Hugo Grotius Essay

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Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) was a Dutch jurist. He is most famous for having written De Jure Belli ac Pacis (The Laws of War and Peace, 1625), a text commonly acknowledged to have ushered in the modern natural rights tradition and the study of international relations. Grotius held legal and administrative posts in the government of Holland until 1618, when he became embroiled in a religious conflict within the United Provinces. He was charged with treason and sentenced to life imprisonment at Loevestein Castle. Grotius famously escaped from Loevestein in 1621 in a chest of books and fled to France, where he was granted a royal pension by Louis XIII. Grotius left France in 1631, and, after failing to secure repatriation to the United Provinces, became the Swedish ambassador to France. He lived in Paris in this capacity until 1645, when he died in a shipwreck.

The religious and political conflict in his native Holland, the Eighty Years War (1568–1648), and the Thirty Years War (1618–1648) all shaped Grotius’s approach to jurisprudence and international relations. He sought not to eliminate religious differences and armed conflicts, but rather to construct a theory of natural law that could speak to different Christian denominations and to develop a theory of international relations that both justified and regulated the practice of war.

De Jure Belli ac Pacis, which Grotius began writing in prison, represents a break with the Scholastic tradition of natural law and ushered in a new natural jurisprudence consistent with humanism and Protestantism. Grotius’s approach to natural law is essentially rationalist, that is, he attempts to derive natural law from human reason and human experience rather than from the will of God. Grotius’s depiction of human beings as rational creatures moved by instinctive drives for self-preservation and for sociability consequently forms the foundation of his political and jurisprudential thinking. The natural law theory of De Jure Belli marks the first significant conception of natural law as a series of rights belonging to individuals and to states; Grotius shifts the meaning of ius from a law to which individuals are subject to an enforceable right possessed by the individual. These include a right to self-preservation and the possession of property (the individual’s suum), and infringements upon these rights are punishable by force.

In perhaps his most significant move, Grotius argues that states have no powers but those natural to the individuals who compose them, and, as a result, states possess the same natural rights as individuals. Consequently, Grotius ultimately understands states as rights-bearing institutions that may punish violations of the natural law through war. War, when it seeks to redress violations of the natural law, is just and justifiable. De Jure Belli outlines the principles of natural law and the just causes of war and rightful conduct in war, and it seeks to ground a just war theory in the principles of natural law and natural justice. In the process, Grotius created a new way of thinking about natural law that paved the way for the rights bearing liberal individual and the social contract tradition as well as for a new science of international relations that shaped the Westphalian system of sovereign and equal states.


  1. Dumbauld, Edward. The Life and Legal Writings of Hugo Grotius. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969.
  2. Grotius, Hugo. Commentary on the Law of Prize and Booty (De Jure Praedae Commentarius). Edited by Martine Julia van Ittersum. Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 2006.
  3. The Rights of War and Peace (De Jure Belli Ac Pacis). 3 vols. Edited by Richard Tuck. Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 2005.
  4. Haakonssen, Knud. “Hugo Grotius and the History of Political Thought.” Political Theory 13 (1985): 239–265.
  5. Tierney, Brian. The Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law, and Church Law 1150–1625. Grand Rapids, Mich.:W. B. Eerdmans, 1997.
  6. Tuck, Richard. Philosophy and Government, 1572–1651, Ideas in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

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