Hugo Grotius: Foundational Figure in Philosophy and Literature; Hermeneutical and Genealogical History

Below is explained, in steps, why Grotius has to be read for a full grasp of the topics indicated above.

The seventeenth century Dutch political and legal theorist, historian and theologian, Hugo Grotius is not a name well know to those without a strong interest in the history of political and legal thought (or Protestant theology, but we’ll leave that to one side).  He is however just as important to that history as Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and the other more widely read classics in that field.  Grotius is usually absent from undergraduate (and even postgraduate) surveys of the history of political theory.  The most widely available editions of Grotius are published by the Liberty Fund in Indianapolis.  This is partly a tribute to the Fund’s efforts to promote knowledge of the history of political thought through scholarly and moderately priced print editions, and freely available online versions in html and pdf formats.  Nevertheless, it is a peculiar circumstance that Grotius is mostly readily available through the work of an organisation with a particular political mission, to promote liberty as understood by classical liberals and libertarians.  

It is instructive to look at who does not publish Grotius.  Penguin Books, which has an extremely honourable history of making classşc texts widely available.  Oxford University Press’s Oxford World’s Classics series, which has a similar niche to that of Penguin.  Most strangely of all, Cambridge University Press’s Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought series includes no Grotıus.  This series, edited by Raymond Geuss and Quentin Skinner, has a great range of texts, and has done an impressive job of putting some not so well known texts into print, and making them reasonably affordable as all titles are available in paperback.  

Today, I do not want to dwell on Grotius’ contribution to legal and political theory strictly speaking.  It has recently come to my attention that he had a fundamental affect on Giambattista Vico, the author of the Enlightenment classic The New Science.  Vico is someone else who deserves to be more widely read, but the third edition of The New Science is available in Penguin and Cornell University Press paperback versions; and the first edition is available in Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought.  Vico’s influence is somewhat difficult to  estimate, since though he is not widely cited, he very obviously parallels and anticipates Enlightenment, Romantic and nineteenth century thought about knowledge, history, politics, sociology, law, and culture.  Vico aimed for a science of human institutions, making a fundamental contribution to the idea of distinct social sciences and humanities, using methods distinct from mathematics and natural science.  It is clear that Wolff, Herder, Hamann studied Vico, and it looks like it must be the case that Rousseau and Montesquieu had some knowledge of his ideas.  He was translated into French and English in the 1820s but never became a major part of  philosophical teaching and research.  There is a tradition of scholarship, but it is never the case that a university department feels it is important to have a Vico scholar in its ranks, outside Italy anyway.  Gadamer’s 1960  classic of hermeneutics, Truth and Method is full of ideas which look Viconian, but Gadamer does not mention him.  Nietzsche’s philosophy has many ideas about law, the state, language, literature, and genealogical understanding, which also look Viconian, but he is not discussed by Nietzsche, and the scholarly literature comparing them is sparse.  Though I meet Italians at Nietzsche conferences, I’ve met an Italian scholar working on Nietzsche and Vico.  

Getting back to the topic of the title of this post.  Though I have read and re-read Vico many times over the years, I must admit that I did not understand the importance of Grotius for him.  I can excuse myself by saying that I had only read The New Science, the monument of his life’s work, where Grotius is mentioned only occasionally, grouped with other jurists, and critically.  On recently reading the Autobiography, I realised that Vico makes the reading of Grotius’ main monument The Rights of War and Peace, a major moment in his own development.  This is because of the role of philology in Grotius’ study of the history of law and of civil institutions.  Language, the history of language, its metaphorical and symbolic aspects, the work of interpretation are at the centre of Grotius’s project, particularly with regard to Greek, Latin and Hebrew.  

So work on philosophy and literature, and of approaches to the humanities and social science which refer most to language and interpretation, are incomplete without study of Grotius.  

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