The Good and the Bad in Latin Maxims

Those of us who had the privilege of enjoying formal education in Latin have fond memories of Terentius, Cicero, Horatius, Virgilius, Ovidius, Seneca, Tacitus, Juvenalis, etc., all of them accomplished aphorists.

Many other maxims in Latin circulate – not all of them a treasure to humanity. These have come down to us from Church fathers and mediaeval scholars. In the hey-day of heraldry, most royal and quasi-royal families competed for clever Latin phrases to put on their respective coats of arms, e.g. nemo me impune lacessit, motto of the Stuart dynasty (no one provokes me without due punishment).

The awful quote “si vis pacem, para bellum” (if you want peace, prepare for war) comes to us from the fifth century AD Latin author Publius Flavius Renatus, whose essay De re militari is of no interest other than this superficial and contestable phrase.  Ever since warmongers all over the world have delighted in citing this pseudo-intellectual assertion — to the joy of domestic and international weapons producers and dealers.

By contrast, the International Labour Office devised in 1919 a much more reasonable program line:si vis pacem, cole justitiam, enunciating a rational and implementable strategy:  “if you want peace, cultivate justice”.  But what justice does the ILO mean?  The ILO Conventions lay down what “justice” should mean, advancing social justice, due process, the rule of law. “Justice” is not “lawfare” and does not allow the instrumentalization of courts and tribunals for purposes of terror against rivals.  Justice is not an ivory-tower concept, not a divine commandment, but the end result of a process of standard setting and monitoring mechanisms that will limit abuse and arbitrariness.

The venerable Cicero gave us the painfully misused: Silent enim leges inter arma (in his Pro Milone pleadings), which for centuries has been misquoted as inter arma silent leges.  The context was Cicero’s plea against politically motivated mob violence, and was never intended to advance the thought that in times of conflict law simply disappears. The International Committee of the Red Cross has a constructive version “Inter arma caritas”: in war, we should practice humanitarian assistance, solidarity with the victims, charity.

In this sense, Tacitus rejected any idea of “peace” based on subjugation and destruction. In his Agricola he satirizes the practices of the Roman legions “solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant” – they make a wasteland and then call it peace.  Today Tacitus would probably be denounced as an “appeaser”, a wimp.

Among the most stupid Latin maxims I know is Emperor Ferdinand I’s (1556-1564) petulant “Fiat justitia, et pereat mundus” — let justice be done, even if the world perishes. At first this assertion sounds plausible.  In fact, it is a supremely arrogant proposition that suffers from two major flaws.  First, what do we understand under the concept of “Justice”?  And who decides whether an action or omission is just or unjust?  Should the sovereign be the only arbiter of justice?  This anticipates Louis XIV’s equally petulant “L’Etat, c’est moi”.  Absolutist nonsense.  Secondly, the principle of proportionality tells us that there are priorities in human existence. Surely life and the survival of the planet are more important than any abstract conception of “Justice”. Why destroy the world in the name of an inflexible ideology of abstract “Justice”?

Moreover, “Fiat justitia” gives one the impression that justice is somehow ordained by God Himself, but interpreted and imposed by temporal power. However, what one person may consider to be “just”, another person may reject as abject or “unjust”.  As Terentius warned us: Quot homines, tot sententiae. There are as many views as there are heads, hence better not start wars over such differences.  Better agree to disagree.

Many wars have been fought because of intransigence grounded on a subjective perception of what justice means. I would propose a maxim to give us incentive to work for justice: “fiat justitia ut prosperatur mundus” — endeavor to do justice so that the world may prosper. Or at least “fiat justitia, ne pereat mundus“, try to do justice so that the world does not perish.

The current war in the Ukraine sorely reflects the option “pereat mundus“. We hear political hawks crying for “victory”, we watch them pouring fuel on the fire.  Indeed, by constantly escalating, raising the stakes, we seem to be consciously rushing toward the end of the world as we know it — Apocalypse now.  Those who insist that they are right and the adversary is wrong, those who refuse to sit down and negotiate a diplomatic end of the war, those who risk a nuclear confrontation obviously suffer from a form of taedium vitae – weariness of life.  This is hyper-dangerous.

During the 30 years’ war 1618-1648, the Protestants believed that justice was on their side. Alas, the Catholics also claimed to be on the right side of history. Some 8 million human beings died for nothing, and in October 1648, weary of the slaughter, the warring parties signed the Peace of Westphalia. There were no victors.

Interestingly enough, notwithstanding the monstrous atrocities committed in the 30-years war, there were no war crimes trials afterwards, no retribution in the 1648 Treaties of Münster and Osnabrück. On the contrary, Article 2 of both treaties provides for a general amnesty. Too much blood had been spilt. Europe needed a rest, and “punishment” was left to God:  “There shall be on the one side and the other a perpetual Oblivion, Amnesty, or Pardon of all that has been committed … in such a manner, that no body …shall practice any Acts of Hostility, entertain any Enmity, or cause any Trouble to each other.”

Summa summarum, the best is still the motto of the Peace of Westphalia “Pax optima rerum” –peace is the highest good.

Alfred de Zayas is a law professor at the Geneva School of Diplomacy and served as a UN Independent Expert on International Order 2012-18. He is the author of ten books including “Building a Just World Order” Clarity Press, 2021.