Front Page Titles (by Subject) SKETCH VI: War and Peace compared - Sketches of the History of Man, vol. 2
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
SKETCH VI: War and Peace compared - Henry Home, Lord Kames, Sketches of the History of Man, vol. 2 
Sketches of the History of Man Considerably enlarged by the last additions and corrections of the author, edited and with an Introduction by James A. Harris (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007). 3 Vols. Vol. 2.
About Liberty Fund:
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
War and Peace compared
No complaints are more frequent than against the weather, when it suits not our purpose: “A dismal season! we shall be drowned, or we shall be burnt up.” And yet wise men think, that there might be more occasion to complain, were the weather left to our own direction. The weather is not the only instance of distrust in Providence: it is a common topic to declaim against war; “Scourge of nations, Destroyer of the human race, Bane of arts and industry! Will the world never become wise! Will war never have an end!” Manifold indeed are the blessings of peace; but doth war never produce any good? A fair comparison may possibly make it doubtful, whether war, like the weather, ought not to be resigned to the conduct of Providence: seldom are we in the right, when we repine at its dispensations.
The blessings of peace are too well known to need illustration: industry, commerce, the fine arts, power, opulence, &c. &c. depend on peace. What has war in store for balancing blessings so substantial? Let us not abandon the field, without making at least one effort.
Humanity, it must be acknowledged, gains nothing from the wars of small states in close neighbourhood: such wars are brutal and bloody; because they are carried on with bitter enmity against individuals. Thanks to Providence, that war, at present, bears a less savage aspect: we spare individuals, and make war upon the nation only: barbarity and cruelty give place to magnanimity; and soldiers are converted from brutes into heroes. Such wars give exercise to the elevated virtues of courage, generosity, and disinterestedness, which are always attended with consciousness of merit and of dignity.* Friendship is in peace cool and languid; but, in a war for glory, exerts the whole fire of its enthusiasm. The long and bloody war sustained by the Netherlanders against the tyrant of Spain, made even Dutchmen heroes: they forced their way to the Indies during the hottest period of the war; and gained, by commerce, what supported them against their ferocious e-nemy. What have they gained since by peace! Their immense commerce has eradicated patriotism, and every appetite but for wealth. Had their violated rights been restored without a struggle, they would have continued a nation of frogs and fishermen. The Swiss, by continual struggles for liberty against the potent house of Austria, became a brave and active people, feared and courted by neighbouring princes. Their federal union has secured to them peace and tranquility; which, notwithstanding their mountainous situation, would have sunk them into effeminacy, but for a commerce they carry on of hiring out their men for soldiers. Monks are commonly pusillanimous: their way of life, which removes them from danger, enervates the mind, and renders them spiritless and cowardly.
Industry, manufactures, and wealth, are the fruits of peace; but advert to what follows. Luxury, a never-failing conco-mitant of wealth, is a slow poison, that debilitates men, and renders them incapable of any great effort: courage, magnanimity, heroism, come to be ranked among the miracles that are supposed never to have existed but in fable; and the fashionable properties of sensuality, avarice, cunning, and dissimulation, engross the mind. In a word, man, by constant prosperity and peace, degenerates into a mean, impotent, and selfish animal. An American savage, who treasures up the scalps of his enemies as trophies of his prowess, is a being far superior. Such are the fruits of perpetual peace with respect to individuals.
Nor is the state itself less debilitated by it than its members. Figure a man wallowing in riches, and immersed in sensual pleasure, but dreading the infection of a plague raging at his gate; or figure him in continual dread of an enemy, watching every opportunity to burn and destroy. This man represents a commercial state, that has long enjoyed peace without disturbance. A state that is a tempting object to an invader, without means of defence,- is in a woful situation. The republic of Venice was once famous for the wisdom of its constitution, and for being the Christian bulwark against the Turks; but, by long peace, it has become altogether effeminate. Its principles of government are conformable to its character: every cause of quarrel with a neighbour is anxiously avoided; and the disturbances at home prevented by watchful spies. Holland, since the days of King William, has not produced a man fit to command a regiment: and the Dutch hath nothing to rely on for independence but mutual jealousy among their neighbours. Hannibal appeared upon the stage too early: had the Romans, after their conquest of Italy, been suffered to exchange their martial spirit for luxury and voluptuousness, they would have been no match for that great general. It was equally lucky for the Romans that they came late upon Macedon. Had Alexander finished his conquest of Greece, and the Romans theirs of Italy, at the same period, they would probably have been confined, each of them, within their own limits. But Asi-atic luxury and effeminacy, which had got hold of the Greeks and Macedonians before the Roman invasion, rendered them an easy prey to the invaders. It was the constant cry of Cato the Censor, “Delenda est Carthago.” Scipio Nasica was a more subtile politician: his opinion was, to give peace to Carthage, that the dread of that once powerful republic might preserve in vigour the military spirit of his country. What happened afterwards, sets the wisdom of that advice in a conspicuous light. The battle of Actium, after a long train of cruel civil wars, gave peace to Rome under the Emperor Augustus. Peace had not subsisted much above thirty years, when a Roman army, under Quintilius Varus, was cut to pieces in Germany. The consternation at Rome was unspeakable, as there was not a fortified town to prevent the Germans from pouring down upon Italy. Instant orders were given for levying men; but, so effeminate had the Romans already become, that not a single man would enlist voluntarily. And Augustus was forced to use severe measures, before he could collect a small army. How different the military spirit of the Romans during the second Punic war, when several Roman armies were cut off, greater than that of Varus. The citizens who could bear arms were reduced to 137,000; and yet, in the later years of that war, the Romans kept the field with no fewer than twenty-three legions (a) . The Vandals, having expelled the Romans from Afric, enjoyed peace for a century, without seeing the face of an enemy. Procopius (b) gives the following account of them. Charmed with the fertility of the soil, and benignity of the climate, they abandoned themselves to luxury, sumptuous dress, high living, and frequent baths. They dwelt in the theatre and circus, amusing themselves with dancers, pantomimes, and every gay entertainment: their villas were splendid; and their gardens were adorned with water-works, beautiful trees, odoriferous flowers: no regard to chastity, nor to any manly virtue. In that effeminate state, they made scarce any resistence to Belisarius with an army far inferior in number to their own. The Saracens of Asia, corrupted by prosperity and opulence, were able to make no head against the Turks. About that time, the Spaniards, equally corrupted, were overpowered by the Saracens of Afric; who, remote from the dissolute manners of Asia, retained their military spirit. The wealth of the kingdom of Whidah in Guinea, from fertility of soil, great industry, and extensive commerce, produced luxury and effeminacy. The King gave himself up to sensual pleasures, leaving government to his ministers. In that state was Whidah in the year 1727, when the King of Dahomay requested access to the sea for trade, offering to purchase the privilege with a yearly tribute. A haughty denial furnished a pretext for war. The King of Dahomay invaded the territories of his enemy with a disciplined army, and pierced to the capital without resistance. The King of Whidah, with his women, had fled to an island, and his people were all dispersed. It amazed the conqueror, that a whole nation, without striking a blow, had thus deserted their wives, their children, their gods, their possessions, and all that was dear to them. The Japanese became warlike during long and bloody civil wars, which terminated about the end of the sixteenth century, in rendering their Emperor despotic. From that period, no opportunity has occurred for exercising their military spirit, except in the education of their youth: heroism, with contempt of death, are inculcated; and the histories of their illustrious heroes are the only books that boys at school are taught to read. But, the profound tranquility that the empire now enjoys, in a strict and regular government, will in time render that warlike people effeminate and= cowardly: human nature cannot resist the poison of perpetual peace and security. In the war between the Turks and Venetians, anno 1715, the latter put great confidence in Napoli di Romania, a city in the Morea, strongly fortified, and provided with every necessary for an obstinate defence. They had not the least doubt of being able to draw their whole force together, before the Turks could make any progress in the siege. But, to their astonishment, the taking of that city, and of every other fortified place in the Morea, was the work of but a single campaign. So much had the Venetians degenerated by long peace, from the courage and patriotism of their forefathers who conquered that country from the Turks. In some late accounts from China, we are told, that the King of Bengala or Bracma, having invaded Yunnan, an opulent province of China, obtained a complete victory over the Emperor’s army, commanded by his son-in-law: the inhabitants of that province were struck with such a panic, that multitudes, for fear of the conqueror, hanged and drowned themselves. To what a torpid state, by this time, would Europe have been reduced, had the plan for a perpetual peace, projected by Henry IV. of France, been carried into execution? Conquest, in a retrograde motion, would have directed its progress from the east to the west. Our situation in an island, among several advantages, is so far unlucky, that it puts us off our guard, and renders us negligent in providing for defence: we never were invaded without being subdued.*
Montesquieu, in a warm panegyric on the English constitution, has overlooked one particular, in which it is superior to every other monarchy; and that is, the frequent opportunities it affords to exert mental powers and talents. What agitation among the candidates, and their electors, on the approach of a new parliament: what freedom of speech and eloquence in parliament! ministers and their measures laid open to the world, the nation kept alive, and inspired with a vigour of mind that tends to heroism! This government, it is true, generates factions, which sometimes generate revolutions: but the golden age, so lusciously described by poets, would to man be worse than an iron age. At any rate, better to have a government liable to storms, than to seek for quiet in the dead calm of despotism.†
Law-suits within a state, like war between different states, accustom people to opposition, and prevent too great softness and facility of manners. In a free government, a degree of stubbornness in the people is requisite for resisting encroachments on their liberties. The fondness of the French for their sovereign, and the easiness and politeness of their manners, have corrupted a good constitution. The British constitution has been preserved entire, by a people jealous of their prince, and resolute against every encroachment of regal power.
There is another advantage of war, that ought not to be overlooked, though not capital. It serves to drain the country of idlers, few of whom are innocent, and many not a little mischievous. In the years 1759 and 1760, when we were at war with France, there were but twenty-nine criminals condemned at the Old Bailey. In the years 1770 and 1771, when we were at peace with all the world, the criminals condemned there amounted to one hundred and fifty-one.
But, though I declare against perpetual peace, perpetual war is still more my aversion. The condition of Europe was deplorable in the dark ages, when vassals assumed the privilege of waging war without consent of the sovereign. Deadly feuds prevailed universally, and threatened dissolution of all government: the human race never were in a more woful condition. But anarchy never fails, soon or late, to rectify itself, which effeminacy produced by long peace never does. Revenge and cruelty, it is true, are the fruits of war: but so are likewise firmness of mind, and undaunted courage; which are exerted with better will in behalf of virtue than of revenge. The crusades were what first gave a turn to the fierce manners of our ancestors. A religious enterprise, uniting numbers formerly at variance, enlarged the sphere of social affection, and sweetened the manners of Christians to one another. These crusades filled Europe with heroes, who, at home, were ready for any new enterprise that promised laurels. Mo-ved with the horror of deadly feuds, they joined in bonds of chivalry for succouring the distressed, for redressing wrongs, and for protecting widows and orphans. Such heroism inflamed every one who was fond of glory and warlike atchievements: chivalry was relished by men of birth; and even kings were proud to be of the order. An institution, blending together valour, religion, and gallantry, was wonderfully agreeable to a martial people; and humanity and gentleness could not but prevail in a society, whose profession it was to succour every person in distress. As glory and honour were the only wished-for recompense, chivalry was esteemed the school of honour, of truth, and of fidelity. Thus, truth without disguise, and a scrupulous adherence to promises, became the distinguishing virtues of a gentleman. It is true, that the enthusiasm of protecting widows and orphans, degenerated sometimes into extravagance; witness knights who wandered about in quest of adventures. But it would be unfair to condemn the whole order, because a few of their number were extravagant. The true spirit of chivalry produced a single reformation in the manners of Europe. To what other cause can we so justly ascribe the point of honour, and that humanity in war, which characterize modern manners (a) ? Are peace, luxury, and selfishness, capable of producing such effects?
That man should be the only animal that makes war upon his own kind, may appear strange and unaccountable. Did men listen to cool reason, they never would make war. Hear the celebrated Rousseau on that subject.
Un prince, qui pour reculer ses frontiers, perd autant de ses anciens sujets qu’il en acquiert de nouveaux, s’ affoiblit en s’ agrandissant; parce qu’avec un plus grand espace à defendre, il n’a pas plus de défenseurs. Or on ne peut ignorer, que par la maniere dont la guerre se fait aujourd’hui, la moindre dépopulation qu’elle produit est celle qui se fait dans les armées: c’est bien-là la perte apparente et sensible: mais il s’en fait en mème tems dans tout l’état une plus grave et plus irreparable que celle des hommes qui meurent, par ceux qui ne naissent pas, par l’augmentation des impôts, par l’interruption du commerce, par la désertion des campagnes, par l’abandon de l’agriculture; ce mal qu’on n’apparçoit point d’abord, se fait sentir cruellement dans la suite: et c’est alors qu’on est étonné d’être si foible, pour s’être rendu si puissant. Ce qui rend encore les conquêtes moins intéressantes, c’est qu’on fait maintenant par quels moyens on peut doubler et tripler sa puissance, non seulement sans étendre son territoire, mais quelquefois en le resserrant, comme fit très sagement l’Empereur Adrien. On fait que ce sont les hommes seuls qui sont la force des Rois; et c’est une proposition qui découle de ce que je viens de dire, que de deux étas qui nourrissent le même nombre d’habitans, celui qui occupe une moindre étendue de terre, est réellement le plus puissant. C’est donc par de bonnes loix, par une sage police, par de grandes vues économiques, qu’un souverain judicieux est sùr d’augmenter ses forces, sans rien donner au hazard.*
But war is ne-cessary for man, being a school for improving every manly virtue; and Providence renders kings blind to their true interest, in order that war may sometimes take place. To rely upon Providence in the government of this world, is the wisdom of man.
Upon the whole, perpetual war is bad, because it converts men into beasts of prey: perpetual peace is worse, because it converts men into beasts of burden. To prevent such woful degeneracy on both hands, war and peace alternately are the only effectual means; and these means are adopted by Providence.
[* ]In the war carried on by Louis XII. of France against the Venetians, the town of Brescia, being taken storm, and abandoned to the soldiers, suffered for seven days all the distresses of cruelty and avarice. No house escaped but that where Chevalier Bayard was lodged. At his entrance, the mistress, a woman of rank, fell at his feet, and deeply sobbing “Oh! my Lord, save my life, save the honour of my daughters.” “Take courage, Madam,” said the Chevalier, “your life, and their honour, shall be secure while I have life.” The two daughters, brought from their hiding-place, were presented to him; and the family reunited bestowed their whole attention on their deliverer. A dangerous wound he had received gave them opportunity to express their zeal: they employed a notable surgeon; they attended him by turn day and night; and, when he could bear to be amused, they entertained him with concerts of music. Upon the day fixed for his departure, the mother said to him, “To your goodness, my Lord, we owe our lives: and to you all we have belongs by right of war: but we hope, from your signal benevolence, that this slight tribute will content you”; placing upon the table an iron coffer full of money. “What is the sum?” said the Chevalier. “My Lord,” answered she trembling, “no more but 2500 ducats, all that we have;—but, if more be necessary, we will try our friends.”—“Madam,” said he, “your kindness is more precious in my eyes than a hundred thousand ducats. Take back your money, and depend always on me.”—“My good Lord, you kill me in refusing this small sum: take it only as a mark of your friendship to my family.”—“Well,” said he, “since it will oblige you, I take the money; but give me the satisfaction of bidding adieu to your amiable daughters.” They came to him with looks of regard and affection. “Ladies,” said he, “the impression you have made on my heart, will never wear out. What return to make I know not; for men of my profession are seldom opulent: but here are two thousand five hundred ducats, of which the generosity of your mother has given me the disposal. Accept them as a marriage present; and may your happiness in marriage equal your merit.” “Flower of chivalry,” cried the mother, “May the God who suffered death for us reward you here and hereafter.” Can peace afford so sweet a scene!
[(a) ]Titus Livius, lib. 26. cap. 1.
[(b) ]Historia Vandalica, lib. 2.
[* ]The situation of the King of Sardinia, environed on all sides with powerful monarchs, obliges him to act with the greatest circumspection; which circumstance seems to have formed the character of the princes of that house. These princes have exerted more sagacity in steering their political vessel, and more dexterity in availing themselves of every wind, than any other race of sovereigns that figure in history; Robertson’s History of the Emperor Charles V.
[† ]On n’entend parler dans les auteurs que des divisions qui perdirent Rome; mais on ne voit pas que ces divisions y étoient nécessaires, qu’elles y avoient toujours été, et qu’elles y devoient toujours être. Ce fut uniquement la grandeur de la republique qui fit le mal, et qui changea en guerres civiles les tumultes populaires. Il falloit bien qu’il y eut à Rome des divisions: et ces guerriers si fiers, si audacieux, si terribles au dehors, ne pouvoient pas être bien modérés au dedans. Demander dans un état libre des gens hardis dans la guerre, et timides dans la paix, c’est vouloir des choses impossibles: et pour regle générale, toutes les fois qu’on verra tout le monde tranquille dans un état qui se donne le nom de republique, on peut être assuré que la liberté n’y est pas; Montesquieu, grandeur des Romains, ch. 9. [In English thus: “Many writers have said a great deal on those factions which destroyed Rome; but they want the penetration to see, that those factions were necessary, that they had always subsisted, and ever must have subsisted. It was the grandeur of the state which alone occasioned the evil, and changed into civil wars the tumults of the people. There must of necessity have been factions in Rome; for, how was it possible, that those who abroad subdued all by their undaunted bravery, and by the terror of their arms, should live in peace and moderation at home? To look for a people, in a free state, who are intrepid in war, and, at the same time, timid in peace, is to look for an impossibility; and we may hold it as a general rule, that, in a state which professes a republican form of government, if the people are quiet and peaceable, there is no real liberty.”]
[(a) ]Dr. Robertson’s history of the Emperor Charles V.
[* ]“A prince, who in extending his territories sustains the loss of as many of his old subjects as he acquires new, weakens in fact his power while he aims at strengthening it: he increases the territory to be defended, while the number of defenders is not increased. Who does not know, that in the modern manner of making war, the greatest depopulation is not from the havock made in the armies? That indeed is the obvious and apparent destruction; but there is, at the same time, in the state a loss much more severe and irreparable, not that thousands are cut off, but that thousands are not born: population is wounded by the increase of taxes, by the interruption of commerce, by the desertion of the country, and by the stagnation of agriculture: the misfortune which is overlooked at first, is severely felt in the event; and it is then that we are astonished to find we have been growing weak, while increasing our power. What renders every new conquest still the less valuable, is the consideration of the possibility of doubling and tripling a nation’s power, without extending its territory, nay, even by diminishing it. The Emperor Adrian knew this, and wisely practised it. The numbers of the subjects are the strength of the prince: and a consequence of what I have said is this proposition, That of two states equal in the number of inhabitants, that is in reality the more powerful which occupies the smaller territory. It is by good laws, by a salutary police, and great oeconomical schemes, that a wise sovereign gains a sure augmentation of strength, without trusting any thing to the fortune of his arms.”