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Hugo Grotius on the natural sociability of humans (1625)

The Dutch legal philosopher Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) believed that human beings were by nature sociable creatures and that the purpose of natural rights, especially the right of property, was to enable them to live together in peace and prosperity:

Now amongst the Things peculiar to Man, is his Desire of Society, that is, a certain Inclination to live with those of his own Kind, not in any Manner whatever, but peaceably, and in a Community regulated according to the best of his Understanding… This Sociability, which we have now described in general, or this Care of maintaining Society in a Manner conformable to the Light of human Understanding, is the Fountain of Right, properly so called; to which belongs 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.

VI. But what is here said by the Philosopher, and by the Poet after him, “By naked Nature ne’er was understood What’s Just and Right” (Creech) must by no Means be admitted. For Man is indeed an Animal, but one of a very high Order, and that excells all the other Species of Animals much more than they differ from one another; as the many Actions proper only to Mankind sufficiently demonstrate. Now amongst the Things peculiar to Man, is his Desire of Society, that is, a certain Inclination to live with those of his own Kind, not in any Manner whatever, but peaceably, and in a Community regulated according to the best of his Understanding; which Disposition the Stoicks termed Ὀικείωσιν. Therefore the Saying, that every Creature is led by Nature to seek its own private Advantage, expressed thus universally, must not be granted.

VII. For even of the other Animals there are some that forget little the Care of their own Interest, in Favour either of their young ones, or those of their own Kind. Which, in my Opinion, proceeds from some extrinsick intelligent Principle, because they do not shew the same Dispositions in other Matters, that are not more difficult than these. The same may be said of Infants, in whom is to be seen a Propensity to do Good to others, before they are capable of Instruction, as Plutarch well observes; and Compassion likewise discovers itself upon every Occasion in that tender Age. But it must be owned that a Man grown up, being capable of acting in the same Manner with respect to Things that are alike, has, besides an exquisite Desire of Society, for the Satisfaction of which he alone of all Animals has received from Nature a peculiar Instrument, viz. the Use of Speech; I say, that he has, besides that, a Faculty of knowing and acting, according to some general Principles; so that what relates to this Faculty is not common to all Animals, but properly and peculiarly agrees to Mankind.

VIII. This Sociability, which we have now described in general, or this Care of maintaining Society in a Manner conformable to the Light of human Understanding, is the Fountain of Right, properly so called; to which belongs 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.

IX. From this Signification of Right arose another of larger Extent. For by reason that Man above all other Creatures is endued not only with this Social Faculty of which we have spoken, but likewise with Judgment to discern Things pleasant or hurtful, and those not only present but future, and such as may prove to be so in their Consequences; it must therefore be agreeable to human Nature, that according to the Measure of our Understanding we should in these Things follow the Dictates of a right and sound Judgment, and not be corrupted either by Fear, or the Allurements of present Pleasure, nor be carried away violently by blind Passion. And whatsoever is contrary to such a Judgment is likewise understood to be contrary to Natural Right, that is, the Laws of our Nature.

About this Quotation:

Hugo Grotius wrote his famous treatise on The Rights of War and Peace (1625) while he was in prison and while the Thirty Years was raging around him. In an Introduction or Prolegomena to the work he expresses succinctly his own view of the nature of origins of natural rights. Unlike many critics who think that individual rights, especially property rights, are somehow destructive of human communities, Grotius argues the reverse. He believes that because humans are naturally sociable creatures who crave the company of fellow creatures they need and thus evolve ideas about rights which make make complex societies possible. In his view the need to live peaceably in a society is “the Fountain of Right” and the faucet which regulates the flow of this fountain is Property, which tells us when to abstain from taking that which is another’s, and to provide restitution of property which we taken from another. It is in this manner the Natural Right is connected to the Social Faculty of Sociability.

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