The past decade has witnessed an unprecedented ascendancy of
Richard Tuck’s Rights of War and Peace is a work of brilliant iconoclasm that leaves little of this conventional view of the origins of modern liberalism standing. It starts by contrasting two quite different conceptions of warfare in the sixteenth century, embodied respectively in the Italian humanist Alberico Gentili, a Protestant exile who became Regius Professor of Civil Law at Oxford (‘one of the most important and interesting figures ever to teach at that university’) a year before the Armada, and his contemporary, the Spanish Thomist Luis de Molina, Professor of Philosophy and Theology at Évora (whose modern editor is Manuel Fraga Iribarne, founder of Spain’s current ruling party). Molina, an heir of mediaeval scholasticism, drew on traditions of Christian doctrine and Greek philosophy to set tight bounds around a permissible resort to arms—essentially, war was legitimate only if its aims were defensive or reparatory. Wars in pursuit of glory or pre-emptive attacks were expressly forbidden, and aggression against barbarians was unjustifiable.
Gentili, on the other hand, an admirer of Machiavelli and associate of Bacon, invoked Roman orators and historians to justify wars of self-preservation—in which each side would naturally claim its cause was just—that included not merely deliberate provocation of hostilities but a pre-emptive strike to cut down a potential enemy before it reached its prime. To this licence for military aggression within Europe, Gentili added a quite new one for colonial conquest outside it. War, he argued, could legitimately be waged on behalf of ‘human society’ as a whole, against those whose practices defied common morality, to punish them for their outrages. ‘The cause of the Spaniards is just when they make war upon the Indians, who practised abominable lewdness even with beasts, and who ate human flesh, slaying men for that purpose. For such sins are contrary to human nature, and the same is true of other sins recognized as such by all except haply by brutes and brutish men. Against such men, as Isocrates says, war is made as against brutes’. Not only this: colonial conquest was also perfectly in order, if lands were empty or unused. ‘The seizure of vacant places is regarded as a law of nature . . . Even though the lands belong to the sovereign of that territory, yet because of that law of nature which abhors a vacuum, they will fall to the lot of those who take them.’
It was this heritage that Hugo
This fateful equation, Tuck shows, did not spring out of mere logical rumination. It was a direct product of Grotius’s concern to justify Dutch commercial imperialism in Asia—his first major work being a treatise defending the hugely profitable seizure of a Portuguese bullion shipment by a captain of the East India Company, who was also his cousin, in 1603. If there was no ultimate ethical difference between individuals and states, then ‘private trading companies were as entitled to make war as the traditional sovereigns of Europe’. The way was open for plunder in the Indian Ocean and the seizure of forts in Amboyna and beyond. Nor was this all. States, conversely, enjoyed the same rights of retribution as individuals in a state of nature. The sociability postulated by Grotius might be thin, but it was universal, dictating a moral law applicable to all humanity, whose infractions it was not only legitimate but incumbent to punish, regardless of whether or not they harmed the power that exacted retribution for them. As Grotius forthrightly expressed it: ‘War is lawful against those who offend against Nature; which is contrary to the Opinion of . . . Molina and others, who seem to require, towards making a War just, that he who undertakes it be injured in himself, or in his State, and he has some jurisdiction over the Person against whom the War is made’.
Grotius had no difficulty enumerating the various barbaric customs beyond the confines of Christianity that warranted military intervention in the name of humanity. Among them, he noted, there could be no doubt that war was justified against ‘those who kill strangers that come to dwell amongst them’. For if European colonists should respect the local jurisdiction of native rulers who accepted settlers, those who did not had violated a law of nature mandating cultivation of ‘barren land’, and should be punished. Grotius inserted this clause as the Dutch shifted from purely commercial to territorial imperialism, planting settlements in Manhattan and Guyana. ‘The central reason why Grotius had developed his argument in this direction’, Tuck writes, was that ‘the Dutch had begun to change the character of their activity in the non-European world since his earlier works, and in particular had begun to annex territory.’
Tuck goes on to show how