Liberty Matters

Grotius and Philosophical Moderation

Fernando Tesón’s response interprets my view of Grotius as suggesting that the project of De Jure Belli ac Pacis was practical advocacy – seeking to prevent war, or meliorate its horrors – rather than a search for the truth of human affairs.  If I gave that impression, that Grotius had chosen efficacy in the messy political world against understanding the truth about politics, then the error is mine.  I should clarify my view that Grotius saw himself as within the broad Aristotelian tradition of political and moral philosophy, and thus of jurisprudence, in which truth is defined as an understanding that discerns how to practically improve human affairs so that we can better achieve the aims of our nature.  I do not mean to deny, in advancing this view, that Grotius is a liberal and a modern.  Apart from my trepidation at the prospect that Eric Mack and Hans Blom would pounce upon any such suggestion, I tried in my first response to indicate that Grotius – like his progeny Montesquieu and Blackstone – was an intentionally moderate sort of modern, liberal mind.  This strain in the moderate Enlightenment sought to retain or revive elements of classical and medieval thought that would achieve the humane aims of modernity and liberalism more adequately than had the radical philosophies that repudiated the philosophical tradition to a substantial degree.  That repudiation was undertaken both in the name of human progress and in the name of analytical clarity.
When I averred that Grotius as a jurist and philosopher sought “not abstract philosophical clarity” but rather principles that would be likely to meliorate and humanize international affairs, I should have clarified immediately that Grotius did not see this as a binary choice between truth and efficacy.  I did state, perhaps too late, that for Grotius a proper moral-political philosophy would balance the insights of several philosophical schools rather than adhering to strict doctrines of analytical clarity.  This is because, for Grotius, the aim of such philosophy is to accurately capture the reality of war, peace, and international affairs.  I did add that Grotius thought accuracy also would be likely to pull leading actors toward moderating and meliorating thought and action; but I should have clarified that this harmony of truth and humane efficacy is a product of Grotius’s kind of soft teleology about human affairs. 
As Eric Mack noted in his first response essay, Grotius adopts those elements of classical and medieval philosophy that define human nature as both oriented to sociability and interested in individual advantage. (I had cited PD, sec. 19, 94-95; see also, e.g., I.I.III-IV, 136-38, and II.II.XIII, 443-44.)  Unlike Aristotle or Aquinas (to pick two philosophers holding this balanced, complex view of our nature), Grotius seems more to emphasize elements of individual liberty and property rights, and he emphasizes that our natural aim is social harmony, not political order per se.  It is no accident that Aristotle and Aquinas, given their view of a complex human nature, defend private property, but nonetheless each holds that we are oriented to political union.  This view tends to place priority on the political over the social, and thus gives less scope for individual liberty (although, Aquinas might be said to be a bridge from Aristotle to the modern, liberal views of Grotius, given that Aquinas defines our nature as being both social and political). 
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My point was that Grotius’s view of a complex or balanced or moderate human nature – avoiding the opposing extremes of an asocial nature or a fully political nature – fit with a larger jurisprudence that sought to avoid the opposing extremes of pacifism or Machiavellism about war, peace, and international affairs.  A proper conception of natural law, and of how it guides any positive law (including the law of nations in all its senses), would see the truth as helping us to achieve the aims of our nature.  Grotius thus perpetuates Aristotle’s view that any science of human affairs (primarily ethics or political science, but also jurisprudence) should strive to attain only the clarity that accords with the subject matter, and therefore a philosopher should not seek the same level of precision in all arguments (Nicomachean Ethics, Book I, ch. 3, 1094b12-28).  Indeed, Aristotle closes the Ethics by calling for a new discipline, political science, because in the practical human sciences it’s not good enough to achieve philosophical clarity in the abstract; one’s clarity has to be an achievable, practical standard both for individuals and political communities (Ethics, Book X, ch. 9, 1179a33ff).
Perhaps what is missing from Grotius is a theoretical or conceptual statement of this philosophical moderation, i.e., avoiding either skepticism or a false analytical clarity; also missing is a clearer conceptual statement (of the sort Tesón seeks) of how he integrates his accounts of positive law (customary law of nations) and natural law (with its normative requirements).  My own view is that if we adopt the Aristotelian conception of appropriate philosophical clarity, we at least can find such statements in Grotius’s work. (I had cited a few such moments.)  His general project seeks a middle path between, on the one hand, a moralism that aims too high for human nature and human affairs and either is dismissed as impossible or unintentionally causes more harm than good, and on the other an immoral or amoral positivism regarding law and politics.
I had cited some passages from Michael Zuckert’s analysis of Grotius, in which he finds moderation to be a central theme, but I close with a more specific conception of Grotius’s philosophical moderation that captures my point:  in Zuckert’s view, “the deepest thrust of Grotius’s thought” is to move toward “both a very determinate and specific standard of right, a standard beyond the vicissitudes of religious and political controversy, and an effective standard, one that can stand up to the sneers of the Machiavellis of the world, who say that the natural law is ‘weak and unarmed’” (Zuckert 1994, p. 148, emphasis added).  Grotius may not meet his own standard; it may be that another conception (more analytically pure) has a better standard of truth; still, it is important to discuss which standard we are using to judge Grotius’s efforts.