Grotius, Hugo (1583-1645)

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Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) was a Dutch scholar and jurist whose legal masterpiece, De Jure Belli ac Pacis (On the law of war and peace) [1625], contributed significantly to the formation of international law as a distinct discipline. In addition to that work, Grotius wrote a number of literary pieces of lasting merit, including Sacra (a collection of Latin poems) and the drama Christus Patiens. Like Erasmus, Grotius sought to end the religious schism and urged the papacy to reconcile with the Protestant faiths.

Grotius's primary contribution to international law is his suggestion that a rational system governs international relations. He began his analysis with natural law. Unlike brute creation, he reasoned, human nature is characterized by the desire for a peaceful and orderly society. From this basic observation it is possible to comprehend the sources of the laws governing both individual behavior and the conduct of nations.

Grotius is often considered one of the first to separate natural law from divine law, but the distinction is not always easy to perceive. "The law of nature is a dictate of right reason, which points out that an act, according as it is or is not in conformity with rational nature, has in it a quality of moral baseness or moral necessity; and that, in consequence, such an act is either forbidden or enjoined by the author of nature, God."1 Grotius's ethics were certainly informed by Christian values.

From this foundation he developed his system of international law. Grotius claimed that just as the desire for community necessitates certain laws and principles to hold society together for mutual benefit, so the community of nations is held together by certain natural principles. Consequently, the only justification for war is the enforcement of rights (although Grotius excluded "total" war). The execution of hostilities is itself limited, according to Grotius, by natural law.

Like Locke, Grotius saw the state as "a complete association of free men, joined together for the enjoyment of rights and for their common interest."2 Unlike Locke, he did not believe sovereignty ultimately rests with the people. Although sovereignty emanates from the people, it is possible to give the sovereignty away by transferring it to a monarch. Moreover, Grotius did not view the right of rebellion as absolute. Orders or laws contrary to the law of nature should not be carried out, of course, but the absolute right of rebellion is never permissible. Unless this right has been retained in the ordering of society, resistance to authority will be detrimental to the natural order of society.



[1] Grotius, On the Law of War and Peace (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1925), pp. 38-39.

[2] Ibid., p. 44.


Works by the Author

Hugo Grotius, The Law of War and Peace (1625), "Book 3" in The Law of War: A Documentary History, ed. Leon Friedman, 2 vols (New York: Random House, 1972), vol. 1, pp. 16-146.

Hugo Grotius, The Law of War and Peace (1625). Extracts in Selections of Grotius' De jure Belli ac Pacis, trans. W.S.M. Knight (Grotius Society Publications, 1922), vol. 3.

Hugo Grotius, De Jure Belli ac Pacis Libri Tres, trans. Francis W. Kelsey, Vol. 2 of The Classics of International Law, ed. James Brown Scott (Oxford, 1925).

Grotius, Hugo. The Freedom of the Seas. Translated by Ralph Deman Magoffin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1916.

Grotius, Hugo. The Rights of War and Peace: Including the Law of Nature and of Nations. Translated by A. C. Campbell. Washington: M. Dunne, 1901.

Grotius, Hugo. De Jure Belli ac Pacis Libri Tres. Vol. 2. Translated by Francis W. Kelsey. Oxford: Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1925.

Grotius, Hugo. The Most Excellent Hugo Grotius, The Three Books Treating of the Rights of War and Peace. Translated by William Evats. Printed by M.W. for Thomas Basset at the George in Fleetstreet, 1682.

Grotius, Hugo. Prolegomena to the Law of War and Peace. Translated by Francis W. Kelsey. New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1957.

Grotius, Hugo. The Truth of the Christian Religion. Translated by John Clarke. London: 1777.

Works about the Author

Stephen Buckle, Natural Law and the Theory of Property: Grotius to Hume (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991).

Charles S. Edwards, Hugo Grotius: The Miracle of Holland: A Study of Political and Legal Thought (Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1981).

Christian Gellinek, Hugo Grotius (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983).

Grotiana (Van Gorcum, Assen, The Netherlands vol. 1, 1980-).

Knud Haakonssen,"Hugo Grotius and the History of Political Thought," Political Theory, vol. 13, 1985, pp. 239-65.

Knud Haakonssen, Natural Law and Moral Philosophy: from Grotius to the Scottish Enlightenment (Cambridge University Press, 1996).

James Turner Johnson, Ideology, Reason and the Limitation of War: Religious and Secular Concepts, 1200-1740 (Princeton University Press, 1975).

James Turner Johnson, The Just War Tradition and the Restraint of War: A Moral and Historical Inquiry (Princeton University Press, 1981).

W.S.M. Knight, The Life and Works of Hugo Grotius (London: Sweet and Maxwell, 1925).

Hugo Grotius: Essays on his Life and Works, ed. A. Leysen (London: Sythoff, 1925).

Richard Tuck, "Grotius and Selden," in The Cambridge History of Political Thought 1450-1700, ed. J.H. Burns and Mark Goldie (Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 499-529.

Richard Tuck, The Rights of War and Peace: Political Thought and the International Order from Grotius to Kant (Oxford University Press, 1999).


The biographical material about the author originally appeared on The Goodrich Room: Interactive Tour website.

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