The question of how do me men live in peace is an age-old delima. Two significant philosophers , Kant and Thucydides, make some very significant and contrasting views on the nature of peace and man’s propensity to go to war. Kant, writing during the 18th century , and Thucydides, an Athenian, commentating some 2000 years earlier during the 5th century BC are coming from very different experiences and historical settings. Kant postulates that it is reasonable to live in peace , in a republic where citizens self rule and have ultimate control of their own destiny, Thucydides, on the other hand, has a much more stark view of peace as he chronicles Athen’s maneuvering for power while oppressing a smaller, independent, city-state called Melos. If the possibility of perpetual peace between nations is our subject today then several assumptions must be addressed. First, what is the basis for the concept of morality. Second, who ultimately determines how or when a nation goes to war. Finally, how do nations resolve their difference to avoid war. The reality of perpetual peace, according to Kant, rest squarely on the republican form of government, with a constitution that is under girded by the rule of law, and Thucydides, in his Melian Dialogue, seems to postulate that only equal powers (nationally) can sue for peace; the strong will always want to subjugate the week.
Morality, or what is consider right in one’s eye, is a hotly debated subject and in the context of perpetual peace becomes the foundational assumption. Kant comes from the position that morality is reasonable and makes the argument that a constitutional republic is the best safeguard against wars because the citizenry (who are the government) has a self interest to not go to war because they will have to do the fighting themselves and it is expensive and costly. A non-republican form or a despotic form of government (aristocracy, autocracy or even a pure democracy) has no wholesale vested self interest and can use war as almost a “pleasure party” and justify it at a later date. From the gleanings of Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue, we may come to the conclusion that morality is more capricious. At one point in the discourse, the Athenians say that “ Of the gods we believe, and of men we know that by necessary law of their nature they rule where they can… and everyone else having the same power would do the same as we do.” The Athenians are trying to persuade the Melians, who are much weaker militarily, that it is their natural and moral right to rule. In other words we are big and you are small and right is determined by the strongest party.
A state of Perpetual peace, of course, is also contingent on who is pushing the buttons of war and who ultimately has the power to sue for peace. Kant makes it very clear that if the citizenry, in the form of a constitutional republic, have the power that it is in their self interest to remain in a state of peace. He makes the claim that if citizens are in control of their destiny then they will not go to war because they will have to fight and die, it will cause devastation, it will be costly and it will keep them in perpetual debt. He even addresses the stark differences between republicanism and democracy which he says is “necessarily a despotism, because the citizens make decisions about and, if need be against one.” Thucydides points out, from the Melian perspective, that “it is in the best interest to respect the laws of nations: you should not destroy what is our common protection, the privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right…”
The Athenians came back with the argument that subjugation was in the best interest of the empire. The Athenian logic is best describe by the statement “since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they want.” So effectively peace was contingent on the mercy of the stronger part which from the Athenian position would reflective negatively on Athenian power.
Finally, the last guard against going to war is how does each nation negotiate for peace. Do opposing nations have a means to resolve conflicts? Kant makes a strong argument that outside of a worldwide republic, which is utopian in nature, that peace is unattainable unless a “league of peace” is put into place much like our United Nations today. Each nation has its own laws and self interest and, to avoid conflicts, there must be a sort of clearing house to dialogue and come up with solutions. He states that “It will provide a focal point for a federal association among other nations that will join it in order to guarantee a state of peace among other nations that is in accord with the right of nations.” Thucydides, on the other hand, when dissecting the dialogue between the Athenians and the weaker Melians really has no way of preventing war.
The Athenians ultimately address the stark reality of the Melian position, “…your strongest argument depends on hope and the future, and your actual resources are too scanty as compared to those arrayed against you, for you to come out victorious.” There was no independent third party or league to assist the Melians to persuade the Athenians not to attack.
Kant says it best when he states “The homage that every nation pays to the concept of right proves, nonetheless, that there is in man a still greater, thought presently dormant, moral aptitude to master the evil principle in himself and to hope that others will also overcome it.” Though Kant makes a strong argument for a rule of law republic that has a compelling self interest to keep peace has effectively yet to reach its fullest potential. In contrast, the “strong subjugating the week” axiom that Thucydides lays out for us appears to be a much more realistic view of the state of perpetual peace. We are hopeful and our best hope is, of course, in having a realistic and effective means to resolve conflicts otherwise we will always fall prey to our depraved nature which is very well stated “Nature has given the strong the prerogative of making the weak obey them.”