation was no longer ashamed of its total capitulation to vice. (8:12)

The "popular prophets" were preaching war with Babylon (in alliance with Egypt).

Jeremiah was telling Jerusalem that its pride, lust, unnatural vices and idolatry had brought God's vengeance to its gates.

God is chastising you, Jeremiah tells his people. Don't wage war. Repent, submit, accept God's judgment; only then will your regeneration follow.

Peace will not be won by fighting, only by the reform of Israel.

Once Dawson has put Jeremiah's faithful wisdom before his audience, he can close his comments on war and peace with two simple sentences, which, as the reader will shortly discover, perfectly sum up the complicated presentation he has been making.

This essay comes from a talk Dawson gave at a symposium on war and peace in early 1937. It was published in the British journal Colosseum in March 1937. — The Editor

There is no subject on which rational discussion is more difficult than war and peace. In time of war, of course, rational thought is practically suspended and passion becomes a virtue, as we saw during the last war (World War I, 1914-18). Then the remotest suggestion that there was anything to be said on the other side, or that the enemy was capable of the smallest degree of human behavior, was regarded as a kind of immoral madness.

Nor is this unreasonableness confined to the war-mongers. In time of peace, at any rate, the pacifist is often passionate and more irrational than the militarist, and it is usually easier to carry on rational discussion with a staff officer than with a professional pacifist. Moreover, the pacifists are far from agreed among themselves, and it is useless to argue about pacifism in the abstract when we are ignorant of the particular school of pacifism to which our opponent happens to belong.

There is the moral question and the question of fact, but in practice these two questions are almost inextricably confused with one another, both by the pacifists themselves and by their opponents.

For example, there are the practical pacifists who believe that war is an anomaly, an archaic survival, which can be entirely eliminated by common sense or scientific organization, and there are the religious pacifists who regard war as a problem for the individual conscience, a moral evil which is the duty of the religious man to avoid like theft or adultery, however great may be the practical disadvantages of his action.

This type of pacifist may even agree with the militarist in regarding war as a permanent phenomenon in history, because it is inseparable from the ignorance and sin of worldly men. But even though the whole world is at war he must refuse to take part in it because of the personal moral guilt that it involves.

The practical pacifist, the other hand, while he regards it as a duty to work for peace, like any other social reform, does not necessarily object to taking part in a war which has actually begun, so long as his abstention cannot affect the issue.

Now it is no doubt possible to find these two types of pacifism existing in an almost pure state . . . Catholic pacifism, however, belongs to neither of these extreme and exclusive types. No doubt it is a pacifism of the religious type which is concerned with the moral objections to war rather than with its economic disadvantages. But it is not an absolute pacifism like that of the Quakers. It admits, at least in theory, the possibility of the Just War, and in order to decide whether a particular war is just or unjust, it is bound to take account of all those questions of fact and practical politics which the Quaker can afford to ignore.

The Catholic point of view as held in the past is, in fact, simply that of the average man who has always admitted that some wars are unjust and immoral, and it differs from the average man's mainly because it can appeal to a more objective and scientific standard of justice.

New Catholic Pacifism

Today, however, a new type of Catholic pacifist has emerged whose ideas approximate much more closely to absolute pacifism than to the traditional Catholic view.

His attitude to the Just War is not unlike the old-fashioned Protestant's attitude to miracles, that is, he does not deny its intrinsic possibility, but he thinks that it is something that does not occur nowadays. The Just War went with the picturesque trappings of war in the old style, like swords and cavalry and colored uniforms: it has been bombed out of existence by high explosives and poison gas.

Now at first sight this view seems another example of the romantic fallacy which idealizes the past, as though wars were just when knights were bold, and ceased to be so when they ceased to be picturesque.

It is true that the sufferings of modern war seem intolerable to us, but was there ever a time when they were tolerable to those who suffered from them? The German people, for example, suffered more both materially and morally during the Thirty Years War than they did even in 1918, and the sufferings of the soldiery itself, without anesthetics or antiseptics, without hospitals or ambulances, hardly bear thinking about.

Moreover, the denial of the possibility of a just war under modern conditions would seem to reduce modern warfare to a sub-moral level, in which the justice or injustice of the particular issue goes by the board. It means not only that the aggressor is wrong to attack, but that his victim is also wrong in resisting the aggression. And it is surely difficult to believe that resistance to aggression becomes unjust merely because the aggressor is equipped with the latest mechanism of destruction.

No, the real case against modern war is entirely different, and whether it is right or wrong it explains the profound difference which we cannot but feel between modern pacifism, both Catholic and secular, and the traditional attitude to peace and war which underlies the particular judgments of the theologians and realists of the past.

Modern Warfare

The real case against modern war is that it is unnecessary and avoidable, that war between nations is as anomalous as private war had become by the end of the Middle Ages, and that the time has come when war can be banished from the world like slums or any other survival of barbarism.

This view rests in part at least on a solid basis of experience, which has shown that within certain limits international law and methods of conciliation can be applied to situations which would formerly have inevitably resulted in war. In this way the great capitalist Powers of the British Empire and the United States have avoided armed conflict for more than a century, and have been able to leave the long frontier in North America unfortified and unguarded.

But behind these experiments in international peace there is also a tradition and a philosophy — the tradition of liberal idealism and liberal individualism that has done so much to form the thought and culture of the English-speaking peoples. The whole tendency of Adam Smith [1723-1790], of Jeremy Bentham [1748-1832] and the Utilitarians, of J.S. Mill [1806-1873] and Herbert Spencer [1820-1903] — not to mention avowed pacifists like Richard Cobden [1804-1865] — was to reduce the claims and prestige of the State, to set commerce above war, and to make the happiness and interests of the individual the ultimate good.

In their eyes, economic cosmopolitanism would gradually banish the causes of war. Already England was the workshop of the world, and Cobden could thank God that it was not possible for England to make a war profitable. What the city of Manchester thought today, England would think tomorrow and Europe a little later, until the glad tidings of free trade and free competition united the whole world in competitive prosperity.

This capitalist philosophy assumed many different forms, from the rigid rationalism of Bentham and David Ricardo [1772-1823] to the enthusiastic pietism of men like John Bowring [1792-1872], who went so far as to declare that "Free Trade was Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ was Free Trade."

But in all its forms it was invariably opposed to war and succeeded in creating a solid block of liberal opinion which regarded international peace as an ideal that was not only morally desirable, but practically attainable.

It is to this liberal tradition and liberal temper of mind that modern pacifism appeals.

Where it does not exist, pacifism is a negligible quantity, but where, as in England and America, it has entered deeply into the national mind, pacifist propaganda finds a basis of common ideas to which it can appeal and a moral climate favorable to its expansion.

What we have to remember, however, is that these ideas are neither inevitable nor universal. They are an exceptional product of a particular culture and a particular age, and it is possible that they may disappear with the age and culture that produced them.

It is impossible to form a just and Catholic judgment on these matters unless we also try to understand the ideas regarding peace and war that were held in the old world before the coming of liberalism, and those which are held today in the modern world wherever liberalism has failed to penetrate or has been rejected or forgotten.

Principle of War in History

In the first place, it is necessary to remember that from the beginnings of history down to modern times men have everywhere regarded war as an inevitable accompaniment of human existence and one of the most important of human activities. The earliest historical documents we possess . . . are records of ruthless slaughter, and the course of history ever since has been a story of states and empires that have been born in war, have grown great by war and have perished by war. War has been the principle of movement in history, and it has been the warlike peoples that have been the great makers of history. We may leave out of account the warrior peoples who regarded war as the only principle of life, and take the cast of civilized people only.

But even the Greeks, the creators of humanism and democracy and political philosophy, in spite of their high ideals of the State as a union for the good of life, were not essentially different. To them, as to the barbarians, the citizen was primarily a warrior and the essential virtues were those of the soldier. No doubt they were humane enough to realize the waste and evil of war, as the barbarians did not. Yet they believed that out of all the dirt and cruelty there could flower the highest good of which humanity was capable — a good so great as to appear to them almost divine.

The Greek view of life was fundamentally a tragic one, which saw human valor and wisdom the more clearly because they were defined and limited by the non-human powers that rule the world. And it was in war that this contrast which was inherent in the whole of human life found its highest and most intense expression. Hence, for the Greeks, war was no more to be justified or condemned than life itself. It was part of the cosmic order. "War is the father all things," in the words of Heraclitus, and if strife were to cease, all things would pass away.

This heroic conception of war, as the condition of man's highest achievement, is one which the modern pacifist finds it hard to consider seriously. It is just the aspect of war which he finds easiest to show up and which has been "de-bunked" most mercilessly during recent years. But however unreal and unfashionable that conception may be today, we must not forget that it has been held with complete honesty and conviction in the past, and not only by the Greeks but by the Indians and Celts and Germans and our own medieval and post-medieval ancestors. It is, in fact, the normal or classical attitude, and it is the unheroic or comic attitude to life and death which is exceptional, since it is found as a rule only in highly sophisticated literary circles or in a rich and self-confident commercial society.

The Catholic Tradition

And if we turn to the Catholic tradition and consider the Christian attitude to life and the Christian view and peace and war, we shall, I think, find that there has been a much greater affinity with the heroic ideal of the ancients than with the liberal idealism of moderns, notwithstanding the fact that the latter to some extent has been affected by Christian ideas and often expressed itself in Christian phraseology.

It is true that Christianity is based on a different historic tradition from that of the Greeks or the Germans, but the Jews were also a warrior people and the heroes of the Old Testament — Joshua and Gideon and Barak and David and Judas Maccabeus — were heroes in the Homeric sense who were honored because they were the champions of their people in war.

When the Biblical conception differs from that of the classics it is in regard to history. History is not made by man, but neither is it determined by Fate. It is ruled by God, and war is God's instrument for working His purposes.

The wars of the Hebrews were just, not because they were waged with humanity and caused a minimum of suffering, but because they were "The Wars of the Lord," who was the God of battles.

Even the wars and conquests of the heathen — Assyria, Babylon and Persia — were part of the divine purpose and manifested God's judgment in history. For the justice of God was a fire in which nations were consumed like chaff or "as thorns cut down that are burnt in the fire."

Hence war and conquest are recognized as just, so long as they are subservient to the divine plan, and it is only when the empires are themselves up against God and deny their historical mission that they are condemned as evil. It is remarkable that the one Gentile to whom the Messianic title is applied in Scripture is not a wise man or a moral teacher but a successful empire builder, and any attempt to question the divine choice is condemned as a kind of rebellion. "Woe unto him who striveth with his Maker . . . Shall the clay say unto the potter, What makest thou? . . . Woe unto him that saith unto a father, What begottest thou? Or to a woman, What has thou brought forth? . . . Remember the former things of old, for I am God, and there is none else; I am God and there is none like me. Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient time the things that are not yet done; saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure, calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country." (I Isaiah 45, 46)

No doubt the modernist would regard the Old Testament view of war and empire as bound up with the barbarous mentality of a primitive people; the thorough-going pacifist not only believes that the Old Testament view is entirely superseded by that of the New, but regards them as entirely contradictory in the Marcionite or Catharist sense, as though the religion of the evil God of the Old Testament had been superseded by the religion of the God of Love.

It is the Catholic view, however, that there is no such contradiction. The New Testament also takes the providential view of war and empire and accepts the ruler and soldier as servants of God in their own sphere. The great change from the old dispensation lies in the fact that God's kingdom was no longer an earthly whose future could be affected directly by war but a spiritual order that could only be established by spiritual means. The law of the kingdom was a law of peace and charity, and war and violence were relegated to a lower plane.

But within that sphere, among the kingdoms of men, war retained its old importance and it was still possible to see the hand of God in the rise and fall of empires.

The Early Church

There were, however, particular factors in the life of the early Church which reduced the importance of war and encouraged pacific tendencies. Owing to the successful militarism of Rome, war had been temporarily banished from the civilized world, and the peoples to whom the Faith was preached were for the most part unarmed and compulsorily peaceful peoples whose fighting was done for them by a professional and often alien military class. Moreover, the fact that the Empire was a hostile and persecuting power prevented the Christians from regarding themselves as true members of the State and rendered them comparatively indifferent to its fortunes.

The conversion of the Empire changed all this and inaugurated that union of Church and State which had so great an influence in both Byzantine and Western society, and which endured in one form or another down to the end of the 18th century and even later.

Throughout these 15 centuries, the soldier's calling was regarded as the most honorable of secular occupations. It is true that the ideal of the Christian Roman Empire was a peaceful one and the normal war was a defensive one to protect Christian society against the attacks of warlike barbarians.

But when the barbarians themselves became Christians, Western culture became increasingly military, and Christian ideas combined with the heroic tradition of Northern culture to form the new ideal of Christian chivalry which inspires the Song of Roland and the crusading epic.

The attitude of the medieval Church to war was therefore twofold. On the one hand, it condemned the barbaric ideal of war for its own sake and took organized action, as in the peace movement of the 11th century, for the suppression of private wars and feuds. On the other hand, war against the infidels or heretics in defense of the common cause of Christendom was regarded as not merely just, but actually holy, so that the Old Testament ideal of "the wars of the Lord" found its Christian counterpart in the crusades.

Post-Reformation Ideas

The rise of the national states during the later Middle Ages and the break-up of Christendom that followed the Reformation led inevitably to a further change in the character of warfare and in the Christian attitude towards it. The crusading ideal disappeared with the unity of Christendom, and war became once more a struggle for power between rival states and dynasties. On the other hand, the sheer lawlessness of medieval private warfare was also a thing of the past, and the new monarchies retained the traditional prestige of the Christian state as ministers of divine justice.

Thus to the men of the later Middle Ages the national state stood for peace, and wars for its defense and liberation were supremely justified as we see in the case of St. Joan. In any case, war was an ineluctable necessity, for it was practically impossible for a nation to attain unity except by war. The less fortunate nations that could not attain it, like Germany in the 17th century, suffered far worse.

And in more recent times the formation of new states and nations has been no less bound up with war. The rise of Prussia and the union of Germany; the rise of Savoy and the union of Italy; the independence of the United States and South America; the liberation of the Christian peoples of the Balkans from Turkey — have all been accomplished by war. Without war the world we know would never have attained its present form.

We may say that the world could have got on very well as it was and that national unity is not worth the price of war. But even if it had been possible to arrest the movement of history, at what point should the full stop take place? With 13th century Christendom? With the counter-Reformation monarchies? With the Holy Alliance, or with the League of Nations?

The usual assumption is that the final goal was reached in 1918-19, when the peacemakers of Versailles redrafted the map of Europe on democratic and national principles, and set up the League of Nations to give permanence and stability to their work. But the idealism of the League of Nations Union should not blind us to the fact that this also was the fruit of war, and that its stability rests on the armed force of France and England whose victory it consecrated. No doubt to the average liberal-minded Englishman, the League system seemed a real achievement of constructive pacifism, but to the defeated and unsatisfied peoples it possessed no moral authority, since it appeared to them an unfair attempt to stop the clock at the moment most unfavorable to them. Consequently, the League system cannot be said to be a real power for peace since it has divided Europe not between groups of equals, as under the old system of the Balance of Power, but between the Haves and the Have Nots — so that international law seemed to have become a method of keeping the bottom dog in a permanent state of inferiority.

When once such a situation has arisen it invariably tends to translate itself into ideological forms, like "Democracy" and "Fascism," and gives the former no less than the latter a crusading spirit which is highly unfavorable to peace and concord. The League of Nations has not made the militarists pacific, but it has made the pacifists bellicose.

What of the Future?

If there is a great European war in the near future it will not be a capitalist war for markets, but a war of creeds for the possession of men's minds. And each side will be firmly convinced of the justice of its cause. The Fascist Powers will believe that they are defending Christendom and European culture against Communist atheism, while the democratic and socialist states will believe that they are defending justice and peace against militarist and capitalist tyranny.

Hence I believe we are entering on a new phase in the history of warfare: a phase which L'Osservatore Romano recently described as one of international civil war, since even the extreme nationalists are coming to realize that their cause is solidarity with that of peoples of kindred views, even though they are foreigners. In this phase, the war-makers will not be capitalists and armament manufacturers but the idealists and propagandists, and principles will be as important as poison gas. What is the duty of Catholics under these circumstances? No doubt to work for peace. But how? Certainly not by co-operating with the professional pacifists, for they are just the people who are most ready to beat the drum for a crusade against Peace with Fascism, and who write letters in favor of recruiting for the Spanish civil war in The Times. What we want are not pacifists but peacemakers. Peace is made not by denouncing war but by "agreeing with your adversary quickly while you are in the way with him," and by doing one's best to understand the mind and traditions of other peoples.

The vital problem we have to solve is not how to abolish war from the earth or how to set up a cosmopolitan super-state, but how to effect a reconciliation here-and-now between the rivalries and animosities of the existing national states. Above all, how to heal the wound made by the last war (or rather by the last peace) between the four great Powers of Western Europe?

If only those powers could be united by a practical working agreement or goodwill, war would no longer threaten the existence of Western civilization.

Whereas even if we could unite all the rest of the world in a League, or even a super-state, and left the great European Powers divided into two camps, the danger of war would be as great as ever.

Admittedly, the difficulties of such an agreement are very great, but at least the principle of it is accepted by the responsible statesmen on both sides, and the only question at issue now is whether more powers than the Big Four [England, France, Germany and Italy] should be included and what further guarantees should be given.

But any peace propaganda which shuts the eyes to realities is worthless and may even increase the danger which it sets out to combat. It has been the fault of both pacifism and liberalism in the past that they have ignored the immense burden of inherited evil under which society and civilization labor and have planned an imaginary world for an impossible humanity. We must recognize that we are living in an imperfect world in which human and superhuman forces of evil are at work and so long as those forces affect the political behavior of mankind, there can be no hope of abiding peace.

There has never been a more courageous conscientious objector than the Jewish prophet who preached non-resistance to his people when the enemy were at the gates of the Holy City. Yet he was the same man who denounced those who "healed the wound of my people lightly saying Peace, peace; when there is no peace."

For war is not only the work of man. It is also willed by God as the punishment of sin and as the instrument by which the Divine Justice performs its inscrutable judgments.

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