A Socratic morality of war?

An earlier post raised the question of whether Socrates had participated, directly or indirectly, in atrocities in war during his celebrated service as hoplite in numerous campaigns in the Peloponnesian War. And, further, it seems that Socrates never explicitly criticized the practice of massacring and enslaving the defeated foe (as was practiced by Cleon). Several readers offered useful suggestions about other places in the Platonic corpus where moral ideas about the conduct of war are discussed by Socrates. There are a few passages in the Republic, Book 5, that are relevant to the moral limits on the conduct of war, and the first Alcibiades dialogue has some relevance as well. Here I want to consider those passages to see if these passages provide principles that are relevant to violence against the innocent — massacres, slaughter of prisoners, enslavement of women and children, devastation of cities. Here the question is not “what circumstances justify a state’s decision to go to war against an antagonist”, but rather the moral limits that govern acts and targets of violence in war — the difference between legitimate acts of war and atrocities.

Here are a few relevant lines of dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon from Republic, Book 5 (link):

“But again, how will our soldiers conduct themselves toward enemies?” “In what respect?” “First, in the matter of making slaves of the defeated, do you think it right for Greeks to reduce Greek cities to slavery, or rather that so far as they are able, they should not suffer any other city to do so, but should accustom Greeks [469c] to spare Greeks, foreseeing the danger of enslavement by the barbarians?” “Sparing them is wholly and altogether the better,” said he. “They are not, then, themselves to own Greek slaves, either, and they should advise the other Greeks not to?” “By all means,” he said; “at any rate in that way they would be more likely to turn against the barbarians and keep their hands from one another.” “And how about stripping the dead after victory of anything except their weapons: is that well? Does it not furnish a pretext to cowards [469d] not to advance on the living foe, as if they were doing something needful when poking about the dead? Has not this snatching at the spoils ere new destroyed many an army?” “Yes, indeed.” “And don’t you think it illiberal and greedy to plunder a corpse, and is it not the mark of a womanish and petty spirit to deem the body of the dead an enemy when the real foeman has flown away and left behind only the instrument with which he fought? [469e] Do you see any difference between such conduct and that of the dogs who snarl at the stones that hit them but don’t touch the thrower?” “Not the slightest.” “We must abandon, then, the plundering of corpses and the refusal to permit their burial.” “By heaven, we certainly must,” he said.

And a few lines later:

“And in the matter of devastating the land of Greeks and burning their houses, how will your soldiers deal with their enemies.” “I would gladly hear your opinion of that.” “In my view,” [470b] said I, “they ought to do neither, but confine themselves to taking away the annual harvest. Shall I tell you why?” “Do.” “In my opinion, just as we have the two terms, war and faction, so there are also two things, distinguished by two differentiae. The two things I mean are the friendly and kindred on the one hand and the alien and foreign on the other. Now the term employed for the hostility of the friendly is faction, and for that of the alien is war.” “What you say is in nothing beside the mark,” he replied. “Consider, then, [470c] if this goes to the mark. I affirm that the Hellenic race is friendly to itself and akin, and foreign and alien to the barbarian.” “Rightly,” he said. “We shall then say that Greeks fight and wage war with barbarians, and barbarians with Greeks, and are enemies by nature, and that war is the fit name for this enmity and hatred. Greeks, however, we shall say, are still by nature the friends of Greeks when they act in this way, but that Greece is sick in that case and divided by faction, [470d] and faction is the name we must give to that enmity.” “I will allow you that habit of speech,” he said. “Then observe,” said I, “that when anything of this sort occurs in faction, as the word is now used, and a state is divided against itself, if either party devastates the land and burns the houses of the other such factional strife is thought to be an accursed thing and neither party to be true patriots. Otherwise, they would never have endured thus to outrage their nurse and mother. But the moderate and reasonable thing is thought to be that the victors [470e] shall take away the crops of the vanquished, but that their temper shall be that of men who expect to be reconciled and not always to wage war.” “That way of feeling,” he said, “is far less savage than the other.” “Well, then,” said I, “is not the city that you are founding to be a Greek city?” “It must be,” he said. “Will they then not be good and gentle?” “Indeed they will.” “And won’t they be philhellenes, lovers of Greeks, and will they not regard all Greece as their own and not renounce their part in the holy places common to all Greeks ?” “Most certainly.” “Will they not then regard any difference with Greeks [471a] who are their own people as a form of faction and refuse even to speak of it as war?” “Most certainly.” “And they will conduct their quarrels always looking forward to a reconciliation?” “By all means.” “They will correct them, then, for their own good, not chastising them with a view to their enslavement or their destruction, but acting as correctors, not as enemies.” “They will,” he said. “They will not, being Greeks, ravage Greek territory nor burn habitations, and they will not admit that in any city all the population are their enemies, men, women and children, but will say that only a few at any time are their foes, [471b] those, namely, who are to blame for the quarrel. And on all these considerations they will not be willing to lay waste the soil, since the majority are their friends, nor to destroy the houses, but will carry the conflict only to the point of compelling the guilty to do justice by the pressure of the suffering of the innocent.” “I,” he said, “agree that our citizens ought to deal with their Greek opponents on this wise, while treating barbarians as Greeks now treat Greeks.” “Shall we lay down this law also, then, [471c] for our guardians that they are not to lay waste the land or burn the houses?” “Let us so decree,” he said, “and assume that this and our preceding prescriptions are right.”

Several moral ideas about limits on the use of violence in warfare are evident here. First, there is the distinction between waging war against other Greeks and against barbarians (non-Greeks). And second, there is a principle of moderation applied, first to acts within war against Greeks, and then partially extended to non-Greeks.

The first passage is concerned with the case of war between Greeks. Socrates is explicit in saying that vanquished Greeks should not be enslaved; vanquished Greek cities should not be burned and annihilated; and (by implication) surrendered Greek soldiers should not be massacred. Despoiling the dead is also considered and rejected. These claims are limited to the case of war between Greek parties. They seem to express an idea of “Hellenic patriotism” over and above loyalty and obligation to one’s own polity (city). The primary rationale that Socrates provides in the first passage for these limits on the conduct of war is prudential: Greek enemies will fight differently if they are confident they will not be massacred or enslaved, and will be more likely to fight the barbarians than the Athenians. But the second passage raises a different consideration: war between Greeks should not be considered to be total or irresolvable, but should be conducted in such a way that a peaceful future can be imagined on both sides — “… their temper shall be that of men who expect to be reconciled …”. It should be seen as a matter of faction rather than war, of measured disagreement rather than unlimited efforts at annihilation of the antagonist. Eventual reconciliation should be the goal. This is the “pan-hellenism” that Socrates and Glaucon both seem to endorse.

An even more important distinction is introduced in the second passage, though not by name: the distinction between combatant and non-combatant. And the principle that is articulated is, essentially, that violence should be restricted to combatants and not aimed at non-combatants. “They will not admit that in any city all the population are their enemies, men, women and children, but will say that only a few at any time are their foes, those, namely, who are to blame for the quarrel.” Or in more modern terms, the violence of war should be used only against those who provoked and conducted war, not those who simply inhabit the city that is at war. This is a significant limit on the conduct of war as practiced by Cleon. As we saw in the previous posts, Cleon’s proposed treatment of Mytilene was an instance of annihilation rather than eventual reconciliation.

The only statement about war against non-Greeks in these passages is this: “our citizens ought to deal with their Greek opponents on this wise, while treating barbarians as Greeks now treat Greeks.” But since Greek warfare against Greeks during the Peloponnesian War involved massacre of adult men, destruction of cities, and enslavement of women and children, this passage appears to permit these practices against “barbarians”. Moreover, the sharp distinction that Socrates draws between “fellow Greek” and “alien barbarian” is ominous, suggesting that in war against barbarians there are essentially no moral limitations. “I affirm that the Hellenic race is friendly to itself and akin, and foreign and alien to the barbarian.” “Rightly,” he said. “We shall then say that Greeks fight and wage war with barbarians, and barbarians with Greeks, and are enemies by nature, and that war is the fit name for this enmity and hatred.” Enemies by nature … enmity and hatred. These are phrases that lead to the legitimacy of wars of annihilation.

We might say that Socrates’ moral universe was fundamentally constrained by a “philosophical anthropology” that we would today describe as xenophobic, racist, or imperialist. It was a worldview that systematically regarded other groups as sub-human and less worthy of moral consideration than one’s own group. But once “barbarians” are recognized as fully and equally human, the arguments given above for moderation in war between Greek adversaries apply with equal force to war between Greek and non-Greek adversaries. The distinction between combatants and non-combatants is just as compelling to the case of warfare against Persians or Phoenicians. And the case for moderation and reconciliation in war is just as valid as well. It is shared humanity rather than shared “Hellenic race” that is a legitimate basis for moderation and reconciliation. But the virulence of the Greek concept of “barbarian” and its fundamental contrast with “Hellenic” presents a huge barrier to the creation of a universalist human morality — a morality based on the traits of the human being rather than the Persian, the Greek, or the Egyptian. 

There is a basis, then, for thinking that the seeds of a more universal theory of moral limitations on the conduct of war exist in these Socratic ideas. What is missing is a recognition of the shared humanity of all social groups and civilizations — and their equal worthiness to being treated with compassion, equality, and consideration. But clearly, Plato and Socrates have not come to that insight.

The relevance of the Alcibiades dialogue (link) is more limited, because it concerns almost exclusively the question of what considerations of prudence and virtue should underlie a decision for a city to go to war against an adversary. This dialogue has relevance for the question of “just causes for war”, but almost nothing specific to say about “moral limitations on actions and strategies within war”.

Therefore neither the passages from the Republic nor the Alcibiades dialogue shed a great deal of light on the question of “Socrates and atrocity”. There is no strong statement about the fundamental moral unacceptability of the massacre of the men of a city or the enslavement of the children and women of the conquered city as human beings. Rather, there is a much weaker argument about the harmful consequences of harsh treatment towards fellow Greeks (permanent enmity and resistance) and the beneficial consequences of limits on violence (eventual reconciliation). But this is far from a clear and principled rejection of the use of massacre and enslavement as a tool of coercion in war — let alone a rejection of these uses of violence against “alien enemies”. To the charge of “participant in atrocity” we might then add the charge of “xenophobe!” to our critique of the historic Socrates. If only Glaucon had had the moral sense to press Socrates along these lines:

Glaucon: “But Socrates, when a Greek general orders the massacre of a Persian city, does he not in that act do great injustice by condemning innocent human beings to death?” Socrates: “But these are barbarians; they do not have the moral standing of Greek citizens.” Glaucon: “Do these Persian men and women not feel pain, love their children, and flourish in their freedoms?” Socrates: “What you say is true, dear Glaucon. But they are not Greek.” Glaucon: “But, dear Socrates, have you not taught that sentience, reason, language, and social feeling are the features that distinguish the Greek adult from the animal?” Socrates: “Yes, of course.” Glaucon: “And have you not agreed that Persian men and women, like the Greeks, feel, think, speak, and love one another?” Socrates: “Yes, that is obviously true, why do you repeat it?” Glaucon: “Are you not forced to agree, then, that the Persian is just as worthy of our moral consideration as the Athenian?” Socrates: “Now that you express yourself so clearly, Glaucon, I see your meaning. I am forced to agree.” Glaucon: “And so we agree, Socrates, my teacher, that all human beings must be treated virtuously, not just Greeks.” Socrates: “It is so.” Glaucon: “So, then, Socrates, we are in agreement that armies must never massacre the innocent or enslave the women and children.” Socrates: “That is the requirement of virtue.”

(Norwegian philosopher Henrik Syse has written several very interesting articles on Plato’s contributions to the theory of the morality of war herehere, and here.)

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