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Source: Editor's Introduction to Grotius, The Rights of War and Peace, edited and with an Introduction by Richard Tuck, from the Edition by Jean Barbeyrac (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005). Vol. 1.
In the famous dedication of his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality to the Republic of Geneva, Jean-Jacques Rousseau drew a vivid picture of his father sitting at his watchmaker’s bench. “I see him still, living by the work of his hands, and feeding his soul on the sublimest truths. I see the works of Tacitus, Plutarch, and Grotius, lying before him in the midst of the tools of his trade. At his side stands his dear son, receiving, alas with too little profit, the tender instruction of the best of fathers....” Rousseau’s reminiscence is testimony to the authority which Grotius’s De Iure Belli ac Pacis had come to possess in the century since it was first published in 1625; in the eyes of both father and son, the book had the same standing as the great works of classical antiquity. Rousseau was to devote much of his life to a complicated and subtle repudiation of Grotius, but he never lost his sense of the book’s importance, describing Grotius in Emile as “the master of all the savants” in political theory (though he added that, nevertheless, he “is but a child, and, what is worse, a dishonest child,” and that “true political theory is yet to appear, and it is to be presumed that it never will”). The same sense of Grotius’s importance, without any of Rousseau’s reservations, had led the Elector Palatine in 1661 to endow a chair in the University of Heidelberg for the express purpose of providing a commentary on the De Iure Belli ac Pacis, a fact which is noted in the Life prefaced to this edition; as the Life also notes, the book was issued as a full edition with notes by various commentators, “by which means our Author, within 50 Years after his Death, obtained an Honour, which was not bestowed upon the Ancients till after many Ages.” The idea that the book represented something new and important for the modern age was repeatedly voiced in the “histories of morality,” which began to appear in the late seventeenth century; Grotius was described as “breaking the ice” after the long winter of ancient and medieval ethics. By the end of the seventeenth century there had been twenty-six editions of the Latin text, and it had been translated into Dutch (1626, reissued three times in the century), English (1654, reissued twice), and French (1687, reissued once). Its popularity scarcely slackened in the eighteenth century: there were twenty Latin editions, six French, five German, two Dutch, two English, and one Italian (and one Russian, circulated in manuscript).
However, for many eighteenth-century readers the definitive version of the book had appeared in Latin in 1720, when Jean Barbeyrac issued a new edition, followed by a French translation in 1724 with elaborate notes. Barbeyrac was a leading figure in the French Protestant diaspora, the network of scholars whose families had been driven out of France following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685. He worked tirelessly to put his own version of modern natural law before the European public, and his editions of Grotius built on the success of a similarly elaborate edition which he had produced of Samuel Pufendorf’s De Iure Naturae et Gentium in 1706. The notes to these editions keyed their texts into all the relevant discussions of natural law from antiquity down to the 1720s, and the two works together quickly became the equivalent of an encyclopedia of moral and political thought for Enlightenment Europe. The French version of De Iure Belli ac Pacis was reprinted steadily through the middle years of the century, and it found an audience beyond the French-speaking polite world in an English translation of 1738, which is reprinted in this edition, and which seems to have been produced in a large print run. Copies of it are very common, and are found in most academic and private libraries of the period—for example, General Washington, like most well-educated English gentlemen, possessed a copy, which is now in the Houghton Library at Harvard. An Italian translation appeared in 1777.
As this publishing history in itself illustrates, it would be hard to imagine any work more central to the intellectual world of the Enlightenment. But from the late eighteenth century onward, the stream of new editions dried up, and the book came to be treated not as the formative work of modern moral and political theory but as an important contribution to a different genre, “international law” (a term coined by Jeremy Bentham in 1780). Many intellectual developments of the period contributed to this shift, including the criticisms of Grotius found (alongside his admiration) in Rousseau, and the contempt expressed by Kant for the “sorry comforters” such as Grotius and Pufendorf, whose works “are still dutifully quoted in justification of military aggression, although their philosophically or diplomatically formulated codes do not and cannot have the slightest legal force, since states as such are not subject to a common external constraint.” William Whewell, professor of international law at Cambridge and translator of Grotius, tried in the mid-nineteenth century to restore Grotius as a major moral thinker, but with limited success; by the time of the post–First World War settlement, Grotius was regarded almost exclusively as the founder of modern civilized interstate relations, and as a suitable tutelary presence for the new Peace Palace at The Hague. As we shall see, in some ways that was to radically misunderstand Grotius’s views on war; he was in fact much more of an apologist for aggression and violence than many of his more genuinely pacific contemporaries. It was also and more seriously to ignore the genuinely innovative qualities of his moral theory, qualities that entitle him to an essential place in the history of political theory.
Hugo Grotius was born on 10 April 1583, to one of the wealthy ruling families in the Dutch city of Delft. The De Groots (“Grotius” is the Latinized version of his Dutch name—in common with intellectuals all over Europe, Grotius spoke and wrote to his fellow writers in Latin, and gave himself an appropriately Latin name) were regents of the city; that is, they were members of the self-selecting oligarchy which governed Delft, like many other Dutch cities. The generation before Grotius’s birth, his relatives had fought in the great struggle that established the freedom of the northern provinces of the Netherlands from the rule of the Spanish Crown, and many of Grotius’s writings display the intense patriotism engendered by that struggle. In Grotius’s case, his patriotism was as much focused on what he called his “nation,” the province of Holland and Zeeland, as it was on the wider United Provinces, which had collectively asserted their independence, and which form the modern kingdom of the Netherlands. All his life, Grotius remained wedded to the oligarchic republicanism of cities such as Delft, and somewhat wary of bigger states.
His family had not merely fought in the war of independence; they were also participants in one of the great sources of Dutch wealth and power, the overseas trading and military activity of the Dutch East India Company. Formed out of a union of various smaller companies in 1602, the East India Company was the first of the enormous corporations that were to dominate the European overseas expansion in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; in its first year of operation its gross income already exceeded the ordinary revenue of the English government, and (like the English East India Company a hundred years later) it sent out military forces as well as trading vessels in order to overawe its rivals and offer help to dissident groups all over the Far East. The De Groots were shareholders in the company and sat on the board of one of its “chambers” in Delft. The fact that one of the principal actors in international politics at the beginning of the seventeenth century was not a state but a private corporation was to be of enormous significance in the formation of Grotius’s political thought.
The young Grotius was educated as a humanist, in the tradition going back to the Italian Renaissance in which the study of classical texts provided an entire education, and in which the ability to write and speak persuasively, using all the ancient arts of rhetoric, was prized above all things. Although Grotius frequently cited philosophical texts written in a more “scholastic” style (that is, the style of the “schoolmen” of the Middle Ages, in which moral or legal issues were discussed in a kind of Aristotelian terminology, with little regard for literary elegance), his own writing was always essentially humanist in character. The De Iure Belli ac Pacis is full of literary and historical material from antiquity, and Grotius would have been delighted that a Genevan watch maker should think that his book was a natural companion to the works of Tacitus and Plutarch. Grotius was a prodigy within this education system and quickly made his reputation as a Latin poet and historian. For these rhetorical skills he was picked (as well-trained humanists always hoped to be) as an adviser and secretary by a leading politician, Jan van Oldenbarnevelt, who was in effect prime minister of the Dutch Republic. Grotius quickly became caught up in the political struggles of the new republic, an involvement that was ultimately to prove personally disastrous for him.
Technically, the United Provinces was a kingdom with a vacant throne: the King of Spain had been driven out but had not been replaced. In his absence, and pending the appointment of a new monarch (which was seriously considered for the first fifty years of the republic’s existence), government was divided between the old royal governors of the seven provinces, the Statholders, and the old representative assemblies for the provinces, the Estates. The assemblies sent delegates to an Estates General of the Union at The Hague, while most of the provinces had come to appoint the same man as their Statholder, the Prince of Orange. The Union thus possessed both a monarchical and a republican element in its constitution, though the constitutional basis for the powers of the different elements was far from clear; in practice, the Statholder possessed military authority as the commander in chief of the republic’s armies, while the Estates possessed the power of taxation and finance. Each element also had a different range of supporters: broadly speaking, the Calvinist Church and its ministry looked to the princes of the House of Orange to secure its power over the population, while other more heterodox religious groups looked to the oligarchical urban rulers for their protection.
During the first two decades of the seventeenth century, the religious antagonisms within the republic reached the point where civil war was threatened. Many people (including to some extent Grotiushim self) felt that there had been little point in throwing off the tyranny of Spain if it was to be replaced by the tyranny of an organized and intolerant Calvinist Church. Oldenbarnevelt and Grotius worked tirelessly on behalf of the Estates to try to protect the more liberal theologians (in particular, the ministers who agreed with Jacobus Arminius’s denial of the Calvinist doctrine of grace) from the attacks of the Calvinists; Grotius also circulated privately a theological work of his own in which he argued for a minimalist and irenic version of Christianity. But in the end, both Oldenbarnevelt and Grotius seem to have concluded that the only way to secure religious toleration in the republic was in effect to mount a military coup against the Statholder and thereby to remove the principal weapon in the hands of the Calvinists. There is a close parallel with events thirty years later in England, when the representatives of heterodox religious groups in the House of Commons also came to the conclusion that only a coup against their prince would destroy the power of the church that he supported. In England, the Commons won, though only after a long and bloody civil war; in the United Provinces, Oldenbarnevelt and Grotius lost. Prince Maurice arrested them both and had them arraigned for treason; Grotius gave evidence against his old friend and was sentenced to life imprisonment, while Oldenbarnevelt was publicly beheaded in May 1619.
Grotius was taken in the winter of 1618 to his prison, Louvestein Castle, in the south of the United Provinces. He lived there until March 1621, when he escaped in famous and romantic circumstances: his wife arrived with a basket of books; Grotius (who was quite a small man) hid in the empty basket and was carried out of the castle. He succeeded in crossing the border to the Spanish Netherlands undetected, and took refuge in France, where he lived for most of the rest of his life. He returned to the United Provinces under a false identity in October 1631, hoping that Maurice’s successor as Statholder, Frederick William (who had always been personally sympathetic to Grotius), could arrange for him to be rehabilitated; but in the end Frederick William could not deliver an annulment of the original conviction, and Grotius slipped out of the country again in April 1632. As we shall see, these six months in his native land had an important effect on the received text of De Iure Belli ac Pacis, since Grotius issued a second edition of the work during this period in which some of his more disturbing claims were modified in order to win over his Dutch opponents. For the next three years he moved around Germany, until at the beginning of 1635 the government of Sweden appointed him as their ambassador to France, a post that allowed him to play a major role in the complex diplomacy surrounding the last years of the Thirty Years’ War. There was always a certain amount of unease in Sweden about using him in this important position, however, and in 1645 Grotius visited Sweden to defend himself against criticism; he passed briefly through the United Provinces on his way, without molestation. He failed to persuade the Swedes to renew his appointment, and left the country; his ship was caught in a storm in the Baltic and wrecked on the coast near Rostock. Grotius collapsed on shore after being rescued, and died in Rostock on 28 August 1645. His body was returned to Delft and given an honored burial by the same Dutch authorities who had kept him in exile for twenty-four years.
Though it was not published until four years after his escape, De Iure Belli ac Pacis really grew out of Grotius’s time in prison. Political prisoners in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries enjoyed full access to their books and papers, and unlimited time to write: Sir Walter Raleigh, for example, wrote his massive History of the World while awaiting execution in the Tower of London. His two years in Louvestein allowed Grotius to revisit old projects; as he wrote to his old friend G. J. Vossius in July 1619, “I have resumed the study of jurisprudence [iuris studium] which had been interrupted by all my affairs, and the rest of my time is devoted to moral philosophy [morali sapientiae].” He told Vossius that to help his work in moral philosophy he was giving a Latin dress to the ethical passages in the Greek poets and dramatists collected by the Byzantine anthologist Stobaeus, and the effect of this approach to the subject is visible on every page of the De Iure Belli ac Pacis. Rousseau was to remark sardonically that Grotius’s use of quotations concealed the fundamental similarity between Grotius and Hobbes: “The truth is that their principles are exactly the same: they only differ in their expression. They also differ in their method. Hobbes relies on sophisms, and Grotius on the poets; all the rest is the same.” Grotius also turned his attention to rewriting and expanding his earlier work on theology, and it was this which he brought to fruition first after his escape; but once settled in France he concentrated on his juridical and moral project and wrote De Iure Belli ac Pacis between the autumn of 1622 and the spring of 1624, partly while staying as a guest at the country house of one of the presidents of the Parlement of Paris, Henri de Mesmes, at Balagny near Senlis. Printing took place slowly and inefficiently from January to March 1625; copies were rushed to the Frankfurt Book Fair in March in order to catch the eye of the European public, and in May Grotius was at last able to give a presentation copy to the book’s dedicatee, King Louis XIII of France.
Among the papers to which he must have turned while in prison was a long manuscript which he had written in 1606, before the practical requirements of Dutch politics came to occupy all his time and attention. It was a defense of the military and commercial activity of the Dutch East India Company in the Far East, and in it the central themes of De Iure Belli ac Pacis were already adumbrated. He had begun to circulate the manuscript among his friends, no doubt with a view to publishing it, but in the end only Chapter XII of the manuscript had appeared in print, as the famous Mare Liberum (1609); clearly, Grotius decided that his enforced leisure at Louvestein was an ideal opportunity to rewrite this early draft and finally put it in a publishable form. The manuscript lay unknown among Grotius’s papers until 1864, when it was discovered and published; its first editor gave it the title De Iure Praedae, The Law of Prizes, but Grotius himself referred to it more loosely as his De Indis, and its real scope was expressed by the subtitle of Mare Liberum, “a dissertation on the law which covers the Hollanders’ trade with the Indies.” Dutch expansion in the Far East was a peculiarly fertile context for Grotius’s political theory to develop, since (as I said earlier) it was essentially driven by a private corporation, interacting with local rulers such as the sultan of Johore and offering them military protection and beneficial trading arrangements. The Indian Ocean and the China Sea were an arena in which actors had to deal with one another without the overarching frameworks of common laws, customs, or religions; it was a proving ground for modern politics in general, as the states of Western Europe themselves came to terms with religious and cultural diversity. The principles that were to govern dealings of this kind had to be appropriately stripped down: there was no point in asserting to a king in Sumatra that Aristotelian moral philosophy was universally true, and not much more point in telling the admiral of the Dutch East India Company’s fleet that he had to wait for some judicial pronouncement by an appropriate sovereign before making war on a threatening naval force. The minimalist character of the principles that emerged from this setting caught the imagination of modern Europe, for they seemed to offer the prospect of an understanding of political and moral life to which all men—the poor and dispossessed and religiously heterodox of Europe as well as the exotic peoples of the Far East or the New World—could give their assent.
Grotius boldly stated his central argument as follows:
God created man αὐτεξούσιον, “free and sui iuris, ” so that the actions of each individual and the use of his possessions were made subject not to another’s will but to his own. Moreover, this view is sanctioned by the common consent of all nations. For what is that well-known concept, “natural liberty,” other than the power of the individual to act in accordance with his own will? And liberty in regard to actions is equivalent to ownership in regard to property. Hence the saying: “every man is the governor and arbiter of affairs relative to his own property.”
Grotius remained committed to this view in De Iure Belli ac Pacis, remarking in one of its most striking passages that “there are several Ways of living, some better than others, and every one may chuse what he pleases of all those Sorts.” He thus presupposed the naturally autonomous agents familiar to us from later seventeenth- and eighteenth-century political theory, who constructed their political arrangements through voluntary agreements. Though he did not have precisely the concept of the “state of nature,” which was so central to Hobbes and his successors, and which they always contrasted with “civil Society” (the product of agreement among naturally free men), he did use the terms in somewhat similar ways; and of course the domain of foreign trade and war was in itself the best example of such a state, and was always used as such by later writers.
The principles governing these autonomous natural individuals were also stated very plainly in De Iure Praedae. The Prolegomena to the work began with two fundamental laws of nature:
first, that It shall be permissible to defend [one’s own] life and to shun that which threatens to prove injurious; secondly, that It shall be permissible to acquire for oneself, and to retain, those things which are useful for life. The latter precept, indeed, we shall interpret with Cicero as an admission that each individual may, without violating the precepts of nature, prefer to see acquired for himself rather than for another, that which is important for the conduct of life. Moreover, no member of any sect of philosophers, when embarking upon a discussion of the ends [of good and evil], has ever failed to lay down these two laws first of all as indisputable axioms. For on this point the Stoics, the Epicureans, and the Peripatetics are in complete agreement, and apparently even the Academics [i.e., the Skeptics] have entertained no doubt.
The last part of this passage emphasizes Grotius’s concern that whatever one’s ethical commitments, his minimalist principles should be acceptable; in De Iure Belli ac Pacis he made the same point by selecting Carneades, the leader of the Skeptical Academy, as the person whom he needed to defeat in argument. Grotius termed these “laws” of nature, but since they were permissive in form they might be better termed “rights”; and this is what he duly did in De Iure Belli ac Pacis, where the “Right of recurring to Force, in defence of one’s own Life” (I.II.3) and the right “of innocent Profit; where I only seek my own Advantage, without damaging any Body else” (II.II.11) are the basic rights which recur throughout the book.
The right to defend oneself, Grotius always believed, extends beyond merely responding to an immediate attack. It also includes what we would normally think of as punishment, that is, the exercise of violence against a third party by whom we are not directly threatened. He was aware that this was an extremely disturbing idea, as traditionally this right was the special prerogative of civil sovereigns.
Is not the power to punish essentially a power that pertains to the state [respublica]? Not at all! On the contrary, just as every right of the magistrate comes to him from the state, so has the same right come to the state from private individuals; and similarly, the power of the state is the result of collective agreement.... Therefore, since no one is able to transfer a thing that he never possessed, it is evident that the right of chastisement was held by private persons before it was held by the state. The following argument, too, has great force in this connexion: the state inflicts punishment for wrongs against itself, not only upon its own subjects but also upon foreigners; yet it derives no power over the latter from civil law, which is binding upon citizens only because they have given their consent; and therefore, the law of nature, or law of nations, is the source from which the state receives the power in question.
This last argument is of course identical to the one used later by Locke and described by him as “a very strange doctrine.” Intriguingly, he would not have found this particular point in De Iure Belli ac Pacis, though he would have found a clear statement of the general claim, for example at II.XX.3.1.
The Subject of this Right, that is, the Person to whom the Right of Punishing belongs, is not determined by the Law of Nature. For natural Reason informs us, that a Malefactor may be punished, but not who ought to punish him. It suggests indeed so much, that it is the fittest to be done by a Superior, but yet does not shew that to be absolutely necessary, unless by Superior we mean him who is innocent, and detrude the Guilty below the Rank of Men, and place them among the Beasts that are subject to Men, which is the Doctrine of some Divines.
These natural rights of self-defense are balanced, in both De Iure Praedae and De Iure Belli ac Pacis, by two laws, properly so called. In the earlier work he specified the laws as “Let no one inflict injury upon his fellows” and “Let no one seize possession of that which has been taken into the possession of another.” However, he was at pains to stress that the rights of nature took precedence (as they were to later in Hobbes):
the order of presentation of the first set of laws and of those following immediately thereafter has indicated that one’s own good takes precedence over the good of another person—or, let us say, it indicates that by nature’s ordinance each individual should be desirous of his own good fortune in preference to that of another....
In the later work, he most clearly listed the basic laws of nature in a passage in the Preliminary Discourse, § VIII:
the Abstaining from that which is another’s, and the Restitution of what we have of another’s, or of the Profit we have made by it, the Obligation of fulfilling Promises, the Reparation of a Damage done through our own Default, and the Merit of Punishment among Men.
And he made clear in his long defense of violence, Book I, Chapter II, that these laws did not supersede our natural right to defend ourselves: “The Christian Religion commands, that we should lay down our Lives one for another; but who will pretend to say, that we are obliged to this by the Law of Nature[?]” (I.II.6.2).
The natural state of man was thus one of wary defensiveness: men should not unnecessarily injure one another, but they need not actually help one another. Only if they formed civil associations, with the express intention of improving one another’s lives and creating something richer than the state of nature, would principles such as mutual aid apply. In a “city,”
First, Individual citizens should not only refrain from injuring other citizens, but should furthermore protect them, both as a whole and as individuals; secondly, Citizens should not only refrain from seizing one another’s possessions, whether these be held privately or in common, but should furthermore contribute individually both that which is necessary to other individuals and that which is necessary to the whole....
In De Iure Belli ac Pacis he said the same, in his discussion of the difference between “corrective” and “distributive” justice. Distributive justice, he argued, was concerned with
a prudent Management in the gratuitous Distribution of Things that properly belong to each particular Person or Society, so as to prefer sometimes one of greater before one of less Merit, a Relation before a Stranger, a poor Man before one that is rich, and that according as each Man’s Actions, and the Nature of the Thing require; which many both of the Ancients and Moderns take to be a part of Right properly and strictly so called; when notwithstanding that Right, properly speaking, has a quite different Nature, since it consists in leaving others in quiet Possession of what is already their own, or in doing for them what in Strictness they may demand. (Preliminary Discourse, X)
Aristotle (the most relevant “Ancient” referred to) was therefore wrong: it was not part of basic justice to think about the needs of others. Justice properly understood involved merely a commitment not to injure other people, unless doing so was necessary in order to protect one’s own rights.
In both De Iure Praedae and De Iure Belli ac Pacis, Grotius presented these principles of natural law as themselves derived from some fundamental metaethical commitments, and the character of these commitments occasioned extensive controversy, both in his own time and later. Although the Prolegomena to De Iure Praedae began with the simple statement “What God has shown to be His Will, that is law,” even in that work Grotius refused to derive the laws of nature from “oracles and supernatural portents.” Instead, they were to be deduced solely from “the design [intentio] of the Creator” as manifested in the generally recognized constitution of the natural world. Self-defense was the first and most basic of all principles: all individuals (not just men, but also animals, and even inanimate objects) possessed a fundamental drive to preserve themselves. Grotius was even prepared to say (quoting Horace) that to this extent “expediency [utilitas, “profit” or “self-interest”] might perhaps be called the mother of justice and equity,” though he acknowledged that only part of justice was based on self-defense. Once their preservation was secured, individuals had other goals; in the case of men (and to a degree far exceeding that of other creatures), they were endowed with a desire for a social life with other individuals of the same kind. Grotius more than once in De Iure Praedae described this trait as “ homini proprium, ” “special to men,” and from it he derived the remaining part of natural justice, the laws obliging us to abstain from injuring our fellow men. But in his discussion of this part he always insisted on its subordinate status to the right of self-preservation and on its minimal character—mutual aid and distributive (as distinct from corrective) justice were not part of this natural “ cognatio ” but appeared with cities and civil society.
In the Prolegomena to De Iure Belli ac Pacis, Grotius set out a very similar theory, though its similarities to the earlier work were appreciably clearer in the first edition than in the edition he produced while attempting to return to the United Provinces. Just as in De Iure Praedae he had restricted the derivation of natural law to what all men agreed on as the basic physical principles governing all beings, so in the Prolegomena to De Iure Belli ac Pacis he asserted that it “necessarily derives from intrinsic principles of a human being.” He was now even more blunt about the exiguous role of God, declaring in the most famous remark of the book that “what I have just said would be relevant even if we were to suppose (what we cannot suppose without the greatest wickedness) that there is no God, or that human affairs are of no concern to him.” As in De Iure Praedae, Grotius accepted that God had indeed created the world and peopled it with beings constituted along these lines; but one did not need to think about the divine character of the creation to apprehend what the constitution of the physical world was, and all peoples at all periods of history, irrespective of their religious commitments, had agreed on the principles of natural law. Self-preservation was still the first of these principles: “nature drives each animal to seek its own interests [utilitates],” and this was true “of man before he came to the use of that which is special to man [antequam ad usum eius quod homini proprium est, pervenerit].” But this was balanced by the same ideas as in the earlier work, that what is proprium or special to man is a desire for a much richer social life than is possessed by any other animals, and in particular for a social life governed by rational principles. This desire is the basis for our respect for one another’s rights, and is “the source of ius, properly so called, to which belong abstaining from another’s possessions, restoring anything which belongs to another (or the profit from it), being obliged to keep promises, giving compensation for culpable damage, and incurring human punishment.” Anything further, involving distributive justice and the recognition of merited distinctions between people, might arise from this natural justice but was not, strictly speaking, part of it. Grotius now denied that Horace had been right in saying that utilitas was the mother of justice, but since he had qualified his endorsement of the remark in De Iure Praedae, his new comment on the passage did not represent a major repudiation of his old view.
It is clear that both Grotius’s derogation of the role of God and the priority he gave to self-interest were alarming to many of his contemporaries, particularly among the Calvinists who surrounded the Prince of Orange. In order to accommodate the book more to their views when he produced the second edition, Grotius toned down his argument. Thus he cut out the claim that man was driven purely by self-interest “before he came to the use of that which is special to man” and replaced it with the emphatic assertion that “ the Saying, that every Creature is led by Nature to seek its own private Advantage, expressed thus universally, must not be granted. ” Similarly, he contrived to widen the scope of God’s authority. For example, in 1625 the very first sentence of the Prolegomena included the claim that “few people have tackled the law that mediates between different countries or their rulers, whether that law stems from nature itself or from custom and tacit agreement, and so far no one at all has dealt with it comprehensively and methodically.” In 1631, this read “ that Law, which is common to many Nations or Rulers of Nations, whether derived from Nature, or instituted by Divine Commands, or introduced by Custom and tacit Consent, few have touched upon, and none hitherto treated of universally and methodically ”—Grotius now allowed that the law of nature might be “instituted by Divine Commands.” Similarly, he dropped the word “necessarily” from the sentence where he had said that the natural law “necessarily derives from intrinsic principles of a human being” and added to his discussion at that point the thought that
God by the Laws which he has given, has made these very Principles more clear and evident, even to those who are less capable of strict Reasoning, and has forbid us to give way to those impetuous Passions, which, contrary to our own Interest, and that of others, divert us from following the Rules of Reason and Nature;for as they are exceeding unruly, it was necessary to keep a strict Hand over them, and to confine them within certain narrow Bounds. (Preliminary Discourse, XIII)
So he now conceded that the natural law might properly be deduced not from the necessary constitution of the physical world, but from the records of God’s pronouncements about the law directly to mankind.
Almost all these changes are found in the Prolegomena; the remainder of the book continued to lay out the same case that Grotius had advanced in the first edition. The result of this was to throw many of his later readers, including Barbeyrac, into some confusion; Barbeyrac consistently sought to emphasize the wider character of Grotian sociability and to bring him in line with Pufendorf (whose main aim was to attack the account of man’s narrow and self-interested natural life found in Hobbes). But anyone who read the first edition (as Hobbes himself probably did), or who could see through the confusion artfully introduced by Grotius (as Rousseau seems to have done), would be a ware that Grotius’s theory of the law of nature was more like Hobbes’s than Pufendorf and Barbeyrac were ever prepared to acknowledge. When Rousseau said of Grotius and Hobbes (in the passage I quoted earlier) that “their principles are exactly the same,” he may well have been surprisingly close to the mark.
I now want to turn to the practical implications of Grotius’s ideas. The first and most obvious implication was that private war was legitimate. The East India Company, though legally a private individual, could indeed make war as if it were a state when it encountered any people with whom it did not already have some kind of civil association. Grotius was still an adviser to the company when he wrote De Iure Belli ac Pacis, and he continued to assert its right to engage in this kind of activity. The second implication, though less obvious, was even more far-reaching: the kind of war that private individuals could make included acts of punishment —that is, it encompassed much more than the limited violence which almost all moralists (other than the radically Christian ones) had allowed individuals to use in their own immediate self-defense. Grotius permitted the company, and anyone else dealing with the complicated power struggles and internecine violence of the world in which the European traders found themselves, to make judgments about the morality of the various parties and to punish those who seemed to be violating other people’s rights, even if there was no immediate threat to the Europeans themselves. Grotius was quite clear in De Iure Belli ac Pacis about the interventionary character of his theory, arguing in his great chapter on punishment (Book II, Chapter XX) that
We make no Doubt, but War may be justly undertaken against those who are inhuman to their Parents, as were the Sogdians, before Alexander persuaded them to renounce their Brutality; against those who eat human Flesh,... and against those who practise Piracy....And so far we follow the Opinion of Innocentius [Pope Innocent IV], and others, who hold that War is lawful against those who offend against Nature; which is contrary to the Opinion of Victoria, Vasquez, Azorius, Molina, and others, who seem to require, towards making a War just, that he who undertakes it be injured in himself, or in his State, or that he has some Jurisdiction over the Person against whom the War is made. For they assert, that the Power of Punishing is properly an Effect of Civil Jurisdiction; whereas our Opinion is, that it proceeds from the Law of Nature.... (II.XX.40)
As Grotius said, this view was very contentious, and had usually been associated with enthusiasts for the medieval crusades, such as Innocent IV; modern writers, such as the principal theorist of the Spanish conquest of Mexico and Peru, Francisco de Vitoria, had expressly denied that the conquest was a crusade against immoral barbarians.
Many practices of non-European peoples, in Grotius’s view, could count as grounds for intervention in order to punish breaches of the natural law. Perhaps the most surprising and historically important was any refusal by hunter-gatherers, such as the aboriginals of North America, to let agriculturalists settle on their land. To understand this, we have to consider the most striking of all the implications that Grotius drew from his guiding principles, namely his theory of property. The basic right of self-preservation, according to the theory, entitled one to seize the necessities of life, even at the cost of another person’s survival; but it did not entitle one unnecessarily to take from someone else what one needed. If we were to insist on our ownership of any commodity that we did not need and that someone else might make good use of, we would be indirectly injuring them. In De Veritate Religionis Christianae, which (as we have seen) also came out of the period of reflection allowed to Grotius in the early 1620s, he summed up his views as follows:
our natural needs are satisfied with only a few things, which may be easily had without great labour or cost. As for what God has granted us in addition, we are commanded not to throw it into the sea (as some Philosophers foolishly asserted), nor to leave it unproductive [inutile], nor to waste it, but to use it to meet the needs [inopiam] of other men, either by giving it away, or by lending it to those who ask; as is appropriate for those who believe themselves to be not owners [dominos] of these things, but representatives or stewards [procuratores ac dispensatores] of God the Father....
Throughout his discussion of property, especially in Book II, Chapters II and III of De Iure Belli ac Pacis, but also in Mare Liberum (which was the relevant portion of De Iure Praedae), Grotius made clear the extremely weak character of private property. In a state of nature, all commodities were in common, in the sense that each man took what he needed from the common store of nature and left what he did not need for other people to use; allocation of resources was simply on the basis of “first Occupancy” (II.III.1). The introduction of private property gave the owners merely a presumptive right to first use, entitling their own needs to be met by the commodity that they owned, before those of anyone else (II.II.8); but once the owners’ needs had been met, Grotius always argued, the surplus could be claimed by the genuinely needy. A regime of private property did not give people a moral right to more extensive possessions; it merely changed the method by which they laid claim to the necessities of life.
Thus the sea could not be owned, as he insisted throughout Mare Liberum and in II.II.3 of De Iure Belli ac Pacis, because use of the sea itself (as distinct from the fish taken from it) could not be regarded as answering a basic need. The same was true of the original wastelands of the world, over which wild animals roamed. Agricultural land, on the other hand, could be owned, since (Grotius believed) only settled possession enabled the farmers to plant seed and harvest crops unmolested, and thereby to produce new commodities that could be used to fulfill basic needs. The paradoxical consequence was that, according to Grotius, it was not the European settlers who were guilty of any injurious actions when they took hunting grounds away from the primitive peoples of the world; it was the primitive peoples themselves who were behaving badly when they tried to resist the settlements, and who could be punished for their conduct.
However, one practice that could not be used as justification for the conquest of primitive peoples was their religion. It had occasionally been argued that “infidels” could rightly be conquered by Christians, but Grotius was always adamant that war could never be made against any theists on the grounds that their religion was false. As he said in II.XX.46, “That there is a Deity, (one or more I shall not now consider) and that this Deity has the Care of human Affairs, are Notions universally received, and are absolutely necessary to the Essence of any Religion, whether true or false,” and “those who first attempt to destroy these Notions, ought, on the Account of human Society in general, which they thus, without any just Grounds, injure, to be restrained, as in all well-governed Communities has been usual.” So atheism was a moral crime, as it was to be for Locke (though not for Hobbes). But any religion that corresponded to this minimal definition should be tolerated, and Christianity could not be forced on its adherents (II.XX.48), though Christianity itself had to be tolerated by nonbelievers on pain of international punishment (II.XX.49).
A third and equally surprising practical implication of Grotius’s minimalist political principles was that he sanctioned certain kinds of slavery. As he said in his discussion of the issue in chapter V of Book II,
perfect and utter Slavery, is that which obliges a Man to serve his Master all his Life long, for Diet and other common Necessaries; which indeed, if it be thus understood, and confined within the Bounds of Nature, has nothing too hard and severe in it; for that perpetual Obligation to Service, is recompensed by the Certainty of being always provided for; which those who let themselves out to daily Labour, are often far from being assured of.... (II.V.27)
The fundamental right to preserve oneself naturally (on Grotius’s view) led to the legitimacy of voluntary slavery, if one’s circumstances were such that only such a course of action would keep one alive. Similarly, parents could reasonably sell their children into slavery (II.V.29). But of course, the master of a slave could have no right to kill the slave, since such a right would defeat the object of the relationship from the point of view of the slave (II.V.28). This—to our eyes—disconcerting consequence of Grotius’s minimalist liberalism was a common feature of the rights theories of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and it was of course one of the primary reasons why Rousseau was to turn in disgust from the Grotian tradition.
These implications of Grotius’s theory, all in various ways, relate to his defense of individual rights, including the private right to make war. But De Iure Belli ac Pacis also contains an influential account of the nature of a state. As we have seen, Grotius believed that all its rights “come to the state from private individuals;... the power of the state is the result of collective agreement.” Individuals agree to pool their rights of self-preservation, and in addition to help their fellow citizens in ways that they would not think of doing in a state of nature. As he said in De Iure Belli ac Pacis I.I.14, “The State is a compleat Body of free Persons, associated together to enjoy peaceably their Rights, and for their common Benefit” (the last phrase expressing what is added by civil association) (I.III.7). As long as this “body of free persons” was independent of any other such body, it was itself free and sovereign: “we... exclude the Nations, who are brought under the Power of another People, as were the Roman Provinces; for those Nations are no longer a State, as we now use the Word, but the less considerable Members of a great State, as Slaves are the Members of a Family.”
But Grotius had to tread very carefully over the question of how such a body might be governed. He used the subtle analogy of the human eye:
As the Body is the common Subject of Sight, the Eye the proper; so the common Subject of Supreme Power is the State; which I have before called a perfect Society of Men....The proper Subject is one or more Persons, according to the Laws and Customs of each Nation.
I see with my eyes, and cannot see without them, but it is not my eyes that see: it is me. Similarly, Grotius argued, we cannot have a state without a government of one or more persons, but it is not the government that acts and creates political identity. The state, properly speaking, continues to be the whole association acting through its rulers. But that does not mean that the association can dispense with its particular rulers, any more than I can dispense with my eyes. After the passage just quoted, Grotius immediately went on to make one of his most famous claims, that
here we must first reject their Opinion, who will have the Supreme Power to be always, and without Exception, in the People; so that they may restrain or punish their Kings, as often as they abuse their Power. What Mischiefs this Opinion has occasioned, and may yet occasion, if once the Minds of People are fully possessed with it, every wise Man sees. I shall refute it with these Arguments. It is lawful for any Man to engage himself as a Slave to whom he pleases; as appears both by the Hebrew and Roman Laws. Why should it not therefore be as lawful for a People that are at their own Disposal, to deliver up themselves to any one or more Persons, and transfer the Right of governing them upon him or them, without reserving any Share of that Right to themselves? Neither should you say this is not to be presumed: For the Question here is not, what may be presumed in a Doubt, but what may be lawfully done? In vain do some alledge the Inconveniences which arise from hence, or may arise; for you can frame no Form of Government in your Mind, which will be without Inconveniences and Dangers. (I.III.8)
Since the civitas, the civil association or civil society, was an individual with the rights of any other individual, it simply followed on Grotius’s account that it must be free voluntarily to enslave itself in the interests of its own survival. Only if it amalgamated with another association, or was treated as no longer a separate entity, would it destroy itself; any such union was tantamount to suicide by the state and could not be justified by the principle of self-preservation. “Cases of extreme Necessity, by which all Things return to a mere State of Nature” (II.VI.5) might lead individuals to break up their own state and seek security in another, but this could not be an act of the civil society itself.
Whatever their different views about what he had done, Grotius’s readers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were united in their praise for his originality, for in De Iure Belli ac Pacis we have indeed found many of the central themes of modern political theory. Grotius’s men are born free, under no authority but that which all men will recognize, the authority of a minimal kind of natural law. They are equal, for the essence of Grotius’s natural justice (as distinct from the distributive justice characteristic of civil societies) is that it treats all men as equal and does not recognize distinctions of rank or even of merit; furthermore, in nature our property is extremely exiguous, and no one can claim property rights at the expense of the poor. And yet, on the other hand, his men are competitive and censorious, eager to conquer new territories if that will promote the rational use of the world’s resources, and eager to intervene in the internal affairs of other nations if they see injuries being suffered by the innocent. The world Grotius depicted is indeed recognizably our world, for good or ill.
A NOTE ON THE TEXT
The 1738 English translation of Barbeyrac’s French edition, which is reprinted here, was in large part the work of John Morrice. In 1715 he and two collaborators had published a translation of the Latin text of Grotius’s work, which was reprinted as the translation of Grotius’s text in the 1738 edition; Barbeyrac’s notes were translated from the French and added to the Morrice translation at the same time. Morrice’s papers survive in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (including two autobiographical sketches), and they give a vivid sense of a life that was a combination of Grub Street and the lower reaches of the Church of England, governed by a constant anxiety over money and preferment. Morrice was born in Shropshire in 1686 and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Lincoln College Oxford in 1709. In 1714 he was chosen Lecturer at St. Bartholomew’s by the Royal Exchange in London, and at the same time appointed chaplain to the Earl of Uxbridge; the following year (as he said in the longer of the two autobiographies)
I published Grotius of the Rights of War and Peace, in 3 Vol. and Dedicated it to the prince of Wales; upon which Occasion I was introduced to the prince and princess. Mr. Spavan & Dr. Littlehales were my partners in this Work, and we had a Guinea a sheet for Translating it....
The publishers of this edition (D. Brown, T. Ward, and W. Meares) included one of the publishers of the 1738 edition (Brown); the publishers of the various English translations of Pufendorf also included some of the publishers of both the 1715 and the 1738 Grotius, and the two projects were clearly regarded as similar. The quality of the translation of Grotius’s text varies, with most of the more egregious errors being toward the end (see, for example, my notes at III.VII.9 and III.XIX.14), and it is likely that these passages were translated by Spavan or Little-hales. Elsewhere, Morrice remembered that at the presentation to the prince “he was promised Great Things,” though nothing materialized until 1724, when he was appointed chaplain to the prince. In the meantime he made money acting as minister of the chapel in the New Way, Westminster, translating, and writing anonymously for the Tatler and the Spectator. The prince succeeded to the throne as George II in 1727, and Morrice continued to hope for great things, from a monarch who clearly had a rather vague memory of him:
Thursday, Decr. 17th 1730. at Half Hour past One a-Clock, Mr. Brigman, Closet-Keeper to the King, plac’d me at the Door between the Bed-Chamber & Closet, to deliver a Memorial to His Majesty, about Grotius, and my having been Chaplain, wch was very graciously recd: Ld. Pagett [son of the Earl of Uxbridge] was Ld of the Bed-Chamber in waiting....
It is unclear whether Morrice envisaged some new edition of Grotius as a way of winning the favor of the king (not unreasonably, given that Barbeyrac had dedicated his edition to the king’s father), nor is it clear whether he in fact had any hand in the 1738 edition. (The longer autobiography goes down to 1740, but it is very sketchy about the last few years of Morrice’s life.) The notes were translated by someone with views of his own about some of the material (see, for example, II.V.14.1 n. 2), which may suggest Morrice; he died in 1740, without having received any sign of royal favor. It is likely that the 1738 edition was largely a project driven by its publishers (this is implied by the absence of a dedication, other than the translation of Grotius’s own dedication to Louis XIII), and the publishers may have recruited someone other than Morrice to translate the notes.
My own editorial remarks in the text or notes of the edition are contained within double square brackets, thus: [[.... This is because both Barbeyrac and his translator use ordinary parentheses and square brackets; the latter usually signify alterations or comments added to Grotius’ sown text, though they can also function in the same way as ordinary parentheses. Where I have introduced a footnote of my own, it is marked in the text with the symbol †. Again, this is because Barbeyrac and Grotius themselves used numbers, letters, and asterisks(*) to label their footnotes and marginal notes. Page breaks in the 1738 edition are indicated here by the use of angle brackets. For example, page 112 begins after112.
For the dedication, see The Social Contract and Discourses, trans. G. D. H. Cole, revised ed. J. H. Brumfitt and John C. Hall (Everyman 1973), 34; for Emile, see Rousseau, Political Writings, ed. C. E. Vaughan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1915), 2:147.
This was the edition that appeared in 1691 from a press at Frankfurt-on-Oder, with commentary by Gronovius, Boecler, Henniges, Osiander, and Ziegler, names that will become familiar from Barbeyrac’s notes in this edition.
See Barbeyrac’s remark in his An Historical and Critical Account of the Science of Morality, prefaced to his edition of Pufendorf, The Law of Nature and Nations (London, 1749), 67.
This information is from J. ter Meulen and P. J. J. Diermanse, Bibliographie des e´crits imprime´s de Grotius (The Hague, 1950). For an exemplary modern edition of the Latin text, see B. J. A. De Kanter–van Hettinga Tromp’s 1939 edition, reprinted with extensive additional material by R. Feenstra and C. E. Persenaire (Aalen: Scientia Verlag, 1993).
Both the Barbeyrac Latin and French editions were from Amsterdam; the French version was dedicated to George I of England.
For full details, see “A Note on the Text” at the end of the introduction.
Immanuel Kant, Political Writings, ed. Hans Reiss, trans. H. B. Nisbet, 2d ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 103.
His Meletius sive De iis quae inter Christianos convenit epistola, written in 1611; edited by G. H. M. Posthumus Meyjes (Leiden: Brill, 1988). See also his writings from 1614 onward on ecclesiastical power, discussed by H. J. van Dam in his edition of Grotius’s De Imperio Summarum Potestatum circa Sacra (Leiden: Brill, 2001).
Grotius, Briefwisseling, ed. P. C. Molhuysen, vol. 2 (The Hague, 1936), 15 (no. 590).
In 1623 he published these translations, with an introduction that broaches some of the themes later developed in De Iure Belli ac Pacis, in a volume entitled Dicta Poetarum quae apud Io. Stobaeum exstant. The book was published in Paris by Nicolas Buon, the same printer who was to produce De Iure Belli ac Pacis; Grotius had been staying at Buon’s house since he arrived in Paris.
Rousseau, Political Writings, 2:147.
In 1622 he published Bewys van den waren godsdienst, the Dutch forerunner of his later De veritate religionis Christianae, which he had composed in prison; five years later he produced the Latin version. In 1622 he also published his Disquisitio an Pelagiana sint ea dogmata quae nunc subeo nomine traducuntur, picking up on the themes in debate between the Arminians and their opponents; and his Apologeticus eorum qui Hollandiae ex legibus praefuerunt, defending his conduct in the attempted coup of 1618.
See among other references Briefwisseling, 2:254, 260, 283, 296, 327, 358.
See, for example, Briefwisseling, 2:409, 417, 422, 426.
Ibid., 31 (no folio numbering).
Even as the De Iure Belli ac Pacis was being printed, Grotius was thinking about a new edition in which the work would appear alongside Mare Liberum and his essay on the Dutch constitution, De Antiquitate Batavicae Reipublicae of 1610 (Briefwisseling, 2:426). He clearly did not suppose then that De Iure Belli ac Pacis had superseded the earlier work. De Iure Belli ac Pacis and Mare Liberum did appear together in an Amsterdam edition of 1632, though this may not have been authorized.
De jure quod Batavis competit ad Indicana commercia dissertatio.
De Iure Praedae Commentarius, trans. Gwladys L. Williams and Walter H. Zeydel (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Oxford University Press, 1950), 1:18.
I.III.8. As its context illustrates, of course, this stress on fundamental moral liberty is compatible with a voluntary renunciation of civil liberty—I.III.8 is the famous defense of absolutism. The term αὐτεξούσιον also occurs three times in De Iure Belli ac Pacis, with the same meaning as in De Iure Praedae. See, for example, his description of a child who has grown up and left home as “altogether αὐτεξούσιος, at his own Disposal ” (II. V.6), and also II.XX.48.2 n. 6 and II.XXI.12.
See in particular II.VII.27.1, which contrasts “the State of Nature” with civil “Jurisdiction.” II.VI.5, which in the English translation also refers to “a meer State of Nature” in opposition to civil society, in the original Latin refers to ius naturae. Other references to the state of nature, in the Latin as well as the English texts, occur at II.V.9.2 and II.V.15.2, though they contrast nature with grace, in a more traditional fashion. Grotius uses the term civil society: see, for example, I.IV.2.
De Iure Praedae Commentarius, trans. Williams and Zeydel, 2:10–11.
De Iure Praedae Commentarius, trans. Williams and Zeydel, 1:91–92. For the Latin text, the easiest source (since the Carnegie Endowment text is a photocopy of the manuscript) is still the original edition by H. G. Hanaker (The Hague, 1868), 91. See also Peter Borschberg, Hugo Grotius: “Commentarius in Theses XI” (Berne, 1994), 244–45, for an early statement of this idea, in the manuscript which seems to be part of the working papers for the De Indis.
Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 272 (II.9).
De Iure Praedae Commentarius, trans. Williams and Zeydel, 1:21.
De Iure Praedae Commentarius, ed. Hanaker, 12; see also page 13, “ mediam justitiam, quae humano generi propria est. ”
That is, “relationship” or “similarity.” DeIure Praedae Commentarius, ed. Hanaker, 13.
See my translation of the Prolegomena in the appendix to Book III.
This is the notorious etiamsi daremus clause, so called from the Latin for “even if we were to suppose.”
This is a translation of the sentence “& in diversa trahentes impetus, qui nobis ipsis, quique aliis consulunt, vagari vetuit,” which appears in all the editions seen through the press by Grotius. Barbeyrac supposed that aliis consulunt should read male consulunt, but that seems to me to be a misrepresentation of what Grotius was saying. Grotius’s point was that our self-interested and benevolent impulses did in principle keep us on the right road, though they might (as he claimed in 1631) need some sort of control by God to make sure that they did so. A better translation would read, “God has made these same principles more conspicuous by giving laws, even to those whose powers of reasoning are feeble: and he has forbidden those powerful impulses which attend to the interests of both ourselves and others from straying into the wrong courses, by strictly restraining the more vehement of them and by coercing them in both their ends and their means.”
See for example what he did to Grotius’s remark at I.I.10, that ius naturale is “a dictate of right reason, indicating of any act whether it possesses moral turpitude or moral necessity, from its congruity or incongruity with rational nature itself, and consequently whether it was forbidden or permitted by God the author of nature” (my translation). Barbeyrac inserted at his own initiative the words “and social” (ac sociali) after the word “rational” in this passage—are vealing attempt to make Grotius more of a theorist of sociability than in fact he was.
Grotius, Opera Omnia Theologica (London, 1679),3:43(II.14)(my translation). The last sentence is a reference to 1 Tim. 6:17, 18. The similarity to Locke’s sentiments in Chapter V of the Second Treatise is obvious and unaccidental.
See II.II.17. Grotius there and elsewhere distinguished between “Property” and “Jurisdiction”: Just as a fleet at sea can claim the right to regulate the use of the sea in its neighborhood (always allowing for the moral rights of other people to use surplus resources), so an aboriginal nation could regulate the use of its territory. But if it failed to allow settlement under its aegis, the land could be taken from it as punishment for its breach of the law of nature.
De Iure Praedae Commentarius, trans. Williams and Zeydel, 1:91.
In the Latin original, he used the word civitas or “city,” the word which continued to be used by, for example, Hobbes and Pufendorf in their Latin writings to mean “state.”
“Nor let any Man pretend to tell me, that the Sovereign Power is lodged in the Body, as in its Subject, and may therefore be alienated by it, as a Thing that properly belongs to it. For if the Sovereignty resides in the Body, it is as in a Subject which it fills entirely, and without any Division into several Parts; in a Word, after the same Manner as the Soul is in perfect Bodies” (II.VI.6). Interestingly, the idea that sovereignty is like the soul (rather than the head) is precisely the analogy used by Hobbes. We should also remember in this context Grotius’s strong conviction that the United Provinces was an alliance of independent states and not a full union.