Philosophers on War

  • Published

Philosophers on War, ed. Eric Patterson and Timothy Demy. Stone Tower Books, 2017. 374 pp.


Comprehensive and illuminating in its survey of legendary thinkers, Philosophers on War is a systematic collection of articles on the topic of war from the philosophical writings of classical antiquity in Plato’s Republic to the social liberalism of John Rawl’s Theory of Justice in the twentieth century. Eric Patterson, dean and professor at the Robertson School of Government at Regent University, and Timothy Demy, professor of military ethics at the US Naval War College, explore together the research of diverse authors, some of the most renowned philosophers, ethicists, and theologians in Western civilization. Significantly, the various contributors to this philosophical anthology provide the biographical highlights and sociopolitical contexts of each philosopher, and that historical reference lends the exposition of the philosopher’s theories greater clarity and understanding. Many of the philosophers considered do not review the subject of war primarily, and so the authors examine the theme of war as part and parcel of the philosopher’s larger agenda and main concepts. For instance, Joe Hatfield, professor of cybersecurity at the US Naval Academy, masterfully delineates the writings of Immanuel Kant and maintains that Kant’s three definitive articles on war are consistent with the laws of universal reason and the categorical imperative as formulated in his previous works such as Metaphysics of Morals.

While a compendium of articles on different philosophers over thousands of years might be vulnerable to glaring fragmentation, surprisingly, the articles true to their subject matter often presuppose the works of past and future philosophers with both cohesion and historical progression. Predominantly, the philosophers investigated the topic of just war and over time established the criteria of jus ad bellum (justice toward war), jus in bello (justice in war), and jus post bellum (justice after war). Whether it’s Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Augustine’s City of God, Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, Hugo Grotius’ Laws of War and Peace, or Jean Elshtain’s Just War against Terror, these philosophers conceptualized principles of the just war theory that have been adopted in The Hague and Geneva Conventions, laws of armed conflict, and rules of engagement observed by a majority of countries today.

Though most writings center around the formation of the just war tradition, one important contrast presented is the political realism advocated by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan, where outside the social contract of government there is no justice or parameters of right and wrong. In opposition to other political philosophers, Hobbes asserts that politics establishes ethics in contradistinction to those like Aristotle who advocate that ethics determines the end of politics. Michael Walzer, one of the most respected just war proponents in the twentieth century, convincingly argues against political realism and suggests that those who claim no moral grounds for war invoke some camouflaged appeal to a moral standard when they attempt to justify the rationale for their conduct of war with the logic and language of some moral baseline.

Robert Williams, professor of political science at Pepperdine University, recognizes the stellar legacy of Michael Walzer in the revival of just war theory and acknowledges the achievements of his arguments. Nevertheless, Williams questions why Walzer upholds the validity of the jus in bello criterion of noncombatant immunity but exonerates the British carpet bombing of German cities before July of 1942 as a “supreme emergency” or military necessity. Williams rightly contends that Walzer follows a rule-based approach to ethics but then departs from his basic philosophy to make utilitarian exceptions in the case of the fire-bombing before the strategic turn of the war and the entry of the United States into World War II. That critique, along with questions over Walzer’s Westphalian model of conventional warfare in the present era of asymmetric warfare by nonstate actors, raises issues about the viability of the just war tradition. This critique by Williams represents a poignant evaluation supported by a number of contemporary just war revisionists who address the emerging challenges of the twenty-first century by re-appropriating the important principles of the just war theory and adapting them to an evolving political landscape.

With outstanding scholarship and relevancy, Philosophers on War fulfills and surpasses the principal purpose that James Johnson, emeritus Distinguished Professor of Religion and Associate of the Graduate Program in Political Science at Rutgers University, outlines in his foreword to the work: “to provide a summary introduction to a broad and representative selection of influential Western thinkers on war, identifying why these thinkers are important and placing them in relationship to one another across the scope of history from the ancient world to the present.” To that end, Patterson and Demy ponder the wide spectrum of applied ethics in war and in the process tell the story of Western civilization through the philosophical discourse of pivotal figures in history. Suffice it to say, this newly released book would make an outstanding textbook for political philosophy, applied ethics, and military strategy courses for the service academies and other institutions of higher learning. All in all, Philosophers on War promises to provoke continuing reflection upon the ethics and philosophy of war in a day of changing perspectives and practices in such a way as to make war fighter, scholar, and policy maker better equipped to meet the escalating developments of warfare in the new millennium.

LCDR Edward Erwin, PhD, CHC, USN


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."