• Daniel Ethan Finneran

On Hugo Grotius

August 2020


There are moral obligations, iron dictates of right and wrong, from which all states—though never the citizens by whom they’re populated, from whom their large revenues are drawn—are to be granted an exemption. States are, in this way, more approximate to divine entities in the repose of their Olympian calm, to lofty beings upon whom our windy ethical injunctions leave but a faint impression. There, high above us, floating in a world unseen, they look down upon the masses from the summit of their froideur, an air by which, like clouds, they’re encircled and chilled. They gaze, with the coolness of an unblinking eye, at the length of their separation, and content themselves with the distance they see.


States, as opposed to citizens, are untroubled of our scruples; they’re superior to our morals, contemptuous of our codes. At least they would be, if they perceived them at all. Really, they’re insensitive to that by which, with a more or less tolerable and healthy effect on the individual and the community of which he’s a part, we’re all collectively restrained. This is the fate of the mortal, the conceit of the state. The former fills the pages of a century, at best; the latter, of a history—though possibly a longer time even than this. Yet it’s always important to note that they’re not equivalent things. Thus, states, in the end, don’t feel the common touch of this shared morality to which we humans are all jointly submissive, don’t sense the stern discouragement from evils and the ebullient guidance toward the goods to which, for the improvement of all, we ought to be inclined.


Indeed, in order to ensure the continued existence of the state, in an attempt to guarantee its life from one age to the next, from that era in which it’s living, to that into which it’ll soon jump, it must be untouched by the fetters of morality. It must be free of those heavy, ponderous weights to which the rest of the citizenry is chained. Simply put, states can’t long be preserved, much less prosperously grown, unless they’re immune to those same crimes for which, rightly, any other human being would be punished. They must be absolved of their charges in advance of their crimes, liberated from the moral codes to which the citizens over whom they have dominion are, without exception, heir.


This is, simply put, the Machiavellian point of view—that subtle Florentine’s bold doctrine of the amorality of states. For him, and for those mighty despots for whom he was so persuasive a defender, and for those devious royalists to whom he remains so eloquent an ally, self-preservation was to be valued above all else. Nothing, in the mind of the striving politician, was to be considered more pressing in importance than this. Those manipulative, virile, hardened statesmen to whom he dedicated his most memorable work, The Prince, must be prepared, he said, to commit any number of atrocities, to effectuate any variety of misdeed, to kill, plunder, or “disappear” all enemies and dissidents, if only to preserve the integrity of his state. That, and that alone, was the undying goal for which he, ruthless and admired leader he was, was originally created. He must be willing to injure every amiable sentiment, to hurt every gentle expectation of civility, decency, and truth, if only to bolster and protect the longevity of himself and his state.


Pace Machiavelli, Hugo Grotius—the seventeenth-century wunderkind of the land of the Dutch—maintained, more convincingly than any political philosopher about whom we still busy ourselves to speak, a contrary view. He was, in the words of Frederick the Great—who knew more than a little about subtlety and statecraft, ends and the means by which they’re procured—something of an anti-Machiavel. He was the Dutch antidote to an Italian venom, the enlightened healer of a noxious Renaissance point of view. For that reason alone, we might do well to inoculate ourselves with his words, to protect our politics with the salubrious nectar of his wisdom.


That said, it would be inaccurate to enlist under the name of “political philosopher” the great and ever-nimble Grotius, who would’ve described himself, before all else, as a humble and devoted jurist (to note, he was also a diplomat, theologian, lawyer, magistrate, and scholar. Despite so omnivorous a palate of interests, however, and an energy with which they might be pursued, he died an impecunious and maltreated author). Yet, unconditionally, the law was his love. Politics offered him no succor, nor was there charity to be gained from the mass. Jurisprudence was the spark of his philosophical flame, the deepest stirring of a heart intolerant to idleness forever in search of a friend.


Rightly, if not in his, then doubtless in our age, he’s considered the “founding father” of international law, the patriarch of a lineage that has sprouted many branches, and many fruits. He approached every subject on which he wrote, many of them dealing with the interactions of competing nations, from a legal, rather than a political point of view, and we have this creative approach to thank for the shocking novelty and fresh perspective of his thought.


In that field of study of international law, a subject by whose vastness, even the largest of minds have been intimidated and quelled, Grotius has bequeathed to us a sprawling patrimony. It is a boundless yard in which we play, a deep and plummeting valley with whose bottom, we’ve yet to come into contact. It is a fertile land that’s fallen into our lap, a serious intellectual landscape from which we still pick baskets hungrily gorged with fruit. By and large, it’s been cultivated since his time, albeit with paroxysms of disregard and abuse, but we’ve always lent credence to the fundamental principles on which it’s built.


For one, contrary to Machiavelli, Grotius believed that all states, especially those actively engaged in commerce or war, peace or unrest, weren’t so unimpeachable as to be exempt from every species of law. While they might be unmolested by positive, or man-made laws (those crafted by the expedience of positing men), they hadn’t the ability to avoid ius naturale, “natural right”—or, as we’ve more familiarly come to know it, “natural law”. This is the law, the most rudimentary and pervasive of all laws, to which every state, like every man, is inescapably bound. To the universality of this edict, there is no exception. After all, it is the law drawn by the very hand of the author of nature, the faceless deity from whom every curve of the globe, every wave of the sea, has been molded and stirred.


In his words, natural law is the “Dictate of right reason showing the moral turpitude, or the moral necessity, of any act from its agreement or disagreement with a rational nature, and consequently showing that such an act is either forbidden or commanded by God, the author of nature”. In organizing and expressing his definition as he does, Grotius reveals one of his chief inspirations—the Philosopher himself. I speak, of course, of that famous Stagirite in whose image every Medieval scholar pictured himself, that son of Macedon and doyen of Greece by the exalted name of Aristotle.


Grotius, like many classically-trained scholars and faithful humanists of his day, was devoted to the word of Aristotle; indeed, it was held in a veneration just beneath that of God. Aristotle was, after all, the summit of sophistication and the apex of the academy, the ne plus ultra as it pertained to the boundaries of philosophical thought. He was not only the creator, but the master of nearly every scholastic field with which a man of letters would’ve been expected to be familiar. He was the originator of neigh every subject of which the liberal curriculum was eventually to be composed, of which a young Grotius would become an ardent student. Thus, it’s no surprise that Grotius, like so many of us, was filled with the spirit of Aristotle when finally he embarked on a path of his own.


The Aristotelian presupposition on which Grotius leans is that man is, by the essence of his nature, a rational animal. This is a characteristic unshared by the vegetable and animal life over whom, as a result of his evolution and the concomitant growth of his brain, he’s become so startlingly ascendant. The former is endowed with the nutritive soul, merely, by which its own sustenance and propagation is provided; the latter, with a soul that’s perceptive, by which he comes to acknowledge his own feelings the sensations by which his flesh is touched, or his attention moved. Man, and man alone, serves as the embodiment of the rational soul, a unique mental treasury out which the very essence of his humanity springs. Reason is the distinct activity of which he’s capable—of which those other, lesser forms of life are so unfortunately bereft.


It’s around this Aristotelian insight—this fundamental tenet of his work—that Grotius’ famed treatise on international law, his refutation of Machiavelli’s rule for kings and states, revolves. Reason is much greater than base desire, the thoughtless, vagarious whims by which those lesser beings are excited. It is exactly through this rational faculty by which the virtue of justice, a virtue that’s completely good in and for itself, is perceived. This form of justice is uncorrupted by any ignoble consideration of self-interest, self-aggrandizement, self-promotion, or wanton expediency—all things of which Machiavelli would be both practitioner and advocate. This is a justice whose purity is not only universally felt, but immediately accessible. It’s an idea with which all rational beings are inherently familiar.


As such, all men—and all the well-fastened, numerous states of which they’re the builders—seek justice by the ineluctable force of their nature. They behave justly because they must, unjustly only when they can. The former is a universal dictate to which every man and state is bound; he follows it as he would the natural beckoning of his untarnished reason. The latter, on the other hand, is a peculiar aberration by which, at the urging of Machiavelli, he’s frequently led astray. The one is natural, while the other is a perversion; the first, piously to be followed, the second, meanly to be indulged.


States, in the final opinion of Grotius, aren’t free from the constraints of morals. In imitation of the citizens to whom they serve as homes, they must observe the ethical standards under which all of us, state and man alike, contract to live. Perhaps we give the state more lenience in its endeavors, more latitude for wrong-doing than we give ourselves, but it is, always and naturally, a moral actor. It must incline toward justice, goodness, humanity, and peace, and far away from the Machiavellian worldview.

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