Bellum vs Zhan 戰: A Comparative Workshop in Early Military Thought

Bellum vs Zhan : A Comparative Workshop in Early Military Thought

Report by:

Steve Jackowicz, Ph.D.

On April 4th 2015 about thirty scholars and students of ancient warfare gathered at Princeton University’s Jones Hall to participate in a day long workshop exploring the differences and similarities between ancient Chinese and Roman conceptions of warfare. Organized by two Princeton graduate students, Mercedes Valmisa & Sara Vantournhout, the workshop brought together two esteemed scholars of disparate parts of the ancient world. Robin McNeal, Cornell University, presented selections from ancient Chinese texts on Righteous War, while Richard Billows, Columbia University, presented selections from Cicero exploring Just War Theory.

The day began with each of the scholars presenting an overview of their material in a session entitled, “Just War and the Challenge to Nomos.” The later sections of the day were then devoted to each of the two scholars developing and exploring their area of expertise in more detail. The intimate and small nature of the workshop allowed ample time for questions and discussion between the presenters and the audience.

Robin McNeal, “Early Military Texts and the Rise of Philosophical Reflection in Early China”

Robin McNeil led the workshop in an examination of ancient Chinese concepts of Righteous War. McNeil presented a picture of the Warring States period of Chinese history as one wherein existent clan power structure was being supplanted by models of duty as seen with larger temporal environmental associations. McNeil utilized a selection from the Spring and Autumn Annals which described the conquering of the Shang by the Zhou King to serve as an idealized model of military action. The Zhou stepped in to bring order to the Shang. Their military action is demanded by the degeneration of Shang behavior. Thus there is a righteous aspect to their military campaign. Further, McNeil pointed out that the text is laden with ritually controlled body space as the king orders the state from on horseback, then off horseback, which points to a specific ritual attention to the ordering of the state. These behaviors point to an understanding of the universe as a ritually bounded space that responds to specific actions in predictable formats.

McNeil then explored the role of military texts in Chinese philosophy. First, they bring forth a theory of Righteous War indicating that military action is necessary to correct immorality and restore balance. Second they create a sphere of Chinese philosophy that seeks a rational analysis, with a meritocracy, and a centralization of value. Third, they articulate a new model of the cosmos as inherently systematic and moral. Although the military texts have been seen to be secondary or as outside voices to the mainstream tradition, they should be seen as supporting the “Master’s” position of the Warring States, having arisen at the same time and utilizing the same social view and base vocabulary. However, the military texts further advance a set of technical terms: 虛 xu empty, 實 shi substantial, 形 xing form, 勢 shi potency, 奇 qi unorthodox, and 正zheng orthodox. While these terms are used to denote states of being relevant to military developments, the general akin to the sage can look beyond them to an appreciation of the unifying state that underpins them all.

Richard Billows, “Cicero and the Roman Origin of Western Just War Theory”

Billows began with an exploration of Cicero and his overlooked development of Just War theory. Cicero is known as a statesman, political thinker, and advocate. He is less well known as a philosopher, but Billows contends that Cicero was both the first and best of the Roman philosophers. While the Greeks are credited with the development of the Western philosophical tradition in its entirety, in fact, they did not explore the concept of Just War. Rather, Just War Theory is attributed to later Christian thinkers beginning with St. Augustine. However Cicero’s works demonstrate a fully developed Just War Theory which includes all of the parameters which form the basis of the work of latter theorists.

Billows contextualized Cicero’s philosophical development within the historical period of the first century CE, as a period of Roman civil war wherein previous models of social behavior had disintegrated. Romans had fought many wars against other city states and nations; however, they justified each as a defensive operation. Roman war revolved around a religious perspective wherein the enlisting of the favor of the Roman gods was essential. The ancient Romans maintained a special priestly class known as the Fetial priests who attended to a special code that proscribed exact rituals necessary for the proper declaration of war which could draw the favor of the gods. To secure the favor of the gods first the opposing group was given a declaration of grievance, a possibility to redress the grievance, and then if the grievances were ignored, a declaration of war. Cicero took these ancient rituals or the reconstructed understanding of them prevalent at his time, and re-worked them into a theory of Just War. He contended that war needed to be a last resort that was acceptable only due to the unreasonable behavior of the barbarous enemy. When an offense occurred, Cicero argued that a presentation of the grievance as well as the option for redress or diplomatic resolution of the issues must be attempted before any military actions. If the diplomatic means failed, then military action was justified. However, the aim of the military action must be a restoration of fairness and peace, not the decimation of the enemy.

Billows noted that the tenets of Cicero’s theory became the foundation for St. Augustine’s ideas on Just War. Augustine was well versed in Cicero’s philosophy and utilized his Just War concepts in the formation of his own theories. It was a fallacy of history that led to the modern interpretation of Just war doctrine being a uniquely Christian development.

Comparative Discussion

Much of the day was filled with discussion fueled by questions from the attendees. Some of the issues brought forth are mentioned herein.

A question was posed to Dr. Billows on whether there was ever a conflict between civic duty and personal duty to the Romans. Billows responded that the Romans did not see such a conflict. Rather they believed that a good Roman could follow his civic duty and that his personal duties would order themselves properly. Further the Romans considered themselves as always in the right and any military actions were the result of external transgressions.

It was noted that the Chinese tradition often addressed the tension between the personal and civic duty and the resolution of these conflicting spheres was addressed in the philosophic texts of early China.

Regarding the Chinese texts, Willard Peterson observed that the depiction discussed in the Spring and Autumn Annals was certainly not history, but rather a narrative. Historically the takeover of Shang by the Zhou King is an act that violates all the rules of propriety. The narrative of the text rewrites the act to be a moral one. Dr. McNeal opined that he believed Qinshi Huangdi was involved in the debate of a Righteous War doctrine and that he was a participant in the advancing of the narrative of a moral cause of unification and empire. Paul Goldin advanced the idea that the text incorporated the mystical figures of Yao, Shun, and the Yellow Emperor which is atypical and a very heavy incorporation of icons. He suggested this may be a device to allude to a presaging of the rise of Qin; as the Zhou King honors the predecessors from the Shang as acknowledgement of an ordained procession of rulership, so the Qin would be acknowledged as destined to rise.

Regarding Roman rulership and ideals, a question was posed whether there was a tradition of questioning or disbelief of the official narrative. Dr. Billows noted that although the Greeks had such a tradition of criticism, the Romans did not. Romans were expected to support the ideals and official narrative as part of being a good Roman. The Roman narrative asserted transgressions of the enemy led Rome to defensive actions which resulted in Roman expansion of power to maintain order and justice.

Steve Jackowicz observed that the Romans and Chinese both seemed to involve a conception of a deficiency of morality. The Chinese model positing a vacuity which demands positive action by the righteous to step in and correct it, while the Roman model posited an active immorality on the part of the enemy who acted inappropriately and began hostility.

Dr. McNeal commented that the early Chinese actually brutalized their enemies. However, the Spring and Autumn Annals advanced a new model of Righteous War which was in juxtaposition to the ancient practices. Dr. Billows opined that Cicero described a “peace without guile” which implied a restoration of the natural order that intrinsically is one of peace. He noted that Cicero may well be the first Western thinker to advance such an idea.

Each of the presenters brought forth an understanding of these two ancient cultures which elucidated their parallels and philosophical depths. In both cases the import and impact of the military philosophers has been underestimated and awaits fuller exploration and scholarship.

Steve Jackowicz, Ph.D. is faculty at the University of Bridgeport. His research focuses on the ancient medical tradition of East Asia.

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