• Augustine;
  • just war;
  • preemptive war;
  • preventive war;
  • Third Punic War;
  • De libero arbitrio;
  • City of God;
  • restorative justice


  1. Top of page
  3. 1. Augustine and the Case of Preemptive Self-Defense
  4. 2. Augustine and the Case of Preventive War
  5. 3. Justice and the Aims of War
  6. 4. Implications for Anticipatory Self-defense

While Michael Walzer's distinction between preemptive and preventive wars offers important categories for current reflection upon the Bush Doctrine and the invasion of Iraq, it is often treated as a modern distinction without antecedent in the classical Christian just war tradition. This paper argues to the contrary that within Augustine's corpus there are passages in which he speaks about the use of violence in situations that we would classify today as preemptive and preventive military action. While I do not claim that Augustine makes an explicit distinction between the two types of war (such would be anachronistic), I will argue that based on examinations of De libero arbitrio I.v.11–12 and De civitate Dei I.30 Augustine's discussions of hypothetical cases or actual wars in history provide insights helpful for contemporary reflection on preemptive and preventive wars.

in his classic work,Just and Unjust Wars,Michael Walzer questions the circumstances in which states may “rightly defend themselves against violence that is imminent but not actual” (1977, 74). In order to set limits on wars fought as anticipatory self-defense, he offers the now well-known distinction between preemptive war and preventive war. A preemptive war is fought only in situations where a would-be aggressor has exhibited “hostile acts short of war” that suggest an intent to attack accompanied by military preparation that makes the intent a “positive danger” (1977, 81). The classic example of a preemptive war is the Arab–Israeli Six-Day War of 1967 (Walzer 1977, 84).1 A preventive war, by contrast, differs from a preemptive war in that while there may be a possible future threat, there is no imminent threat or vulnerability. The goal of preventive war is to prevent another nation from gaining a geopolitical advantage that would break the balance of power. Such a geo-strategic advantage might be the prelude to political blackmail and/or hostile action. Ultimately, Walzer deems preventive wars to be unjust because they try to anticipate threats, which are far enough removed from the present as to be largely hypothetical, rather than clear and present. Since the invasion of Iraq in the Spring of 2003 by the US- and British-led coalition, scholars in the fields of international law, foreign policy, and social ethics have been reconsidering the validity of preventive war as a form of anticipatory self-defense (Lang 2003).

While Christian ethicists are well aware of Walzer's distinction, the assumption is that these categories are largely modern constructs and that the classical just war tradition as represented by Ambrose, Augustine, Aquinas, and Grotius has little, if anything, to say that has any bearing on the question of anticipatory self-defense (Casey et al. 2004; Johnson 2005, 43–45). However, within the Christian just war tradition, Augustine of Hippo provides a resource for reflection on the limits of anticipatory military action. Although it would be anachronistic to say that Augustine makes an explicit distinction between preemptive and preventive war, I will show that at various places throughout his corpus Augustine describes and comments upon hypothetical scenarios and actual military conflicts that modern theorists would classify as either preemptive or preventive wars. In these cases, as with most of his passages dealing with what later authors call ius belli, Augustine's treatment is brief and ad hoc but highly suggestive. Drawing upon his detailed knowledge of Roman history, he offers a critique of the justice and injustice in the earthly city, particularly the role of war in transforming the Republic into a colossal empire. What is illuminating in these discussions, and possibly helpful for modern reflection on preemption and prevention, is his appeal to standards of justice to assess legitimate occasions for military intervention. In order to explore this thesis, we need to look first at Augustine's treatment of preemptive self-defense in De libero arbitrio; second, at his assessment of preventive wars in De civitate Dei; and finally, at the place of these passages in the larger context of Augustine's views of justice and war.

1. Augustine and the Case of Preemptive Self-Defense

  1. Top of page
  3. 1. Augustine and the Case of Preemptive Self-Defense
  4. 2. Augustine and the Case of Preventive War
  5. 3. Justice and the Aims of War
  6. 4. Implications for Anticipatory Self-defense

Augustine's earliest discussion related to just war theory is found in Book I of De libero arbitrio. Written in Rome shortly after his baptism and before his return to North Africa, De libero arbitrio is a treatise neither on political theory in general nor on just war theory in particular. Rather, his discussion of the rights of soldiers or civilians to take the life of an attacker or would-be assailant arises as Augustine and his interlocutor, Evodius, seek to distinguish good desire from culpable cupidity. Having identified cupiditas as that which makes adultery a sin, Augustine inquires whether it might also be the cause of other sins, such as murder. Although cupiditas and fear (metus) appear to be opposites—cupiditas desiring and fear shunning—the fear that drives a man to murder someone in order to escape injury or death is a form of cupiditas, the desire to preserve life and the goods of life. This desire and the accompanying fear are natural and so not inherently wrong. Does this mean, Augustine wonders, that a slave who kills his master out of fear of being tortured is not guilty of murder? Augustine and Evodius agree that it is murder even though his motive, fear of death and torture, is not itself a wrong desire. Why then is this killing criminal? For Augustine it is not enough to say that the slave violated the law; that is merely an appeal to authority and does not explain why the law is just. Augustine's answer: All people, good and bad alike, share the desire to be free from fear. Augustine explains the difference between the two:

Augustine: To desire to live without fear (sine metu) is characteristic of all men, not only of the good but also of the bad. But there is this difference. The good seek it by diverting their love from things which cannot be had without the risk of losing them. The bad are anxious to enjoy these things with security (securitate) and try to remove hindrances (impedimenta) so as to live a wicked and criminal life which is better called death. Evodius: I am recovering my wits. Now I am glad to have learned what culpable cupidity (culpabilis cupiditas) is, which we also call lust. Evidently it is love of things which one may lose against one's will [1953, 118, De lib. arb. I.iv.10].

Augustine's characterization of the bad as seeking freedom from fear by criminal means does not answer the question, but merely falls back to the judgment of authority of legal precedents. The critical point, however, is his conclusion that the good seek to be free from fear by loving that which cannot be taken against one's will. Thus the slave who murders his master is motivated by culpable cupiditas because he loves what can be taken from him against his will, namely life, health, and comfort. Augustine does not here name the proper object of human desire—that which cannot be taken away from us against our will. Ultimately he will identify it simply as the good will itself, that is, willing the good at all times. Later in De libero arbitrio, in a move characteristic of his earlier optimism about the autonomy of human desire and will, he goes so far as to assert that since fulfilling one's desire is to will the good, it is always within our power. Happiness can be achieved by a simple act of will.2

The logic of Augustine's view that the good person can satisfy her desire to be free from fear by loving only that which cannot be taken from her against her will should lead him toward pacifism.3 That is, if the only thing that one truly loves is that which cannot be taken from her, namely her good will, then no assassin or robber or invading army could threaten to deprive her of that which she loves. Therefore, she would not be motivated to kill the brigand who threatens her life any more than she would kill a mere pickpocket for the trivial offense of pinching her wallet. This, however, is not Augustine's conclusion.

Conscious of the “pacifist” implication of his view of right love, Augustine turns directly to the question of killing an attacker or would-be assailant. He writes,

Augustine: I think we ought first to discuss whether an attacking enemy (hostes inruens) or an assassin lying in ambush (insidiator sicarius) can be slain in defense of life or liberty or chastity, without lust (sine ulla libidine). Evodius: How can I possibly think that men are void of lust (libidine) who fight for things which they can lose against their will (inviti)? If they cannot lose them, what need is there to go so far as to kill a man on their count? Augustine: Then the law is not just which gives the traveler authority to kill a brigand lest he should himself be killed by him. Or the law that allows any man or woman to slay, if he can, anyone who comes with intent to rape, even before the crime has been committed (ante inlatum stuprum) … . Shall we dare to say that these laws are unjust or rather null and void?[1953, 118, De lib. arb. I.v.11].

There are two key things to notice in this passage. First, when Augustine poses the question of whether one can kill in self-defense without lust (sine ulla libidine), he is concerned not just with the question of the psychological state of the person attacked—is she driven to kill out of hatred or the “blood lust” of revenge? He is also concerned with culpable cupidity. That is, does the soldier's motive for drawing blood arise from the love of transitory goods (which can be taken against our will) rather than the proper love of transcendent goods, which are invulnerable to attack? Evodious's reply, which repeats Augustine's definition of proper love, suggests that this is precisely the concern, “How can I possibly think that the men are void of lust who fight for things which they can lose against their will?”

The second, and for our purposes the more important point, is that Augustine poses the issue in terms of killing in self-defense against ongoing attack but also in the case of killing an assassin lying in ambush. Augustine here allows for preemptive action to be taken in the face of an imminent attack. He contrasts the onrushing enemy (hostes ruens), who is in the act of attacking, with the insidiator sicarius, that is, a sicarius, one who is intent upon killing but as an insidiator, one who has not yet but is preparing to attack. His appeal to legal precedent includes the case of a man or woman's killing a would-be rapist. It is unclear whether the would-be rapist, like the brigand, has in fact assaulted his victim or, like the assassin lying in wait, has not yet attacked but has acted so threateningly as to make the victim perceive that he or she is about to be assaulted. The key, however, is Augustine's express comment that the would-be attacker is killed “even before the crime has been committed.”

Augustine offers in brief two cases that are in principle analogous to Israel's attack upon Egypt and Syria in the 1967 war. In all three cases (the assassin in ambush, the would-be rapist, and the combined Arab armies), their present actions (and perhaps also their past actions) are evidence of an imminent threat. Preemption is merely an active, rather than passive, form of self-defense based on one's reading of the circumstances. While this passage is quoted as evidence that Augustine in De libero arbitrio rejects the killing in self-defense, it is not clear that this is the correct answer to Augustine's question (Cahill 1994, 69).4 First, the words of Augustine the character in the dialogue should not be taken to be Augustine the author's opinion. Rather they must be read in the context of his exchange with Evodius. As we shall see below, Evodius does not agree with Augustine that laws that allow killing in self-defense are unjust and so null and void. Second, although Augustine subsequently repudiates any suggestion that the Christian as a private citizen may kill even in self-defense, he never rules out the possibility that a soldier in fulfillment of constabulary duties might take the sort of preemptive action described here in De libero arbitrio.5

To be sure, it is always difficult to extrapolate from some scenarios involving individuals to state policy. After all, killing an assassin hiding among the rocks entails far less chance of collateral deaths than when one nation preemptively attacks another. Yet what is particularly interesting, and potentially applicable to modern discussions of preemptive military action, is the principle upon which Augustine justifies the killing of a would-be attacker “even before the crime has been committed.” That principle is the preservation of relative justice by preventing a greater injustice. Speaking through Evodius, Augustine says,

It is, however, evident that this law is well-prepared against such an accusation, for in the state where it is in force it allows lesser evil deeds to prevent worse being committed. It is much more suitable that the man who attacks the life of another should be slain than he who defends his own life; and it is much more cruel that a man should suffer violation than that the violator should be slain by his intended victim [1953, 118, De lib. arb. I.v.12].

Augustine's justification for preemption is one of justice. Lesser evils may be necessary to avoid greater evil. There are two ways in which the greater evil may be identified. First, there is a utilitarian standard. The death of the one brigand is preferable to the deaths of many innocent travelers that will occur if the brigand is not stopped. Second, there is the standard of justice by which each man should receive his due. The killing of the brigand is an evil but it is preferable to allowing the death of an innocent man. The death of the traveler is a greater evil precisely because the traveler is innocent and so does not deserve death. The death of the brigand is a lesser evil because he is already guilty by virtue of his evil intention. The greater evil to be avoided is allowing injustice to be perpetrated.

The principle of acting to prevent injustice is helpful in thinking about iustum bellum because it serves as a counterpoint to the problematic criterion of proportionality. Traditionally, one of the major problems with preemptive military action in the context of just war theory is that it bypasses the criterion of proportionality. The principle of proportionality establishes the limit of one nation's response to an attack by another nation. The retaliation must be proportional to the injury sustained. In the case of preemptive military action, however, no injury has yet been inflicted by the would-be attacker. Since no “crime” has yet been committed, one cannot easily establish a proportional degree of retaliation. In neither this passage nor elsewhere in his corpus is Augustine concerned with the criterion of proportionality. One does not know if the highwayman is simply going to rob the traveler or cut his throat. If it is the former, then killing the highwayman is disproportionate to the intended crime. Indeed, one cannot know exactly what the attacker will do. Nor does an attacker himself always know ahead of time precisely how much force he will and will not use. The same is true of rape. Yet Augustine is not concerned with this problem; rather his argument focuses upon protecting the innocent from suffering unjustly and more importantly preventing the would-be aggressor's carrying out his unjust will.

To be sure, Augustine is not explicitly offering a theory of preemptive attack within a just war doctrine. Rather, in the context of discussing the morality of killing by civilians and soldiers alike, he has described preemptive action on the part of individuals. Although he does not employ a “domestic” analogy to establish rules of international law or military engagement, this passage provides two principles that may be helpful in contemporary reflection about preemptive war. First, the appearance of hostile actions suggesting an imminent attack provides the casus belli, or warrant for anticipatory self-defense. Arguably, the case Augustine puts forward in De libero arbitrio is closer to the narrow standard for preemptive action set by the legalist paradigm than is Walzer's extrapolation from the 1967 War. Second, Augustine justifies the preemptive measure on the grounds that the would-be aggressor is already guilty by reason of intent to attack and that the greater injustice of an innocent party's suffering injury should be prevented. Ultimately, he does not explain why his earlier understanding of good desire as loving only that which cannot be lost against one's will does not imply that one should allow a highwayman or assassin to take one's life. Society's need for justice does not negate the importance of acting with a good desire. Yet for the sake of justice, society may take preemptive action, not so much for the sake of defending and holding on to transitory goods, but for the sake of preventing injustice and its contagion. Therefore, killing a would-be attacker is just because the killing is motivated, not by the culpable cupidity of fear, but by a love of justice.

2. Augustine and the Case of Preventive War

  1. Top of page
  3. 1. Augustine and the Case of Preemptive Self-Defense
  4. 2. Augustine and the Case of Preventive War
  5. 3. Justice and the Aims of War
  6. 4. Implications for Anticipatory Self-defense

While the case may be made that Augustine's line of argument can provide justification for preemptive war, such a case cannot be made for preventive war. To be sure, Augustine does not use Walzer's language of “preventive war” any more than he does “preemptive war.” Yet in City of God, he comments on what might be classified as a preventive war—Rome's third and final war with Carthage. Between 218–202 BCE, Rome had been locked in war with Carthage, her great rival for dominance of the western Mediterranean. Under the command of Hannibal Barca, Carthaginian troops, along with Celtic and Spanish allies, inflicted devastating defeats on Rome's legions and plundered the Italian countryside for over a decade. After Scipio Africanus's victory over Hannibal at the Battle of Zama in 202 BCE, ending the Second Punic War, Rome imposed a harsh peace on Carthage: in addition to the loss of her Spanish colonies, which Scipio had conquered earlier in the war, Carthage was forced to give up her protectorate territories in North Africa, to surrender most of her triremes and all her war elephants, to pay an indemnity of 10,000 talents over fifty years, and finally to become a client state of Rome, not waging war without the permission of the Roman Senate. Carthage retained only its own territory, which today is the northern-most region of Tunisia. Rome had effectively eliminated Carthage both as a military threat to Italy and as a rival for hegemony in the Mediterranean. In the year 150 BCE, however, peace with Rome ended when Carthage sent an army of 25,000 infantry to expel the Numidian armies of King Masinissa (Carthage's neighbor to the west), which had invaded Carthaginian territory. Although Carthage suffered a harsh defeat at the hands of Masinissa, this defensive action without Rome's approval was a violation of the Treaty of Zama, giving Rome a casus belli and a pretext for beginning the Third Punic War.

There are two possible but very different explanations for Rome's declaring war on Carthage; yet by either interpretation, Rome's military action against Carthage is an example of a preventive war. First, one reading of the events of 150 BCE is that Carthage's attack upon the kingdom of Masinissa, plus dubious intelligence that Carthage was rebuilding her fleet of warships, confirmed Roman fears that Carthage was still a potential military threat to Rome. Cato's repeated cry, “Ceterum censeo delendam esse Cathaginem”—Carthage must be destroyed—no longer seemed like paranoid rhetoric. To many Romans in 150 BCE, Carthage had to be destroyed before it could rearm and pose a threat to Roman interests. A small but decisive war then might prevent a larger, more costly war with a less certain outcome in the future (Dorey and Dudley 1972, 158–59; Caven 1980, 270–71). Second, an alternative reading of the events leading up to the Third Punic War focuses on the possible threat from King Masinissa, not Carthage. Prohibited by the Treaty of Zama from defending itself without Rome's approval, Carthage was vulnerable to attack. Gradually, Carthage's colonies and land were effectively annexed by Masinissa. By the year 150 BCE, Carthage had lost around sixty percent of the territory it was allowed to retain under the Treaty of Zama. The likelihood from Rome's perspective was that Masinissa would in time subsume all of Carthage into his Numidian kingdom. Thus Rome's former enemy would be replaced with a new Numidian empire, which might threaten or rival Rome in the western Mediterranean. Thus Rome's conquest and destruction of Carthage in the Third Punic War prevented Mesinissa from expanding his territory and gaining the strategically valuable port of Carthage from which he could project force against Sicily and possibly Italy. Under this reading, Rome used Carthage's violation of the Treaty of Zama as the occasion to annex Carthage for itself before King Masinissa was able to claim it for himself (Hallward and Charlesworth 1954, 476). Either account of Rome's motives depicts the conflict as a preventive, rather than a preemptive war, since Carthage was in no military position to attack Rome or her Mediterranean colonies. Was this anticipatory war justified? For Augustine, the answer was “No.”

In City of God, Augustine rebuts pagans who blamed Christianity for the sack of Rome in CE 410. Augustine counters their charge by asserting that the seeds for Rome's decay began with the Third Punic War, thus predating the rise of Christianity. Citing Scipio Nasca's opposition to Cato's call for war against Carthage, Augustine explains the relationship between the final war with Carthage and the beginnings of Rome's decline:

The great Scipio…dreaded that this calamity might come upon [Rome]. For that reason he opposed the destruction of Carthage, Rome's Imperial rival at that time, and resisted Cato's proposal for its demolition. He was afraid of security, as being a danger to weak characters; he looked on the citizens as wards, and fear as a kind of suitable guardian, giving protection they needed. And his policy was justified; the event proved him right. The abolition of Carthage certainly removed a fearful threat to the state of Rome; and the extinction of that threat was immediately followed by disasters arising from prosperity [Augustine 1972, 42, De civ. Dei I.30].

Augustine does not view Carthage of 150 BCE as an imminent threat to Rome in the same way it was under Hannibal. Cato's demand for Carthage's demolition predated their failed attack on the Numidians. The war, therefore, was motivated not by a concern for Rome's immediate safety, but by a desire for complete security through the total and definitive elimination of Rome's historic adversary. But, says Augustine, freedom from fear through complete security is neither an attainable nor desirable goal of national policy. A modicum of fear is beneficial for the moral constitution of the state. A healthy dose of fear unites the citizens and promotes virtue by demanding self-sacrifice, vigilance, and courage. Peace and security untempered by fear allow the citizens to abandon caution and self-restraint and give reign to self-interest and the lust for power—precisely the personal ambition that led to the wars between Marius and Sulla, Pompey and Caesar, Antony and Octavian, that brought the Republic to an end. Augustine writes,

The Romans who in a period of high moral standards stood in fear of their enemies, suffered a harsher fate from their fellow citizens when those standards collapsed. And the lust for power, which of all human devices was found in its most concentrated form in the Roman people as a whole, first established its victory in a few powerful individuals, and then crushed the rest of an exhausted country beneath the yoke of slavery [1972, 42, De civ. Dei I.30].

Augustine here is drawing on the Roman historian Sallust (86–35 BCE) who, writing of the final days of the Republic, sought to trace the decline of Rome from its Golden Age (the pinnacle of which was Rome's victory over Hannibal). The decay of Rome and the abandonment of its republican constitution under Sulla's dictatorship begins, according to Sallust, with the elimination of Carthage in the Third Punic War. Although Augustine repeatedly appeals to Sallust to show that Rome's decline began long before the Aleric, he does not subscribe to Sallust's belief in a Golden Age of Roman virtus. Indeed, Augustine traces the lust for power characteristic of Rome's final campaign against Carthage all the way back to the birth of the Republic when Tarquin the tyrant was overthrown (1972, De civ. Dei II.18).6 Here Augustine's larger critique is that people do not use peace and security wisely to seek noble goods, but become morally complacent seeking base goods in excess.7

To be sure, he is not suggesting that fear should become the primary tool of statecraft and the means whereby the avarice and ambition of the citizens are kept in check. Rather he is concerned that our days must be lived out in a constructive tension between prosperity and adversity. Prosperity preserves hope so that we may persevere. Adversity tempers the optimism of prosperity lest we become triumphalistic or self-complacent. In his discussion of the church's affliction that results from heretics, Augustine says that God's providence allows the church to be disciplined by adversity so that it might learn patient endurance and benevolence toward its enemies. Adversity reminds the church that the true hope for peace lies not in this age but in the heavenly city to come (1972, 834, De civ. Dei XVIII.51).

Indeed, freedom from fear is not an earthly prospect, but an eschatological hope. For fear is inescapably the result of sin and its punishment, death. So Augustine concludes that the fear of death can never be completely overcome in this life. Even if human beings could attain apatheia by which one would not even feel timidity, such an anesthetized state is undesirable. Apatheia that seeks to be free from fear is not a virtue, but a form of escapism that denies the cause of fear, that is sin (1972, 564, De civ. Dei XIV.9). In fact, the struggle against fear is part of God's training humanity in the way of true justice (Dodaro 1989, 347). Rather than escaping fear by eliminating its temporal causes, Augustine argues that we must live with our fear so as to place our hope upon the kingdom to come. There is a sense that living with fear is living with the reality of death and the threat of our judgment by God. Living with such knowledge cultivates humility. By contrast, the quest for security and freedom from fear is a quest for autonomy that refuses to live with the reality of our ultimate mortality and impending judgment before God.

Augustine, in condemning Rome's third war with Carthage, rejects a policy of preventive military action that falsely promises peace and the freedom from fear through eliminating points of geopolitical vulnerability. Such a policy rests upon the faulty assumption that peace and security can be achieved by guarding one's frontiers against external threat.

If, then, safety is not to be found in the home, the common refuge from the evils that befall mankind, what shall we say of the city? The larger the city, the more is its forum filled with civil lawsuits and criminal trials, even if that city be at peace, free from the alarms or—what is more frequent—the bloodshed, of sedition and civil war. It is true that cities are at times exempt from those occurrences; they are never free from the danger of them [1972, 859, De civ. Dei XIX.5].

Geopolitical vulnerability is not the same as an imminent threat of attack. In the latter case, fear of one's hostile neighbor is a reaction to a real danger that is clear and present. By contrast, going to war because of a perceived geopolitical vulnerability arises from the fear of an imagined threat that is neither clear nor present. Fear of a possible attack sometime in the future, therefore, does not warrant a preventive war.

3. Justice and the Aims of War

  1. Top of page
  3. 1. Augustine and the Case of Preemptive Self-Defense
  4. 2. Augustine and the Case of Preventive War
  5. 3. Justice and the Aims of War
  6. 4. Implications for Anticipatory Self-defense

Where do Augustine's arguments in De libero arbitrio and De civitate Dei fit within the context of his musings on the questions of politics, justice, and war? Paul Ramsey argued in War and the Christian Conscience that the appeal to the standard of justice to distinguish which side in a conflict is in the right is a departure from Augustine's account of iustum bellum understood in the context of his political theory (1961, 28). Because Augustine rightly recognized that the earthly city suffers from a divided will—“fratricidal love and brotherly love based on love of God are always commingled”—he was conscious, Ramsey argued, that neither side in a conflict can presume it is motivated by a pure sense of justice or that the other side is wholly devoid of justice (1961, 30–31). Therefore, he concluded, “The just-war theory did not rest upon the supposition that men possess a general competence…to declare (without sin's affecting one's judgment of his own nation's cause) one side or social system to be just and the others unjust” (1961, 32). Although Ramsey is correct that over time Augustine grew suspicious of wars launched under the banner of opposing or correcting injustice, nevertheless, from his earliest writings on war to his later thought in City of God, it is the categories of justice and injustice to which Augustine repeatedly appeals to describe the objective of war in a fallen world.8 Contrary to Ramsey's reading, Augustine does in fact distinguish between the justice of the cause and the justice or injustice of the motives for going to war. A soldier, who in carrying out his commander's order to kill is driven to slay his enemy by a lust for blood, is guilty of culpable cupidity and so is acting unjustly. Nevertheless, Augustine insists, the soldier's corrupt motive for killing does not render his commanding officer's order unjust (1953, 118, De lib. arb. I.v.12). As we shall see, the distinction between cause and motive is central in the City of God's critique of Rome's wars of imperial expansion.

To be sure, war can never bring about “true justice,” that is, the justice proper to the heavenly city whose populi are united by their common love and worship of God (Dodaro 2004, 10–19). Yet good men take up the duty to prosecute wars to punish or minimize injustice. In a famous passage in Contra Faustum, Augustine declares that the real evil in war is not death but the love of violence, the lust for power, desire for revenge, and hatred of one's enemy. The real evil of these dispositions is their inherent injustice. That is, they are instances of human will that do not conform to divine law.9 He then concludes, “It is generally to punish these things, when force is required to inflict punishment, that, in obedience to God or some lawful authority, good men undertake wars…” (1994c, 301, C. Faust 22.74). Writing twenty-six years later in City of God, he explicitly calls the evils to be punished by war injustice. In his narration of Rome's expansion from city-state to empire, he explains that good men should not seek territorial expansion but be content to live in small city-states and enjoy a peaceful and mutually beneficial coexistence with neighboring city-states. Indeed, Rome would have remained such had its neighbors “always acted with justice and never provoked attack by any wrong doing.” Since Rome's neighbors did not act according to justice, he concludes, “It would be worse that the unjust should lord it over the just, [therefore] this stern necessity may be called good fortune without impropriety” (1972, 154, De civ. Dei IV.15). The “stern necessity” in this context refers to Rome's wars against hostile neighbors (e.g., the Etruscans, the Samnites, the Celts of the Po Valley, Carthage under Hannibal) that resulted in Rome's territorial annexation. What is most significant for our purposes is Augustine's insistence that these wars were necessary to prevent the unjust from prevailing against the just. Here Augustine echoes the argument he used in De libero arbitrio to justify preemptive action. In neither place does Augustine appeal to a right of self-defense as justification for Rome's wars, but to justice. While it would be far better to remain small and unentangled with foreign alliances, these “stern necessities” are the burden of a state to oppose injustice among its neighbors. Augustine even says that these wars fought against unjust states were motivated by compassion. “But in the midst of all the horrors of the Second Punic War nothing was more lamentable, nothing more deserving an outcry of compassion than the destruction of Saguntum. This Spanish city, a firm friend of the Roman people, was overthrown for keeping faith with Rome…. During [Rome's] delays, that unfortunate city—a flourishing community, a cherished ornament of its country and a cherished ally of Rome—was exterminated by the Carthaginians, in eight or nine months” (1972, 119, De civ. Dei III.20). Here Augustine has modified the position he took in Contra Faustum. Rome is justified in going to war against Hannibal not solely for punitive reasons (i.e., not allowing Carthage to enjoy the benefits of its unjust conquest), but also out of sympathy for the citizens of Saguntum.10 Moreover, Augustine is critical of Rome for having delayed going to war—a delay that resulted in the “extermination” of an ally. If such sympathy is a legitimate motive for Rome's declaration of war against Carthage, we might see the seed of an Augustinian argument in favor of humanitarian interventions. Even in Book XIX of City of God, in which Augustine argues that true justice and true peace are not to be found in the earthly city but are the exclusive claim of the heavenly city, he maintains his earlier insistence that wars must be fought to oppose injustices.

But the wise man, they say, will wage just wars. Surely, if he remembers that he is a human being, he will rather lament the fact that he is faced with the necessity of waging just wars … for it is the injustice of the opposing side that lays on the wise man the duty of waging wars; and this injustice is assuredly to be deplored by a human being, since it is the injustice of human beings, even though no necessity for wars should arise from it [1972, 861, De civ. Dei XIX.7].

Here Augustine criticizes the Roman glorification of war. Far from exulting in battle, he says, the wise man is grieved by the necessity for war because he despises the injustice that requires taking up arms. Although Augustine draws a distinction between instances of injustice that necessitate military intervention and those that do not necessitate war, he repeats his view that war waged to oppose injustice is a political “necessity” and “duty” and that such a war is just.

At first hearing, Augustine's notion that a just war is prosecuted with the aim of combating injustice sounds purely punitive or retributive, that is, not allowing the aggressor to enjoy the spoils of its unjust conquest. Yet in his epistles to the civil magistrates Marcellinus and Count Boniface, he insists that a just war must also seek restorative justice, that is, reestablishing peaceful and amiable relations with one's defeated enemy. Offering a word of pastoral counsel to Count Boniface, Augustine explains that the Christian magistrate exercises his imperium only from necessity in order to gain or maintain peace rather than other material benefits. Therefore the magistrate must “cherish the spirit of a peacemaker, that, by conquering those whom you attack, you may lead them back to the advantages of peace.” In other words, the Christian proconsul preserves the “spirit of a peacemaker” whom Jesus blessed by waging war with the sole objective of securing peace. Augustine goes on to explain the character of the peace that is sought: “Let necessity, therefore, and not your will, slay the enemy who fights against you. As violence is used toward him who rebels and resists, so mercy is due to the vanquished or the captive, especially in the case in which future troubling of the peace is not to be feared” (1994b, 554, Epistle 189, 6).11 Thus the Christian magistrate who deploys his legions against an enemy to redress an injustice and to restore peace secures future peace, not by annihilating his enemy but by showing clemency to the defeated. Therefore, the Christian magistrate prosecutes the war, not merely with the goal of reestablishing peace, but with objectives both military and political that will bring about amiable and just relations when the war is over. Drawing on the analogy of the loving father who must discipline his disobedient son, Augustine insists that painful correction is not incompatible with a disposition of love. By extension, therefore, the Christian commonwealth will go to war with the goal of defeating its enemy in order to establish a just order and relationship among neighboring states. “On this principle … even its wars themselves will not be carried on without the benevolent design that, after the resisting nations have been conquered, provision may be more easily made for enjoying in the peace the mutual bond of piety and justice” (1994a, 485, Epistle 138, 5.14). Augustine does not sanction the just war fought merely to restore the status quo ante bellum. Rather the mercy of war is that it seeks to change the character of the defeated power so as to enable it to become a just government.

At the same time that Augustine maintains that the magistrate acts under necessity as God's agent in punishing injustice and restoring a just order among the various tribes and states, he offers in City of God a harsh critique of Rome's going to war ostensibly for the sake of justice. Although its territorial expansion was willed by God, Rome prosecuted these wars—even those where the cause was just—not out of a sense of “stern necessity” but out of a love of honor and glory (1972, 179, De civ. Dei, preface). Such desire for glory was as influential in the early days of the Republic as in the later days after the destruction of Carthage and the assertion of Roman hegemony over the Mediterranean. Despite the austere republican commitment to sacrifice for the common good, “By such immaculate conduct they laboured towards honours, power, and glory, by what they took to be the true way” (1972, 204–5, De civ. Dei V.15). Even then the wars of the early Republic were fought for glory; the cause of justice was a mere pretext for going to war.12 Although Rome's expansion was the result of “stern necessity,” good men, he says, do not rejoice in the expansion of empire but lament its necessity because they are saddened by the injustice of their neighbors that precipitated the conflict. Yet far from being grieved by injustice, Rome exulted in the opportunity for conquest that the injustice necessitated. In a wonderfully ironic passage, Augustine writes,

So if it was by waging wars that were just, not impious and unjust, that the Romans were able to acquire so vast an empire, surely they should worship the injustice of others as a kind of goddess? For we observe how much “she”[i.e., injustice] has given towards the extension of the Empire by making others wrong-doers, so that the Romans should have enemies to fight in a just cause and so increase Rome's power … . With the support of those two goddesses, “foreign injustice” and “victory”, the Empire grew, even when Jupiter took a holiday. Injustice stirred up causes of war; victory brought the war to a happy conclusion [1972, 154–55, De civ. Dei IV.15].

Ultimately, all these wars—even those fought by wicked men—seek peace, for peace is the common aim of the earthly and the heavenly cities. Yet peace that is sought and achieved through the assertion of dominion over other cities and tribes “to make all men their own” is, Augustine says, a form of pride that would usurp God's dominion. Such a peace, therefore, “hates the just peace of God, and loves its own peace of injustice” (1972, 868–69, De civ. Dei XIX.12).

This skepticism about the injustice of the Pax Romana reflects a shift in Augustine's political thought from his earlier writings. R.A. Markus has argued that in De libero arbitrio and Epistle 57 Augustine viewed the temporal law as grounded in a cosmic order that the chaotic forces of sin undermined. Therefore, war is society's way of preserving its grounding in God's universal order. Although for a short time he expressed optimism in Theodotius's support of Christianity against paganism, by the time of City of God, Markus argues, he lost confidence in the rationally ordered world and rejected the spread of a Christian empire as the church's historical destiny. Thus he becomes more dubious of war's ability to bring about even a facsimile of true justice. “The quest for justice and order is doomed, but dedication to the impossible task is demanded by the very precariousness of the civilized order …” (Markus 1983, 9). Augustine in fact did not subscribe to the progressivist view of history adopted by Origen, Eusebius, or Ambrose, who hoped that all nations might be united in a Christian empire that would promote the continual improvement of the human condition (Mommsen 1951, 360).13 Indeed, final peace and true justice belong to the heavenly city and are realized on earth only with the consummation of Christ's eschatological kingdom. Therefore, for Augustine, there is no place for triumphalistic enthusiasm for the Christian emperors (McLynn 1999, 29–45).14 On the contrary, he describes the Christian within the earthly city as peregrini—pilgrims or resident aliens—who possess neither citizenship, nor property, nor clan allegiance (TeSelle 1987, 275). Augustine's skepticism about attaining justice through war leads him neither to the pacifism of a Lactantius nor to a repudiation of empire. Indeed his view of the intricate relation of the will and the intellect leads Augustine to dismiss the idea that individuals or nations can have an “objective” view of self or national interests. Thus, he was aware of how the desire for glory and prideful autonomy can lead to military campaigns in the name of justice and peace (Elshtain 1995, 110–11). To understand the bishop of Hippo's view of war and justice we must stand within the palpable tension created in City of God between a sense of duty to oppose the chaotic forces of injustice with the sole aim of promoting a just peace and a sense of humility that recognizes that no peace brokered by human efforts (nonviolently or by means of sword) can grant permanent security and true justice.

4. Implications for Anticipatory Self-defense

  1. Top of page
  3. 1. Augustine and the Case of Preemptive Self-Defense
  4. 2. Augustine and the Case of Preventive War
  5. 3. Justice and the Aims of War
  6. 4. Implications for Anticipatory Self-defense

The value of reading Augustine on the problem of war lies not in the ill-founded hope of finding a set of criteria that can be lifted from the pages of these late fourth-/early fifth-century texts and applied immediately to twenty-first-century questions of when and how the state should use military force. Rather, we read Augustine to find new conceptual categories or new uses of traditional categories that may aid us in thinking through the social and ethical questions that confront us in our contemporary context. In the details of his arguments, Augustine draws to our mind the complexities of seeking and preserving a relatively just order in a fallen and frequently violent earthly city. Although I have serious doubts about the application of traditional just war rubrics to combating terrorists who have obliterated all distinction between combatant and noncombatant, I do believe that Augustine gives us categories useful for our reflection on the moral limits of anticipatory self-defense.

Such reflection, however, must take as its starting point, as does Augustine, the testimony of Scripture that God confers upon governing authorities (Christian and non-Christian) the duty to “bear the sword” in order to execute God's justice and wrath. Violent coercion is lamentable but necessary for keeping in check and punishing those private citizens as well as powers and principalities that would threaten the relative peace and justice of human society. Since war is a corrective of sin, any discussion of the just prosecution of war must begin with the ugly reality of violence and injustice that the war seeks to counter. The goal of just war theorizing, therefore, cannot be to sanitize war. Indeed, when Augustine expounds upon the conditions for a just war (in C. Faust), he offers a minimal list of basic criteria without any elaboration, explanation, or justification. Nor does he engage in the imaginative exercise of developing a rigid set of restrictions on the prosecution of the conflict in order to make it just by confining its brutality to combatants. As Ambrose before him, Augustine is more concerned about the just conclusion of hostilities so that through mercy to the defeated, the seeds of a just peace, rather than future war, are sown. Ultimately he is more concerned pastorally to explain to Christian magistrates how to exercise their imperium and yet as Christians, remain people motivated by the love of God and love of neighbor.

One question that should be asked is whether anticipatory defense is compatible with Augustine's models of punitive and restorative justice. Based on Augustine's insistence that fighting to defend perishable property is itself a form of culpable cupidity, it is hard to see how he could view defense of territorial integrity and the right of self-government to be a just war aim. Protection of the state and its citizens is not, however, incompatible with a commitment to justice, or more to the point, with an opposition to injustice (Langan 1984, 27, 33). An unprovoked and unwarranted attack motivated by a desire for power, revenge, or material/territorial gain qualifies as an injustice that governing authorities have a duty to prevent and punish by preemptive action if the circumstances warrant it. It is helpful to draw a distinction between the injustice of the would-be attacker and the injustice about to be suffered by the state that is attacked. In the case of a state that is preparing to attack another state without just casus belli, the would-be attacker is already guilty of injustice and, by Augustine's standards, deserves punishment.15 The injustice that should be prosecuted must be understood narrowly as the apparent intention of the aggressor. In this respect, preemptive action as punishing the unjust would-be aggressor is in accordance with Augustine's punitive model of just wars. Moreover, Augustine is rightly concerned about the injustice inflicted upon the innocent party. The people threatened by the hostile action of the would-be aggressor are soon to be victims. While their property and even their lives are, according to Augustine, transitory goods, nevertheless the injury and suffering that will result from their destruction or seizure by the hostile power is an injustice that, Augustine says, should be prevented. Thus anticipatory defense is just, not as the defense of transitory goods per se, but because it seeks to prevent an injustice being inflicted upon the state and people about to be attacked. Thus Augustine's argument in De libero arbitrio provides us with three standards of justice with which to evaluate war aims: punitive justice, preventive justice, and restorative justice.

Augustine's concern for restorative justice as the final objective of war has serious implications for any consideration of preemptive or preventive military action. The commitment to restorative justice is the test of the purity of the motives: was the war a mere pretext for gain or was it motivated by charity?16 If, as Augustine insists, the Christian magistrate maintains the spirit of a peacemaker from the war's beginning to its end, she must consider from the commencement of hostilities how best to establish a just peace at the end. The magistrate as peacemaker, therefore, must be concerned with both how the war is being prosecuted and how the peace after the war will be established. Augustine does not develop a notion of ius in bello other than to be concerned that soldiers are motivated to kill by necessity rather than blood lust. Yet, if a just peace rests upon goodwill between the former enemies, then the war should be carried out in a manner that treats the enemy, both combatants and noncombatants, with dignity and honor. Gestures of clemency and mercy, even in the midst of an unrelenting pursuit of the objectives necessary for the capitulation of the enemy, make explicit the benevolence that, Augustine insists, must be the attitude of a Christian commonwealth. Such benevolence during the war sows the seeds of goodwill and trust necessary for the restoration of an amiable and sustainable peace at the war's conclusion. Moreover, after the war, the victorious powers committed to restorative justice should be willing to aid in the rebuilding of homes and infrastructure of the defeated nation—along the lines of the Marshall Plan. Another component of restorative justice might be the deposing of a tyrannical regime and the establishment of a just government. The U.S. imposition of a democratic constitution upon Japan at the end of WWII would be an example. Indeed, the prosecution of the leaders of a tyrannical government for war crimes or crimes against humanity may, depending on the situation, be necessary for a just peace. Ultimately, Augustine's requirement of restorative justice and the heavy price tag such justice carries should restrain a nation from anticipatory measures in all but instances of significant and impending danger.17

Finally, Augustine reasonably limits anticipatory self-defense by excluding preventive wars that promise to secure “freedom from fear” by eliminating any or all potential threats to national security. Such an objective is, from Augustine's viewpoint, both impossible and immoral. It is impossible as well as dangerous because a nation can always imagine or anticipate possible points of vulnerability. Were preventive war a tool of foreign policy a nation could find itself fighting little wars all the time. Equally important, Augustine speaks prophetically, warning us that the fear that motivates preventive war may itself be a form of culpable cupidity. That is, the inappropriate love of what is transitory gives birth to the fear of loss and to the desire for power and autonomy to safeguard what we love. “Freedom from fear” cannot for Augustine be the goal of foreign policy. Instead, he reminds us that in this age we must live with the uneasy knowledge of the fragile and transitory nature of our existence. For only by living in the fearful reality of our vulnerability and our ultimate impotence to ensure the security of our lives can we be free from the self-complacency or will to power that themselves are the very cause of our mortality and fear.18

  • 1

    Anticipating an attack on both its southern and northern fronts, Israel on June 4, 1967 launched assaults against Egyptian forces and mobilized Syrian armored units. Although Walzer admits that Egypt's mobilization did not constitute an “instant and overwhelming necessity” for war, it made Israel so vulnerable to a potentially devastating attack at anytime as to justify preemptive action (1977, 84).

  • 2

    Book I of De libero arbitrio is an experiment in eclectic philosophy. Augustine synthesizes a Stoic deontological voluntarism with a Neoplatonic eudaimonism, that is, happiness lies solely within the individual's act of willing the good (I.xiii. 28–29). Since willing the good is entirely within one's control and is the source of our sense of fulfillment (eudaimonia), then we can maintain our happiness even in the midst of affliction. Augustine's synthesis seeks to overcome the problem of people, such as his mother, Monica, who, by Neoplatonist standards, do not possess the intellectual gifts and training to engage in that contemplative ascent to the One necessary for eudaimonia (O'Connell 1970, 53–54, 58–59). By the time he begins writing Books II and III of De libero arbitrio, Augustine has begun calling into question the autonomy of human beings to will their own happiness (Greer 1996, 471–86).

  • 3

    David A. Lenihan places Augustine's view of war within the pacifist tradition which, he claims, was characteristic of the early church before Constantine (1988, 37). Similarly, Robert L. Holmes argues that, although Augustine's political view leans toward a realist's position, Augustine subscribes to personal pacifism (1999, 324).

  • 4

    Cahill describes this as “a contradictory or at least anomalous text” (1994, 69).

  • 5

    See Augustine's Epistle 57.5, quoted in Markus 1983, 4; Holmes 1999, 336; Lenihan 1988, 44. In this same passage (De lib. arb. I.v.11), Augustine lays side by side the case of the traveler killing in self-defense and the soldier who is bound by law to kill the enemy as commanded by his superior. Such killing was not restricted to the battlefield, but included police actions in a provincial city, such as Jerusalem, or along the highways.

  • 6

    For Augustine's reliance on Sallust, see Paul C. Burns 1999, 105–15.

  • 7

    “Is it not because you are anxious to enjoy your vices without interference, and to wallow in your corruption, untroubled and unrebuked? For if you are concerned for peace and general prosperity, it is not because you want to make decent use of these blessings, with moderation, with restraint, with self-control, all with reference. No! It is because you seek an infinite variety of pleasure with a crazy extravagance, and your prosperity produces a moral corruption far worse than all the fury of an enemy” (De civ. Dei I.30).

  • 8

    James Turner Johnson contends that Ramsey recognized that Augustine's view of just war sought not “to justify the use of force to respond to prior use of force—one did not have to wait until the neighbor had been harmed to act—but to show how force was morally justified to prevent harm from being delivered” (2005, 116).

  • 9

    “While in men a right will is in union with the divine law … a bad man can do only what he is permitted, at the same time that he is punished for what he wills to do unjustly. Thus, in all the things which appear shocking and terrible to human feebleness, the real evil is the injustice; the rest is only the result of natural properties of moral demerit” (Augustine 1994c, 303, C. Faust 22.74).

  • 10

    Augustine in City of God does expand his definition of the evils of war from the evil dispositions enumerated in C. Faustum 22.74 to include human suffering: “So everyone who reflects with sorrow on such grievous evil [i.e., those in war], in all their horror and cruelty, must acknowledge the misery of them. And yet a man who experiences such evils, or even thinks about them, without heartfelt grief, is assuredly in a far more pitiable condition, if he thinks himself happy simply because he has lost all human feeling” (1972, 862, De civ. Dei XIX.7).

  • 11

    Augustine says that the Christian magistrate must cultivate the habits of patience and benevolence so that when he uses coercion and takes punitive measures against a malefactor or enemy it is out of benevolent severity for their welfare rather than with a vindictive spirit (1994a, Epistle 138, 5.14).

  • 12

    Commenting on the Samnite War, which was often cited as an instance of republican virtue overcoming humiliation, Augustine says, “But they [i.e., the Romans] did not love glory for the sake of justice; they appeared to love justice only for the sake of glory …” (1972, 217, De civ. Dei V. 22).

  • 13

    See Mommsen's comparison of Origen's and Eusebius's interpretations of Psalms 72:8 and Isaiah 2:4 on the coming of peace with Augustine's interpretation. Mommsen also points out that Augustine prefers to speak of the “development” (excursus) of history rather than its progress (procursus) (1951, 371–72). For a view of Augustine as a progressive, see O'Daly 1999.

  • 14

    See McLynn 1999 for a reconstruction of Augustine's on-the-ground contact with officials for the empire.

  • 15

    To be sure, there are other forms of injustice, such as domestic atrocities on the order of genocide or ethnic cleansing, that would warrant military intervention for the sake of punitive and restorative justice. But such a scenario is different than the injustice of a threatened invasion.

  • 16

    Louis J. Swift (1973) goes so far as to say that for Augustine the use of force to check wickedness is not the case of justice superceding charity, but “[the] restoration of justice in the public square as one important form of loving those who are oppressed” (378). Thus it is one form of charity superceding another.

  • 17

    During the three years of the Marshall Plan, the US spent $13 billion, which, when adjusted for inflation, would be around $100 billion today. See

  • 18

    I am grateful to Stanley Hauerwas, Jesse Couenhoven, Brian Stiltner, David Fink, and the anonymous reviewer for reading drafts of this essay and offering their helpful suggestions.


  1. Top of page
  3. 1. Augustine and the Case of Preemptive Self-Defense
  4. 2. Augustine and the Case of Preventive War
  5. 3. Justice and the Aims of War
  6. 4. Implications for Anticipatory Self-defense
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