Cian O’Driscoll – Keeping Tradition Alive: Just War and Historical Imagination

A bas-relief of Persian soldiers, c.515 BC. Source: Aneta Ribarska

Last week we had the pleasure of hosting Cian O’Driscoll from the University of Glasgow, presenting a draft of his latest intervention in just war theory. Below, I recollect the basic moves of his paper.

Cian O’Driscoll sets out to redress one of the dangers of locating oneself within the tradition of just war theory: of lapsing into a kind of traditionalism that contrives a fixed canon around which all debate must orbit. This is not only an artificial self-limitation, but one which can lead to a kind of intellectual conservatism. How do we preserve the wisdom congealed within the recognised tradition of just war theory, but avoid the pitfalls of traditionalism? O’Driscoll offers a simple solution: we must extend its ambit to include previously neglected thinkers. In this paper, he looks to the figure of Xenophon, with two key provisos. First, Xenophon did not write in the first-person. His writings offer a rich collection of observations of ancient Greek thought and practice. Second, clearly Xenophon antedates the actual ‘just war tradition’ – however fragile a historical basis that tradition has – and cannot be directly read through its categories. O’Driscoll reveals that Xenophon’s observations do, however, have a startling affinity with just war thinking. The one complements the other. We find in Xenophon a highly agonal conception of war that, in contrast to modern incarnations of just war theory, places especial weight on the restraint of force – not simply the enactment of justice.

Written by Louis Fletcher.

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