Saint Augustine and Just War

August 15, 2019

The Church tolerates war, but it only authorizes righteous war. “It is righteous war,” says Saint Augustine, “when one proposes to punish a violation of law; when it has become necessary to chastise a people who refuse to repair a wrong, or who refuse to restore property unjustly acquired.” We may add, with Raban Maur, the odious and alas too frequent cases of invasion, which it is always legitimate to resist. Vincent de Beauvais, the greatest encyclopedist of the Middle Ages, develops the doctrine in the reign of Saint Louis, at the time when all France was listening to the chansons de geste, from which we have borrowed the chief elements of our work. “There are,” he says, “three conditions under which a war may be just and lawful: The authority of the prince who commands the war—a just cause, and lastly a lawful intention.” But let us hearken to the illustrious thirteenth century compiler when he adds—“By just cause we mean one in which we do not march against our brothers save when they have deserved chastisement for some infraction of duty; and the lawful intention consists in making war to avoid evil, and to advance wellbeing.” As for unjust war the great Bishop of Hipponus long since characterized it in a single sentence, but one which is immortal: “It is brigandage on a large scale.” That feudal wars deserved this definition we shall have occasion, and be obliged, to maintain more than once. Compelled to tolerate the war which it abhorred, the Church organized against it, throughout all history, a whole series of grand and often successfully opposed obstacles. The “Peace” and the “Truce of God” are perhaps the most widely known. Chivalry is the most beautiful. Nevertheless the Church after all was unable to achieve its generous purpose, and was constrained in practice not only to permit war but even to encourage it! She did not descend to this save in two cases easy to determine: When it became a question of subduing and crushing out advancing barbarism and triumphant evil, and when it was necessary in the limits of duty that the Catholics should conform to the injunctions of the civil authority. Such, since the earliest times, has been the conduct of the Church vis-à-vis with war. We can easily adduce proofs of this.

That the Church authorized her children to serve in the armies of the Roman Emperor, that military service was permitted to the first Christians, no one can doubt who has read the beautiful Dissertation of the Bollandists. The light has come.

It is important nevertheless to distinguish here between the epoch of persecution and the centuries which followed the peace of the Church.

During the period of persecution the doctors and martyrs were not unanimous upon the question of military service. Grand and noble spirits had misgivings on the subject. Origen, whose teaching is not always certain, declares in set terms that military service is incompatible with the Christian profession. Lactantius is not less precise in proclaiming that there exists no objection to the divine decree—“Thou shalt not kill.” Man is a sacred being, and it is always a crime to kill him. But the great enemy to the service was the fiery, the incomparable Tertullian; and I do not think he ever wrote more eloquently than when declaiming against the profession of arms.

Origen Adamantius, the son of St. Leonides of Alexandria.

“So,” he says, “you would permit people to live while practicing the profession of a soldier, when the Savior declared that ‘he that takes the sword shall perish by the sword.’ He to whom such means are forbidden, the son of peace, would be doing the work of battle. He to whom it is forbidden to revenge his own injuries would inflict upon others fetters, imprisonment, torture, death.” The appeal is long, and it must be allowed that it touches the sublime. But, with orators, one must be on one’s guard; and the greater part of Tertullian’s reasonings will not stand the test of rigorous philosophic examination. Let us confess at once that they are less arguments than images.

Notwithstanding all this, such an appeal found a loud echo in the breasts of youthful Christendom, and the Tertullian doctrine found defenders who stood by it to the death. A certain number of martyrs preferred death to military service; the most illustrious of these was Saint Maximilian, who, in the year 295, at Thevestis in Numidia, refused to serve the emperor to whom he was bound as the son of a veteran soldier. “I am a Christian,” he cried, “and I cannot do this evil.” Saint Theogens at Cyzie made the same resistance, and it was in vain that the tribune pointed out to him all the other soldiers, saying, “They also are Christians.” Others who had accepted service renounced it under circumstances which demanded from them idolatrous practices. But these are only the exceptions; and one may truthfully affirm that there was a considerable number of Christians in the legions. Tertullian himself admits as much: “We are but of yesterday, and lo, we fill your castella [fortifications] and your castra [military camps].” Besides, nothing was more able than the Roman policy. With a view to retain their good soldiers the emperors took care not to impose anything upon Christians that would trouble their consciences. The military oath itself was deprived of all that might give umbrage to the spirit of their faith, and they were only obliged to swear per salutem imperatorum, per caput imperatoris, per pietatem et victoriam imperatorum.


In fact it was only in the year 298 that the mask of Roman policy was permitted to fall, and that Galerius attempted to snatch away the souls of the Christian soldiers from the Church. Up to that time they had not seriously alarmed; each one had said that in serving the Empire he was serving God and the Church, “for I am fighting against the barbarians and opening the way to the truth.” And the great majority of the doctors and the fathers encouraged them in this view. The doubts which seized upon some scrupulous minds only arose, as we have said, from the idolatrous practices to which the soldier of the pagan emperors could be subjected. These doubts had no more excuse for existence when peace had been made with the Church, and the Council of Arles in 314—a council which was attended by all the Western bishops—separated from the communion those who refused or abandoned military service. The cause was understood, and military service finally permitted.

War of La Vendée

The idea of the legitimacy of certain wars and the glorification of the Christian soldier, the idea that had aroused the soul of a Tertullian and that of an Origen, made very decided progress in the Western world between the fourth and the tenth centuries, during which period it was full of invasions, barbarity, and mortal struggles between religions and races. Certainly it was permitted to the Apostolic fathers to dream of a new land where the peace of the Gospel flourished, where the sword had been sheathed, where the violence of the soldier had been replaced by the gentleness of the priest. But these admirable theories must in some degree give way before stern facts, and it came to pass that the Church, without ceasing to detest war, tolerated the thought of it, and even went farther than that. Saint Augustine, the lofty genius who had the misfortune to live in terrible times, and to be the contemporary of the Vandals, was one of the first teachers to formulate, so to speak, the Christian theories concerning war and warriors. “What is there to be condemned in war? Is it the death of men who must die sooner or latter? Such a reproach should be in the mouths of cowards, and not in use amongst truly religious men! No, no! What is blamable in it is the desire to hurt other men: the cruel love of vengeance. It is this implacable spirit, this enemy of peace, this savagery of revolt, this passion for domination and for empire! It is certain that crimes shall be punished, and this is precisely  why according to God’s ordinance, or by legitimate authority, good people are sometimes compelled to undertake wars.”

The legitimate goal of war is not precisely the victory, with all the satisfactions this entails. Rather, it is peace in justice, the durable reestablishment of a public order in which each thing would be restored to its rightful place….

Battle of Magenta

“If every war were to be condemned,” says the great theologian in another passage, “the Gospel would have said as much. It would have said to the soldier, ‘Throw down your arms—give up your profession.’ But the Lord did not say that: He contented himself with recommending them to exercise moderation and justice.”

Elsewhere the voice of the eloquent apologist is heard with more vigor. “Let those who pretend that the teaching of Christ is contrary to the interests of the common weal, let them give the state an army composed of soldiers modeled upon those of the Gospel; they are a fine race indeed, those true and faithful warriors, who, amid a thousand dangers, and by the aid of Heaven, triumph over enemies reputed invincible, and bring peace to the empire. When they are victors, these champions of a just cause, I say it is right to congratulate them upon their victory, and the most desirable peace that succeeds it. I say that in this we must see a gift of God.”

Manners and civilization itself, Burke held, depended on two things: religion and “the spirit of gentleman.” Robert E. Lee believed this also. As president of Washington College in the years after Appomattox he had reduced the rules of the school to one sentence: “Every student must be gentleman.”

Such is the language of Saint Augustine, who detested war, and the Middle Ages have hardly done anything but repeat it, or stammer over it. For it is the destiny of great thinkers to impose upon many centuries the domination of their doctrines and the echo of their words.

León Gautier, Chivalry, trans. Henry Frith (London: George Routledge and Sons, Ltd., 1891), 4–8.



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