Hugo Grotius (10 Apr 1583 – 28 Aug 1645): War and Peace


Satoshi Ashikaga – TRANSCEND Media Service

“Men rush to arms for slight causes, or no cause at all, and once taken up there is no longer any respect for law, divine or human.”
— Hugo Grotius

Hugo Grotius was a jurist born in Delft, the Netherlands. Along with the earlier works of Francisco de Vitoria and Alberico Gentili, he laid the foundations for international law, based on natural law. A teenage intellectual prodigy, for his involvement in the intra-Calvinist disputes of the Dutch Republic, he was imprisoned and then escaped hidden appropriately in a chest of books. He wrote most of his major works in exile in France.

It is thought that Hugo Grotius was not the first to formulate the international society doctrine, but he was one of the first to define expressly the idea of one society of states, governed not by force or warfare but by actual laws and mutual agreement to enforce those laws. As Hedley Bull (Hugo Grotius and International Relations, 1992) declared: “The idea of international society which Grotius propounded was given concrete expression in the Peace of Westphalia, and Grotius may be considered the intellectual father of this first general peace settlement of modern times.”

Additionally, his contributions to Arminian theology provided the seeds for later Arminian-based movements such as Methodism and Pentecostalism, and he is acknowledged as a significant figure in the Arminianism-Calvinism debate. Because of his theological underpinning of free trade, he is also considered an “economic theologian”.

(Quoted from Hugo Grotius – Wikipedia; accessed 02 April 2016)

Grotius was extraordinarily young when his exceptional gifts became apparent. From 1594 to 1597 he studied in the faculty of arts of the University of Leiden, the Protestant university that opened in 1575. In 1599 he was called to the bar at The Hague; and in 1607 he received his first public office as advocaat fiscaal (deputy attorney general) at the highest law court in the province of Holland. Five years later he was appointed pensionary of Rotterdam, a political office that gave him power not only in the city itself but also in the States (the representative assembly) of the province, where he acted as Rotterdam’s representative.

Meanwhile, Grotius’ publications established him both as an accomplished neo-Latin poet and dramatist and as an ambitious historian and jurist. As a jurist, he wrote a short book The Freedom of the Seas (1609)—it was, in fact, just one chapter of the manuscript De jure praedae (1604), not published until 1868—in which he tried to prove that no authority is entitled to claim sovereignty over the high seas; although it was aimed at Spanish pretensions, the book also aroused the wrath of James I of England.

In the 1610s Grotius became one of the major supporters of the grand pensionary, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, who was engaged in a bitter struggle with the stadholder, Prince Maurice of Orange, on two issues: Oldenbarnevelt and Grotius supported the cause of the Arminians and of provincial sovereignty, particularly that of Holland. After their defeat in 1618, Oldenbarnevelt was executed and Grotius sentenced to life imprisonment. Thanks to the resourcefulness of his wife, Grotius escaped to France after three years; he was welcomed by Louis XIII, who paid him a pension, albeit irregularly. From 1621 to 1631 he lived in Paris with his family in relatively poor circumstances. He lived by his pen, expecting all the while that the justice of his cause would lead to his eventual rehabilitation in the Netherlands. In 1631 he made an attempt to re-establish himself there but was forced to leave the following year. In 1634 he accepted the offer of Queen Christina of Sweden to become her ambassador to France, and for ten years he worked in that capacity in Paris, a somewhat eccentric scholar of bourgeois origin among titled professional diplomats.

Diplomacy bored Grotius, and he could not afford to wait long years for his salary to be paid, as could his noble colleagues. He tried to compensate for his inadequacy as a diplomat by working for a goal far above the pettiness of routine politics: the restoration of Christian unity. During his last years, this came to be his major preoccupation. In 1645 he went to Sweden to offer his resignation. He went by way of Holland, where at last he was welcomed with the warmth he had been expecting in vain for two decades. On the journey back from Sweden, where Christina had received him with utmost politeness and with equal politeness accepted his resignation, his ship was driven off course, and he went ashore on the Pomeranian coast. He took the road to Lübeck but did not reach that city: forced to rest in Rostock, he died there from exhaustion.

Grotius’ intellectual achievement has a paradoxical character. He won great fame as a poet and dramatist, as a historian, a philologist, a theologian, and, of course, a jurist. But learned discussions about the contributions he made to all these different fields have not come to any conclusion about whether he was essentially a conservative who put together in magnificent syntheses opinions previously held by others or an innovator boldly treading new ground. The endless variety of his work, the mixture of precision and suppleness in his thought, and the sheer bulk of his learning make it almost impossible to determine with any certainty the degree of originality of his views.

He was very much a man of the baroque age. His motto, ruit hora (time flies), the Latin language in which he wrote most of his books, and his profound awareness of life’s antinomies indicate how fully he belonged to the civilization of his time. Yet in the deeply pessimistic early seventeenth century, his optimism and rationalism were exceptional and so effortless that they may seem shallow in comparison with the views of such philosophers as Descartes. His theological studies were inspired by deep religious feelings, but they brought him into conflict with Protestants of various denominations and gave both Catholics and, later, deists the erroneous impression that he supported their views. His constant endeavors to heal the breaches in the Christian church caused the most confusing misunderstandings and involved him in acrimonious controversy.

During his imprisonment, from 1618 to 1621, Grotius wrote, in rhyme, The Truth of the Christian Religion; it was published in Dutch in 1622, and in 1627 Grotius’ own Latin version followed. In this simple book, written for seamen who might be impressed by foreign religions, Grotius explained and lauded the main tenets of Christianity. The book was a great success; it was translated not only into all the major European languages but also into Danish, Irish, Hungarian, and Arabic, and there are 110 known editions of it.

Grotius’ masterpiece, The Law of War and Peace (1625), was also an immediate and widespread success, if not on the same scale as his little book on Christianity: it has gone through at least 75 editions and has been translated 24 times. In this book, he presented his famous doctrine of the just war. War, in his view, is justified as a means of obtaining justice in cases where no law court exists to give a ruling upon the matter under dispute. Most of these cases are, of course, international conflicts, such as the revolt of the United Provinces against Spain. A contestant may take up arms in order to defend his property or his rights, to take possession of what is due to him, or to punish criminal offenses. Thus, war is essentially a lawsuit carried out by armed force because there is no court that can deal with it.

Other concepts are also presented in this large book, which is like a warehouse of opinions, quotations, conflicting doctrines, and debates. Especially noteworthy is Grotius’ doctrine of natural law, for it exerted considerable influence, even if it was neither coherent nor strikingly original. Since he considered natural law basic to all social organization, international or national, Grotius’ initially juridical theory developed into a more general one that analyzed and explained not only the conditions of international justice but also every aspect of human society. In other words, his work pertains as much to general sociology as to international law.

Grotius defined the law of nature as “a dictate of right reason, showing the moral necessity or moral baseness of any act according to its agreement or disagreement with rational nature, and indicating that such an act is either commanded or forbidden by the author of nature, God” (1625, pp. 20-21 in a 1949 edition). This does not differ essentially from scholastic conceptions, and it is somewhat misleading to claim, as has often been done, that Grotius made an original contribution by secularizing the medieval interpretation of natural law. For Grotius, just as for the medieval thinkers and the sixteenth-century Spanish lawyers whom he quoted, the law of nature is an objective datum, an absolute norm given for all eternity. It is only later in the century, with Hobbes and other theorists, that the law of nature, identified with the instinct of self-preservation, developed into an essentially individualistic, subjective, and secular concept. Grotius, according to Erik Wolf (Wolf 1939) saw God, nature, and reason as only different names for the metaphysical foundation of life, which to human beings becomes manifest in law. Society is a natural and necessary form of concrete law because man is a social being endowed with reason. Thus, human society is also by definition rational.

These premises served Grotius as starting points for determining the rational quality in social and political life. It was not his purpose to draft a political theory. Various political concepts that seemed essential to his contemporaries were rather indifferently treated by him. Sovereignty, for example, did not mean much to a thinker educated in the corporative, patrician Dutch republic that was slowly emerging when he was young. Yet he transcended his origins by regarding all nations, sovereignties, and even churches as mere elements of the largest possible social entity, the human race in general. Therefore, the societies under examination appeared to him as manifestations of a social and ethical order in which each social element has its place, determined by its own existential principle.

But all of them are embraced by the corporative unity which is humanity—primarily, of course, Christian humanity.

The Law of War and Peace is more than a philosophical and sociological monograph. To make it useful to the practical statesman, Grotius endeavored to determine the justifiability of particular actions that are often taken prior to war or in war, according to simple principles laid out by him. Although, for example, Gustavus Adolphus is said to have consulted the book frequently while campaigning in Germany, it is obviously impossible to assess the actual impact of its prescriptions on the conduct of war. But this much is certain: the work exercised a profound influence on the development of international law, and even in the present century it is referred to not only by professional lawyers but also by statesmen. The remarkable mixture of idealistic optimism—for in spite of international chaos, Grotius viewed the ethical content of natural law as a principle that automatically asserts itself, since, in the last analysis, rational and natural behavior are identical—and realism, which sprang from a critical study of history, rendered his concepts and advice applicable to many situations and attractive to many different groups.

E. H. Kossmann

(Quoted from; accessed 02 April 2016.)

De Jure Belli ac Pacis

One of Grotius’ main works was De jure belli ac pacis (English: the Law/Rights of War and Peace), consisting of three volumes (three books), whose first volume was published in 1625.

See the online texts, translated in English: Hugo Grotius, The Rights of War and Peace (2005 ed.) 3 vols. [1625] ,   Hugo Grotius, The Rights of War and Peace (1901 ed.) [1625] , or   On the Law of War and Peace (translated from De Jure Belli ac Pacis) – Hugo Grotius – translated by A.C. Campbell – pdf

Bibliography, Selected Works

See Hugo Grotius – Wikipedia.

Visit the website of the Peace Palace Library.

See the search results works relating to Hugo Grotius by the search engine of the Peace Palace Library.


Satoshi Ashikaga is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 8 Apr 2019.

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