The Greatness and Decline of War (1898)

by Gustave de Molinari (1819-1912)

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I. – The Greatness of War.



The natural laws of the economy of forces and of competition. – How they combine to produce the phenomenon of war. – Difference between hunting and war. – Profits of war against competing species of animal. – Determining cause of man-hunting. – Human sacrifices. – Determining cause of war among competing varieties of the human species. – Profit which it yielded to the victor. – That it answered to the general and permanent interest of the species, in other words that it was useful.

GDW-I-1.1 It is in the nature of man, and in the conditions of existence with which he had to deal from the moment of his appearance on earth, that one must look for the causes of the phenomenon of war. Man is, like all other creatures, a being composed of matter and force. Like them again, he is obliged continually to renew the materials of his vitality. He renews them through the consumption of those materials and forces that he can assimilate. But these elements of his vitality he by no means obtains free of charge. Their discovery and appropriation requires a prior expenditure of vital forces. Now every expenditure of the forces constituting his vitality causes suffering or pain, whereas every acquisition of those same forces brings pleasure. If the total amount of vital forces expended exceeds the total amount acquired, the difference constitutes a loss; in the contrary case, a profit. It is with a view to an excess of pleasure over pain, represented by profit, that man engages his vital forces, that he labours and applies himself to obtain, in exchange for a minimum of expense, and so of profit, a maximum of the materials of vitality, and so of pleasure. Such is the natural law of the economy of forces, or the law of least effort, that governs the activity of man as well as that of all other creatures.
GDW-I-1.2 But to this law deriving from the nature of man there is joined another deriving from the nature of the environment from which he draws his means of existence, namely the law of vital competition. The phenomenon of war is the product of the combined operation of these two natural laws. And its rational basis is visibly apparent once one examines under what conditions the human species could survive.
GDW-I-1.3 Our globe is populated by an immense multitude of living creatures, some forming the contingent of vegetable species, and the rest that of the animal species. The vegetables are the materials of subsistence for the herbivorous animals, and these serve as food for the carnivorous ones. Man, who occupies the summit of the animal scale, feeds on both contingents: he is omnivorous. Consequently, he has from the beginning been in competition for subsistence with the herbivorous species, whose survival, like his, required seeking out the natural fruits of the soil, and with the carnivorous species, which lived, again as did he, by hunting the weaker varieties of animal. But at the same time that he was a competitor for these last, he was a prey for those that surpassed him in force and that found themselves better provided with natural weapons. Hence he was obliged either to hide from their pursuit or else to engage them in mortal struggle.
GDW-I-1.4 Prompted by this necessity of defending himself against animals that were individually stronger, man associated with his fellows; he formed societies, under the primtive forms of bands, clans, or tribes. In this his conduct was no different from that of most other species; what raised him above the rest of the animal kingdom was the invention of artificial armament, which by making up for the insufficiency of his natural armament permitted him simultaneously to struggle without disadvantage against the species for which he was a prey and to attack with less difficulty those from which he sought his subsistence.
GDW-I-1.5 Here we see the difference that exists between hunting and war. Man hunts the animals upon which he feeds. He makes war on those that feed on him. But it it is not solely with a view to assuring his security that he is compelled to exterminate them; it is to rid himself of the competition they offer as hunters.
GDW-I-1.6 This extermination of competitors for subsistence undoubtedly involved a struggle, and thus an expenditure of forces and a risk. This struggle is one in which men would not have found it advantageous to engage unless they had, or believed themselves to have, a sufficient chance to emerge from it victorious. Their chances depended on the force, the intelligence, and above all the courage with which they were endowed, and likewise on the efficacy of the artificial armament that they were able to bring against the natural armament of their competitors. To all appearance, it was only after having invented the first tools for hunting and for war that they undertook a struggle that until then had remained too unequal. This struggle between the strongest and bravest men and their competitors among the large animal species was carried on throughout the long period of primitive times, and the annals of all peoples have passed down to us episodes therefrom. It was Hercules, armed with his club, who triumphed over the Nemean lion and the hydra of Lerna; it was Theseus who pierced with his arrows the minotaur of Crete. The profit which this war waged against the monsters brings to man is of two sorts: it is first of all the security that it assures him; further, it is the economy of labour and effort that he achieves in the acquisition of game, which he is no longer obliged to share with ravenous competitors. This double profit more than makes up for the total amount of vital forces that he has expended, the risk that he has run, in a word the pain that the struggle has cost him.
GDW-I-1.7 Such is the cause that determined the first war, that which man undertook against the animals for whom he was a prey and who competed with him for the acquisition of subsistence.
GDW-I-1.8 But the same need that gave birth to the hunting industry, and the same motivation that prompted man to wage war against his animal competitors, had to give rise to hunting and to war directed against men themselves.
GDW-I-1.9 First, hunting. Human flesh is a source of food, and in regions where edible animals were rare, it could be acquired with less difficulty than that of other species. Man-hunting would by no means, however, have offered sufficient profit if all men had bene equal in force and in aptitude for combat; but the varieties of the species are in this respect essentially unequal. Some have the nature of carnivorous animals; they possess the combative abilities of the lion, the tiger, the wolf, the fox, while others reproduce the peaceful type and aptitude of herbivores. Deprived of ability in combat, the latter were an easy prey for the carnivorous varieties of the species.
GDW-I-1.10 Human sacrifice, which persists among peoples on the path to civilisation until the era when the breeding of livestock provides them with a less costly and probably also a healthier source of food, attests – leaving aside the further testimony with which the traditions of primitive times provide us – to the existence of a period when man-hunting was the principal if not the sole industry for providing food among the superior varieties of the species. A portion of the products from such hunting were offered to the protective divinities and served as subsistence for the priests. This was the first form of the Tithe. When this sort of nourishment was abandoned for food sources that the breeding of livestock had rendered more abundant and less difficult to obtain, human victims were gradually replaced in favour of livestock, which had taken their place as food generally. All the same, in certain circumstances, when for example it was a question of obtaining the cooperation of the Divinities for some important undertaking, these Divinities continued to be offered human sacrifices, which it was thought were bound to be more agreeable to them, by reason of the superior value of this sort of food in comparison with that of livestock.
GDW-I-1.11 However, tribes that lived by hunting animals and men found themselves in competition with one another for the acquisition of subsistence. The larger their population grew, the more they felt the need to expand their hunting grounds, and they could not expand them except at one another’s expense. Hence, inevitable and continual struggles. According to the testimony of missionaries who traveled through North America during the 16th and 17th centuries, the tribes of hunters who occupied that vast continent were perpetually at war, and their struggles had always the same purpose: the conquest or defense of the hunting areas necessary for their survival. The victors exterminated the vanquished and took their place.
GDW-I-1.12 One sees herein what differentiated hunting from war. Hunting consisted in the pursuit of game, with a view to the immediate satisfaction of the need for nourishment. War had as its purpose the suppression of competitors, with a view to rendering that satisfaction easier. The pofit from hunting was direct, the profit from war was indirect, and resolved in the last analysis into an increase in the efficiency of the food industry. A tribe of hunters that was having difficulty obtaining – within the limits, grown too narrow, of its domain – the quantity of subsistence necessary to feed its growing population could, by seizing a hunting area occupied by another tribe, secure for itself the same quantity in exchange for a lesser amount of labour and trouble. Admittedly, this conquest involved a struggle in which it had to expend a certain amount of force and run a certain risk. If vanquished, it risked being despoiled of the domain that furnished its means of existence, and even being exterminated. On the other hand, if it won the victory, it achieved a gain equal to the difference between the total amount of vital force expended in the struggle and that which the expansion of its feeding domain allowed it to acquire or save. It could increase its population in proportion to the increase in its means of subsistence, and by thus becoming more powerful, extend its hunting grounds once more by further conquests. If, however, one reflects that the loss resulting from defeat singularly exceeds the gain which victory might bring, it will be admitted that a war must not be undertaken except after thorough deliberation and a knowledge as exact as possible of the enemy forces. If the tribe whose means of existence had become insufficient, as a result of growth in population or diminution in food resources, found itself too feeble to wage a war of conquest with reasonable chance of success, concern for its own conservation required it to check its soaring population through infanticide, or further to limit the number of mouths to feed by sacrificing the old. Such was the rational basis of those customs which now with good reason strike us as barbarous, but which were demanded by an imperous necessity.
GDW-I-1.13 In summary, during that first period of humanity’s existence, when man depended absolutely for his survival on the food resources that nature offered him, war alone furnished him the means to increase them. Thus it had to be until he had succeeded in multiplying them through his own industry. In the meantime, war was useful in that it gave victory to the strongest, that is, to those most capable of ensuring the existence of the human species in its struggle against those species for which man was a competitor and a prey. But it is necessary to add that this characteristic of general utility was by no means recognised by the strong and courageous men who struggled to expand their feeding domain at one another’s expense. They were simply following the natural law of the economy of forces in being compelled to obtain a greater quantity of the materials of pleasure in exchange for a lesser amount of labour and pain.

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