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) , 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.
 Grotius, On the Law of War and Peace (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1925), pp. 38-39.
 Ibid., p. 44.
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.
The biographical material about the author originally appeared on The Goodrich Room: Interactive Tour website.
Last modified April 13, 2016