Saint Augustine on Pirates

by on April 13, 2009 at 3:09 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

In the "City of God," St. Augustine tells the story of a pirate captured by Alexander the Great. The Emperor angrily demanded of him, "How dare you molest the seas?" To which the pirate replied, "How dare you molest the whole world? Because I do it with a small boat, I am called a pirate and a thief. You, with a great navy, molest the world and are called an emperor." St. Augustine thought the pirate's answer was "elegant and excellent."

The quote is from Noam Chomsky's Pirates and Emperors and is cited by Ralph Raico at the Liberty and Power Blog.  Hat tip to Sheldon Richman.

caveat bettor April 13, 2009 at 3:12 pm

I would have preferred a “Norm” (of Cheers) quote to “Noam”. But, hey, I still love the blog.

josh April 13, 2009 at 3:15 pm
oops April 13, 2009 at 3:37 pm

pirates were those that attacked any ship regardless of flag. many european countries sponsored “privateers” which were licensed to harass and plunder the spanish fleet (and others). in other words, before global sea trade was protected largely by the united states navy there was state sponsored piracy.

a good book on the subject is “the sea rover’s practice- pirate tactics and techniques, 1630-1730″ by former navy seal officer benerson little. a serious book with one appendix on pirate drinks!

athelas April 13, 2009 at 3:43 pm

Wow. Did not know Schoolhouse Rock did that sort of thing.

Avast Ye, Matey! April 13, 2009 at 4:06 pm

“There is a world of difference between the exercise of power purely for the benefit of the exerciser and the administration of some rule of law that allows people to engage in commerce.”

I still don’t see a difference. Doesn’t maintaining sea traffic in a condition necessary for trading quality as the exercise of power purely for the benefit of the exerciser, that is, the group wanting to use the seas for trade?

Rosa April 13, 2009 at 4:17 pm

ok so the U.S. navy may not be comparable to Alexander the Great but it is hard to judge Somali pirates too harshly. They are thieves to be sure but when ships full of goods are passing right by your country to support a world economy that leaves your excludes or exploits your country, its a little hard respect personal property rights. I am curious to see how the world community tries to fix the problem, this story provides some suggestions: http://www.newsy.com/videos/solving_the_pirate_problem/

Michael F. Martin April 13, 2009 at 4:22 pm

Says more about Augustine than it does about pirates.

David April 13, 2009 at 5:03 pm

I’m a little curious what Alex thinks about Noam’s work. I cut my political teeth on him, and even though I’ve largely moved on from most of his judgments about particular historical incidents and I find him overly credible of conspiracy theory, I do think I learned a good deal from his approach. For me, the most valuable insight he brings is that no nation should be above the rule of international law, and we should not accept a different standard for some countries, just because they happen to be more powerful.

Andrew Fischer April 13, 2009 at 5:09 pm

Its not an “official” schoolhouse rock but a good simulacrum.

I also have to agree with mgunn. The US Navy doesn’t generally raid boats and coastal territory in order to profit.

Mackubin Thomas Owens has a good distinction in the WSJ

“the Romans distinguished between bellum (war against legitimus hostis, a legitimate enemy) and guerra (war against latrunculi, pirates, robbers, brigands and outlaws).”

Augustine April 13, 2009 at 7:42 pm

If anyone is interested, the Latin text of this quote is from City of God Book IV, Chapter IV. Beginning the passage is the quote “Remota itaque iustitia quid sunt regna nisi magna latrocinia? quia et latrocinia quid sunt nisi parua regna?” With justice thus removed, what are kingdoms if not robberies? For what are robberies even, if not small kingdoms?” The pirate story closes the chapter.

josh April 13, 2009 at 8:52 pm
Anderson April 13, 2009 at 9:20 pm

Why does Chomsky think Alexander was an “emperor”?

Re: Augustine’s pirate, I think Alexander is better described as a brigand; his marine depredations were trivial by comparison.

But as with Wilson Mizner’s distinction b/t plagiarism and research, if you lead a band of 10 brigands, you’re a criminal; if you lead an army of 10,000 brigands, you’re a conqueror.

Bushequalhitler April 13, 2009 at 11:55 pm

I knew it all along. It is Bush’s fault!

Dave Bell April 14, 2009 at 9:32 am

One of the problems is that modern warships, essentially still designed for the Cold War turning hot, are ill-suited for dealing with the small, very fast, watercraft used by the pirates (not just in Somalia).

It doesn’t help that the response rather resembles the US Coast in early 1941, with the pirates in the equivalent role to the German U-boats.

The costs of the piracy are likely still pretty small, but any useful naval protection has to include a convoy system, and that has a cost to the merchant shipping.

Without it, the warships are still going to be a long way from the attacks. I saw it claimed that the nearest warship was 500 miles away.

Convoys force attackers to come within range.

John Doe #2 April 14, 2009 at 11:25 am

Stephen Malkmus – The Hook

At Age 19 I was kidnapped by Turkish pirates
Mediterranean thugs
After some torture they considered me their mascot
Cypriotic Good Luck
I had to taste the deck and many other things
I had to pay the piper with my wedding ring
And I would never see my family again

By 25 I was respected as an equal
My art was a knife
On countless raids I was the first one up the lanyard
Yeah I was seeking a fight
There is no time to pray
And there’s no time to beg
And then it’s off with an arm
Or it’s off with a leg
And if I spare your life
It’s because the tide is leaving

Oh yeah

By 31 I was the captain of a galleon
I was Poseidon’s new son
The coast of Montenegro was my favorite target
It was ever so fun
We had no wooden legs
Or steel hooks
We had no black eye patches
Or a starving cook
We were just killers with the cold eyes of a sailor
Yeah we were killers with the cold eyes of a sailor

Gabe April 14, 2009 at 11:55 am

The UN and the US navy still discourage private cargo
ships from carrying a few AK-47′s and some high calliber
mounted guns. This would easily solve the problem.
As Rahm Emanuel said, never let a good crisis go to waste.
Invading Somalia lets the military industrial complex keep ramping up it’s parastical weight on the taxpayer while still backing off
on the mideast a little bit….problem solved.

Jim Glass April 14, 2009 at 6:21 pm

St. Augustine thought the pirate’s answer was “elegant and excellent.”
~~~~

What did Alexander, who was peeved to begin with, think of the pirate’s answer?

That was probably the most important thing to the pirate.

(As Alexander’s minions slowly rip his limbs off, the pirate thinks: “hundreds of years from now some theologian will think this is ‘excellent’.”)

Dave April 14, 2009 at 10:58 pm

Somewhat remeniscent of the Simpson’s episode where Fat Tony convinces Bart that his stealing of cigarettes is very much like a hungry man stealing some bread.

I suppose the main difference between pirates and emperors is that we can and have gotten rid of piracy in the past. Emperors and their equivalent may not be expungable.

Pavel Kohout April 15, 2009 at 4:34 am

In 1998 I travelled through Cambodia by truck. Every ten or twenty kilometers, bandits stopped the truck and demanded money – not big bucks, just a few dollars. The bandits weren’t aggressive, they obviously realized that violence would call problems. The road was awful, there were more potholes than the road itself. At one moment the truck stuck in the mud and a big tractor had to pull it out of it.

2004 – another travel to Cambodia, the same road. Almost no potholes, and no bandits at all. I travelled by bus with much more comfort for about the same price. Apparently, the government did something good from 1998 to 2004. That’s the difference between government and banditism/piracy. The government uses the money (or at least part of it) for public good, such as roads and safety on the roads. The pirates or bandits don’t.

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