Hugo Grotius


Hugo de Groot or Huig de Groot, known as Grotius, born on April 10, 1583 in Delft and died on August 28, 1645 in Rostock, was a Dutch humanist, diplomat, lawyer, theologian and jurist of the beginning of the republic of the United Provinces, (1581-1795), resulting from the insurrection of the Netherlands against Philip II.

As a young intellectual prodigy, he studied at the University of Leiden and later became part of the ruling circles of the province of Holland. But in 1618, he fell victim to the conflict between the stathouder Maurice de Nassau and the grand-pensioner Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, linked to a religious conflict of the Dutch Calvinism, the controversy on Arminianism. While the Grand-Pensioner was sentenced to death, Grotius was only sentenced to life imprisonment. But he managed to escape in 1621, hidden in a book chest, and then wrote most of his major works in exile in France, where he lived first as a refugee, then as ambassador of Sweden from 1634.

Hugo Grotius is a major figure in the fields of philosophy, political theory and law during the 17th and 18th centuries. Building on the earlier work of Francisco de Vitoria, Francisco Suarez, and Alberico Gentili, he laid the foundations of international law, based on natural law in its Protestant form. Two of his books have a lasting impact on international law: De Jure Belli ac Pacis (The Law of War and Peace) dedicated to Louis XIII of France and Mare Liberum (On the Freedom of the Seas). Grotius also contributed greatly to the evolution of the notion of “rights”. Before him, rights were seen primarily as attached to objects; after him, they were seen as belonging to persons, as expressions of a capacity to act, or as means to achieve this or that.

Grotius is not thought to have been the first to formulate the English School doctrine of international relations, but he was one of the first to expressly define the idea of a single society of states, governed not by force or war, but by effective laws and mutual agreement to enforce the law. As Hedley Bull stated in 1990: “The idea of the international society proposed by Grotius was embodied in the treaties of Westphalia. Grotius can be considered the intellectual father of this first general peace agreement of modern times.

In addition, his contributions to Arminian theology help lay the foundation for later Arminian movements, such as Methodism and Pentecostalism; Grotius is recognized as an important figure in the Arminian-Calvinist debate. Because of the theological basis of his theory of free trade, he is also considered a “theological economist. Grotius is also a playwright and poet. His thought came to the fore after the First World War.


Hugo de Groot was born in 1583 in Delft during the revolt in the Netherlands that began in 1568, when the States General had just proclaimed the forfeiture of Philip II”s rights in the Netherlands (Act of The Hague, 1581), which was considered the origin of a new state, the United Provinces.

Hugo is the first child of Jan de Groot and Alida van Overschie. His father, a burgomaster, was a scholar who had studied with the eminent Justus Lipsius in Leiden. Translator of Archimedes and friend of Ludolph van Ceulen, he gave his son a traditional humanist and Aristotelian education.

As a child prodigy, Hugo entered the University of Leiden at the age of 11, where he studied with some of the most acclaimed intellectuals of northern Europe, including Franciscus Junius, Joseph Juste Scaliger and Rudolph Snellius.

At the age of 13, he undertook the edition of the work of the Latin encyclopedist Martianus Capella, author of late antiquity with the help of his master, Joseph Juste Scaliger; published in 1599, this edition, enriched with a commentary on the seven liberal arts, Martiani Minei Felicis Capellæ Carthaginiensis viri proconsularis Satyricon… will remain a reference for several centuries.

In 1598, at the age of 15, he accompanied Johan van Oldenbarnevelt on a diplomatic mission to Paris. On this occasion, King Henry IV is said to have presented him to his court as “the miracle of Holland”. During his stay in France, he obtained a law degree from the University of Orleans.

Serving the province of Holland

Back in Holland, Grotius was appointed lawyer in The Hague in 1599, then official historiographer of the States of Holland in 1601. The Dutch commissioned him to write their history in order to better distinguish themselves from Spain, against whom the United Provinces were still at war.

His first opportunity to write systematically on matters of international justice came in 1604, when he intervened in legal proceedings following the seizure by Dutch merchants of a Portuguese carrack and its cargo in the Singapore Strait.

The Dutch were at war with Spain, always being considered by the king of Spain as revolting subjects. But as far as Portugal was concerned, although it had been linked to Spain by a dynastic union since 1580, it was not formally at war with the United Provinces. The capture of a neutral ship was equivalent to an act of piracy, or a declaration of war. Indeed, Portugal and the United Provinces then engaged in a conflict that would last until 1661, beyond the war with Spain, which ended in 1648.

The war began when Grotius” cousin, Captain Jacob van Heemskerk, captured a Portuguese merchant ship, the Santa Catarina, off the coast of Singapore in 1603. Heemskerk was employed by the United Company of Amsterdam, part of the Dutch East India Company, founded in 1602. Although he had no authorization from the company or the government to use force against the Portuguese, many of the shareholders were eager to accept the wealth he brought back.

t is not only legally problematic to keep this catch, which is dubious under Dutch law, but a group of shareholders (the Portuguese, for their part) are demanding the return of the cargo. The scandal led to a court hearing and a broader campaign to influence national and international public opinion.

It was in this context that the Company”s leaders asked Grotius to write a polemical defense of the seizure.

The result of Grotius”s work during 1604-1605 was a long, theory-laden treatise, which he tentatively entitled De Indis (On the Indies). Grotius bases his defense of seizure on the natural principles of justice. In this he casts a much wider net than the case; his interest was the source and ground of the legality of war in general. This treatise was not published in full during Grotius”s lifetime, perhaps because the court decision in favor of the Company preempted the need to garner public support.

In Mare Liberum , published in 1609, Grotius formulated the new principle that the sea was an international territory and that all nations were free to use it for maritime trade. Grotius” claim to the “freedom of the seas” provided an appropriate ideological justification for the Netherlands to dissolve various trade monopolies through its formidable naval power (and then establish its own monopoly). England, a rival of the Dutch for dominance of world trade, objected to this idea and asserted in John Selden”s treatise Mare clausum, “that the dominion of the sea of Great Britain, or what comprises the island of Great Britain, is and ever has been a part or right of the empire of that island.”

It is generally accepted that Grotius enunciated the principle of freedom of the seas, but in fact, countries in the Indian Ocean and other Asian seas had accepted the right of unimpeded navigation long before Grotius wrote his De iure praedae in 1604. The sixteenth-century Spanish theologian Francisco de Vitoria had already postulated the idea of freedom of the seas in a more rudimentary way under the principles of jus gentium. Grotius” notion of freedom of the seas would endure until the mid-twentieth century and continues to be applied today to much of the high seas, although the application of the concept and its scope have changed.

Protected by Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, who as a grand-pensioner (pensioner of the States of Holland) was the highest ranking civilian figure in the United Provinces, opposite the commander-in-chief, Maurice de Nassau, Grotius saw a rapid rise. He was retained as resident advisor to Oldenbarnevelt in 1605 and as advocate general of the tax administration of Holland, Zeeland and Friesland in 1607.

In 1608 he married Maria van Reigersbergen, who gave birth to seven children (three girls and four boys), of whom only four survived beyond youth. Grotius will find in this family an invaluable help at the time of the political storm of 1618.

In 1609, after negotiations that lasted since 1607, the United Provinces and Spain concluded the Treaty of Antwerp, a truce agreement for twelve years, to which Oldenbarnevelt was more favorable than Maurice of Nassau.

In 1613, Grotius was appointed pensioner of the city of Rotterdam, which is the equivalent of the position of mayor.

That same year, following the capture of two Dutch ships by the English, he was sent on a mission to London, a mission appropriate to the author of Mare liberum (1609). But the English opposed him to the reason of the strongest and he did not succeed in obtaining the return of the ships.

The religious crisis within the Protestantism of the United Provinces

During these years, a theological controversy broke out between two professors of theology at the University of Leiden, Jacobus Arminius, and Franciscus Gomarus. The disciples and supporters of Arminius are called the “remonstrants”, those of Gomarus, the “counter-remonstrants”.

Gomarus (1563-1641) was stationed in Leiden since 1594. Arminius (1560-1609), pastor in Amsterdam since 1587 after studying in Leiden and Geneva, was appointed professor in Leiden in 1603. Theologically, Gomarus defended Calvin”s view of predestination, while Arminius questioned the idea of strict predestination, which made him suspect of Pelagianism in the eyes of the leaders of the Dutch Reformed Church (Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk), This made him suspect of Pelagianism in the eyes of the leaders of the Dutch Reformed Church (Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk), which had been established in 1571 and had been associated since 1579 with the Utrecht union of insurgent cities and provinces (the pact of the Utrecht union was the institutional foundation of the United Provinces).

The University of Leiden, created in 1576 at the request of William of Orange to provide the insurgent provinces with a university, opposite the old University of Leuven, was placed “under the authority of the states of Holland; they were responsible, among other things, for the policy concerning appointments to this institution, which was governed on their behalf by a board of trustees, and it was ultimately up to the states to deal with cases of heterodoxy among professors.”

The dissensions between Arminius and Gomarus remained confined to the university until the death of the former (October 1609), a few months after the beginning of the truce (April). The situation of peace shifts the attention of the people on this controversy, which then takes a political dimension.

Grotius was to play a decisive role in this politico-religious conflict, in the camp of the remonstrators, like Oldenbarnevelt, as well as many of the leaders of the province of Holland.

Arminius” succession was entrusted to an Arminian theologian, Conrad Vorstius (1569-1622). This appointment was supported by Johan van Oldenbarnevelt and by the pastor Johannes Wtenbogaert (1557-1644), pastor in The Hague, one of the main followers of Arminius.

Vorstius was soon perceived by the Gomarists as going further than Arminius towards Socinianism and was even accused of teaching irreligion. The professor of theology Sibrandus Lubbertus (1555-1625) called for his dismissal. Gomarus resigns from his position in Leiden to protest against Vorstius”s continuing in office (he later becomes a preacher in Middelburg, Zeeland).

The Gomarists received the support of the English king, James I, “who thundered loudly against the Leyden appointment and portrayed Vorstius as an awful heretic. He ordered his books to be publicly burned in London, Cambridge, and Oxford, and he exerted constant pressure on his ambassador in The Hague, Ralph Winwood, to have the appointment cancelled.” James I then began to turn away from Oldenbarnevelt and put his trust in Maurice of Nassau.

In 1610, the followers of Arminius presented a five-article petition to the States of Holland, entitled Remontrance, from which they got the political name of “Remonstrants” alongside the theological name of “Arminians.

In 1611, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt organized a conference in The Hague between six remontants and six gomarists. The latter presented their point of view in seven articles against the “remontrance” (they were later called “counter-remontants”).

On the whole, the counter-remonstrants are supported by the common people, while the elites are rather remonstrant. This led to public disorder, especially in Holland, whose government was sympathetic to the remonstrants. On the other hand, the stathouder, who believed that his duty was to maintain the unity of the republic, felt that this required religious unity around the Reformed Church.

Grotius joined the controversy by writing Ordinum Hollandiae ac Westfrisiae pietas (The Piety of the States of Holland and Westfrisia), “a pamphlet directed against an opponent, the Calvinist professor Franeker Lubbertus; it had been commissioned by Grotius”s masters, the States of Holland, and was thus written for the occasion, although Grotius may have already been considering such a book.”

This work of twenty-seven pages is “polemical and acrimonious” and only two-thirds of it speaks directly of ecclesiastical politics, mainly of synods and offices. In particular, he defends the right of the civil authorities to appoint professors of their choice to the faculty of theology, independently of the wishes of the religious authorities.

This work, published in 1613, provoked a violent reaction from the counter-remonstrants. “It could be said that all of Grotius”s subsequent works until his arrest in 1618 constitute a futile attempt to repair the damage done by this book.

In 1617, he published De satisfactione Christi adversus Faustum Socinum with the aim of “proving that the Arminians are far from being Socinians”.

Under the influence of Oldenbarnevelt, the States of Holland adopted a position of religious tolerance with regard to remonstrants and counter-remonstrants.

Grotius, who participated in the controversy as Attorney General of the Netherlands and later as a member of the Committee of Counsellors, was asked to draft an edict to define this policy of tolerance. This edict, Decretum pro pace ecclesiarum (Decree for the peace of the churches) was completed in late 1613 or early 1614.

It is based on a view that Grotius developed in several writings on church and state (see Erastianism): that only the basic principles necessary for the maintenance of civil order, e.g., the existence of God and divine providence, should be imposed on the subjects of the state, while disputes over sometimes very obscure points of theological doctrine should be left to the conscience of the faithful.

The edict “imposing moderation and tolerance on the ministry” is supplemented by Grotius with “thirty-one pages of quotations, dealing mainly with the Five Articles of Remonstrance.

In response to Ordinum Pietas, Professor Lubbertus published in 1614 Responsio ad Pietatem Hugonis Grotii (Response to the Piety of Hugo Grotius). A little later, Grotius published anonymously Bona Fides Sibrandi Lubberti (The Good Faith of Sibrandus Lubbertus) in response.

Jacobus Trigland (1583-1654), a pastor in Amsterdam since 1610, joined Lubbertus in declaring that tolerance in matters of doctrine was not permissible. In his 1615 works, Den Recht-gematigden Christen: Ofte vande waere Moderatie and Advys Over een Concept van moderatie, Trigland condemned Grotius” positions.

Towards the end of 1615, when Antoine de Waele (1573-1639), professor at Middelburg, published Het Ampt der Kerckendienaren (a reply to Johannes Wtenbogaert”s letter of 1610, published by Kurtkogaert), he sent a copy to Grotius. It is a work “on the relationship between ecclesiastical and secular government” from a moderate counter-remontant point of view.

Early in 1616, Grotius received from his friend Gerard Vossius (1577-1649) a thirty-six-page letter supporting the remontant views, Dissertatio epistolica de Iure magistratus in rebus ecclesiasticis.

This letter constitutes “a general introduction on (in)tolerance, mainly on predestination and the sacrament a detailed, thorough and generally unfavorable analysis of Walaeus” Ampt, justified by references to ancient and modern authorities.”

Grotius having asked for some documents, “he received a treasure of ecclesiastical history. offering ammunition to Grotius, who accepted it with gratitude. About this time (April 1616), Grotius went to Amsterdam in his official capacity, trying to persuade the civil authorities to join the majority opinion in Holland on ecclesiastical policy.

In early 1617, Grotius debated whether to allow the counter-remontants to preach in the Kloosterkerk church in The Hague, while the remontants controlled the Grote Kerk in that city (in July 1617, the counter-remontants illegally occupied the Kloosterkerk and Maurice of Nassau came to attend a church service).

During this period, lawsuits were filed against the States of Holland by pastors opposed to the protests, while riots over the controversy broke out in Amsterdam.

The political crisis (1617-1618)

Because of the intensification of the religious conflict, Oldenbarnevelt finally proposed to give local authorities the right to mobilize troops in order to maintain order: this decision was enacted by the Scherpe resolutie (“Severe Resolution”) of the States of Holland on August 4, 1617. This measure constituted an attack on the authority of the stathouder Maurice de Nassau, by instituting armed forces at the provincial level, but Oldenbarnevelt wanted to be able to intervene against troublemakers, whereas Maurice was reluctant to repress the agitation of the counter-remonstrants.

During this period, Grotius continued to work on the issue of ecclesiastical politics by completing De Imperio Summarum Potestatum circa Sacra, on the subject of “relations between religious and secular authorities Grotius had even cherished the hope that the publication of this book would reverse the trend and bring back the peace of Church and State.

Another problem occurred when the province of Holland refused the principle of a national synod of the Reformed Church.

The conflict ended abruptly in July 1618 when a majority in the States General authorized Maurice to dismiss the auxiliary troops recruited by the province of Utrecht.

Grotius was then sent on a mission to the provincial states of Utrecht to encourage them to resist, but the army of Maurice de Nassau easily won, taking control of the province of Utrecht before entering Holland.

The States General then authorized him to arrest Oldenbarnevelt, Grotius, Rombout Hogerbeets, boarder of Leiden, and some others. Their arrest took place on August 29, 1618.

They were then judged by a special court composed of judges delegated by the States General. Van Oldenbarnevelt was sentenced to death and beheaded (May 1619). Grotius was sentenced to life imprisonment and incarcerated in the castle of Loevestein.

The imprisonment in Loevestein (1619-1621)

During his imprisonment in Loevestein, Grotius wrote a justification of his position: “As to my view of the power of the Christian authorities in ecclesiastical matters, I refer to my booklet De Pietate Ordinum Hollandiae and more particularly to a book De Imperio summarum potestatum circa sacra, where I have treated the question in more detail I may summarize my feelings thus: that the authorities should examine the Word of God so thoroughly that they are certain of imposing nothing against it; if they do so, they will in all conscience have control of the churches and public worship; without, however, persecuting those who are not on the right path.  “

This view disempowered the leaders of the Church, and some of them, such as Johannes Althusius in a letter to Lubbertus, declared Grotius”s ideas to be evil.

In prison, Grotius also wrote an apology for Christianity in Dutch verse (Bewijs van den Waren Godsdienst).

Because of his work, Grotius is allowed to receive books that arrive in a chest that soldiers fetch from a family friend in Gorinchem, and then bring back. This circumstance will allow Grotius to leave the prison, with some training in claustration and with the help of his wife and their maid, Elsje van Houwening.

In 1621, the Twelve Years” Truce was due to end, and the resumption of the war was likely to make things more difficult. So, on March 22, Grotius made his first attempt and managed to escape from the castle in this book chest. In Gorinchem, he left the box and fled in disguise as a worker to Antwerp, in the Duchy of Brabant controlled by the King of Spain. From there he went to France, where he settled in Paris.

Today in the Netherlands, he is particularly known for this daring escape, an account of which was written as early as the 17th century by his biographer Gerard Brandt (1626-1685), based on information provided by Elsje, and which has become one of the famous episodes in the history of the United Provinces. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Prinsenhof Museum in Delft both claim to have the original book chest.

Grotius” life in exile

Grotius lived in France almost continuously from 1621 to 1644. His stay coincided with the period (1624-1642) during which Cardinal de Richelieu ruled France under Louis XIII. The cardinal and Grotius were men of the same generation and died within three years of each other.

In Paris, the authorities granted him an annual pension.

His apologetic work written in prison was published there in 1622, then translated into Latin prose and published in 1627 under the title De veritate religionis Christianae.

In 1625, he published his most famous book, De iure belli ac pacis (“The law of war and peace”), which he dedicated to Louis XIII.

After the death of Maurice de Nassau in 1625, many exiled Remonstrants returned to the Netherlands, having been granted a certain tolerance. In 1630, they received the right to build and manage churches and schools and to live anywhere in the United Provinces.

Under the leadership of Johannes Wtenbogaert, these remonstrants set up a presbyteral organization and created a theological seminary in Amsterdam where Grotius came to teach alongside Simon Episcopius, Philipp van Limborch, Étienne de Courcelles and Jean Le Clerc.

But the authorities were still hostile to him. He then moved to Hamburg, a free imperial city of the Holy Roman Empire.

In 1634, Grotius had the opportunity to become Swedish ambassador to France. Axel Oxenstierna, regent in the name of Christine (1626-1689), successor of King Gustav II Adolphus, wished to employ Grotius in a position where he had the mission to negotiate for Sweden within the framework of the Thirty Years” War, in which Sweden played a leading role on the same side as France.

Grotius accepted this offer and moved to a diplomatic residence in Paris, which remained his home until his resignation in 1645.

During this period, he became interested in the question of Christian unity and published numerous texts later grouped under the title Opera Omnia Theologica.

In 1644, Christine of Sweden began to exercise her duties and recalled him to Stockholm. During the winter of 1644-1645, he went to Sweden under difficult conditions, a country he decided to leave in the summer of 1645. But the ship which transports Grotius is shipwrecked, running aground near Rostock. Ill and defeated by the bad weather, Grotius died on August 28, 1645.

His body was finally repatriated and buried in the New Church in Delft (Nieuwe Kerk).

While Rousseau may have exaggerated in arguing that Grotius relies on poets, the fact remains that for this author, philosophers, historians and poets tell us something about the laws of nature. Grotius writes in this regard:

“I have also used, to prove the existence of this right, the testimony of philosophers, historians, poets, and finally orators; not that they should be relied upon indiscriminately…; but because, from the moment that several individuals, in different times and places, affirm the same thing to be certain, one must attach this thing to a universal cause. This cause, in the questions which occupy us, cannot be other than a just consequence proceeding from the principles of nature or from a common consent.”

– The Law of War and Peace, Prolegomena XL

Unlike the norm at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Grotius refuses to consider ethics, politics and law as separate objects. He does note that legal norms differ from moral and political norms, but fundamentally, his goal is to find the principles that underlie all norms. In his view, these principles derive from, or are provided by, Nature.

From natural law to natural right: the context in the long history

The ambiguities of the historiography of natural law are linked to the often unnoticed passage from a theological doctrine of natural law, of which Thomas is a good representative in the 13th century, to the theological doctrine of natural law, which finds its most accomplished doctrinal elaboration in Suarez in the 16th century and in the Salamanca school more generally.

For the first school, the natural law is the participation in man of the eternal law by mode of inclination, such as the inclination to social life and more generally to good. Human law is a free determination of natural law by man, who thus participates in God”s providence. Human law, although imperative, cannot therefore be identified with the good. Its role is indicative of the good, of the id quod justum.

But the second school is different. Natural law is the writing by God in natural reason of a whole set of universal and unchangeable prescriptions which all can know by the voice of conscience. This natural law is indeterminate enough to be completed by human law. This school identifies jus and lex.

Grotius, heir to the scholastic debates

As Peter Haggenmacher has shown, Grotius is the heir of a long debate of three centuries, still very much present at the beginning of the 17th century, which consists in asking whether ius is a work of reason or of will and whether it designates rather a relation to the thing, a subjective right or a norm.

Human nature according to Grotius

According to Grotius, human nature is driven by two principles: self-preservation and the need for society. He wrote:

“Man is, in fact, an animal, but an animal of a superior nature, and one that differs much more from all other species of animate beings than they differ from each other. This is shown by a number of facts peculiar to the human race. Among these facts peculiar to man, is the need to meet, that is to say to live with the beings of his species, not in a commonplace community, but in a state of peaceful society, organized according to the data of his intelligence, and which the Stoics called “domestic state”. Understood in this way in a general way, the assertion that nature leads every animal only towards its own utility must not therefore be conceded.”

– The Law of War and Peace, Prolegomena VI

Both self-preservation and sociability are “both rational and non-rational, combining the power of unthinking instinct with the ability to think out good purposes. It follows that to have a proper existence, law must help us to respect the property of others and to engage in the reasonable pursuit of our own interest. Regarding the first point, Grotius writes: “this concern for social life… is the source of the right itself, to which are related the duty to abstain from the property of others…; the obligation to fulfill one”s promises, the obligation to make reparation for the damage caused by one”s fault, and the distribution of deserved punishments among men” (The Law of War and Peace, prolegomena VIII).

Concerning the second point, Grotius notes: “Man has the advantage… of possessing not only the dispositions to sociability….but a judgment which makes him appreciate things, both present and future, capable of being pleasing or harmful,…. ; one conceives that it is suitable to the nature of the man… in the pursuit of these things, the direction of a healthy judgment, not to let himself be corrupted neither by the fear, nor by the seductions of present enjoyments, not to give himself up to a reckless enthusiasm. What is in opposition to such a judgment must be considered as contrary also to the law of nature, that is to say of human nature” (The Law of War and Peace, Prolegomena IX).

It should be noted that in Grotius”s approach, the existence of a natural right to preserve oneself (including the preservation of one”s property, one”s life, one”s liberty) and to live peacefully in society is totally compatible with divine law. Nature (here human nature) is not an autonomous entity, it is a divine creation. The philosophy of human rights and theology are, in Grotius” logic, perfectly compatible. The Old Testament, Grotius argues, contains moral precepts that confirm the natural law as he defines it (self-preservation and peaceful life in society).

Grotius”s concept of natural law had a strong impact on philosophical and theological debates, as well as on their political developments, during the 17th and 18th centuries. Among those he influenced were Samuel Pufendorf and John Locke, and through these philosophers his thought became part of the ideological foundation of the Glorious English Revolution of 1688, and of the American Revolution.

The notion of right (ius) in Grotius

The medieval theory of rights (iura, the plural of ius) begins mainly with Thomas Aquinas, for whom the word “right” designates the just thing itself. For him and his direct successors, right is that which is in conformity with the natural law. For the medievalists following Thomas Aquinas, law is objective and applies to things. Francisco Suarez, before Grotius, evolved the notion; so that for this Jesuit, “the strict acceptance of right” rests “on that part of moral power which each man has over his own property or what is due to him. In general, natural law scholars believe that Grotius did much to give law its current meaning as the means or power to do a certain thing. Grotius writes: “The right is a moral quality attached to the individual for possessing or rightly doing something. This right is attached to the person” (The Law of War and Peace, I,1,IV). Grotius also did a great deal to ensure that we talk less about law than about rights and that the latter are perceived as a raw material.

The four key elements of Grotius” natural law


Grotius, like Cicero, believes that all human principles are not of the same level. Some are more important than others. However, according to him, the rational nature of man is not attached to very high moral values that cannot be realized here below. Thus, natural law is not attached to ideals. If, like Aristotle, he distinguishes commutative justice from distributive justice, only commutative justice is true justice in his eyes.

“Justice has to do fundamentally with possession or ownership and is determined by what one has rather than what one should have or deserves to have.

That is why he gives so much importance to the rights that people have, rights that they can claim in court.

Michel Villey notes that social justice in Grotius “is just the sum of entirely incidental claims of individual rights, not adherence to a goal of ”just order”.

Contrary to Aristotle and the Thomistic tradition, for Grotius, if man is sociable, this does not imply that he belongs to a well organized whole. As a result, the notion of natural law, in its Protestant version as developed by Grotius, is not connected with a notion of an ideal world.

Rights as a source of conflict

Contrary to Hobbes” view, for Grotius, conflict is seen “as the result of an improper pursuit of one”s individual rights. Thus, the task of the law is to prevent such conflicts. For Grotius, there is an ideal moral order to be preserved, in contrast to Hobbes who sees an order to be created.

Civil society, sovereignty (imperium) and government

Theoretically, according to Grotius, under the effect of natural law, humanity should constitute a universal society. An idea that according to Knud Haakonssen, he would take from the Stoics. But human corruption makes it impossible to live according to the law of nature, hence the need to establish civil authorities. While there are various causes for the formation of civil society – conquest in a just war, punishment or contract – Grotius assumes that civil society is based on sovereignty which must be voluntarily consented to. In his view, sovereignty must be absolute, that is, indivisible. However, the exercise of this sovereignty can be varied. It can be exercised by a democratic, aristocratic, monarchical or mixed government. Indeed, Grotius has a purely legalistic vision of sovereignty. Speaking of civil power, he writes: “it is said to be sovereign when acts are not dependent on the disposition (ius) of others, so that they can be annulled at the whim of a foreign human will” (The Law of War and Peace, I, II, VII, 1).

Grotius distinguishes between individual freedom (libertas personalis) and political freedom (libertas civilis) of participation in government. For him, individual freedom can exist under a political power considered as absolute.

War and peace

Grotius was also the originator of the theory of the state and state relations, now referred to as Grotian. In this theory, states are seen as part of “an international society governed by a system of norms. Norms that do not depend on the action of a legislature or a legislator. These norms do not prevent Grotius from taking into account the political reality (Real Politick) and from considering that States pursue their own interests first. For this reason, the Grotian school is often seen as positioning itself between Machiavellianism and the Kantian current, sometimes perceived as excessively idealist. Its realism is based on a moral minimalism that allows natural law to adapt to situations as they arise in the course of history. For example, he does not believe that property rights are natural, but he believes that they are adapted to the evolution of society. For him, it is the laws of nations that can satisfy the needs of present-day men, not the laws of Nature.

Governmental theory of atonement

Grotius also develops a particular view of Christ”s atonement known as the “governmental theory of the atonement.” He theorizes the idea that Jesus” sacrificial death occurred so that the Father could forgive while maintaining his righteous rule over the universe. This view, which was developed by theologians such as John Miley, became dominant in Wesleyan Arminianism in the 19th century.

Grotius was very saddened when the Cardinal of Richelieu told him: “The weakest is always wrong in matters of State”. Indeed, one of the fundamental ideas of this jurist concerning international law is precisely his refusal of the law of the strongest.

Of the freedom of the seas

In his book Mare Liberum (On the Freedom of the Seas), Hugo Grotius formulated the new principle that the sea was an international territory and that all nations were free to use it for maritime trade.

The Law of War and Peace (De Jure Belli ac Pacis)

Grotius lived during the Eighty Years” War between Spain and the Netherlands and during the Thirty Years” War between Catholics and Protestants. France, although Catholic, was allied with the Protestants in order to weaken the Habsburgs. Grotius, as Swedish ambassador to France, took part in the negotiations to end the conflict. The book, which appeared in 1625, was dedicated “to Louis XIII, very Christian King of France and Navarre. Evoking the conflicts in progress, he notes in his book:

“As for me, convinced, by the considerations I have just set out, of the existence of a right common to all peoples, and serving either for war or in war, I had many serious reasons for determining to write on this subject. I saw in the Christian world a debauchery of war which would have made even barbarous nations ashamed: for light causes or without motives, one ran to arms, and when one had once taken them, one no longer observed any respect either for divine law or for human law, as if, by virtue of a general law, fury had been unleashed on the path of all crimes.

– Prolegomena XXVIII

The work is divided into three books. In the first book, he deals with the origin of law, the question of just war and finally the differences between public and private war. This last point obliges him to deal with the question of sovereignty. In the second book, he exposes the causes of wars, which leads him to deal with property, the rules of succession to thrones, pacts and contracts, oaths and alliances. Finally, he discusses the question of reparations. The third book is devoted to what is permitted during war.

Grotius” personal motto was Ruit hora (his last words were: “In understanding many things, I have accomplished nothing” (Porte te porte, heb ik niets bereikt).

Among his notable friends and acquaintances were the theologian François du Jon, the poet Daniel Heinsius, the philologist Gérard Vossius, the historian Johannes van Meurs, the engineer Simon Stevin, the historian Jacques Auguste de Thou, the Arab orientalist and scholar Thomas van Erpe, and the French ambassador to the Dutch Republic, Benjamin Aubery du Maurier, who allowed him to use the French diplomatic mail during the early years of his exile. He was also friends with the Brabant Jesuit André Schott.

Grotius was the father of the regent and diplomat Pieter de Groot.

From his time to the end of the 18th century

Legend has it that the Swedish king Gustav II Adolphus kept De Jure belli ac pacis libri tres next to the Bible on his bedside table. On the other hand, King James I of England reacted very negatively to Grotius” presentation of the book during a diplomatic mission.

Some philosophers, especially Protestants, such as Pierre Bayle, Leibniz, and the main representatives of the Scottish Enlightenment – Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith, David Hume, Thomas Reid – hold him in high regard.

The French Enlightenment is much more critical. Voltaire found it boring and Rousseau developed an alternative conception of human nature. Pufendorf, another theorist of the notion of natural law, is also skeptical.

Comments from the 19th century

Andrew Dickson White wrote:

“In the midst of all these evil plagues, at a time which seemed utterly hopeless, in a place in space apparently defenseless, in a nation where every man, woman and child was under a death sentence from his sovereign, there was born a man who worked like no other for the redemption of civilization from the chief cause of all this misery; who devised for Europe the precepts of right reason in international law; who made them heard; who gave a noble change to the course of human affairs; whose thoughts, reasonings, suggestions and appeals created an environment in which an evolution of mankind continues.  “

In contrast, Robert A. Heinlein wrote a satire of the Grotian governmental approach to theology in Methuselah”s Children: “There is an old story about a theologian who was asked to reconcile the doctrine of Divine Mercy with the doctrine of infantile damnation. “The Almighty,” he explained, “deems it necessary, in the exercise of his official and public functions, to commit acts which he deplores in his personal and private capacities.”

Renewed interest in the 20th century and debates on the originality of the work

Grotius” influence declined as a result of the rise of positivism in the field of international law and the decline of natural law in philosophy. Nevertheless, the Carnegie Foundation had the Law of War and Peace republished and retranslated after World War I. At the end of the 20th century, there was a revival of interest in his work, while a controversy developed over the originality of his ethical work. For Irwing, Grotius was merely reiterating the contributions of Thomas Aquinas and Francisco Suarez. In contrast, Schneeewind argues that Grotius introduced the idea that “conflict cannot be eradicated and could not be dismissed, even in principle, by the fullest possible metaphysical knowledge of how the world is constituted.

As far as politics is concerned, Grotius is most often seen not so much as having contributed new ideas, but rather as having introduced a new way of approaching political problems. For Kingsbury and Roberts, “the most important direct contribution of Grotius is in the way he systematically brought together practices and authorities on the traditional but fundamental subject of jus belli, which he organized for the first time from a body of principles rooted in the law of nature.

The Peace Palace Library in The Hague holds the Grotius Collection, consisting of a large number of books by and about Hugo Grotius. The collection was founded with a donation from Martinus Nijhoff of 55 editions of De jure belli ac pacis libri tres.

External links


  1. Hugo Grotius
  2. Hugo Grotius
  3. Georges Gurvitch, « La philosophie du droit de Hugo Grotius et la théorie moderne du droit international (À L”occasion Du Tricentenaire Du De Jure Ac Pacis, 1625-1925) », Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale, vol. 34, no 3,‎ 1927, p. 365–391.
  4. Bull, Roberts et Kingsbury 2003.
  5. Thumfart 2009.
  6. En 1593, il fait partie des mathématiciens du monde entier pressentis par Adrien Romain pour résoudre son équation de degrés 45, et dont François Viète triomphera.
  7. ^ Ulam, Adam (1946). “Andreas Fricius Modrevius—A Polish Political Theorist of the Sixteenth Century”. American Political Science Review. 40 (3): 485–494. doi:10.2307/1949322. ISSN 0003-0554. JSTOR 1949322. S2CID 146226931.
  8. ^ La traduzione è tratta da Antonio Corsano, Giambattista Vico, Bari, Laterza, 1956, p. 148, ISBN non esistente. URL consultato il 18 settembre 2016.
  9. Horst Beckershaus: Die Hamburger Straßennamen – Woher sie kommen und was sie bedeuten. 6. Auflage. CEP Europäische Verlagsanstalt, Hamburg 2011, ISBN 978-3-86393-009-7, S. 137.
  10. a b c d e f Franz Wieacker: Privatrechtsgeschichte der Neuzeit unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der deutschen Entwicklung. 2. Auflage. Göttingen 1967, DNB 458643742 (1996, ISBN 3-525-18108-6), S. 287–301 (288 f.).
  11. Horst Dreitzel: Neues über Althusius. In: Ius Commune, hrsg. von Dieter Simon, Band 16. Vittorio Klostermann Frankfurt a. M. 1989. S. 275–302 (275 f.; 288). Der Aufsatz bezieht in die Auswertung den Sammelband ein: Karl-Wilhelm Dahm, Werner Krawietz, Dieter Wyduckel (Hrsg.): Politische Theorie des Johannes Althusius. (Rechtstheorie, Beiheft 7). Berlin, Duncker & Humblot, 1988.
  12. a b Uwe Wesel: Geschichte des Rechts: Von den Frühformen bis zur Gegenwart. C. H. Beck, München 2001, ISBN 978-3-406-54716-4. Rnr. 246 (S. 369).
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