Statue of Erasmus in Rotterdam, Netherlands. (Image credit: Frank Versteegen/Wikimedia Commons)

What is a weapon, or a firearm, as defined by the constitutional “right to bear arms”? In light of the most recent mass shooting at a school in Uvalde, Texas, which left nineteen children and two adults dead, more and more people are posing this question. 

After all, the AR-15 rifle used to murder an entire classroom full of children has been described as designed for mass murder with the capability to “explode” human bodies. This is clearly a kind of personal power to do violence that would be completely unrecognizable to both the legal theorists and the military technologists of 1787, when the U.S. Constitution was drafted. 

Much of the debate over the Second Amendment rightly focuses on what can or should be classified legally as an “arm” and whether such an instrument is reasonable for personal use. While attention is spent on what an arm can do to others as an instrument of violence, not nearly enough thought is given to the problem of what an arm might do to the user. The question I’d like to pose—one inspired by the virtue ethics of Renaissance Christian humanism—is what dangers do arms hold specifically as instruments of moral formation? Or put slightly differently: what are the potential spiritual and moral hazards of increased societal armament?

This question is inspired by two of the greatest humanists of the Renaissance period in Europe, Erasmus and Thomas More. Although neither of them had a simple or absolutist view of weapons, both entertained seriously the possibility in their major works that the habituation by citizens to the use of arms in the exercise of lethal force was destructive to virtue.

Thomas More, Utopia (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Take for example, More’s Utopia, which goes to great lengths to imagine a society in which, although citizens receive some military training, they are kept from using weapons in practices of deadly force, not in order to limit their freedom, but to ensure they are capable of becoming excellent in certain virtues.

For instance, More tells us that Utopians consider both butchery of animals and hunting “unworthy of free men” because it can accustom people to “brutal pleasures” and create a “cruel disposition.” A similar line of reasoning undergirds Utopia’s strenuous anti-militarism, which not only makes its citizens loath to go to war but maintains an elaborate policy such that in cases where it cannot be avoided most fighting is done by mercenaries. Thus, the Utopians hire a vicious and money-grubbing people, the Zapoletes, to do their fighting for them. More slyly describes the Zapoletes as “born for battle” which “they seek out at every opportunity and eagerly embrace.” By contrast, the Utopians only fight if they absolutely must as “they utterly despise war as an activity fit only for beasts” and “think nothing so inglorious as the glory won in battle.”

Although More’s own position on arms and militarism almost certainly did not match those of his Utopians, he did take the underlying ethical point very seriously: namely, a cruel and vicious character is nurtured by glorifying weapons and war—let alone actually engaging in taking life.

More’s great friend Erasmus was if anything more radically critical of the habituation to the use of deadly force via military discipline as a type of character formation, which he saw as incompatible with both a good society and Christian faith. For example, in The Complaint of Peace, Erasmus scathingly writes: “if you detest robbery and pillage, remember … that to learn how to commit them adroitly, is a part of military discipline.” Similarly, in On the Education of a Christian Prince, he asks his fellow Christians with his usual irony: “Can you call on a common Father if you are drawing a sword to thrust in your brother’s vitals?”

Erasmus, Institutio principis Christiani (On the Education of a Christian Prince) (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The underlying ethical point of these passages is the insight that the use of deadly weapons comes at a potentially severe moral cost to those who wield them, adjusting and forming their characters to the development of vices such as malice, rancor, blood-lust, and pride. At the very least, the use of deadly force in the act of violence is not compatible for Erasmus with Christian charity and solidarity with other humans. Here he alludes to Jesus’s insistence to Peter in the Gospels: “all who take the sword will die by the sword” (Mt 26:52).

But if an arm is not something we merely use to exercise deadly force but also a tool that can be employed to inculcate and practice certain deep personality traits, does this necessarily imply there is no virtuous way to wield them? Without resolving this enormous issue here, it is nonetheless the case that even if one holds (as Saint Augustine did) that there is a narrow range of action in which deadly force can be exercised virtuously, More and Erasmus’s warning is still of great importance. After all, they bring attention to the danger that weapons might be used to generate vicious forms of selfhood.

Americans—and American Christians in particular—are almost intuitively familiar with the Machiavellian and Roman republican vision of virtuous men carrying deadly weapons to keep the political community free. What American Christians have lost contact with almost entirely is the Christian humanist insight that a perfectly virtuous citizen would not desire to habituate themself to the deadly use of weaponry. If anything, the citizens of utopia nearly have a right to not bear arms—a freedom from the corruptive practices of disciplined violence.

And yet the most recent mass shooting has once again produced many American Christians calling for increased militarism in the schools. For example, Jeremey Wayne Tate, a major advocate for the Classical Education movement, responded to Uvalde by calling for “a retired Navy Seal/Green Beret fully armed at every school.”

 If More and Erasmus are correct, then this would reproduce the very problem it was meant to address. Indeed, when one makes military practice a paragon and ubiquitous within society, the unspoken message is that military violence can solve or at least address and answer the deepest human problems. 

This fatal premise is precisely one that every mass shooter also holds. Thus, posting paragons of military discipline at every school would be deeply ironic as children from kindergarten onward were implicitly shaped in their character towards the view that violence is the most decisive resolution to the human problem. Needless to say, such a proposition is directly antithetical to the Gospels that the champions of these so-called solutions embrace as fervently as they do the Second Amendment.

Jason Blakely is an associate professor of political science at Pepperdine University and a senior fellow at the Nova Forum for Catholic Thought.