The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics

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Grotius (de Groot), Hugo (1583–1645)

  • P. G. Stein
Living reference work entry

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-349-95121-5_1017-2

Abstract

Legal theorist, philosopher and theologian, Grotius was born in Delft on 10 April 1583 and died in Rostock on 28 August 1645. An infant prodigy, Grotius entered the University of Leyden at the age of 11, and at 15 was hailed by Henry IV of France as ‘the miracle of Holland’. Deciding on a legal career, he had become Advocate General of Holland, Zealand and West Friesland by the age of 24. In this period he wrote a treatise on the Law of Prize, of which the part dealing with freedom of the seas (Mare Liberum) was published in 1609. Because of his support for the moderate Arminians against the Calvinists, he was in 1619 imprisoned in Loevestein castle, and while there wrote an introduction to the law of Holland (Inleidinge tot de Hollandsche Rechtsgeleertheyd, published in 1631) and a tract on the truth of the Christian religion, the first of many theological writings. After two years, his wife arranged his escape in a chest ostensibly holding books, and thereafter he lived mainly in France, where he served for ten years as ambassador of Sweden.

Keywords

Combinations Contract theory Grotius (De Groot), H. Natural law Private property; Usury 

JEL Classifications

B31 

Legal theorist, philosopher and theologian, Grotius was born in Delft on 10 April 1583 and died in Rostock on 28 August 1645. An infant prodigy, Grotius entered the University of Leyden at the age of 11, and at 15 was hailed by Henry IV of France as ‘the miracle of Holland’. Deciding on a legal career, he had become Advocate General of Holland, Zealand and West Friesland by the age of 24. In this period he wrote a treatise on the Law of Prize, of which the part dealing with freedom of the seas (Mare Liberum) was published in 1609. Because of his support for the moderate Arminians against the Calvinists, he was in 1619 imprisoned in Loevestein castle, and while there wrote an introduction to the law of Holland (Inleidinge tot de Hollandsche Rechtsgeleertheyd, published in 1631) and a tract on the truth of the Christian religion, the first of many theological writings. After two years, his wife arranged his escape in a chest ostensibly holding books, and thereafter he lived mainly in France, where he served for ten years as ambassador of Sweden.

Grotius’ greatest work is De iure belli ac pacis (On the law of war and peace), published in 1625 and widely translated (six editions appeared in English before 1750). Written during the upheavals of the Thirty Years War, it laid down certain fundamental principles of law which purported to have the certainty of mathematics and absolute validity in all times and in all places. These principles both provided a standard for measuring the validity of the positive law of any state and also formed the basis for governing the relations between states. The work had enormous influence on the ethical and legal thought of the 17th and 18th centuries and is regarded as the beginning of ‘the law of nature and of nations’, the forerunner of modern international law.

Grotius built on the learning of late scholastic writers on natural law, such as Suarez, but he tried to make it independent of theological doctrine, so that amid the factionalism of the Reformation its principles would be unaffected by conflicting religious views. For him these principles could be proved in two ways: a priori, by logically deducing them from the rational and social nature shared by all mankind, and a posteriori, by showing that they were generally accepted by the consensus of writers – at least in more civilized nations – through the ages. For when many writers ‘at different times and different places affirm the same thing as certain, that ought to be referred to a universal cause’, which must be either correct conclusion drawn from the principles of nature or common consent (Prolegomena, sec. 40). Grotius concentrated on the latter approach, and dealt particularly with property and contract, the area of law of most concern to market societies and to nation states dealing with each other at arm’s length.

Relying on the Bible narrative and on accounts of American Indians, he envisaged a primitive state of nature in which everything was held in common. When primitive simplicity gave way to specialization in agriculture and cattle raising, the conflicts that arose led first to division of lands among nations and then to division among families; thus community of property was replaced by private property. ‘This happened not by a mere act of will ... but rather by a kind of agreement, either expressed, as by a division, or implied, as by occupation’ (De iure belli II. 2, 21–5).

His doctrine of contracts was loosely based on Aristotle. He tolerated monopolies but condemned combinations to raise prices or to prevent the movement of goods by fraud or force. Although the law of nature did not forbid usury, divine positive law forbade it for Christians. However, Grotius adopted the canonist distinction between usury, which was forbidden, and receiving interest, which was permissible, if the rate was reasonable as in the positive law of Holland.

Bibliography

  1. The most convenient modern edition of De iure belli ac pacis is in Classics of International Law Series, Oxford, 1925 (Vol. 1: the Latin text of 1646; Vol. 2: English translation by F.W. Kelsey). General surveys are in W.S.M. Knight, Life and works of Hugo Grotius. London: Sweet & Maxwell, 1925, and E. Dumbauld, Life and writings of Hugo Grotius. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969. Full bibliographies are in the annual volumes of Grotiana (New Series), Assen, Netherlands, 1980 onwards.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • P. G. Stein
    • 1
  1. 1.