Hugo Grotius in the Contemporary Memory of International Law: Secularism, Liberalism, and the Politics of Restatement and Denial

30 Pages Posted: 23 Jul 2011 Last revised: 31 Aug 2011

See all articles by John D. Haskell

John D. Haskell

University of Manchester School of Law

Date Written: July 22, 2011


Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) frequently occupies the title, ‘father of international law’. While the origins of professional lineage were a source of professional and personal conflict for jurists in the 19th century, scholars today tend to treat Grotius as either a symbolic marker of changing historical thought, or the symbolic figure of a style or school of global governance. These two contemporary streams of remembrance operate within a dense background of assumptions about the nature and possibilities of the global order, which raise at least three sets of curiosities. First, in light of nuanced scholarship of Grotius’ primary materials in recent decades, what does an emphasis on the actual content of Grotius’ work impart about the character of his times, and through what lens should we organize our understanding (e.g., political, juridical, theological, and so on)? Second, what inspires the almost cyclical (or perhaps more perversely, fetishistic) attraction to Grotius in the fields of international law and politics, and how might this help us better understand both the psychological and structural underpinnings of contemporary practice, or even the nature and trajectory of the profession in a more broad sense? And third, in lieu of any findings, what if any possibility does this attraction to Grotius open up for future strategic, or even imaginative engagement? In sum, what stories does the Grotius rhetoric allow us to tell about the international legal order, and do such stories carry any political, if not personal, impact?

It is these questions that I attempt to grapple with in this paper in the hopes of providing a concise synthesis of the various engagements within the Grotian tradition to better understand the imaginative contours of our contemporary professional vocabularies and reflect on any emancipatory possibilities this might open up. What seems particularly striking is while ever more scholarship exposes a strong empirical dissonance in respect to the memory of Grotius, such representations continue to exercise powerful sway over ongoing discussions about the past, present, and future of global governance. In response, I have organized the paper into three themes, which overlapping in some respects, are nevertheless helpful in parceling out the various approaches and motivations at work in the literature. The first and second sections provide an overview and then a revisionist account of the claims to what might be labeled the turn to ‘the secular’ and ‘liberal tolerance’. In the third section, the paper moves to reflect more broadly upon the implications of this attraction, attempting particularly to deduce some possible motivations for the continuous misreading of Grotius’ actual work. In conclusion, I briefly trace out some initial suggestions about an alternative future towards the legacy of the Grotian tradition, what might be characterized as a shift from a politics of restatement and denial to a politics of truth.

Keywords: International Law, Global Governance, Hugo Grotius, Law and Religion, Secular Cosmopolitanism

Suggested Citation

Haskell, John D., Hugo Grotius in the Contemporary Memory of International Law: Secularism, Liberalism, and the Politics of Restatement and Denial (July 22, 2011). Emory International Law Review, Vol. 25, No. 1, 2011, Available at SSRN:

John D. Haskell (Contact Author)

University of Manchester School of Law ( email )

Oxford Road
Manchester M13 9PL, M139PL
United Kingdom

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