Concluding Thoughts on Personhood (Personhood Part VII)

The compromises that Christian thinkers were willing to make in order to accommodate biblical faith to Greco-Roman philosophy, ultimately, slowed the progress that Christian ideas of personhood had made and prevented these ideas from further transforming the cultures that had adopted the Christian religion. In many instances, these compromises not only prevented further progress but also undid the progress that had already been made. This is the case, for example, with slavery, which largely fell into disuse throughout the Middle Ages, sometimes being abolished outright but generally being replaced with the institution of serfdom. It was, however, revived with renewed vigor and deepened brutality in the early modern period. The early modern revival of slavery both differed from and bore similarity to ancient Greco-Roman slavery in important ways. Its greatest difference was that it was based in the new, supposedly scientific concept of race. This root, though it differed from Greco-Roman ideas, allowed the ideologists of slavery in the early modern era to revive many of the Greco-Roman arguments in favor of slavery, such as the beliefs that slaves were innately inferior and intended by nature for servility and different ontologically from their masters. The new belief that these differences were biologically-based, however, allowed early modern ideologists to ignore and circumvent the biblical tradition’s emphasis on the spiritual equality of all people. In addition, these same ideologists also drew on the beliefs of certain church fathers that slavery was a product of man’s original sin and argued that it was a kind of necessary evil.

The same could also be posited regarding the status of women. Although women were never able to attain full equality with men throughout Western history, there can be little doubt that, as existential philosopher Simone de Beauvoir observed in her landmark book on the status of women, The Second Sex, many women in the medieval world were able to stand on an “equal footing” with their husbands, being viewed as “neither a thing nor a servant” but as “his other half” in possession of “concrete autonomy” and with a meaningful and fulfilling “economic and social role.”76 According to de Beauvoir, the economic and social changes of the early modern era undermined the “equal footing” upon which men and women had stood in much of the medieval world and created a resurgence of misogyny as well as a renewal of the oppression and marginalization of women.77

While the work begun by the early Christians in the light of their new anthropology remained incomplete throughout the Middle Ages and was often compromised by some of the brightest and most important medieval minds, it was the ideas of these early Christians which planted the seeds for later developments in Western thought which sought to remedy the injustice of systems which denied the innate equality and essential personhood of all human beings, including movements such as abolitionism, feminism, anti-colonialism, and the civil rights movement in the United States. In the succinct words of Thomas Cahill, the democratic principles of the West emerge from the biblical “vision of individuals, subjects of value because they are images of God, each with a unique and personal destiny.”78 He explains, quoting the American Declaration of Independence, “there is no way that it could ever have been ‘self-evident that all men are created equal’ without” this biblical vision.

Christianity had brought a renewed vigor to and emphasis upon the Jewish ideas that all human beings possessed a special worth and dignity by virtue of having been created in the image of God by coupling this biblical idea with its own unique beliefs that God himself had become a person and thereby united humanity and divinity and made spiritual salvation available to all people. This broad vision of personhood was a shocking idea in the Greco-Roman world of Late Antiquity, in which personhood was generally restricted to an elite group of free adult Greek and Roman men, and explicitly denied to barbarians, women, slaves, and children. These groups were, in turn, attracted by this new idea which granted them a status they had never before been afforded. Through the influence of these groups, Christianity was able, eventually, to penetrate into the upper and governing classes of the Roman Empire. By the end of the fourth century, it had become the Empire’s official religion. From this vantage point, the Church was able to shape Roman law and society in conformity with its ideas. While this process of shaping law and society remained incomplete throughout the Middle Ages, it nonetheless planted the seeds for later change as various movements for legal and social equality of oppressed and marginalized groups around the world drew on the ideas and legacy of the early Christians to formulate their own visions of personhood and responses to injustice.


76 Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Random House, 2011), 110.

77 Ibid.

78 Cahill, Gifts of the Jews, 249.

Personhood in Medieval Philosophy (Personhood Part VI)

The history of medieval thought is largely a history of attempts by various thinkers to bridge the gap between and create a synthesis of biblical faith and Greco-Roman philosophy within the context of the Christian Church. As is to be expected from any attempt to reconcile such disparate sources as Plato, Aristotle, and Genesis, and to create a coherent whole out of this reconciliation, this medieval synthesis of Western thought was often an uncomfortable amalgam of contradictory elements. Medieval ideas about personhood are largely the result of this tension and combination.

One relatively early example of this tension in Christian thought is demonstrated in the words of the fourth century bishop Gregory of Nyssa in his work “On Infants’ Early Deaths.” In that work, Gregory refers to a newborn who has died shortly after birth as passing away “before he is even human,” adding to this statement the parenthetical explanation that “the gift of reason is man’s peculiarity, and he has never had it in him.”69 For his belief that reason is the defining feature of humanity, Gregory drew upon the ideas of the extremely influential late second and early third century Christian author Origen, according to whose assertion, “we hold the resemblance to God to be preserved in the reasonable soul.”70 Origen, who drew heavily on Greek philosophy to explain biblical ideas, in turn, drew on that philosophy for this explanation of the content of the Imago Dei. The Bible itself, however, offers no such identification between human reason and the Imago Dei. In bringing together the Greek philosophical idea that reason is the defining feature of personhood and the biblical idea of the Imago Dei, the beginning of the uncomfortable synthesis of the Greco-Roman with the biblical is demonstrated. In spite of his denial of full personhood to an infant, however, an apparent departure from previous Christian understandings, Gregory nonetheless does not express doubt in the same work that said infants possess immortal and complete human souls.

Another fairly early example of this uncomfortable synthesis that marked medieval Christian thought occurs in Augustine of Hippo’s early fifth century work “On the Holy Trinity.” In that work, as in much else that he wrote, Augustine exhibits a bizarre mix of Platonism, Judaism, and Christianity. This amalgam leads him, in a discussion of women, to draw simultaneously on the opening chapters of Genesis and on 1 Corinthians 11:3-12, interpreting both through the lens of Neo-Platonic philosophy. The rather strange conclusion that he reaches is that a woman herself does not bear the Imago Dei but is the Imago Dei only in conjunction with her husband. According to Augustine, “woman herself alone … is not the image of God; but as regards the man alone, he is the image of God as fully and completely as when the woman too is joined with him in one.”71 The uncomfortable mixture of the biblical and Platonic in Augustine’s thought runs throughout his discussion of the Imago Dei and reaches its high point when he, along with Origen and Gregory before him, identifies the Imago Dei with a “rational mind.”72 He is forced to admit, in order to remain true to the biblical text and to traditional Christian anthropology and soteriology but clearly in contradiction to what his previously stated views on women imply, that “it is clear, not men only, but also women have” full possession of this “rational mind.”73

Perhaps the most conspicuous example of the tension between the biblical and the Greco-Roman in medieval Christian thought on personhood is in the ideas of the thirteenth century theologian Thomas Aquinas, whose influence on Western Christianity is arguably less than only Paul and Augustine. Whereas Augustine struggled to find a synthesis between the Neo-Platonic and the biblical, Aquinas sought to bring Aristotle’s philosophy together with the Bible. Just as in Augustine’s work, this attempted synthesis creates a tension that is a palpable and ubiquitous presence in Aquinas’s works. His thoughts on women certainly present an outstanding example of this uncomfortable synthesis, as is exhibited by his discussion of women in his Summa Theologica’s Question 92.74 There, Aquinas almost desperately attempts to make the statements of Genesis in regards to the creation and dignity of women agree with Aristotle’s thought on women in his work On the Generation of Animals. In order to make two very different and ultimately mutually exclusive accounts agree, however, Aquinas is forced to perform strenuous mental gymnastics. In his First Article, Reply to Objection 1 in that section, for instance, he is forced to affirm both that woman is a good and complete creation of God, as Genesis claims, and that she is “defective and misbegotten,” as Aristotle claims. In spite of his very best mental gymnastics, Aquinas is clearly unable to make Genesis and Aristotle agree.75 


69 Gregory of Nyssa, “On Infants’ Early Deaths,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers , 2nd series, Vol. 5 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004).

70 Origen, Against Celsus, book 7, ch. 66.

71 Augustine of Hippo, On the Holy Trinity, ch. 7, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers , 1st series, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004).

72 Ibid.

73 Ibid.

74 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Question 92, in Thomas Aquinas: I, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: William Benton, 1952).

75 I have adapted most of the preceding paragraph from a post to my blog. David Withun, “Aquinas’s uncomfortable synthesis,” Pious Fabrications, 4 April 2013, (accessed 20 April 2013).

Personhood in Roman Law (Personhood Part V)

The interpretation of early Christian beliefs about personhood into the law of the Roman Empire began very early in the reign of Constantine. On 21 March 315, for instance, only two years after he issued the Edict of Milan, which document granted official religious toleration to Christianity following the worst persecution the Church had yet endured, Constantine promulgated a law which ordered that “if any person should be condemned to the arena or to the mines … he shall not be branded on his face … so that the face, which has been made in the likeness of celestial beauty, may not be disfigured.”62 Although the interpretation of the doctrine of Imago Dei which this law offers is rather haphazard and peculiar, it is nonetheless significant that Christian anthropology, even if in an incomplete form, was being used as a source for Roman law at this early date. Just two months later, on 13 May 315, Constantine promulgated another law with made infanticide and exposure of infants illegal in the Roman Empire and appointed money from the imperial treasury be used to feed children whose parents could not feed them.63 Similarly, four years later, on 11 May 319, Constantine issued another law which forbade masters from mistreating or killing their slaves.64 Constantine also published a number of laws whose intent was to encourage slave owners to manumit their slaves and to make the process of manumission, formerly a complicated process under Roman law, as easy and desirable as possible for them. A law promulgated on 18 April 321, for instance, grants Christian clergy the right to legally free slaves whose owners wish to manumit them.65 Another law, promulgated in an attempt to prevent poor parents from selling their children into slavery and published on 6 July 322, stipulated that children whose parents are too poor to support them should receive their support from the imperial treasury.66 As significant as are these and other laws promulgated by Constantine, the most significant reform of Roman law in accordance with Christian beliefs came under the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. Under the influence of his powerful wife Theodora, Justinian included in his extensive and thorough reforms of Roman law the promulgation of many laws protecting the rights of women and children. Among them were laws prohibiting forced prostitution, allowing marriages between members of any social class, banning infanticide, granting women guardianship over their children, and allowing women to more easily leave prostitution without being subject to continuing legal or social handicaps. In justifying the promulgation of such laws, Justinian echoed the words of Paul, proclaiming, “in the service of God, there is no male nor female, nor freeman nor slave.”67 The influence of the Corpus Juris Civilis, the massive product of Justinian’s comprehensive reform of Roman law, continues to the modern day. Later, in 797-802, a woman, Irene of Athens, would reign for the first time as empress regnant of the Roman Empire.68 She also convoked the Seventh Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church at Nicaea in 787.


62 Codex Theodosiani 9.40.2, in Joseph Story, ed., Conflict of Laws (Clark: Lawbook Exchange, Ltd., 1841).

63 Codex Theodosiani 11.27.1

64 Codex Theodosiani 9.12.1

65 Codex Theodosiani 4.8.1

66 Codex Theodosiani 11.27.2

67 Justinian, quoted in J. A .S. Evans, The Empress Theodora: Partner of Justinian (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003), 37.

68 Lynda Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204 (London: Routledge, 1999), 73-94.

Personhood in Early Christian Thought and Practice (Personhood Part IV)

Christianity began as a sect of Judaism in the middle of the first century AD and emerged as a separate religion altogether by the end of that century. Among the most distinctive doctrines of early Christianity were the beliefs that God had become incarnate as a human being and, through a process of recapitulation, had opened the possibility of spiritual salvation to all people. The idea of the incarnation is perhaps the most central and distinctive belief of Christianity. The doctrine’s classic and arguably most eloquent statement is found in the opening to the Gospel of John, composed probably in the last decade of the first century AD: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father.”17 Christians believed that God had become man in the person of Jesus Christ, thereby redeeming and sanctifying human nature. The doctrine of the incarnation was linked with the idea of the Imago Dei from a very early point in Christian thought and served to significantly strengthen and solidify the importance and content of that idea.18 The early Christian author and bishop Irenaeus of Lyons, writing in about 180, summarized the relationship of the two doctrines and their implications for humanity, writing,

And then, again, this Word was manifested when the Word of God was made man, assimilating Himself to man, and man to Himself, so that by means of his resemblance to the Son, man might become precious to the Father. For in times long past, it was said that man was created after the image of God, but it was not [actually] shown; for the Word was as yet invisible, after whose image man was created, Wherefore also he did easily lose the similitude. When, however, the Word of God became flesh, He confirmed both these: for He both showed forth the image truly, since He became Himself what was His image; and He re-established the similitude after a sure manner, by assimilating man to the invisible Father through means of the visible Word.19

In the same work, Against Heresies, Irenaeus also offered the earliest expanded explanations of early Christian soteriology. In his explanations, he asserts that “the Lord then was manifestly coming to His own things, and was sustaining them by means of that creation which is supported by Himself, and was making a recapitulation of that disobedience which had occurred.”20 To that end, according to Irenaeus, he passed through every age and state, “not despising or evading any condition of humanity” and “sanctifying every age” as he passed through each without sinning.21 Finally, he suffered and died in perfect obedience, undoing the sin of Adam, and resurrected, defeating death. In doing all of this, he made spiritual salvation possible; in the most succinct soteriological statement of Irenaeus: “our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.”22 By the fourth century, the standard statement of Christian soteriology was even more succinct and direct: “He was made man that we might be made God.”23 Significantly, this salvation and deification was made available to all people of any age, class, or gender. The declaration of the universality of salvation by the important early Christian leader Paul in about AD 50-60 seems as if it had been formulated to run directly contrary to the ethos of the Greco-Roman world: “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”24

For those who heard of these beliefs in Late Antiquity, they were shocking. These unique Christian beliefs were seen as perplexing, subversive, and worthy of mockery by both Jews as well as followers of Greco-Roman pagan religions and philosophies.25 Christianity was particularly threatening to members of the latter groups as its simultaneous continuation of the zeal for social justice present in Judaism coupled with the reinvigoration and expansion of this zeal in conjunction with its own original ideas proved very attractive to the oppressed and marginalized classes of the Roman Empire. One early Christian text, written in the second half of the first century, records Roman opponents of Christianity claiming Christians “have turned the world upside down.”26 In the succinct words of Thomas Cahill, “Christianity’s claim that all were equal before God and all equally precious to him ran through class-conscious, minority-despising, weakness-ridiculing Greco-Roman society like a charged current.”27 As a result, Christians faced persecution from both Jewish and Roman authorities as well as disdain and suspicion from their neighbors. In spite of this persecution, however, the poor, slaves, women, and other marginalized and oppressed classes of the Roman Empire flocked to the new religion. Such was the pull that Christianity exerted on these groups and, simultaneously, the disgust it excited in the Roman Empire’s elite, that Celsus, one of Christianity’s early detractors, was able to write in about 178 that it was “only foolish and low individuals, and persons devoid of perception, and slaves, and women, and children, of whom the teachers of the divine word [that is, Christian evangelists] wish to make converts.”28

The practical ramifications of Christian ideas about personhood were tremendous. With the introduction of the idea of a Kingdom of God which stood over and in opposition to the world and which all Christians, by virtue of membership in the Church, were members of, the idea of nationhood, and therefore any possibility of xenophobia, receded into superfluity. The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, an early Christian apologetic text written sometime in the mid to late second century, delights in the diversity of Christians and their ubiquitous presence in “Greek as well as barbarian cities,” asserting “they pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.”29 The treatment of the poor, slaves, and other low social classes in early Christian writings similarly revels in the counterintuitive assertion that they are in fact the “happy” and “blessed” bearers of a better spiritual condition than the materially prosperous and socially powerful.30

Perhaps the most powerful and practical explication of early Christian views on slavery is found in Paul’s letter to Philemon. At 335 words in the original Greek, it is the shortest surviving letter of Paul and one of the shortest books of the New Testament. Onesimus, a Christian slave whose master, Philemon, was also a Christian, had run away from his master and joined up with Paul. Paul, however, decided to send Onesimus back to his master with this letter. It must be remembered that Philemon was a Roman pater familias, or male head of household. According to the laws cited earlier in this paper, Philemon had the right of deciding life and death within his household and Onesimus was his property. Paul’s words, in this historical context, are remarkable and astounding; he admonishes Philemon to “receive” Onesimus “no longer as a slave but more than a slave — a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh [that is, as a sharer in a common human nature] and in the Lord [that is, as a fellow Christian].”31

By the end of the fourth century, this assertion of an ontological equality, shared nature, and spiritual brotherhood of master and slave would become, in the minds of some of the greatest and most influential Christian thinkers and leaders, arguably, the world’s first full-fledged ideology of abolitionism. Gregory of Nyssa, an important fourth century bishop, for instance, was one of the first writers in history to condemn slavery as an institution. Significantly, he based his arguments against slavery on Christian anthropology, writing,

What did you find in existence worth as much as this human nature? What price did you put on rationality? How many obols did you reckon the equivalent of the likeness of God? How many staters did you get for selling the being shaped by God? God said, let us make man in our own image and likeness. If he is the likeness of God, and rules the whole earth, and has been granted authority over everything on earth from God, who is his buyer, tell me? Who is his seller? To God alone belongs this power; or rather, not even to God himself. For his gracious gifts, it says, are irrevocable. God would not therefore reduce the human race to slavery, since he himself, when we had been enslaved to sin, spontaneously recalled us to freedom. But if God does not enslave what is free, who is he that sets his own power above God’s?32

Not all Christian leaders were willing to go as far as Gregory in their condemnation of slavery. Many, including such important figures as John Chrysostom, a late fourth and early fifth century bishop of Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, and Augustine of Hippo, perhaps the single greatest influence on subsequent theological development in Western Christianity, were more equivocal in their condemnation. Both Chrysostom and Augustine insisted, for instance, that slavery was a necessary evil that had been instituted by God as a result of man’s primeval fall into sin.

As ambiguous as some of these condemnations of slavery were, they were, nonetheless, condemnations, and such a condemnatory attitude had obvious ramifications in Christian practice. Several slaves and former slaves, for example, were elected to the highest positions of leadership in the Church. In fact, one Onesimus was named as the bishop of Ephesus by Ignatius of Antioch in a letter written in about 107; while some modern historians doubt the identification, Christian hagiography has traditionally identified this Onesimus with the Onesimus about whom Paul wrote his letter to Philemon.33 34 In the third century, one former slave, Callistus, who was elected bishop of Rome, the most prominent see in the Christian Church, even decreed, in defiance of the Roman law contained in the Twelve Tables, that “among Christians a slave could marry a free person with the blessing of the Church.”35 By the fifth century, Patrick, the famous missionary and bishop of Ireland who was also a former slave, was able to write in a way that assumed rather than argued the innate immorality of Christians enslaving fellow Christians.36 Slavery declined throughout the Middle Ages, replaced by serfdom throughout much of Europe, and was not revived as a major institution again until the early modern era.

Early Christian ideas regarding women also presented a major challenge to Greco-Roman conceptions of personhood. Henry Chadwick, in his classic treatment of early Christianity, points out that, in Late Antiquity, “Christianity seems to have been especially successful among women” specifically because “Christians believed in the equality of men and women before God.”37 For this belief, early Christians drew not only on the ideas of the Imago Dei and the incarnation, but a specific recognition of the distinctive role that had been played by the Virgin Mary in the redemptive work of Jesus according to the framework of early Christian soteriology. In one of his discussions of the process of salvation through recapitulation, Irenaeus of Lyons summarized this role:

The Lord then was manifestly coming to His own things, and was sustaining them by means of that creation which is supported by Himself, and was making a recapitulation of that disobedience which had occurred in connection with a tree, through the obedience which was [exhibited by Himself when He hung] upon a tree, [the effects] also of that deception being done away with, by which that virgin Eve, who was already espoused to a man, was unhappily misled,—was happily announced, through means of the truth [spoken] by the angel to the Virgin Mary, who was [also espoused] to a man. For just as the former was led astray by the word of an angel, so that she fled from God when she had transgressed His word; so did the latter, by an angelic communication, receive the glad tidings that she should sustain (portaret) God, being obedient to His word. And if the former did disobey God, yet the latter was persuaded to be obedient to God, in order that the Virgin Mary might become the patroness (advocata) of the virgin Eve. And thus, as the human race fell into bondage to death by means of a virgin, so is it rescued by a virgin; virginal disobedience having been balanced in the opposite scale by virginal obedience.38

This understanding of the role played by the Virgin Mary in the scheme of salvation as well as the individual life of the believer would continue to expand throughout Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Second century documents such as the Infancy Gospel of James make such claims as that Mary was dedicated to the service of God by her parents before her birth, raised in the Temple of Jerusalem, and remained a virgin consecrated to God throughout her life.39 By the middle of the third century, prayers were being addressed to her; the earliest surviving example of such prayers dates from about 250: “Under thy compassion we take refuge, Theotokos [Birthgiver-of-God]; do not disregard our prayers in the midst of tribulation, but deliver us from danger, O Only Pure, Only Blessed One.”40 In 431, the Council of Ephesus, considered the Third Ecumenical Council, officially approved the Virgin Mary’s popular title of Θεοτόκος (Theotokos, meaning “God-bearer” and often, though incorrectly, translated as “Mother of God”).41 The Middle Ages would see such expansions in Mariology and in Marian devotion as the advent of the Rosary, the addition of holidays to the Christian festal calendar which celebrated her sinless birth and assumption into heaven, and her acquisition of such titles as “Queen of Heaven.”42 These views and practices surrounding Mary clearly had important implications for views about women more generally.

By the end of the fourth century, Gregory Nazienzen, the bishop of Constantinople who presided over the Second Ecumenical Council in that city in 381, was proclaiming the full ontological equality of men and women on the basis of distinctively Christian beliefs, simultaneously calling for the legal and social equality of women. In his “Fifth Theological Oration,” he wrote, addressing Roman men,

What was the reason why they restrained the woman, but indulged the man, and that a woman who practices evil against her husband’s bed is an adulteress, and the penalties of the law for this are very severe; but if the husband commits fornication against his wife, he has no account to give? I do not accept this legislation; I do not approve this custom. Those who made the law were men, and therefore their legislation is hard on women, since they have placed children also under the authority of their fathers, while leaving the weaker sex uncared for. God does not do so, but says Honor your father and your mother, which is the first commandment with promise. … See the equality of [God’s] legislation. There is one Maker of man and woman; one debt is owed by children to both parents.

… How, though you are equally a body, do you legislate unequally? If you inquire into the worse — The Woman Sinned, and so did Adam. The serpent deceived them both; and one was not found to be the stronger and the other weaker. But do you consider the better? Christ saves both by His Passion. Was He made flesh for the Man? So He was also for the Woman. Did He die for the Man? The Woman also is saved by His death. He is called of the seed of David; and so perhaps you think the man is honored; but He is born of a Virgin, and this is on the woman’s side. The two, He says, shall be one flesh; so let the one flesh have equal honor.43

Like slaves, women were also able to attain important positions in the early Church. The gospels record that Jesus had many followers who were women. One of them, Mary Magdalene, was the first to see and speak with him following his resurrection and was sent by him to tell the other followers that he had come back from the dead.44 For fulfilling this role, she was designated “equal to the apostles” and “apostle to the apostles” in the later Christian hagiographic tradition. Paul also mentions several important women in the first century Church throughout his letters, such as Junia, whom he describes as “of note among the apostles.”45

Christianity also offered women an opportunity to adopt a way of life which freed them from the atmosphere of subjugation and androcentrism which permeated Greco-Roman family life. From an early point, Christians adopted celibacy as their ideal. In his first letter to the Corinthians, written in about AD 55, for instance, Paul recommended that virgins remain unmarried and that widows not remarry.46 For women in the Roman Empire, a life of celibacy represented a means of escape from the patriarchal system of the Roman family in which women were subject to their fathers, husbands, and other male family members. According to Princeton professor of religion Elaine Pagels, “their vows of celibacy served many converts as a declaration of independence from the crushing pressures of tradition and of their families, who ordinarily arranged marriages at puberty and so determined the course of their children’s lives.”47

This idealization of celibacy developed into institutional monasticism by the end of the fourth century. The monastic way of life continued throughout the Middle Ages to attract many women who desired independence from patriarchal family structures. Significantly, female monastics, like the female martyrs before them, attracted a great deal of reverence by Medieval Christians of both genders. One example of this reverence is found in the hagiography of Mary of Egypt, written by Sophronius, bishop of Jerusalem, in the seventh century. According to his hagiography, Mary had renounced her former sinful lifestyle and, like many others before her, retreated into the deserts of Egypt to adopt a life of fasting and prayer. While walking through the desert, she was discovered by Zosimas, a priest and monk at a nearby monastery, who immediately recognized her holiness. In contradiction to the traditional Eastern Christian practice, in which it is customary for anyone meeting a priest to bow, ask for his blessing, and kiss his hand, “Zosimas threw himself on the ground and asked for her blessing.”48 Sophronius’ account continues,

She likewise bowed down before him. And thus they lay on the ground prostrate asking for each other’s blessing. And one word alone could be heard from both:

“Bless me!” After a long while the woman said to Zosimas:

“Abba Zosimas, it is you who must give blessing and pray. You are dignified by the order of priesthood and for many years you have been standing before the holy altar and offering the sacrifice of the Divine Mysteries.”

This flung Zosimas into even greater terror. At length with tears he said to her:

“O mother, filled with the spirit, by your mode of life it is evident that you live with God and have died to the world. The Grace granted to you is apparent — for you have called me by name and recognized that I am a priest, though you have never seen me before. Grace is recognized not by one’s orders, but by gifts of the Spirit, so give me your blessing for God’s sake, for I need your prayers.”

Then giving way before the wish of the elder the woman said:

“Blessed is God Who cares for the salvation of men and their souls.”

Zosimas answered:


One of the most important roles that women served in the early Church was to bring Christianity into the households of Rome’s aristocracy, which eventually allowed the Church to attain a measure of wealth, prestige, and power. According to Chadwick, “it was often through the wives that it [Christianity] penetrated the upper classes of society in the first instance.”50 Even the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, Constantine I, probably did so under the influence of women. Although he and his hagiographers attributed his conversion to a divine vision he claimed to have witnessed the night before an important battle,51 there was no lack in Christian influence from the women in his life. His mother, Helena, was a Christian and, though the date of her conversion is debated, may have provided him with an education in and exposure to Christianity as a child.52 In addition, his half-sister, Anastasia, bore a name which was largely unique to and popular among Christians and which, in Greek, means “resurrection.” This may indicate that his step-mother, Theodora, who would have been responsible for naming her daughter, was a Christian as well.53 Though it is difficult to discern the details, it is clear that Constantine’s initial exposure to Christianity almost certainly came to him through the influence of the women in his life.

The views of early Christians about children also differed substantially from those which predominated throughout the Greco-Roman world around them. According to O.M. Bakke, a historian of Christianity whose studies have focused on the development of ideas about childhood in Late Antiquity, “whereas pagans thought that a newborn baby was not a human person in the full sense, patristic thinking implies that the newborn possesses the fullness of human dignity.”54 He concludes from his examination of the basis for this belief that “this positive assessment of the worth of babies is connected with the idea that all human beings, even small children, are created in the image of God.”55 This reasoning about the spiritual status of children is evident in the writings of Cyprian of Carthage, an influential North African bishop of the third century, who argued that infants should be baptized on the eighth day after their birth in parallel with the Old Testament admonition to circumcise male children on the eighth day.56 According to Cyprian, infants must be baptized so that “no soul be lost.”57 He continues,

For what is wanting to him who has once been formed in the womb by the hand of God? To us, indeed, and to our eyes, according to the worldly course of days, they who are born appear to receive an increase. But whatever things are made by God, are completed by the majesty and work of God their Maker.58

In another work, the same Cyprian also indicates that it was standard practice in the Christian Church for infants to receive communion before they were even “able to speak” or “able to understand” the Eucharist.59 That infants took part in the sacraments of the Church indicates that they were recognized as possessing full personhood and a status of spiritual equality with adult Christians.

These beliefs led early Christians to condemn practices such as abortion, infanticide, and the use of children for the sexual gratification of adults, all common practices of the Greco-Roman world. The Didache, a late first or early second century text which may be the earliest surviving Christian text not included in the New Testament and which was attributed to the apostles by early Christians, explicitly condemns all three practices in its second chapter. In regards to sexual relations between adults and children, the Didache states simply, “you shall not commit pederasty,” listing the practice along with murder, fornication, and theft.60 In its condemnations of abortion and infanticide, the Didache explicitly equates these practices with murder, commanding, “you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born.”61

These early Christian ideas concerning barbarians, slaves, women, and children ran directly counter to the ideas prevalent in the Greco-Roman world, which ideas had been written into law in the Roman Empire. In the early fourth century, however, Constantine became the first Christian Roman emperor. Julian the Apostate, Constantine’s nephew, whose brief reign lasted only two years, was the only non-Christian emperor after Constantine, and even he had been raised as a Christian and left the Church as an adolescent. By the end of the fourth century, under the Emperor Theodosius, Christianity was proclaimed the official religion of the Roman Empire. A long process by which the early Christian views of barbarians, slaves, women, and children replaced those of the Greco-Roman world in both thought and law ensued. It is this process that characterizes much of the culture, law, and philosophy of the Middle Ages.


17 John 1:1, 14 (NKJV).

18 2 Corinthians 4:4, Colossians 1:15, and Hebrews 1:3, for example, all explicitly link the Imago Dei and the incarnation. This connection would play a particularly pivotal role in the iconoclast controversy of the eighth and ninth centuries in the Byzantine Empire, becoming an especially important idea on Eastern Christianity as a result.

19 Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, book 5, ch. 16, par. 2, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).

20 Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, book 5, ch. 19, par. 1.

21 Ibid., book 2, ch. 22, par. 4.

22 Ibid., book 5, preface.

23 Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation, 54, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol.4 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004).

24 Galatians 3:28 (NKJV).

25 According to St. Paul, writing in about AD 54, “we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:23, NKJV).

26 Acts 17:6 (NKJV).

27 Thomas Cahill, Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 44.

28 Celsus, as quoted in Origen, Against Celsus, book 3, ch. 49, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).

29 Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, 5, in Ante-Nicene Fathers , Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).

30 The word μακάριος (makarios) used, for example, in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-11), although commonly translated into English as “blessed” carries connotations of both blessedness and happiness.

31 Philemon 15-16.

32 International Colloquium on Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on the Ecclesiastes: An EnglishVersion with Commentary and Supporting Studies: Proceedings of the Seventh International Colloquium on Gregory of Nyssa, ed. Hall, Stuart George, trans. Hall, Stuart George (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1993), 73-74. This entire discussion depends upon Eric Denby, “The First Abolitionist? Gregory of Nyssa on Ancient Roman Slavery,” 9 May 2011, (accessed 23 December 2012).

33 Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians, 1, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).

34 “Apostle Onesimus of the Seventy,” Orthodox Church in America, (accessed 16 April 2013).

35 R. S. Milward, Apostles and Martyrs (Leominster: Gracewing Publishing, 1997), 98.

36 Patrick, “Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus,” (accessed 16 April 2013).

37 Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (New York: Dorset Press, 1967), 58.

38 Irenaeus of Lyons, “Against Heresies,” book 5, ch. 19, par. 1.

39 Infancy Gospel of James, in Bart Ehrman, ed., Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

40 “Under thy compassion we take refuge…”,, (accessed 16 April 2013).

41 “Medieval Sourcebook: Council of Ephesus, 431,” (accessed 16 April 2013).

42 Jaroslav Pelikan, Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

43 Gregory Nazianzen, “The Fifth Theological Oration,” 6-7, of “Oration XXXVII,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, Vol. 7 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004).

44 Matthew 28:7, Mark 16:9-11, Luke 24:10, John. 20:2.

45 Romans 16:7 (NKJV).

46 1 Corinthians 7:25-40.

47 Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity (New York: Random House, 1988), 20.

48 Sophronius of Jerusalem, “The Life of Our Holy Mother Mary of Egypt,” (March 1996), (accessed 16 April 2013).

49 Ibid.

50 Chadwick, 58.

51 That is the story, provided by Constantine himself, recorded in his earliest hagiography, written by a companion, admirer, and Christian bishop. Eusebius Pamphilus, The Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine, book 1, ch. 28, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, Vol. 1 (Peabody: Hedrickson Publishers, 2004).

52 N. D’Anvers, Lives and Legends of the Great Hermits and Fathers of the Church, With Other Contemporary Saints (London: George Bells & Sons, 1902), 106.

53 Christopher Bush Coleman, Constantine the Great and Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1914), 74.

54 O.M. Bakke, When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 109.

55 Ibid.

56 Genesis 17:12.

57 Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle LVIII, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).

58 Ibid.

59 Cyprian of Carthage, On the Lapsed, 25, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).

60 Didache, 2, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).

61 Ibid.

Personhood in Hebrew and Jewish Thought and Practice (Personhood, Part III)

The conception of personhood which developed in the thought of the Ancient Near East and early became a cornerstone of Jewish anthropology stood in stark contrast with these Greco-Roman understandings. Ancient Near Eastern thought had included a concern for social justice as a central feature from a very early date, as is evidenced by, for instance, texts like the Code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian law code dating to about 1772 BC. In the thought of the Hebrews, this concern for social justice became a near obsession and formed the basis of nearly all of their law. The first book of the Hebrew Bible, Genesis, declares in its first chapter (verse 27) that “God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him.”8 This idea, generally referred to under its Latin name as Imago Dei, permeated Jewish thought and practice concerning relationships between people. Every person was considered a bearer of the Imago Dei and, as such, entitled to dignity and respect, regardless of social or economic status, age, or gender. As scholar Thomas Cahill has succinctly stated, the “bias toward the underdog” throughout biblical law “is unique not only in ancient law but in the whole history of law.”9

In direct contradiction to Aristotle’s belief that foreigners should be subdued and ruled by his own nation, the biblical injunction regarding treatment of foreigners orders that “you shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him,” adding a justification from the Israelites’ own history and an appeal to empathy: “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”10 In the following chapter of Exodus, the Hebrews are ordered to leave their fields uncultivated every seventh year so “that the poor of your people may eat” from what is left in it.11 The Book of Exodus also presents a view of slavery that is nearly opposite that of the Greco-Roman world. The text explicitly denies a master the right to kill his servant, commanding “if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished.”12 The text even goes as far as ordering that a slave who loses his or her eye or tooth because of violence by his or her master must be freed.13 The phrase “male or female” in verses like these is also indicative of the treatment of women in the legal code outlined in the Bible. The law, including both the privileges it confers and the responsibilities it demands, is made to apply equally to men and women, as in the verses cited concerning slavery. Certain special privileges are even afforded to women in order to prevent their oppression or marginalization in Israelite society; for instance, it is ordered that if a man takes a woman’s virginity outside of marriage, a state which thereby rendered her almost entirely unmarriageable in the Ancient Near East, he must take her as his wife and support her for the rest of his life.14 In addition, the Jews regarded infanticide as abhorrent. The Torah offers unequivocal condemnation of infanticide, referring to it as an “abomination,” and, again in contrast to Greco-Roman thought which commended the practice and even explicitly ordered it in certain instances, demands that it should never be performed. Although the Torah is ambiguous on its treatment of abortion and may even endorse it at several points,15 by the first century AD Jews generally understood the condemnations of infanticide in their law as encompassing abortion as well; the prolific first century Jewish author and historian Josephus, for instance, reports as the common Jewish belief and practice that “the law, moreover, enjoins us to bring up all our offspring, and forbids women to cause abortion of what is begotten, or to destroy it afterward; and if any woman appears to have so done, she will be a murderer of her child, by destroying a living creature, and diminishing humankind.”16 These Jewish tendencies toward a broad view of personhood and a consuming desire for social justice were part of the legacy of biblical thought inherited by early Christians. Especially significant is the early Christian development of the idea of Imago Dei, a concept which, in spite of its centrality in Jewish thought, had remained largely underdeveloped. It was in early Christianity, and in a synthesis of Hellenic and Hebrew thought, that followers of the biblical tradition would most fully explore what the Imago Dei consisted of and what were the implications of that idea.


8 Genesis 1:27 (New King James Version).

9 Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (New York: Anchor Books, 1999), 152.

10 Exodus 22:21 (NKJV).

11 Exodus 23:11 (NKJV).

12 Exodus 21:20 (NKJV).

13 Exodus 21:26-7 (NKJV).

14 Deuteronomy 22:28-9 (NKJV).

15 Prescriptions of capital punishment for adulterous wives in such verses as Deuteronomy 22:22-4, for instance, seem to have been intended to be carried out immediately upon discovery of the act with no delay to observe for signs of pregnancy to prevent the loss of the life of a fetus the woman may be carrying. In fact, these laws seem to have been formulated specifically for the purpose of preventing illegitimate heirs who might usurp the property of the woman’s husband. Numbers 5:11-31 even seems to prescribe some kind of abortion ritual for unfaithful wives in which the woman drinks “bitter water that brings a curse” (verse 19, NKJV) which “makes [her] thigh rot and [her] belly swell” (verse 21, NKJV) if she is indeed unfaithful. Significantly, this ritual is presented as a punishment for adulterous wives, not something to be desired, and, following this apparent abortion, “the woman will become a curse among her people” (verse 27), indicating an overwhelmingly negative attitude to abortion. Verses such as Exodus 21:22-25, which commands the execution of a man who causes a woman to miscarry through violence against her, seem, on the other hand, to assign the fetus a moral value equal to that of other human beings. Although the Hebrew Bible is ambiguous on this point, the logical development of its thought is captured by its actual subsequent development: a condemnation of abortion.

16 Flavius Josephus, Against Apion, par. 25 in William Whiston, tr., The Works of Josephus (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1987).

Personhood in Greco-Roman Thought and Practice (Personhood, Part II)

Demonstration of the very narrow understanding of personhood in Greek thought begins with the earliest texts of Western civilization, the Iliad and the Odyssey, both attributed to the poet Homer and composed in about the eighth century BC.1 Both works limit their purview to the lives of male Greek aristocrats. The concerns of women and children are treated only insofar as they affect the men. The concerns of slaves, of the poor, of the handicapped, and other such groups are never considered at all. The world of Homer is the world of a small but powerful elite class.

Later developments in Greek thought served to justify this narrow definition of personhood. Aristotle, for instance, writing in the fourth century BC, provided a succinct list of groups explicitly excluded from the category of personhood as well as a justification for the exclusion of each in his Politics: “Although the parts of the soul are present in all of them, they are present in different degrees. For the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority; and the child has, but it is immature.”2 Because of their lack of “the deliberative faculty,” Aristotle claims that slaves, along with “brute animals[,] … have no share in happiness or in a life based on choice.”3 Similarly, says Aristotle, “the female is, as it were, a mutilated male.”4 In addition, Aristotle also excluded the lower classes, the poor and even laborers from his definition of personhood, arguing, for instance, that “the life of mechanics and shopkeepers … is ignoble and inimical to goodness.”5 Aristotle also placed the entirety of the non-Greek population into the category of those lacking “the deliberative faculty,” asserting that “barbarians … are a community of slaves” who should rightfully be ruled by the Greeks.6

These negative assessments regarding the personhood of women, slaves, children, barbarians, and others in the writings of Aristotle can be taken as representative of Greco-Roman thought more generally. The Leges Duodecim Tabularum, or Law of the Twelve Tables, for instance, a document of the fifth century BC which formed the foundation of Roman law, institutionalized the systematic marginalization and oppression of these groups within Roman society.7 In the Twelve Tables, the male head of household was granted the right to dispose of the women, children, and slaves within his household in the same manner as he treats animals and other property under his control, including the right to sell them and even to kill them; he is, in fact, ordered by the Tables to kill any children born with deformities (Table IV). Women, being property themselves, are denied the rights of property ownership (Table VI). Marriages between members of the aristocracy and members of the lower classes were banned outright (Table XI). In short, only an adult male member of the Roman aristocracy was granted full personhood in this initial document which governed and defined Roman society. This narrow understanding of personhood remained the standard understanding in the Roman Empire until the fourth century.


1 Harold Bloom, Homer (New York: Infobase Publishing, Inc., 2009), 205.

2 Aristotle, Politics, in Aristotle: II, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 1260a10-14.

3 Ibid., 1280a32-34.

4 Aristotle, On the Generation of Animals, in Aristotle: I, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 737a26-7.

5 Aristotle, Politics, 1328b39-40.

6 Ibid., 1252b4-8.

7 The Laws of the Twelve Tables, (accessed 24 March 2013).

Personhood in Late Antiquity: How Barbarians, Slaves, Women, and Children Became Persons (Personhood in Late Antiquity, Part I)

The Greco-Roman world, whose Hellenistic culture and thought dominated the West throughout Antiquity, possessed a very narrow definition of what constituted a person, a full and equal member of the human political and legal community with all of the rights and responsibilities that status confers. In large part, the full application of that term and the concept it represented were limited to free adult male Greek, or, later, Roman, aristocrats. Groups such as slaves, children, women, men who were not Roman citizens, the poor, and others who did not fit into this narrow category were excluded from full participation in personhood. Slaves alone constituted a third of the population of the Roman Empire and women made up approximately half. The majority of the population of the Roman Empire, then, was seen as possessing less than full personhood. Groups that were denied full personhood were often subject to disdain, abuse, brutality, and even execution with no legal recourse. The Jews, on the other hand, who made up a small but visible minority of subjects and citizens under Greek and Roman rule in Antiquity, because of their doctrine of the Imago Dei, held a much wider understanding of personhood and included under that concept all members of the human species regardless of social status, age, gender, or nationality. As a result, Jewish law conferred upon slaves, women, children, the poor, and other such groups the status of full personhood and the rights associated with that status under Jewish law. Christianity emerged from Judaism in the first century AD and carried with it the idea of the Imago Dei, coupling with that idea its own original ideas of the Incarnation of God as man and the availability of salvation for all people through recapitulation. Already heavily influenced by Hellenistic thought from its inception, Christianity in large part became a point of synthesis between Judaism and Hellenism beginning in the second century as an increasing number of converts to the incipient religion came from segments of the Roman Empire outside of the Jewish community, especially from marginalized and oppressed groups. Because of its message of the full personhood of women, children, slaves, and other marginalized and oppressed classes in Roman society, it drew its converts especially from these groups. In the fourth century, Christianity became the official, dominant, and popular religion of the Roman Empire and began to exert a major influence on law, thought, and culture in the West. Although it continued to struggle with the process of reconciling and synthesizing the Judaic and Hellenistic elements it had inherited, Christianity introduced a new and wider understanding of who was fully a person, a definition which included even unborn children and the lowest and most degraded segments of society. Popularized and refined throughout Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, this definition became the standard understanding of what constitutes a human being according to Western thought and, although it has been and continues to be challenged from various quarters, it remains the standard understanding today.

Dred Scott, Abraham Lincoln, and John Brown

Although many events led up to the final outbreak of the Civil War in 1860, three of the most important, which occurred in successive years before 1860, are the Dred Scott Decision of 1857, the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859. These three events combined, and each coming upon the heels of the other, led to an exacerbation of the tension between the North and the South, heightening feelings on both sides. Although the Civil War had become a near-inevitability by the time that these events occurred and due to the ideological rift between North and South, these three events are important link in the chain of events that led to the outbreak of conflict.

The Dred Scott Decision in 1857 decided the case of Dred Scott, a slave who tried to claim his freedom on the basis that he had been taken and lived with his owner in a state in which slavery was illegal. The Supreme Court’s decision was that Dred Scott was not only not made free by virtue of having been taken into a non-slave state but in fact did not have the legal standing as a person according to the Constitution to even have brought his case to court. This decision was a shock to many Northerners and a major blow to the abolitionist cause.1 Abraham Lincoln was particularly incensed at the decision and reinvigorating in his zeal of stopping the expansion of slavery throughout the United States.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 occurred the following year. In the debates, Lincoln, a member of the Republican Party, represented the free labor ideology of the Republican Party, and Douglas, a Northern Democrat, reflected a belief in the primacy of States’ Rights. These debates were widely attended at each location at which they occurred and the full texts of the debates were published in newspapers across the country and read with great interest. It was largely on the basis of his performance in these debates that Lincoln was nominated for and elected to the presidency the following year. Many of his words in these debates were also used against him by his Southern opponents in their attempts to paint him as a radical abolitionist.

The straw that broke the camel’s back in the lead up to the Civil War is probably John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859. John Brown led a group of both blacks and whites in a raid on a federal arsenal in an attempt to encourage a general slave insurrection throughout the South. Although John Brown’s raid failed to accomplish its intended effect and John Brown himself was hung for leading the raid, Brown can be seen as ultimately victorious in his goals. His raid increased the tension between North and South and led many in both regions to believe the ideological differences between the regions could only be decided through armed conflict. His raid, then, can be seen as one of the important causes of the Civil War.

Although the ideologies of North and South had created an ever-growing rift between the two regions, and conflict was nearly inevitable by the late 1850s, the Dred Scott Decision, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry are three events which exacerbated the tensions between North and South. These three events, which occurred in successive years leading up to 1860 and the outbreak of the Civil War, can be seen as steps that led to the process of secession. In this sense, they can be seen as three important causes of the Civil War.

1 Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 292-3.

Reconstruction Under Lincoln

The greatest mark of the Reconstruction Era is perhaps its failure to effectively unite and rebuild the United States after the Civil War. If President Abraham Lincoln had lived to serve out his second term as president, the Reconstruction Era would have been smoother in its goal of reintegrating the South back into the Union but would have been the same as that under Andrew Johnson in its failure to fully account for, reckon with, and make amends for the evils of the past. In this failure, it would have created a similar situation to that which did occur in which oppression and disenfranchisement followed slavery and in which the real work of achieving equality and justice for all was slowed and delayed until a much later date.

As historian Eric Foner points out, “Lincoln did not … believe that Reconstruction entailed social and political changes beyond the abolition of slavery.”1 In this belief, Lincoln failed miserably to understand human nature and societies or ignored reality in favor of his own hopes and ideals. Whatever the reason for his belief, such a course of action would have been a recipe for disaster. To simply end the war and to end slavery without simultaneously working to eliminate the root and underlying causes behind why a clearly unjust institution like slavery was able to flourish in the American South in the first place, to attempt to balance the injustice by providing some form of monetary compensation and/or education as well as full citizenship rights to those who had suffered such an injustice, and to institute the proper laws and organizations for preventing future injustice is a remarkably great oversight on the part of someone remembered for their wisdom and thoughtfulness.

Lincoln had begun his first term as president expressing a desire to maintain the Union in peace at nearly any coast. His approach throughout the Civil War had indicated “a desire to achieve peace as expeditiously as possible.”2 Similarly, his approach to Reconstruction was largely one without any “fixed plan” aside from reattaching the South to the United States as quickly and easily as possible. For the most part, this did not mean fighting to procure social justice for former slaves nor, for that matter, any significant change in Southern culture, in which a deeply-entrenched and violently hateful racism inhered.

This unwillingness by Lincoln to “rock the boat” is reflected in Lincoln’s views concerning black voting rights. In modern liberal democracies and republicans like the United States full citizenship is reflected in one’s right to participate in one’s government by voting and having the right to run for political office. If one cannot participate in government, one is not a full citizen, in any meaningful sense, of a democracy. Lincoln’s rejection, then, of full political enfranchisement for freed slaves was a rejection of their full citizenship and, by implication, of their full personhood.3

Although Lincoln is often hailed as hero for having ended slavery in the United States and this heroic image and reputation leads many to believe the post-war years would have seen greater achievements and improvements, the truth seems rather to be that Reconstruction would not have taken place much differently under Lincoln than under Johnson. Lincoln’s policies before and during the Civil War reflect first and foremost a desire to restore the Union. No doubt his post-war policies would have reflected the same desire. Reconstruction under Lincoln, then, might have seen a smoother transition of the South into the Union than occurred under Johnson but would have seen a similar, if not grater, intentional ignorance of justice for former slaves.

1 Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 36.

2 Ibid., 73-4.

3 Ibid., 74.

Was the American Civil War a Just War?


The American Civil War was a defining moment not only in the history of the United States but in the history of the world. As Walt Whitman, an eyewitness of the Civil War, poignantly wrote in his book of poetry Leaves of Grass, it was on the United States that the “Earth’s résumé entire floats” and “the antecedent nations sink or swim with thee.”1 In other words, the United States acted, and arguably still acts, as the heir and representative of the entirety of the tradition of Western civilization. In the insistence of the founders of the United States that the underlying, central, and governing principles of the new nation were to be that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” and that governments “deriv[e] their just powers from the consent of the governed,” the formation of the United States became a culminating moment in the history of Western thought.2 Principles that were primary in and essentially unique to Western culture, such as the equality of all men before God and the law, the belief that all human beings are entitled to certain rights by virtue of being members of the human race, and that a government must have the consent of the governed, were identified as the principles upon which the United States would stand. The Civil War, then, represents a summarizing event in Western civilization; it stands in line with the Peloponnesian War, the triumph of Christianity in Late Antiquity, the split between Eastern and Western Christendom in 1054, and the Protestant Reformation as one of the greatest schisms in Western civilization. Both sides of the Civil War, the federal government and the incipient Confederate States of America, represent this common heritage in all its contradiction and complexity. Part of this common heritage is the Just War theory developed by Greco-Roman thinkers like Aristotle and Cicero, which culminated in the thought of medieval and early modern Christian thinkers such as St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Hugo Grotius. Ironically, although both belligerents represent this common heritage and were fighting for two different aspects of Western civilization, and although both saw themselves as fighting for a just cause, neither participant in the American Civil War can be said to have fought a just war as both failed to meet the criteria of Just War theory.

Jus Ad Bellum

When considering whether a war effectively met the criteria of Just War theory, the first consideration that must be made is whether the reasons for war in the first place were just. In Latin, this stage of consideration is referred to as “Jus Ad Bellum,” meaning “just to war.” Traditionally, four criteria have been identified by Just War theorists as creating a situation in which a power is “just to war,” namely, (1) just authority, (2) just cause, (3) just intention, and (4) last resort.3

1. Just Authority

The first criterion, just authority, requires that the powers initiating and engaging in hostilities possess the legitimate authority to do so. Thomas Aquinas summarizes this point in his Summa Theologica in his claim that “in order for a war to be just” there must be a “sovereign” with valid authority “by whose command the war is to be waged” because “it is not the business of a private person to declare war” nor “the business of a private person to summon together the people, which has to be done in wartime.”4 While it is apparent that the federal government of the United States meets this criterion, the government of the Confederacy does not appear to do so.5 Theoretically, it could be argued that the central government of the Confederacy derived its authority from the states which chose to enter into it and which were undoubtedly legitimate governing authorities, which in turn lends legitimacy to the government of the Confederacy as a kind of conglomerate government of these states. The Constitution of the United States of America, however, of which all of the constituent states of the Confederacy were signers, specifically grants the right “to raise and support Armies” only to the federal government.6 Furthermore, the Constitution also did not provide for the means nor even seem to envision the possibility of any state or group of states to decide to leave the Union, a fact which Abraham Lincoln himself pointed out in his First Inaugural Address, delivered on 4 March 1861:

It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination. Continue to execute all the express provisions of our National Constitution, and the Union will endure forever, it being impossible to destroy it except by some action not provided for in the instrument itself.7

In addition, as Charles Guthrie and Michael Quinlan point out in their treatment of Just War theory in the modern world, “historically,” the criterion of just or competent authority “has usually meant the ruler or government of a sovereign state, as opposed to an internal warlord or faction.”8 In other words, traditional Just War theory does not seem to countenance a civil war, no matter for how ostensibly just a cause. The Confederacy, then, fails to meet the criterion of just authority.

2. Just Cause

A just cause for war is perhaps the most central and important of the criteria of Jus Ad Bellum. Even those who are entirely unversed in the niceties of Just War theory and international law generally demand that there be a just cause for the initiation of military action by one nation upon another. To determine if either or both sides of the Civil War possessed a just cause for war, the reasons for the conflict as viewed and enunciated by each side must be examined; although there are a variety of causes which led to the Civil War, there are two overarching reasons behind all of the causes: (1) a dispute over the role of the federal government in relation to the rights of the states to govern themselves and (2) slavery, arguably the deepest of all underlying issues and causes of the war.

From a Southern perspective, the ultimate cause of the Civil War was the infringement on the rights of the states by the federal government. As the website of the Civil War Trust, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of historical sites related to the Civil War, succinctly states it, “Southerners were sure that the North meant to take away their right to govern themselves, abolish slavery, and destroy the Southern economy.”9 From this perspective, it is possible to see the Civil War as a struggle by the Confederacy against the tyranny of the United States government, which would seem to indicate a just cause. If the implications of and reasons for the cry of “states’ rights” on the part of Southerners is examined deeper, however, the uncovered roots overturn such a conclusion.

Ultimately, for Southerners, the right of the states that was being demanded was the right to determine the legality of slavery. According to Alexander Hamilton Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederacy,

our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea [from abolition]; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.10

While Union leaders, on the other hand, identified the war primarily as “a struggle to preserve the Union” early in the conflict, they quickly realized that the only way to preserve the Union was to agree with the Confederate leadership that the war was primarily about slavery and to adopt the equal and opposite position of those like Stephens, seeking instead to “reconstruct the Union into the nation it should have been without slavery.”11 In its very essence, then, at its deepest roots, the Civil War was a war about slavery.

Although slavery has been practiced throughout most of the history of the world, including those segments of the world and its history that make up Western civilization, slavery has also received an unequivocal condemnation by this tradition. As historian Thomas Cahill notes, “in the prescriptions of Jewish law we cannot but note a presumption that all people, even slaves, are human and that all human lives are sacred.”12 From these ancient Jewish roots, Christianity derived its “claim that all were equal before God and all equally precious to him,” a claim which “ran through class-conscious, minority-despising, weakness-ridiculing Greco-Roman society like a charged current” and overturned the previous ideological foundations upon which Western society had based its belief in the legitimacy of the practice of slavery.13 14 As a result of this claim, early Christian thinkers and leaders like late fourth century bishop St. Gregory of Nyssa became among the first writers in the world to adopt a truly abolitionist position towards slavery and to oppose the practice on principle.15 As Cahill has pointed out, it is only within the context of this strain of thought that a claim like that of the American Declaration of Independence that it is “self-evident that all men are created equal” can make any sense at all or, for that matter, “could ever have been” made in the first place.16 If such a claim is accepted as true, whether self-evidently or not, slavery must, by implication, be viewed as immoral per se.

If the ultimate and underlying cause of the Civil War for both sides thereof is indeed slavery, it is this issue which must determine which side, if either, had a just cause for the initiation of hostilities. According to St. Augustine of Hippo, as quoted by Thomas Aquinas in his discussion of Just War, “a just war is … one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly.”17 Given that slavery is a “wrong” in need of “punishment” and that the Confederacy had “unjustly” seceded from the Union for this cause, the federal government here again seems to meet the criteria of Jus Ad Bellum whereas the Confederacy fails to do so.

3. Just Intention

The third criterion of Jus Ad Bellum, just intention, requires that the belligerents involved in a war have the correct intentions in commencing hostilities. In the succinct phrasing of Aquinas, the criterion of just intention is the criterion that belligerent powers “intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil.”18 They cannot intend to inflict hateful or undue punishments upon their opponents but only to redress the wrongs for which they are going to war. In this regard, again, the Union seems to have the advantage over the Confederacy in meeting the criteria of Just War theory.

Although, as will be discussed in the section on Jus in Bello, the Union often failed to live up to its intentions, it is clear from both his words and his actions that President Abraham Lincoln, as the leader of the Union, desired “to achieve peace as expeditiously as possible.”19 His goal from the beginning of the war and throughout its duration was to end the conflict and reintegrate the South back into the Union as quickly and easily as possible. To this end, he opposed those members of his own political party who called for more radical measures in punishing the South’s political and military leadership as well as its economic aristocracy at the end of the war. Although he insisted upon the emancipation of blacks and the abolition of slavery throughout the United States, he was, not to his credit, even willing to compromise on the enfranchisement of former slaves and other blacks as full citizens with voting rights in order to satisfy the prejudices and alleviate the fears of Southern whites, stating in his final speech before his assassination that he desired that, among blacks, only “the very intelligent” and Union veterans of the Civil War be granted the right to vote.20

In contrast to these rather amicable intentions on the part of the highest leadership in the federal government stands the rancor that dominated the intentions of the highest leadership in the Confederate government. In his Normans and Saxons, an intellectual history of the idea of race in its relation to the Civil War, Ritchie Devon Watson, Jr., demonstrates that the rhetoric of white Southerners against blacks, Northern whites, and other target groups exceeded mere polemic and entered the realm of vitriolic demonization.21 One example of the existence and nature of such hatred even among the highest ranks in the Confederacy may be found in the apparent approval of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, for the assassination of Lincoln.22 In this point of Just War theory as in those previously considered, the Union once again meets this criterion whereas the Confederacy fails to measure up.

4. Last Resort

The final essential ingredient of Jus Ad Bellum, according to classical formulations of Just War theory, is that the resort to armed conflict be a last resort. Even if just authority, just cause, and just intention all exist, warfare must itself be the final and even unavoidable course of action in order for engagement in warfare to be deemed just. Augustine goes as far as saying that in order for a war to be just the nation which engages in its and its leader must be compelled by force of necessity to enter into warfare, claiming that “it is the wrongdoing of the opposing party which compels the wise man to wage just wars.”23 If either side in the Civil War can be said to have been compelled to enter the war by force of necessity, it must be the Union.

While there are many events which contributed to the eventual outbreak of open conflict between North and South, the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency is undoubtedly the match that sparked the flame. The crisis created by the Kansas-Nebraska Bill of 1854, in which antislavery and proslavery factions vied to populate the territories with their own members and, by extension, to depopulate the territories of members of the other faction, in order to ensure that the new territories entered the Union as non-slave or slave states, respectively, the 1859 attack of John Brown and his men upon the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, by which he hoped to spark a war over slavery, and other similar events created a tension which hung thick in the air in 1860. The election of Lincoln, who had been elected as a senator from Illinois only two years earlier on “a strong anti-slavery ticket,” as it has been described, was the final straw as far as Southerners were concerned.24

Although he did not receive the majority of the vote, Lincoln did receive a strong plurality among the four candidates for the presidency. Whereas his Democratic opponent, Stephen Douglas, carried 29.5% of the vote, Lincoln took 39.9%, more than enough to represent a decisive victory.25 In the words of historian William E. Gienap, “the northern majority possessed the power to which it was entitled. Yet southerners refused to accept the popular verdict.”26 According to historian William C. Harris, who, in turn, relies upon the account of historian John William Draper, Jefferson Davis himself once plainly informed two Northerners who inquired of him the reasons for secession during the Civil War, “we seceded to rid ourselves of the rule of the majority.”27 In short, in the words of Harris, “Southern failure to abide by majority rule was at the center of the secession crisis.”28 29

Lincoln, on the other hand, tried to prevent Southern secession and the outbreak of war. Although he was portrayed by those who wanted to stoke Southern fears as a “black Republican” and an “abolitionist” and although he had voiced opposition to slavery in the past, Lincoln continually reassured those who would listen to him that he was no radical and did not plan to drastically overturn the state of things in the United States.30 His priorities, as he himself said, were to maintain the Union, to enforce its laws as they stood, and to seek peaceful resolutions to the conflicts and complexities that plagued it. The South, however, hardly gave him the opportunity to even begin taking action. Only “one month after Lincoln was elected president, the state of South Carolina announced its secession from the Union” and “within a few weeks, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas followed suit.”31 The Confederates were also the first to engage in violence against the other side, firing the opening shots of the Civil War at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, on 12 April 1861. Even in his Second Inaugural Address, delivered on 4 March 1865, as the war was drawing to a close, Lincoln expressed a belief, perhaps solidified throughout the course of a war he had first fought to prevent and then tried desperately to abbreviate and lessen the harshness of but had failed in both goals, that the United States had been inexorably drawn into the war by divine mandate:

We shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.32

In its rush to and insistence upon secession, the Confederacy yet again failed to meet the standard set by Just War theory. The Union, on the other hand, especially in its leader’s willingness to continue to attempt to negotiate through the differences of ideology and practice that separated the two major regions of the nation and in his stated commitment to place the peace and preservation of the Union foremost in his desires, successfully satisfied the criterion of last resort. There can be little doubt that in meeting the requirement of Augustine that a just war be a war in which a national power is compelled to participate by force of necessity the Confederacy fell far short and the Union succeeded.

5. Conclusion

In final consideration of the four criteria of Jus ad Bellum, the Union is shown to have had the “right to war” in the Civil War whereas the Confederacy did not. Whereas the federal government was a legitimate and sovereign governing authority, the Confederacy failed, as a rebellious group rising against its legitimate government, to meet the criterion of just authority. The federal government also satisfied the criterion of just cause in its desire to simultaneously preserve its sovereign territories to itself and to end the gravely unjust practice of slavery within its borders, whereas the Confederacy’s quest to uphold the institution of slavery, given that it is unjust per se, is clearly an unjust cause for war. The Union’s just intention of repatriating the Southern states to itself quickly and peacefully also satisfied the criterion of just intention, whereas the vitriolic hatred exhibited by all ranks of Confederate leadership for blacks, Northern whites, and anyone else opposed to its cause runs obviously contrary to the criterion of just intention. Finally, the South’s overeager rush for war presents a stark contrast with the nearly desperate pleas of the leadership in the federal government for a peaceful resolution to the internal dissensions of the United States, demonstrating that only the federal government meets the criterion of last resort. In short, the Union adequately satisfied the criterion for Jus Ad Bellum, whereas the Confederacy did not.

Jus In Bello

The next series of points which must be considered in a discussion of whether a specific war can be considered a just war in accordance with traditional formulations of Just War theory is that set of criteria which fall under the category “Jus In Bello,” a Latin phrase meaning “just in war.”33 As the name of this set of criteria indicates, Jus In Bello involves the consideration of whether the actual conduct of a particular belligerent in a war was just. The three criteria of Jus In Bello are (1) proportionality, (2) discrimination, and (3) responsibility. Whereas the federal government adequately satisfied all of the criteria for Jus Ad Bellum, both the Confederacy and the Union failed to satisfy any of the three criteria of Jus In Bello. The actions of the Union army which entered into and crossed through Georgia under General William Tecumseh Sherman, perhaps best demonstrate the failures of both sides in the Civil War to conduct a just war. Sherman’s infamous March to Sea, which has been remembered by subsequent generations largely for its brutality, particularly serves as an outstanding case study in the failure of both powers in the Civil War to practice just conduct within warfare.

1. Proportionality

The first criterion of Jus In Bello is proportionality; proportionality requires that the methods and amount of force used during warfare be proportionate to their desired effect. In other words, given that a belligerent power has just cause and just intention, said belligerent power may only use the minimum amount of force necessary to achieve its intention and satisfy its cause. The actions of the Union army under General Sherman, in flagrant defiance of this criterion, exemplify disproportionality in wartime conduct.

Even before their March to the Sea, more properly referred to as the Savannah Campaign, the Union troops led by Sherman proved their preference for cruelty and their penchant for disproportionality. The burning of Atlanta, Georgia, is one example. On 14 November 1864, just over two months after his army had captured the city, Sherman ordered the entire destruction of the city of Atlanta. According to historian Russell S. Bonds, approximately 4000 homes and businesses were burned to the ground; of the entire city only 400 buildings, just about a tenth of the city, remained standing.34 In a description reminiscent of the common, even if probably false, depiction of the burning of Rome, during which the Emperor Nero, ostensibly the perpetrator of the crime, arrayed himself in a stage costume and sang a song, Union officer Captain Daniel Oakey reported that, while Atlanta burned, the Second Massachusetts’s “post band and that of the Thirty-third Massachusetts played martial airs and operatic selections.”35 36

Whatever the accuracy or lack thereof in this grotesque picture, there can be little doubt that the burning of Atlanta was an act of gross disproportionality in the conduct of warfare. The burning of Atlanta, however, was only the beginning. The March to the Sea that commenced with the burning of Atlanta continued for more than a month, with the federal troops under Sherman “creating a charred avenue over 40 miles wide through the unprotected State [of Georgia], destroying the railroads, seizing all provisions, pillaging, plundering and burning.”37 Sherman’s actions were drastically disproportionate to the cause and intentions of the federal government; the Union and its leaders, then, especially Sherman, failed to succeed in meeting the criterion of proportionality.

2. Discrimination

The second criterion of Jus In Bello is discrimination, which refers to the responsibility of the belligerent power to discriminate between military and civilian targets and to only strike the former while avoiding as much as possibly any damage to the latter. Sherman’s burning of Atlanta and the entirety of his Savannah Campaign once again demonstrate the failure of the federal forces engaged in the Civil War to conduct themselves justly on this point. Not only did Sherman fail to distinguish between military and civilian targets, he actively ordered and encouraged his troops to raid and attack civilian targets.

While his troops were in the Carolinas, for instance, before entering into Georgia, Sherman sent out foraging parties which became known as “Sherman’s bummers” who became a well-known and much-despised presence among the civilian population for their behavior.38 These “bummers” became known among the civilian populations of the Carolinas for their lewd and disrespectful demeanor and for “pillaging and burning” food and other necessary supplies that were often extremely scarce in the South during the war.39

When his “bummers” began to be found murdered wearing signs indicating “death to all foragers,” Sherman offered pale and unacceptable excuses for their behavior. He wrote to one of the generals under him, for instance, that “I contend if the enemy fails to defend his country we may rightfully appropriate what we want.”40 41 He added the further justification that he believed his troops had the right to “destroy cotton and tobacco,” in spite of the fact that these crops were grown by civilians on privately-owned property and often represented the livelihood of those who grew them, “because these things are assumed by the rebel Government to belong to it, and are used as a valuable source of revenue.”42 For Sherman, nearly every Southerner was in some sense an enemy, complicit in the Confederate rebellion against the federal government and liable to punishment for his or her complicity. Every target, then, was, in some sense, a civilian target.

Using a similar line of reasoning, Sherman justified his burning of Atlanta by claiming that the city had been and could again be, after the departure of his troops to continue their march, be put to military use.43 This is hardly a valid reason, however, to destroy nearly an entire city, including thousands of private homes and businesses. Years after the Civil War, Sherman would, perhaps in an attempt, whether conscious or not, to justify his actions during the war, tell a crowd of listeners, “there is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory. But boys it is all hell.”44 45 In the end, it is abundantly clear that Sherman and the Union forces of which he was a leader refused to distinguish between combatants and noncombatants; as a result, they failed to meet the criterion of discrimination.

3. Responsibility

According to Jon Dorbolo, the third and final criterion of Jus In Bello, responsibility, itself divides into three parts.46 According to this criterion, a belligerent power is not responsible for the negative consequences of the war and therefore not itself unjust in spite of the injustice which inevitably accompanies armed conflict if (a) the particular course of action which caused the negative consequences was intended for good, (b) the particular course of action which caused the negative consequences was not intended for bad, and (c) the overall good outweighs the bad.

It could be argued that even Sherman’s March to the Sea, in spite of all its apparent brutality, does in fact fit the criterion of responsibility and therefore qualifies as Jus In Bello. It was, after all, so it could be argued, only what was necessary to end the war as quickly as possible. By demoralizing Southerners and destroying their means of subsistence in addition to their military supplies, Sherman stripped them of their will to war and so brought about the end of the war. If this is true, it can be seen that Sherman’s actions were intended for good, were not intended for bad, and, given that he accomplished his goal of bringing about the end of the war, this good outweighs all of the bad he did in order to achieve it. Even Sherman himself, after all, once said, only a few months after his brutal Atlanta and Savannah campaigns, that “the legitimate object of war is a more perfect peace.”47

Such a line of reasoning, however, does not stand up to the light of scrutiny and thorough, thoughtful consideration. In the end, this line of reasoning amounts to little more than a Machiavellian assertion that the ends justify the means. If Sherman’s March to the Sea is allowed as somehow “just” simply because it contributed to the eventual Confederate surrender and Union victory in the Civil War, nearly any conduct within warfare can be twisted to fit the definition of Jus In Bello. While it can be admitted that Sherman’s actions contributed substantially to the fall of the Confederacy and the triumph of the Union, this admission can in no way be used to justify the actions as having been just per se.

4. Conclusion

The only sound conclusion that can be reached in regards to Jus In Bello and the Civil War is that neither belligerent power met any of the criteria. Both sides in the Civil War failed to practice proportionality and discrimination. As a result, both sides bear the full burden of responsibility for the negative consequences of their actions.

Jus Post Bellum

Although not included in the classical treatments of Just War theory, the concept of Jus Post Bellum, or “justice after war,” has been become a standard aspect of formulations of Just War theory in the modern world and seems a fitting conclusion to any discussion of Just War theory.48 Brian Orend, one of the first of the modern Just War theorists to discuss the concept of Jus Post Bellum, outlined two criteria in particular for Jus Post Bellum: (1) compensation and (2) rehabilitation. Drawing upon earlier and generally accepted formulations of Just War theory, Orend posits that, in short, the victor in a war must not exact undue punishment from the losing power but should instead assist in its attempts to rebuild and rehabilitate.

While the era of Reconstruction which followed the Civil War had both its accomplishments and its failures, a fair assessment would conclude that Reconstruction largely met the criteria of Jus Post Bellum as outlined by Orend. The Union succeeded in reintegrating the South back into the United States in a relatively expeditious manner. Efforts were made to rebuild the South and what few punishments were exacted upon the former Confederacy and its leaders, such as the disenfranchisement of many Southerners from the vote and the imprisonment of leaders like Jefferson Davis, were generally, for better or worse, short-lived. The failure that lingers over Reconstruction is, ultimately, its inability to simultaneously integrate the newly freed slaves and other blacks throughout the United States as well as reintegrate the whites of the South into the fabric of American life and politics. These two goals appear to have been mutually exclusive in practice. As a result, the unequivocal recognition of full citizenship for black Americans was delayed for nearly 100 years and a long era of segregation, lynching, second-class citizenship, distrust, and hatred set in Southern life and in American life as a whole. In consideration of this, it could be said that the United States also failed to accomplish Jus Post Bellum in that it did not fully satisfy the criterion of rehabilitation, or at least took an inordinately long time to do so.


The American Civil War, as the outbreak of armed conflict due to a rift that had existed in the fabric of Western civilization nearly since the infancy of that civilization, embodied a certain tension in Western thought and finally determined the course that Western civilization would take on the questions of slavery, liberty, equality, and democracy. Although the Civil War, on both sides, was truly representative of the heritage of the Western tradition, neither belligerent satisfied all of the criteria for Just War theory, a central aspect of Western thought on warfare and international relations.

While the Union met the criteria of Jus Ad Bellum, qualifying as having just reason and ability to engage in warfare, the Union failed to maintain justice throughout the war and so satisfy the criteria of Jus In Bello. In addition, although it could be argued that the efforts of the federal government to reintegrate white Southerners back into the mainstream of the United States indicates that the Union satisfied the criteria for Jus Post Bellum, it should also be pointed out that in allowing the reentrance of Southern whites into American life a very large number of human beings, namely freed slaves and other blacks, were excluded from meaningful participation in American life and denied justice. In addition, injustice was allowed to continue in the South, in spite of the end of slavery, in the form of segregation and oppression targeting blacks and other ethnic and religious minorities. The other belligerent power in the war, the Confederacy, failed to satisfy any of the criteria of Just War theory. On final analysis, then, although the Civil War accomplished the good of finally ending slavery in the United States, a power representative of and at the helm of Western civilization, it must be concluded that the American Civil War was not a just war.

Notes1 Walt Whitman, “Thou Mother With Thy Equal Brood,” 4, Leaves of Grass (New York: The Modern Library, 2001), 564.

2 Declaration of Independence, (accessed 23 December 2012).

3 Jon Dorbolo, “Just War Theory,” Oregon State University (2010) (accessed 23 December 2012).

4 Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part II, Section II, Q. 40. Art. 2., ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins, Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 20 (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 578.

5 Although it could be and has been argued that the incipient American government failed to meet this criterion in the Revolutionary War, the consequences of such a determination for the Civil War are ambiguous. There is the potential for using the assumption of the inherent righteousness of the American cause in the Revolution coupled with the lack of support for any revolution at all in Just War theory as an argumentum ad absurdum against Just War theory. Free of the assumption of the justness of the American cause against the British monarchy, however, the case could also be made that the American Revolution was in fact unjust. One example of a paper which argues that the American Revolutionary War was an unjust war is John Keown, “America’s War for Independence: Just or Unjust?,” Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University, (accessed 23 December 2012).

6 The United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8, item 12, (accessed 23 December 2012).

7 Abraham Lincoln, “First Inaugural Address,” (accessed 23 December 2012).

8 Charles Guthrie and Michael Quinlan, Just War: The Just War Tradition: Ethics in Modern Warfare (New York: Walker & Company, 2007), 13.

9 “States’ Rights: The Rallying Cry of Secession,” Civil War Trust (2011) (accessed 23 December 2012).

10 Alexander Hamilton Stephens, in David J. Eicher, The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), 49.

11 Ibid., 364-5.

12 Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (New York: Anchor Books, 1998), 154.

13 Thomas Cahill, Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 44.

14 Aristotle, for example, argues in his Politics, Book I, Chapters 3-6, as elsewhere, that there are those who are “intended by nature to be a slave” and those, on the other hand, who are naturally masters. The Confederate racial ideology as elucidated by Stephens, though never fully developed, seems to have been a revival of this way of reasoning, which further exhibits the nature of the American Civil War as a civil war in Western civilization as a whole, perhaps between the Hebraic and Greco-Roman strands thereof. (Aristotle, Politics, in, Aristotle II, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins, Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 9 (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 446-9.)

15 Although the sentiment is common to many early Christian writers, Gregory of Nyssa is singled out for having issued one of the clearest calls for abolition in the ancient world in his fourth homily on Ecclesiastes; see Eric Denby, “The First Abolitionist? Gregory of Nyssa on Ancient Roman Slavery,” 9 May 2011, (accessed 23 December 2012).

16 Cahill, Gifts of the Jews, 249.

17 Augustine of Hippo, in Aquinas, Summa Theologica.

18 Aquinas, Summa Theologica.

19 Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2002), 73-4.

20 Abraham Lincoln, in Foner, Reconstruction, 74.

21 Ritchie Devon Watson, Jr., Normans and Saxons: Southern Race Mythology and the Intellectual History of the American Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008).

22 “Jefferson Davis and the Assassination,” University of Missouri – Kansas City School of Law, (accessed 23 December 2012).

23 St. Augustine, The City of God, Book 4, Chapter 14, tr. Marcus Dods, in Robert Maynard Hutchins, Augustine (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 196.

24 Thomas H. Flaherty, ed., The Colonial Overlords (TimeFrame AD 1850-1900) (Alexandria: Time-Life Books, 1990), 140.

25 “Election of 1860,” The American Presidency Project, (accessed 23 December 2012).

26 William E. Gienap, “The Republican Party and the Slave Power,” in Robert H. Abzug and Stephen E. Maizlish, editors, New Perspectives on Slavery and Race in America: Essays in Honor of Kenneth M. Stampp (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1986), 64-65.

27 John William Draper, in William C. Harris, “Abraham Lincoln and Secession,” The Lincoln Institute Presents: Abraham Lincoln’s Classroom, (accessed 23 December 2012).

28 Harris, “Abraham Lincoln.”

29 This conflict between the democratic principle of majority rule, enshrined in the Constitution, and the interests of the wealthy and powerful Southern aristocracy exhibits another way in which the American Civil War represents the summarizing of a conflict that had long troubled Western civilization as a whole, namely the conflict between the oligarchic and democratic forms of government. This rift in Western thought makes perhaps its first appearance in a written document with Herodotus, The History, Book III, pars. 80-3, in which passage the respective merits and demerits of monarchy, democracy, and oligarchy are discussed and debated. The history of Athens, arguably the world’s first democracy, also exhibits this tension. (Herodotus, The History, in Herodotus and Thucydides, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins, Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 6 (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 107-8.)

30 Harris, “Abraham Lincoln.”

31 Flaherty, Colonial Overlords, 140.

32 Abraham Lincoln, “Second Inaugural Address,” (accessed 23 December 2012).

33 Dorbolo, “Just War Theory.”

34 Russell S. Bonds, War Like the Thunderbolt: The Battle and Burning of Atlanta (Yardley: Westholme Publishing, 2009), 363.

35 For a classical presentation of the common depiction of the burning of Rome, see Suetonius, “The Life of Nero,” 38, in The Lives of the Caesars,*.html (accessed 23 December 2012).

36 Daniel Oakey, in “Sherman in Georgia!,” Home of the American Civil War (10 February 2002) (accessed 23 December 2012).

37 “Sherman in Georgia!”

38 “The Carolinas Campaign: Death To All Foragers,” Wade Hampton Camp, (accessed 23 December 2012).

39 John G. Barrett, Sherman’s March Through the Carolinas (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1956), 96.

40 William T. Sherman, in “The Carolinas Campaign.”

41 Sherman’s statement sounds very similar to the claim of Aristotle in his Politics, Book I, Chapter 8, in which he asserts that “the art of war is a natural art of acquisition, an art which we ought to practise … against men who, though they be intended by nature to be governed, will not submit; for war of such a kind is naturally just.” In short, Aristotle, in a foreshadowing of Sherman, claims that it is right to take what one’s enemy cannot prevent one from taking and that the ability to acquire indicates that it is naturally just to do so. A similar sentiment is expressed in the famous Melian dialogue recorded in Thucydides’s account of The History of the Peloponnesian War, Book V, par. 89, in which the Athenians nonchalantly inform the Melians that “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” This ethic of “might makes right” perhaps indicates the similarity of Sherman’s ideas of warfare to those developed before the advent of a full-fledged Just War theory following the triumph of Christianity in the Roman Empire. (Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, in Herodotus and Thucydides, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins, Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 6 (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 505.)

42 Ibid.

43 “Sherman’s March to the Sea,” Home of the American Civil War (16 February 2002) (accessed 23 December 2012).

44 Sherman, in Eicher, Longest Night, 847.

45 This statement presents an interesting contrast with the claim of the Presocratic Greek philosopher Democritus, as recorded by Plutarch, that men “ought to be instructed in the art of war … which is a source of great and glorious things for men,” in Plutarch, Against Colotes, 1126A. It demonstrates that even in the case of someone like Sherman, whose approach to warfare was far more in line with combat before the full flowing of Just War theory in the Christian era, perspectives had been altered and shaped by the introduction of new ideas on warfare. (Jonathan Barnes, Early Greek Philosophy (New York: Penguin Books, 2001), 229.)

46 Dorbolo, “Just War Theory.”

47 Sherman, in Eicher, Longest Night, 847.

48 Brian Orend, “Justice after War,” Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, (accessed 23 December 2012). Widgets