Hugo Grotius on Human Rights: A New Avenue for Rethinking Today’s Politics?

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Hugo Grotius and the Modern Theology of Freedom: Transcending Natural Rights. Jeremy Seth Geddert. New York: Routledge, 2017.


Hugo Grotius and the Modern Theology of Freedom by Jeremy Seth Geddert is a bold attempt to rethink the legacy of Hugo Grotius and particularly of his theory of rights. It is also a reflection on the insufficiency of the modern, largely positivistic approach to human rights and supplying it with the classical approach, which includes both ancient Greek and Christian ideas. Only then, Jeremy Geddert seem to suggest, we allow human flourishing, which, as an ultimate goal for individuals, is essential for any society.

The book consists of nine chapters that gradually introduce the reader to natural rights, the idea of justice, the bounds of coercive authority, and the possibility of transcending today’s concept of rights—the topics that emerge from Grotius’ works. The publication in 1625 of The Laws of War and Peace (De Jure Belli ac Pacis)[1] made him famous and at least for two centuries established his authority in the field of international law, as well as in legal theory and moral philosophy in general. Even if today Grotius, as a moral and political philosopher, has been overshadowed by his younger contemporaries Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, he is still often seen as “a forerunner if not pioneer of modernity in the emphasis he places on rights inheriting in the individual”[2] and “a father of the modern science of law.”[3] In addition, being a great theorist of international law, he has been a source of inspiration for International Society scholars associated with the English School. To its founders, Martin Wight and Hedley Bull, his idea of the great society of nations was a middle way between classical liberalism’s optimistic view of international relations and classical realism’s pessimism.[4] Yet, as Geddert observes, Grotius’ legacy is still largely shaped by the eighteen-century continental interpretations of his writings by Barbeyarac, Rousseau, Kant and others.[5] These would see Grotius as a modern philosopher who separated natural law from its theological and methodological background. It is against this background that Grotius’ ideas are interpreted by Richard Tuck, Charles Taylor, Jerome Schneewind and many others today’s writers. He is perceived as one who first developed a theory of secular natural rights, based on self-interest as the primarily human drive, inaugurating modernity and the new modern politics concerned primarily with physical security and economic exchange.

Geddert proposes an alternative reading. He argues that Grotius’ “modern conception of human rights is formulated in a way that remains faithful to the classical spirit of Aristotle and his Christian interpreters.”[6] In his view, although Grotius speaks about rights in a secular language, he does not want to reject Christianity but rather to embrace it. He is not only interested in depersonalized natural rights, but also in personal virtues. Once we acknowledge this, as well as reflect upon the limitations of the modern and postmodern world picture, Grotius’ ideas could be a good starting place to explore our own political self-understanding.  They can lead us to reevaluate our conventional wisdom that modern liberal politics can survive only on secular terms. Let me now briefly follow the main argument of the book.

Grotius’ idea of justice relies on three paradigmatic views: the ancient concept of natural Right, the medieval concept of natural law and the ostensibly modern concept of natural rights.[7] The natural Right refers to the positive right of human beings to flourish. For both Plato and Aristotle, politics is not about power or domination; it is rather about human flourishing or self-realization. Ultimately, the polis is the arena where the good of every person is discerned, developed and instantiated; the highest good being personal virtues. In classical political theory, political life is thus an instrument of human uplifting. Yet, since human beings differ from each other and have different abilities and needs, the rule of law to organize political life is only the second best. The true art of ruling is wise leadership; wise ruler being a sort of “living law.” Whereas Hobbes and his modern followers reduce politics to keeping, demonstrating or increasing power, and by applying different socio-techniques treat humans as standardized objects, the classical political philosophers consider us as personal subjects and attempt to lead us to virtuous life that they also consider the happiest life. Yet, by superseding natural life by supernatural ones, medieval thinkers attempt to lead us even higher. They see political life as ultimately ordered toward a trans-political realm. Aquinas conceives natural Right as going beyond classical virtues to the Christian virtues of loving and knowing God, and presents it along a systematized framework of natural laws.

Geddert suggests that natural Right to human flourishing, and particularly, to virtuous and happy life, and to loving and knowing God, is the first-order reality; laws are a second order and rights, the third. While natural Right points to the morally proper goal of human life (human flourishing), laws create active duties (not to commit unnecessary harm), rights create passive claims (right to security of a person). Thus, human rights protect a sphere of autonomy of individuals, make them free from constraints. They do not make them free to do something in particular. These are “subjective rights,” inhering in the individual rather than “objective right,” defined with reference to some external, objective criterion of justice. On the basis of these subjective rights, the modern right theorists can “develop purely objective criteria to measure compliance or lack thereof, namely, of the condition of external, tangible objects.”[8] However, individual subjective rights having the form of “the right to X” have fundamentally possessive character. They are related to our having something (security, liberty, property, sexuality) rather then to our being (honest, courageous, pious, wise). In fact, the discourse of commercial or materialistic values prevailing in today’s societies increasingly persuades individuals to possess material things, particularly property, or other things for themselves, rather than imbibe virtues or look into higher realities. Consequently, the concept of natural rights begins to eclipse the idea of duties toward others, and of virtuous action, leading individuals to what they can get. If social justice is conceived merely as the sum of subjective right claims, and not as any adherence to any objective just order, the third-order reality becomes the first one, and it replaces duties and virtues, as well the values of the trans-political realm. Instead of uplifting human beings, the reality of individual rights then encourages their egoism and thus brings about their demoralization and endless strife. However, the proper way to a moral, peaceful and happy society of flourishing individuals is that, they do not only respect rights of others, but also recognize their duties and are oriented toward a higher moral goal, that of virtue and belief in God. While modern theories reduce justice to claims of individual rights, in this comprehensive picture subjective individual rights should be properly understood as drawing their ultimate source in natural Right. Geddert claims that Grotius theory of natural rights, grounded in his concept of justice, points exactly in this direction.

In his great work, The Laws of War and Peace, Grotius introduces two concepts of justice. He uses Aristotle’s distinction between contractual justice (which he calls “expletive,” iustitia expletrix) and distributive justice (which he calls “attributive,” iustitia attributrix). The first is based on legal property rights; whereas the second on individual merit. As Steven Forde notices, for Aristotle “the second is clearly higher, although the first is obviously necessarily for political order.”[9] But as Grotius indicates only the first is justice “properly or strictly so called”[10]; the second referring to virtues, such as liberality, mercy or prudence. This has led Forde and other modern interpreters to the conclusion that while Grotius is “fully aware of the classical agreement that the function of rational justice is preeminently to establish a proper distribution of goods according to merit, he is explicit in rejecting it.”[11] According to the prevailing modern interpretation, for Grotius justice is precisely of this minimal character. “Justice has to do with possession or property, and is determined by what one has rather than any notion of what one should have or deserves to have.”[12] On such an interpretation, Grotius could be seen as a pioneer of modernity in his emphasis on subjective rights and of modern politics based on rights that is scorn of higher purposes. While not explicitly referring to Forde, Geddert contests this interpretation. He argues that Grotius was inspired by the classical idea of natural Right and believed that propositions of law were not adequate for moral guidance. Thus, expletive justice is in his writings founded on attributive justice. Without this foundation, laws might be just, but they would not be virtuous. Hence, a good political order is not based on a simple adherence to the laws, but also on the cultivation of a particular way of life: a good life “By identifying the limits of law, Grotius helps to vindicate the practice of politics itself.”[13]  He thus represents a classical view of politics rather than a modern one.

Rights have become the language of today’s politics. They are perceived as impersonal, secular, universal. However, while they may protect us from abuses, they do not guarantee social harmony. They may lead to conflict if they are used to rationalize individualism, at the expense of community, prevent compromise, instead of reaching consensus, or absolutize claims, rather than keep them moderate. They reformulate politics into an activity of getting for oneself what one can legally get. Since the prevalence of conflict in today’s politics, based on rights, is becoming obvious, Geddert’s book is a bold attempt to find an alternative picture at its roots—in Grotius, who is often regarded as one who first developed a theory of natural rights. When we explore Grotius’ ideas we get a much richer picture than this which is given in standard readings of his works. Because of the three different orders of moral reality that he employs, rights are only the beginning. They point to responsibilities and to virtues. Consequently, the freedom that may be related to natural rights does not become a mere license, but points to a wider common good. Further, Grotius’ concept of natural right is a part of a larger project of which Christianity is central. A good political community does not merely protect rights of individuals, but also in a form of education gives a vision of how to exercise rights for the benefit of community and individual self-realization. The ultimate goal is truth and goodness. As Geddert says, “the freedom that Grotius anchors in his realm of concessive natural Right is not license for a radically unnormed human will, but an opening for the unique human capacity of free will to find its completion. The completion comes through participation in the divine life.”[14]

The book of Jeremy Seth Geddert is an important contribution to Grotius’ scholarship, but above all, it is an inspiration to rethink and possibly transcend today’s rhetoric of human rights, and today’s politics based on them. While the book may have some shortcomings, like small print, which makes reading it a bit painful or not always fully relevant examples from today’s politics, its message is important. It stimulates our thinking and inspires to explore further Grotius’ works and to think about alternatives to contemporary theories of rights.



[1] Hugo Grotius [1625] The Law of War and Peace: De Jure Belli ac Pacis Introduced by James Brown Scott. Translated by Francis W. Kelsey. Carnegie Classics of International Law, (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1925).

[2] Steven Forde, “Hugo Grotius on Ethics and War,” The American Political Science Review, 93.3 (Sept. 1998), 640.

[3]  Rene Jeffery, Hugo Grotius in International Thought (Basngstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006), 70-74.

[4] W. Julian Korab-Karpowicz, “Grotius: International Society”in: On the History of Political Philosophy: Great Political Thinkers from Thucydides to Locke (New York: Routledge, 2016), 151.

[5] Jeremy Seth Geddert, Hugo Grotius and the Modern Theology of Freedom: Transcending Natural Rights (New York, Oxford: Routledge, 2017), 8.

[6] Ibid., 10.

[7] Ibid., 22.

[8] Ibid., 31.

[9] Forde, “Hugo Grotius on Ethics and War,” 640.

[10] Grotius, The Law of War and Peace, I.1.8, 36-7.

[11] Forde, “Hugo Grotius on Ethics and War,” 640.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Jeremy Seth Geddert, Hugo Grotius and the Modern Theology of Freedom, 206.

[14] Ibid., 219.

W. Julian Korab-Karpowicz

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Julian Korab-Karpowicz is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Opole in Poland. He is the author of several books, including, On the History of Political Philosophy: Great Political Thinkers from Thucydides to Locke (Routledge, 2016) and Tractatus Politico-Philosophicus: New Directions for the Future Development of Humankind (Routledge 2017).