Liberty Matters

Grotius on the Right of Resistance

Both Fernando and Hans discuss briefly Grotius’s doctrine concerning a subject’s forcible resistance against his own sovereign.  I want to return to this topic briefly because it provides another occasion on which Grotius seems to take a strongly illiberal and authoritarian stance and yet subsequently reverses that stance.  Is this confusion on Grotius’s part?  Is it moderation?  Is it the inherently anti-authoritarian logic of his normative premises reasserting themselves?  I, of course, would like to believe it is the third of these.
The question that is initially at hand is whether subjects may act against their sovereign when “the civil Powers command any Thing contrary to the Law of Nature or the Commands of God…” (I. IV. I, 337).  Grotius’s immediate response is that subjects may decline to obey such commands.  However, they may not forcibly resist any injury that the civil power sets out to inflict on them in response.  Rather than resist at this point, Grotius says that the subject who has declined to obey the command of the sovereign must patiently submit to the sovereign’s injurious response.  “But if for this, or any other cause, an Injury be done us by the Will of our Sovereign, we ought rather to bear it patiently than to resist by Force” (I. IV.I, 338).  (It is significant that Grotius says “injury” here, for, since an “injury” is a wrongful or unjust harm, Grotius is saying that subjects may not resist even though the civil power’s response is wrongful or unjust.)
Grotius proceeds to give a type of social-contract account for this obligation of nonresistance.  All men begin with “… a Right to secure themselves from Injuries by Resistance….”  But the establishment of the state requires that “the State has a Power to prohibit the unlimited Use of that Right….”  Indeed, the state could not exist if “that promiscuous Right of Resistance” continued to exist (I. IV. II, 338).  Grotius then solidifies the conclusion that resistance against even unjust harm by the sovereign is always unacceptable by assuming that even the limited use of a nonpromiscuous right of resistance must have been surrendered in the establishment of the state.
However, as we move forward in this chapter, we get a striking reversal.  Grotius tells us that “A more difficult Question is, whether the Law of Non-resistance obliges us in the most extreme and inevitable Danger.”  After all, even “some of the Laws of GOD, however general they be, seem to admit of tacit Exceptions in Cases of extreme Necessity…” (I. IV. VII, 356).  And now Grotius tells us that, although those who enter into civil society give up their unlimited (promiscuous) right to resist injuries at the hands of others, they are most plausibly understood as retaining a limited (discriminating) right to resist injuries.
Suppose [those entering society] had been asked, Whether they pretended to impose on all Citizens the hard Necessity of dying, rather than to take up Arms in any Case, to defend themselves against the higher Powers; I do not know whether they would have answered in the affirmative.  It may be presumed, on the contrary, they would have declared that one ought not to bear with every Thing, unless the Resistance would infallibly occasion great Disturbance in the State, or prove the Destruction of many Innocents. [I. IV. VII, 358]
Grotius immediately considers the thought that, if not by contract, at least by “Divine Law,” subjects have a “rigorous Obligation to suffer death rather than at any Time to resist an Injury offered by the Civil Powers”  – and he rejects this thought as well.  Moreover, if I read him correctly, he goes on to say that it is even permissible for a small number of individuals – a small part of society – to forcibly resist such injuries.  Wonderfully, Grotius invokes here the very Barclay – “the stoutest Assertor of Regal Power” -- whom Locke later describes as “that great assertor of the power and sacredness of kings” (Second Treatise, §232) and invokes on behalf of resistance.
I dare not condemn indifferently all private Persons, or a small Part of the People, who finding themselves reduced to the last Extremity, have made use of the only Remedy left them, in such a Manner as they have not neglected in the mean Time to take care, as far as they were able, of the publick Good. [I. IV. VII, 358]