“Wars Worse Than Civil”

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“Wars Worse Than Civil”

Postby toucana on June 29th, 2020, 4:03 pm 

Bella per Emathios plus quam ciuilia campos
Iusque datum sceleri canimus, populumque potentem
In sui uictrici conuersum viscera dextra (Pharsalia I: i-iii)

“Wars worse than ciuil on Thessalian playnes
And outrage strangling law and people strong
We sing, whose conquering swords their own breasts launcht”

In 1593 the great Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe began his translation of Pharsalia by Lucan with the memorable opening lines above. The Pharsalia was an epic Latin poem about the Roman civil war composed by Lucan in 61 AD. This translation, just like the original poem was left unfinished. Christopher Marlowe died aged just 29 in a mysterious tavern brawl, stabbed through the right eye with a dagger, barely a month or so after completing Book 1 of his translation.

The phrase “Bella .. plus quam ciuilia” - “Wars worse than civil” came to mind again recently as I read a review by Laura Miller of John Bolton’s most recent book The Room Where it Happened which was published just a week ago. In her compendium review she comments:
But in what sense can the president’s own staff be considered his adversaries? Who makes an enemies list of the people working for him? Is Trump really so threatened by “his” prized pet generals and assorted “killers” that he needs to keep them in what Bolton describes, with a hilariously gratuitous display of Latin, as a “Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes (war of all against all)”?


It is possible that this particular reviewer didn’t realize that De Cive which was the work by Thomas Hobbes that is being referenced was originally published in Latin (Paris 1642) - as was the fuller revised edition of his other great philosophical work Leviathan (1651 & 1668).

Suffice to say, that Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) who was born when his mother went into premature labour after being told of the Spanish Armada, lived in era when men of learning habitually wrote and even *thought* in classical Latin.

The Latin phrase bellum omnium contra omnes was a motif rendered by Thomas Hobbes himself in Leviathan as “warre of everyone against everyone”. In the earlier work De Cive he wrote
ostendo primo conditionem hominum extra societatem civilem, quam conditionem appellare liceat statum naturæ, aliam non esse quam bellum omnium contra omnes; atque in eo bello jus esse omnibus in omnia.

I demonstrate, in the first place, that the state of men without civil society (which state we may properly call the state of nature) is nothing else but a mere war of all against all; and in that war all men have equal right unto all things.


What Hobbes was trying to do was to characterise human existence in a ‘state of nature’ thought experiment that he was conducting in his philosophical works. He places people in a pre-social condition and theorizes what would happen in such a condition. According to Hobbes the outcome is that people enter into a social contract, giving up some of their liberties in order to enjoy peace.

For me, the unnerving echo with modern reality is a realization that it is ”the state without civil society” that is the embodiment of “Wars worse than civil” that Lucan wrote of, and that we now face the threat of being compelled by tyrants like Donald Trump to give up *all* of our liberties, not just some of them, in exchange for no peace whatsoever - just a never ending “perpertuall warre of every man against his neighbour”.
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