Peace Research

In Plato’s Republic, soldiers are called “watchdogs.” The military guardians are necessary either to protect one’s city from greedy neighbors or, if the city is itself undisciplined, to assist in conquering the land or goods that are wanted or needed. The watchdog is seen to be someone who attacks an enemy but who is friendly with the locals. But who is to decide who our enemy or our friend is? This task is assigned to the intellectual guardians. Often, to tell the difference between friend and foe is not easy. It remains the principal problem of our time.
Behind the war question, sane people recognized that “peaceful means” do not always guarantee justice or even existence. “Peace at any cost” has long been understood to be the virtue of cowards. Scripture is not only full of wars, but unsettlingly reminds us that in all human history will be found wars and rumors of war. This view is stated as a matter of fact. We should not be shocked when it happens in our era or place. It assumes a familiarity with human nature, with the Fall in all its consequences. As a grudging practical principle that never fails to upset the idealists, realistically armed societies are usually those that enjoy the most peace. Those who merely “long” for peace seldom experience it. They may enjoy it, but it is not the result of their own efforts.
Perhaps no word is more frequently found among the officially pious than “peace.” It was also a favorite word of Augustine who, of all theologians, understood war best. It is no accident that great generals have been the first to long for peace; they know the alternative firsthand. Peace is a more curious word than we are wont to acknowledge. Obviously, if peace just means “absence of hostilities,” then police states or totalitarian states are models of peace. The longing for peace with no further qualification is a most dangerous desire.
The “study” of war is a respected discipline. All great military philosophers see the vocation of the military as that of service of others, of those who cannot protect themselves. The military prevents something worse from happening. They are not surprised that, at the end of hostilities, things are still messy. Many a war, having been won on the battlefield, has been lost by the intellectual guardians of the victors.
Peace is not an object of war. Peace is always a result of something else, primarily justice. But not everyone is inspired by justice. The question of war is thus never far from the question of what goes on in our souls. Wars seldom initially arise with armies. When unjust, they arise in the souls of the intellectual guardians or in those of the citizens, usually as a result of personal disorder. The necessity to protect oneself and others is, then, something that arises from a realistic look at the human condition.
Modern philosophy often proposed itself as a method to create among us “universal peace.” What this philosophy claimed was a superior understanding of human nature. Modern thought strove to replace the Christian realism that expects wars and rumors of war. With modern science, this thought will finally bring about “peace” in this world. Indeed, a principal argument against Christianity was that it was too slovenly about wars. It did not “work” to eradicate them. It read Scripture about their abidingness, so it did not act.
These remarks on war occur because I read Joseph Ratzinger’s Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life. (Much of what is in Spe Salvi was already in this book, published in 1977 and rendered into English by the Catholic University of America Press in 1988.) Often, when I am informed about yet another academic “program” of “peace studies,” I remark — to be provocative — that the only “peace academies” in this country are located at Colorado Springs, Annapolis, and West Point.
Now, of course, Christianity has never thought that something could not be done about the prevalence of war. Its frequency and heinousness could, with some wisdom, be limited. The notion of “limited” as opposed to “universal peace” strikes me as by far the more feasible and indeed less dangerous goal. “Universal peace” by human means has the overtones of totalitarianism in modern times.
In his discussion of the Resurrection, Ratzinger brought up the question of whether within the world we could expect that man would solve his problems by his own efforts, the essentially modern project. In the New Testament, one of the “signs” of the end of history is precisely wars among men. Wars in almost every century of Christian history are used to speak of the approaching end. Thus, one cannot easily conclude that wars will or will not be an immediate sign of the end.
These remarkable words of Ratzinger are worth memorizing:
Even a cursory glance at the actual reality of every century suggests that such “signs” [wars] indicate a permanent condition of this world. The world has always been torn apart by wars and catastrophes, and nothing allows one to hope that, for example, “peace research” will manage to ease this watermark of all humanity.
In other words, we do what we can. But when we promise that we can eliminate war by studying peace, we show that we do not understand either Scripture or the human condition.
In the recent past, we have had earthquakes, floods, wars, and sundry other disasters. We can only be “surprised” at such things if we really think that we can totally eliminate them — if, in other words, we lapse into ideology from practical realism. It is in this latter world where we are to accomplish our salvation, which is not ultimately in this world.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His newest books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His most recent book is Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017).

  • James Pawlak

    Rather than St. Augustine of Hippo, I propose St. Bernard of Clairvaux, in his “De Laude Novae Militae”, as the definer of what Christian soldiers should be.

    Persons interested in the above work should contact me at jamespawlak1 at gmail dot com and I will send them a short paper on that work.

  • Todd

    Father Schall, I think you present the alternative in a poor light, perhaps even a caricature. From the start you mention “peace at any cost,” and link it to cowards. Many people of prudence oppose the Iraq War, but the effort against terrorism may well be considered warmongering by a mirror definition of what you’ve provided. If indeed US foreign policy is set to triumph over terrorism “at any cost,” we have a similar problem, do we not?

    Critics of pacifism betray their own ignorance of the discipline by bringing up their favorite boogeymen instead of engaging in a more rigorous dialogue with pacifists themselves. Might I ask you or others find well-respected pacifists to quote, or just leave off the straw men next time?

    “In his discussion of the Resurrection, Ratzinger brought up the question of whether within the world we could expect that man would solve his problems by his own efforts, the essentially modern project.”

    Fair enough. But the Christian view is that through our labors we cooperate with God’s grace. A non-religious effort for justice, economics, democracy, or self-improvement may well be doomed to fail. All the more reason for Christian learning institutions to step in and root advanced studies in the gospel.

    As you said, “In other words, we do what we can.”

    And we should spare no effort to do what we can to spread the Gospel of Christ, including justice, and as a by-product, peace where we can achieve it.

    “But when we promise that we can eliminate war by studying peace, we show that we do not understand either Scripture or the human condition.”

    May I ask who has promised an end to war? Fr Schall, please be watchful about tossing out tidbits like this. You misrepresent advocates for justice and peace, and you perpetuate general ignorance about what your ideological adversaries hope to accomplish.

  • Kathy

    Fr. Schall,

    Excellent article! This idea that we can control the universe is really sad. I know that at 20 years of age I thought that I could. Many years of just plain living has taught me that I must do what I can within my own realm but, in the end, I really have very little control over the world. What a relief!!


    Jim, I’d like to see you review “JFK and the Unspeakable” by James Douglass, published this month by Orbis. Douglass has a thesis — that JFK was assassinated by America’s war party because of his change of heart about Vietnam, signalized by his commencement speech at American University in June 1963. “The Unspeakable” in his title comes from Thomas Merton, and it refers to what we sometimes call the Prince of Darkness, a personification of the palpable evil we see in, e.g. the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, who in Douglass’s opinion, each signed their own death warrants when they came out so strongly against the war in Vietnam. JFK did more than that: he engaged in secret corresponence with Nikita Khrushchev, which horrified the war party in the U.S.

  • James Pawlak

    As most of the wars the USA has entered were against evil and for freedom, how do I join the “War Party”?

  • Billy Lalor

    The Church benefits from clergy like Father Schall who have an understanding of the “permanent condition” of this world and therefore, the folly of absolute pacifism. There is nothing in this short essay to be taken as excusing “warmongering.” Exactly the opposite, nothing encourages the warmonger like the peoples who are unwilling to defend themselves–a point which Schall makes well.

  • Todd

    “The Church benefits from clergy like Father Schall who have an understanding of the ‘permanent condition’ of this world …”

    I disagree. Christ’s charge to the disciples was to make disciples of all nations. We may have a pragmatic sense that some will refuse Christ and deny salvation, but that does not absolve us of our responsibility to carry out the Lord’s mission. I’d prefer to cast my lot with Jesus who seemed to possess a degree of confidence his followers were not just giving in to the “permanent condition” of this sorry world.

    Regarding, “absolute pacifism,” I see nothing in proposals for peace institutes that would sugget this as a sole approach. The argument is a caricature of pacifism, as we wouldn’t expect military academies to focus on military tactics, or military history, or personal fitnes, or honor and morality to the exclusion of everything else.

    “(N)othing encourages the warmonger like the peoples who are unwilling to defend themselves–a point which Schall makes well.”

    Who ever said pacifists don’t defend themselves? True pacifists have always resisted evil, just not by conventional violence. Sometimes non-violence has been more fruitful and successful than mutual killing.

    Billy, I think you make my point that spreading misunderstandings about pacifism is possibly the most harmful aspect of this essay.

    Let me ask Father Schall if he has ever had a serious discussion with a real pacifist.

  • The Athenian Stranger

    “Let me ask Father Schall if he has ever had a serious discussion with a real pacifist.”

    The more important question for Todd is: Have you first read CS Lewis’s “Why I Am Not A Pacifist?”

    Second, have you ever read Plato’s Republic, all 10 books, from beginning to end? The entire Republic is about Justice. That’s Fr Schall’s point. Its futile to talk about peace without talking about Justice.

  • Todd

    AS, to answer your questions, I reply no, and no. While you and others might find the criticisms of pacifism more comforting, I prefer to hear from the source, so I read on pacifism, not its opponents.

    I suggest the same for others, and in other approaches to life and faith as well. I would not inquire of Catholicism from a rabid anti-Catholic evangelical, so by the same token, I’d expect someone interested in exploring pacifism to go to the source. In doing so, you would find no less a form commitment toward justice.

    That said, once one has a proper grasp of a philosophy, religion, or any intellectual endeavor, it is indeed helpful to be aware of what the opposition says. Quite frankly, I hadn’t thought of Lewis or Plato as relevant to pacifism or the opposition to it, hence I’ve not considered them as even secondary sources in that regard.

    But I stand with my suggestion for those opposed to pacifism, to find one authentic book or one authentic pacifist. The alternative in not doing so is that the misperceptions you communicate can be truly embarassing.