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Cicero, Aristotle, Plato – Just War Theory

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Plato, Aristotle and Cicero all talked about Just War Theory, and emphasis on the Just Warrior. Obedience and loyalty can lead to destruction. Plato, Aristotle and Cicero, the fathers of the Just War tradition, develop and enhance the concept of civic virtue and the necessity to uphold such morality during the most chaotic, violent and brutal of times – war. They each defend the necessity of war; yet emphasize the correct code of conduct in war and what makes an honorable and just warrior.

Today, war is much less engrained in our culture; our sons are not born with the future of a warrior. However, when there is war, we hear of many unjust and dishonorable acts such as mass rape, genocide, or specifically the My Lai Massacre. Plato, Aristotle and Cicero lived through a culture of war, defending it as necessary to keeping the peace. Because it was so engrained in their culture, a normalcy, they were not as concerned with the inhumane idea that defines war- killing another human being. Today, we do not live in a culture of constant war, therefore we are more susceptible to becoming overwhelmed by the trauma of violence.

Plato, Aristotle and Cicero, provide guidelines of a just warrior however, had not yet discovered what it is that can turn a good man into a bad one, and what horrible aspects of war he may fall victim to. Today, true courage means fighting against dishonor, because unfortunately, war turns the most honorable men into dishonorable ones. Plato is a philosopher who lived from 469-399 through the Peloponnesian Wars and stressed the belief that for man, there is something worse than death- an unreflective life. Plato reasoned that all people should strive to be pious, or good.

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He noted that piety is what the God’s hold dear, what all the Gods agree upon therefore, it is these morals that the people should uphold. In war, a soldier should not fear death but rather fear a dishonorable or impious life. He should rather die from pain than he should from shame. The same idea should be used when deciding to go to war or not. There must always be a just reason. In a conversation between Alcibiades and Socrates, Plato describes the importance of waging war for a just cause. ‘Soc: Don’t you know that when we make war we begin to wage war after accusing each other of some affront and what term we use when we begin?

Alc: I do – we say we have been deceived, or done violence to, or deprived of something. He then elaborates to whom a war can be claimed against: ‘Soc: Now, what of this? Whom will you advise the Athenians to wage war against, those behaving unjustly or those practicing the just things? Alc: What you are asking is a terrible thing; for even if someone had it in his mind that war ought to be waged against those practicing the just things, he would not admit to it, at least. ’[2] Plato seeks the unbiased truth, a critical reflection on why and what to do in a situation, especially regarding war.

Each of his answers comes back to being pious and reflective. He believes that war is necessary to keep up a good state, however believes it especially important to uphold pious and virtuous standards as a just warrior, in a just cause, using just means, to accomplish just ends. Aristotle is the founder of virtue ethics or “Jus in bello”, just actions in war. Aristotle claimed that virtues are described as a mean of excellence, a center between two extremes: excess and deficiency. For example, courage is a balance between cowardice and recklessness.

Prudence is practical wisdom that determines the mean of all virtues essentially what determines the mean between two extremes. This is especially important in defining the virtues of a warrior. Aristotle believes that a “just warrior” is a man who exhibits courage and commits actions that are only noble. He states there should be a purpose to his fighting, something he is willing to die for. A “just warrior” chooses to endure things because it is noble. “He will fear them as he ought and as reason directs, and he will face them for the sake of what is noble, for this is the end of excellence. He notes that a courageous man is not a fearless one, but one who faces those fears because it is right. Aristotle also notes that, “Courage is noble. Therefore the end is also noble; for each thing is defined by its end. Therefore it is for a noble end that the brave man endures and acts as courage directs.” Aristotle emphasizes that a just warrior fights only for a just cause. Aristotle also illustrates five different types of courage and their honorable uses. The first is political courage. One who exhibits political courage fears shame rather than pain or punishment.

The second is that courage is knowledge. He notes, “While the former from the very beginning faced the danger on the assumption they were stronger, and when they know the facts they fly, fearing death more than disgrace; but the brave man is not that sort of person”. He explains that when one knows of the danger, and still plows ahead, he is courageous. The third is that passion should aid morals, however feelings are not bravery and emotions should not speak louder than reason. As Homer noted, “put strength into his passion” as those who are passionate are often eager to rush into danger.

The fourth states that sanguine people are not brave, “for they are confident in danger only because they have conquered often against many foes…when their adventures do not succeed however, they run away; but it was the mark of a brave man to face things that are.” A noble man acts on character, not calculations. The fifth point is that courage does not mean people who are ignorant. Those who do not know and succeed are not brave, just lucky. Cicero who lived from 106 to 43 BC, created the Peace Movement that moved away from “best defense is a good offense” to the idea of constant civic virtue.

He strongly stated that war must be undertaken with the aim of peace. He believed that war must be a last resort and a declaration between two parties. “For this we can grasp that no war is just unless it is waged after a formal demand for restoration, or unless it has been formally announced and declared beforehand.” Justice was to be maintained amongst all participants. He was the first to declare that war was not a world apart, and that atrocities committed at an international level were not different as if they were committed in ones own state.

Cicero stated that the “moral fellowship of mankind should know no boundaries”. This correlates with his idea of natural law; a natural fellowship that exists amongst all humans, which nature has provided for all men to treat each other morally. There are commonalities amongst all men, no matter if he is a sea away, and Cicero believed that each warrior to act justly was to uphold that concept. Cicero also stressed that the fighting during war must always be towards an honorable end.

He notes that a just warrior does not think of self-interest saying, “However, if the loftiness of spirit that reveals itself amid danger and toil is empty of justice, if it fights not for the common safety but for its own advantages, it is a vice.” He also values reasons that make decisions over courage that incites battle. A just warrior “fights on behalf of fairness”. A just warrior must also be able to balance reason with his cause. Cicero notes, “However, we must exercise the body, training it so that when it has to attend to business or endure hard work it is able to obey counsel and reason. Just because a warrior is fighting for a noble cause, does not mean he can lose sight of the just reasoning behind it and we must train our soldiers so that this doesn’t happen. The My Lai massacre on March 16th, 1968 was the mass murder of somewhere between 347 to 500 innocent, unarmed village people of Southern Vietnam. The United States military men of the Company C “Charlie” of the 1st Battalion committed the acts that included mass murder, mutilation, ransacking and rape. Lead into the area under a false indication of dense enemy activity, they were met with women, children, and the elderly.

Although the men had not yet suffered any direct attack in the first months of their deployment, they had suffered mines and booby traps, losing many men. The company was given orders by Captain Ernest Medina, who clearly stated that all those who were enemies or seemed like enemies were to be taken down. The company lead by Second Lieutenant William Calley then went in to the village, and began firing at what was supposed to be dangerous enemies. The violence escalated and the brutality did not stop.

Several men participated, several men stood back and watched. Only one man, Warrant Officer Scout Hugh Thompson who had spotted the massacre from a helicopter, sacrificed his life and the lives of his men to stop the atrocities. To this day, only one man has been convicted of war crimes and only served three years of house arrest. The others were left alone. Today, the My Lai Massacre is looked at as the epitome of the Vietnam War- a mistake, a terrible time of confusion, an example of the psychological traumas of war.

Most importantly, it is an example of how easily dishonor can cloud moral reasoning. These men were angry to have lost their fellow brothers in mines and booby traps, they were scared, they were starving, and they were not in their natural mind. A soldier states of that day, “Yes I am ashamed, I’m sorry and I’m guilty but I did it…If you go to war, those are the types of things that happen and can happen to anyone…It can happen, it happens, that is what war is…War is war, it’s killing all type of ways. When a dishonor was done to them, when dishonor is all around them, dishonor is what they begin to do too. Today the dishonors of war range from obedience to a terrible leader, to dehumanizing the enemy so inhumane actions suddenly seem right. In the case of the My Lai Massacre, many soldiers involved to this day claim that they were just following orders and that their loyal obedience overtook their moral compasses. One soldier noted, “At no time it ever crossed my mind to disobey or to refuse to carry out an order that was issued by my superiors. I shudder to think what the repercussions would have been…”

The soldiers were fighting in a perceived honor and loyalty to the United States. The need to please and obey took the pressure off of their actions, because someone else was dictating them. In other instances, soldiers would dehumanize their enemy to get through the idea of killing them. Cicero notes that this is entirely wrong according to natural law: “Perhaps we should examine more thoroughly what are the natural principles of human fellowship and community.

First it is something that is seen in the fellowship of the entire human race. For its bonding consists of reason and speech, which reconcile men to one another, through teaching, learning, communicating, debating, and making judgments, and unite them in a kind of natural fellowship. It is this that most distances us from the nature of other animals. To them we often impute courage, as with horses or lions, but we do not impute them justice, fairness or goodness. For they have no share in reason and speech. ”

Cicero states that since we are all of peech and reason, we are all human. However, dehumanization, where one dehumanizes their enemy and views them as some sort of animal, is a common strategy and conflict in today’s wars. The Holocaust, the Bosnian and Rwandan genocide are all examples of dehumanization. The Nazi soldiers truly believed that they were ridding their country of “vermin”, and the Hutu soldiers considered the Tutsi people to be “cockroaches”. Similarly, soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War referred to their enemies as animals, less than human and the massacre is a clear example of that.

Perhaps the rules have changed since wars progressed through time. Today’s atrocities don’t seem as atrocious to us as they would to Plato, Aristotle and Cicero because we have become accustomed to them, as they were accustomed to having a culture of war. Peter Olsthoorn stated in his book “Just Warriors” “Soldiers, although far from selfish, cannot be expected to perform their duties from a sense of duty alone. Both inside and outside the sphere of war, only the perfectly wise act virtuously for virtue’s sake.

However those perfectly wise are rare, Cicero himself claimed that he had never met such a person…For the not so wise, that is, most of us, a little help from the outside, consisting of the judgments of our peers and our concern for our reputation, can be of help. ” Looking back on the massacre, many men are quick to point out the outside factors that effected their behavior such as their loyalty, fear, confusion, lack of direction, even a blank blackout. One man notes, “We felt what we were doing was right, and after it was over we knew it was wrong. These soldiers eventually are able to reflect. However at the time, they were worried for themselves, acting out of vengeance and self interest, therefore were not leading an honorable life. Officer Thompson exhibited true courage of a just warrior. He saw that the bodies consisted of mostly babies, children, women and the elderly, without a threatening combatant or weapon in sight. After several failed radio transmissions, he ordered his men to land on sight and aim their guns at their fellow American soldiers.

He ordered that they would hold their positions against their bothers until they had agreed to a cease-fire and stopped the massacre. While doing this he walked out unarmed, entered a ditch and rescued a woman and her child. Officer Thompson knew what he was getting himself into. He recognized that his loyalty to his fellow Americans was the wrong kind of loyalty. He pushed past fear and fought for a noble cause, to save the people. He did not shoot anyone down to do it, but was prepared to do so to end an injustice. Thompson used honorable means to obtain an honorable end.

He illustrated every of the five points Aristotle noted a “just warrior” should be. He was courageous but not reckless, and he proved that in an unjust war, in and unjust setting, justice still prevails. Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero believe that a warrior’s honor is the ability to exercise restraint under chaotic and emotionally taxing experiences. It is not simply standing firm in battle or committing acts of heroic bravery. It is recognizing the differences between combatant and noncombatant, between the innocent and the guilty and acting with reason when reason is hard to find.

Today, it is about escaping the dishonor. War is about entering with the right reasons and leaving with the correct ends. War can make an honorable man, a dishonorable one and the three philosophers explain that real courage, is tackling war itself and not falling victim to the demons. If they had been alive at the time their general philosophy would have stood, the advancing atrocities just would have made it that much harder and much more honorable to be a real, true “just warrior”.


Reichberg, Gregory M. Henrik Syse, and Endre Begby, eds. The Ethics of War: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Blackwell, 2006. Print.

Baker, Deane-Peter. Just Warriors, Inc. London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011.

Unknown. "The My Lai Massacre. " PBS. PBS, 29 Mar. 2009. Web. 05 Oct. 2012.

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