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Military Pragmatism According to St. Thomas More


Thomas Flichy de La Neuville1

It has been much debated whether Utopia’s peculiar chapter on war expressed the naivety of Sir Thomas or his cynicism. The discussions on this topic have been uninterrupted since 1516 and were particularly fierce in the 1930’s, dividing British scholars from German academics.2 Applying this very chapter to contemporary conflicts changes the perspective and portrays Thomas More as a pragmatist. If military offensives should be avoided by all means, wars, once declared, should be fought – according to Saint Thomas – without too many scruples.

Would Thomas have justified humanitarian interventions?

The author of Utopia felt that the Kingdom of England would be threatened, one day, by a plutocracy. “This your island, which seemed (…) the happiest in the world, will suffer much by the cursed avarice of a few persons.”3 Did Thomas More imagine that the plutocrats would spawn external conflicts for their own benefits? Nothing is less certain. In any case, the author had a sufficient understanding of the dangers of wars of conquest to condemn them. To this respect, the military expedition of the Achorians could be seen as a prefiguration of the American adventures in Iraq: “The Achorians, a people that lie on the south-east of Utopia, (…) long ago engaged in war in order to add to the dominions of their prince another kingdom, to which he had some pretensions by an ancient alliance: this they conquered, but found that the trouble of keeping it was equal to that by which it was gained; that the conquered people were always either in rebellion or exposed to foreign invasions, while they were obliged to be incessantly at war, either for or against them, and consequently could never disband their army.”4 Military offensives were described as a hateful and brutal thing: “[There] is nothing more inglorious than that glory that is gained by war.”5 Now, this didn’t prevent the Utopians from preparing themselves for potential invasions. Thomas More even introduced an interesting exception: war would be justified to defend “their friends from any unjust aggressors,” or, “in compassion, assist an oppressed nation in shaking off the yoke of tyranny.” Would this be the early justification of humanitarian interventions in Syria and Libya? Let us not go that far. In effect, the author of Utopia was careful to prefer political solutions to wars.6 This is why standing armies were seen by Thomas More as a waste of money and a danger.7

The forefather of targeted killings

Having been fierce in the interdiction of military offensives, we could have expected Saint Thomas to be mild in the way to fight a defensive war. The reverse can be observed. Our philosopher took pain to explain how the selected killing of the enemy could be encouraged. The main target was the Prince himself: as soon as the Utopians declare war, “they take care to have a great many schedules that are sealed with their common seal, affixed in the most conspicuous places of their enemies’ country. This is carried secretly, and done in many places all at once. In these they promise great rewards to such as shall kill the Prince, and lesser in proportion to such as shall kill any other persons who are those on whom, next to the Prince himself, they cast the chief balance of the war.” Secret and simultaneous covert actions are, thus, necessary. One of the advantages of these operations is that they would spread fear and distrust amongst the enemies.8 These targeted killings were seen as a lesser evil than war itself: “They think it likewise an act of mercy and love to mankind to prevent the great slaughter of those that must otherwise be killed in the progress of the war, both on their own side and on that of their enemies, by the death of a few that are most guilty; and that in so doing they are kind even to their enemies, and pity them no less than their own people, as knowing that the greater part of them do not engage in the war of their own accord, but are driven into it by the passions of their prince.”9  Actions of influence were also possible: “If they cannot disunite them by domestic broils, then they engage their neighbours against them, and make them set on foot some old pretensions, which are never wanting to princes when they have occasion for them.10 The elimination of spies was even foreseen.11

When Thomas More advocated proxy wars

All these covert actions were possible in so far as the Utopians had been careful enough not to run into debt. Otherwise, their soldiers would have naturally become the mercenaries of their creditors. These things can happen when sovereign funds buy your debt and slightly modify the line of your foreign policy, but Utopia, a world creditor, could afford having mercenaries. Let us listen to More on this particular point: “For besides the wealth that they have among them at home, they have a vast treasure abroad; many nations round about them being deep in their debt: so that they hire soldiers from all places for carrying on their wars; but chiefly from the Zapolets, who live five hundred miles east of Utopia. They are a rude, wild, and fierce nation, who delight in the woods and rocks, among which they were born and bred up. They are hardened both against heat, cold, and labour, and know nothing of the delicacies of life.”12 Are they living in Afghanistan by any chance? Maybe not insofar as the Utopians “pay higher than any other.” Then, Utopia must be Saudi Arabia and the Zapolets, the Colombian ex-Special Forces. Are we quite sure? “The Utopians hold this for a maxim, that as they seek out the best sort of men for their own use at home, so they make use of this worst sort of men for the consumption of war.13 We are mistaken again.

In any case, the Utopians, who do not like to wage war and prefer targeted killings and mercenaries when it comes to defending their friends, have excellent weapons. From where do you think the Russian Nicholas Yagn got his inspiration when he invented the first exoskeleton? Thomas More, himself, naturally: “their armour is very strong for defence, and yet is not so heavy as to make them uneasy in their marches; they can even swim with it.”14 What is delicious about British creativity is that it irrigates first its best enemies.

1. Professor in Saint-Cyr’s military academy – France; Research Professor at IWP

2. Shlomo Averi, « War and Slavery in More’s Utopia », Cambridge, 1962.

3. Thomas More, Utopia, London, Planet, 1518, p. 27.

4. Thomas More, op. cit., p. 43.

5. Ibid. p. 140.

6. “They would be both troubled and ashamed of a bloody victory over their enemies; and think it would be as foolish a purchase as to buy the most valuable goods at too high a rate. And in no victory do they glory so much as in that which is gained by dexterity and good conduct without bloodshed. In such cases they appoint public triumphs, and erect trophies to the honour of those who have succeeded; for then do they reckon that a man acts suitably to his nature, when he conquers his enemy in such a way as that no other creature but a man could be capable of, and that is by the strength of his understanding.”

7. “In France there is yet a more pestiferous sort of people, for the whole country is full of soldiers, still kept up in time of peace (if such a state of a nation can be called a peace); and these are kept in pay upon the same account that you plead for those idle retainers about noblemen: this being a maxim of those pretended statesmen, that it is necessary for the public safety to have a good body of veteran soldiers ever in readiness. They think raw men are not to be depended on, and they sometimes seek occasions for making war, that they may train up their soldiers in the art of cutting throats, or, as Sallust observed, ‘for keeping their hands in use, that they may not grow dull by too long an intermission.’ But France has learned to its cost how dangerous it is to feed such beasts.”

8. By this means those that are named in their schedules become not only distrustful of their fellow- citizens, but are jealous of one another, and are much distracted by fear and danger; for it has often fallen out that many of them, and even the prince himself, have been betrayed, by those in whom they have trusted most.

9. Thomas More, op. cit., p. 145.

10. Ibid. p. 145.

11. Ibid. p. 153.

12. Ibid. p. 146.

13. Thomas More, op. cit., p. 147.

14. Ibid., p. 152.