The atrocity of war, killing human beings---what more can be said that hasn’t before voiced the lament, the confusion, and paradox that invariably arises when we ask ourselves when is it “justified” to defend living, to secure one’s way of life? I cannot subscribe to a passivism or any resignation to the machinations of karma, as if the arc of justice will somehow right itself without our value, commitments, and actions.
In the Epic Mahabharata’s “call to the yoke” an honest choice is put before us: turn to engage the battle or accept the consequences imposed by one’s conquerors. This choice further suggest one of the earliest uses of the word “yoga” to mean the engagement that puts before us the stakes. To raise the stakes may not be an individual’s choice; we are more likely, as it is here in the Epic, subject to the whirlwinds of history, the turmoil arriving like a storm, a reality we must accept factually, not of our individual making but undoubtedly remaking us. The bell tolls for thee.
Should the better decision of such painful reality be to flee and seek refuge from the battle, who could condemn such a choice? It is a modern fact that two-thirds of refugees never return home. The price of such exile cannot be gainsaid. Estimates at present are that more than 300K+ Ukrainians have left the country since the Russian invasion. At the same time we know that ordinary civilians are being armed to fight alongside the military or however they can to defend their homeland. I offer no judgment as to the choices individuals need to make for their families, their conscience, or their principled values.
I was reminded this morning of a legal phrase inter arma enim silent leges, which means “for among (times) of arms, the laws fall silent.” It is used in cautionary ways not to justify the use of arms but more importantly to remind us that the laws should not fall silent even as we acknowledge that the most rational acts of self-defense will take us further into crisis of conscience and ethical reflection.
The oft-cited legal phrase is actually a restatement from Cicero’s speech to Milo (http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/cicero/milo.shtml), where he writes, “Silent enim leges inter arma” which means something like “for the laws between arms are silent.” It is what he says next that reveals further his intention. He writes, “nor do they order them to wait, since one willing to wait must be punished before an unjust punishment must be repaid before the just (nec se exspectari iubent, cum ei qui exspectare velit, ante iniusta poena luenda sit, quam iusta repetenda).
That sounds a bit confusing to our ears but in effect we are being asked to consider how taking a more immediate action to defend one’s self or repay a criminal action may eventually bring the law down upon ourselves. Alas, how do we hold ourselves to account for choices we never wanted to make and yet must. The ever-prudent Cicero knows well that we have to live with ourselves and in society that holds sacred the value of law that organizes sacred boundaries.
It is not merely justification or rationalization we seek when we take up arms but the sacred itself. We want to know, to feel, to experience the boundaries that say “here, not there,” “this, not that,” “now, not then” in ways that speak to dignity, decency, integrity.
We want to find out more about what makes us human and what it means to defend the very notion of humanity itself. Humanity is the sacred we are seeking in the face of a world in which the profane is untold horror and oppression. To acquiesce to the defeat of freedom and dignity is to deny our human sacred need. We create the law to honor the sacred because without those claims it becomes all too clear what we will do to one another. We want something we can stand on when the storm will not abate.
“Although very wisely and in a certain way silently, the law itself gives the power to defend, which forbids a person to be killed not with a weapon for the purpose of killing a person; so that, since the weapon was not being investigated for the purpose, one was judged to have used a weapon for the purpose of self-defense, not to have had a weapon by means of threatening to kill another.”
When we see the courage of ordinary people taking up arms against an unprovoked and criminal incursion meant to defeat their ideals, their principles of self-governance, from those come to steal their liberty and their way of life, we see such self-defense not only as a legal right but as a call to the sacred.
If there is nothing sacred for which we live then there will be no meaning to the realities of suffering and death---and that we must not forsake when the claims of the criminal aggressor call us to the yoke. We are faced with the implications that come with raising arms and violence that with all our hearts we did not seek nor seek to inflict.
Defending humanity is no simple choice to engage the fight or seek another refuge: it is the call to a sacred that invariably brings forward the complications of shadows that accompany the light we seek. However just the cause, the pain inflicted and the shadows of conscience are as much the truth of the sacred as they are a manifest profanity. We must not rationalize the need for violence but defend the sacred as cause to live freely.
Here is the passage cited from Cicero:
11. Silent enim leges inter arma; nec se exspectari iubent, cum ei qui exspectare velit, ante iniusta poena luenda sit, quam iusta repetenda. Etsi persapienter et quodam modo tacite dat ipsa lex potestatem defendendi, quae non hominem occidi, sed esse cum telo hominis occidendi causa vetat; ut, cum causa non telum quaereretur, qui sui defendendi causa telo esset usus non minis occidendi causa habuisse telum iudicaretur. Quapropter hoc maneat in causa, iudices, non enim dubito quin probaturus sim vobis defensionem meam, si id memineritis quod oblivisci non potestis, insidiatorem iure interfici posse.
For the laws between arms are silent; nor do they order them to wait, since he who is willing to wait must be punished before an unjust punishment must be repaid before the just. Although very wisely and in a certain way silently, the law itself gives the power to defend, which forbids a man to be killed not with a weapon for the purpose of killing a man; so that, since the weapon was not being investigated for the purpose, he was judged to have used a weapon for the purpose of self-defense, not to have had a weapon by means of threatening to kill him.