Erasmus: 16th Century Pioneer of Peace

We thank Dr Peter van den Dungen [University of Bradford] who sent a copy of his paper: Erasmus: 16th Century Pioneer of Peace Education and a Culture of Peace, which is posted on the page opposite this column. 


Extracts from the 28 page document:

War is a barbaric and irrational institution which has no place in a society of reasonable human beings 

For Erasmus, a leading humanist, war was a barbaric and irrational institution which had no place in a society of reasonable human beings. 

Thou shalt not kill 

It had even less cause for existence in a society which claimed to be Christian. To quote him, ‘If there is anything in mortal affairs which should be approached with hesitancy, or rather which ought to be avoided in every possible way, guarded against and shunned, that thing is war . . . 

Erasmus’s condemnation of war is based on arguments drawn from both Humanism and Christianity which together makes his critique so powerful . . . a powerfully reasoned case which details the dangers, miseries, and uncertainties of war, which are contrasted with the blessings and certainties of peace . . . 

The benefits of peace always outweigh by far the miseries of war 

Although already in ancient Greece and Rome some writers had argued that the benefits of peace always outweighed by far the miseries of war, no one before Erasmus – or since – has drawn the contrast so overwhelmingly, so dramatically, so passionately and thus so convincingly. It seems that every generation has to learn anew this old lesson which has not been fully accepted even in an age of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. 

Indeed, the reality of war is often deliberately hidden, so as to prevent its real face from turning people against it. As soon as the Nazis came to power they closed down, and viciously destroyed, Ernst Friedrich’s Anti-War Museum in Berlin, which he had established after World War One precisely to keep alive the memory of the horrors of war, as a warning and lesson for future generations. 

Images showing the reality of war are suppressed 

A few years ago, the Indian authorities only allowed a travelling exhibition of the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation to be shown in the country on condition that certain panels were removed. This was at a time when both India and Pakistan had become nuclear weapons states and the danger of a nuclear confrontation between them loomed. 

The suppression by governments and the military of images showing the reality of war is also in evidence today as regards the war in Iraq. And when wars are (officially) declared over, their aftermath – in terms of destroyed lives, livelihoods, and landscapes – is likewise kept from view, or deliberately ignored.

‘War is sweet to those who do not know it’  

‘The good prince will never start a war at all unless, after everything else has been tried, it cannot by any means be avoided. If we were all agreed on this, there would hardly ever be a war among men.’ 

How can a leader justify making so many widows, so many grief-stricken households, so many childless old people? 

When the prince has made his calculations and reckoned up the total of all these woes (if indeed they could ever be reckoned up), then let him say to himself: “Shall I alone be the cause of so much woe? Shall so much human blood, so many widows, so many grief-stricken households, so many childless old people, so many made undeservedly poor, the total ruin of morality, law, and religion: shall all this be laid at my door?

Portrait: Erasmus, by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1523



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