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[C]um hominum felicitatem non possis ostendere, semper in bellicis cladibus et in sanguine ciuili uel hostili, tamen humano cum tenebroso timore et cruenta cupiditate uersantium, ut uitrea lætitia comparetur fragiliter splendida, cui timeatur horribilius ne repente frangatur, de imperii latitudine ac magnitudine uelle gloriari…
Remota itaque iustitia quid sunt regna nisi magna latrocinia? quia et latrocinia quid sunt nisi parua regna? Manus et ipsa hominum est, imperio principis regitur, pacto societatis astringitur, placiti lege præda diuiditur. Hoc malum si in tantum perditorum hominum accessibus crescit, ut et loca teneat sedes constituat, ciuitates occupet populos subiuget, euidentius regni nomen adsumit, quod ei iam in manifesto confert non dempta cupiditas, sed addita inpunitas. Eleganter enim et ueraciter Alexandro illi Magno quidam comprehensus pirata respondit. Nam cum idem rex hominem interrogaret, quid ei uideretur, ut mare haberet infestum, ille libera contumacia: Quod tibi, inquit, ut orbem terrarum; sed quia id ego exiguo nauigio facio, latro uocor; quia tu magna classe, imperator.
You will not prove that humans are happy who live steadily in the midst of the disasters of war. Whether the blood shed is that of their fellow citizens or of their enemies matters not, for in any case it is human blood. The dark shadow of fear and the lust for blood has fallen over them. If they know joy, then it is but the gleaming of fragile glass which they must fear will be shattered at any second. How then can it be wise or even rational to see grounds to be boastful in the building of empires?…
If it does not do justice, what is the government but a great criminal enterprise? For what are gangs of criminals but petty little governments? The pack is a group which follows the orders of its leader according to a social compact of sorts, sharing the spoils along the rules upon which they agree. Through a process of gradual accretion, the gang may acquire bodies and territory, establish itself in some place, and soon be possessed of all the attributes of statehood—then it may be known as a state, acquiring this title not by being any less avaricious but rather by having achieved impunity. Alexander the Great’s conversation with a pirate he had captured reflects this well. The king asked what possessed him to infest the sea as he did, and the pirate replied: “No differently from you when you pursue your crimes in the world. I act with a small ship, so I am called a pirate. You command a fleet and are called emperor.”
–Augustine of Hippo, De civitate dei contra paganos lib iv, capp iii- iv (ca. 410)(S.H. transl.) in vol. 2 of the Loeb Classical Library edition, pp. 12, 16.
More from Scott Horton:
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”