Hugo de Groot or Hugo Grotius, can easily be called one of the greatest scholars in Dutch history. He was both a philosopher and a thinker who laid the foundations for international law. He was not quite appreciated in his own time and was even sentenced to life in prison. Who was he and what was his ideology?

Who was Hugo de Groot?

Hugo de Groot

Hugo de Groot (born known as Huigh de Groot) was born in 1583 in Delft. His father Jan de Groot was a well-known scholar and soon it was clear that De Groot was a very intelligent kid as-well. By the time he was 8, he was already able to understand Latin and Greek. At the age of 11, he started his study at Leiden University. Within three years, he had produced some of his first important work and shortly after he was the Chief legal advisor of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt. Oldenbarnevelt was one of the key names of the early days of the Dutch Revolt.

Between years 1599 and 1607 Hugo de Groot had his own work place where he ran a law practice in The Hague. In 1607, with the advice of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, he started his duty as a tax lawyer at both the Court of Holland and the Supreme Court.

One of his most important work, Mare Liberum (meaning ‘The Free Sea’), was completed in 1609, laying the foundation for modern natural and international law. It was written to justify a hijacking done by the VOC. In Mare Liberum, he defended the principle that the sea is for ‘everyone’, therefore the incident which took place in the Indian waters was simply irrelevant. Risky? Very much so.

Hugo de Groot and Slot Loevestein

During his work for Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, he drafted the ideology of religious tolerance. He had nothing to do with fanatical Calvinism and preferred a softer approach. According to him, in order to maintain civil order, the only necessity was the enforcement of basic ideas such as the existence of God or Divine Providence. Everything else should be left to individual’s private conscience. These claims caused some trouble and resulted in his arrest. In 1619 de Groot was transferred to Slot Loevestein where he would be spending the rest of his life. Shortly after, his wife Maria van Reigersberch joined him voluntarily. (now that’s devotion!)

old bookcase

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During his time as a prisoner, de Groot was allowed to read and therefore continue to broaden his work. He would often receive these books in a big bookcase. Even though the case was inspected each time in the beginning, these controls loosened up as the time had passed.

In 1621, with help from his wife, Hugo de Groot managed to escape from Slot Loevestein in a book chest. After three years in captivity, he was free once again.

The famous bookcase? (although there are 2 more cases which all are claimed to be the one) You can see it for yourself at the Museum Prinsenhof!

Father of Enlightenment Thinking

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Hugo de Groot statue in Delft

In his writings, De Groot became one of the fathers of the Enlightenment thinking. In Christianity, it was believed that humans were not capable of living together in peace. Only religious devotion can save the world from slipping into chaos. Therefore the options were clear, either a life lived in despair, sin and death; or accept your immortal insignificance and find faith. At this point, De Groot began to question if a fully functioning society was possible without the divine devotion and only based on one’s activities alone.

With new civilizations being discovered beyond the known continents, observing other nations free from the dogmas of Christianity was sparking the interest of the philosophers of the 17th century. Under the light of all of this, Hugo de Groot started exploring the idea of a world beyond religion: how can the humanity survive if God would abandon all? All these thoughts led to him to the understandings of natural law.

Hugo de Groot: Final Years

In the year 1631, after much traveling, Hugo de Groot returned to the Netherlands and opened his law practice in Amsterdam. He was hoping to find a better climate in the country and leave his turbulent years behind him. Shortly after, he became part of a theological seminary at Amsterdam to teach alongside other important names such as Simon Episcopius and Philipp van Limborch.

In 1634, he became Sweden’s ambassador in Paris as a result of the Swedish King’s admiration. On one of his returns from Sweden, his ship was shipwrecked while crossing the Baltic Sea. De Groot managed to reach the shore, but soon died in Rostock, Germany on 28 August, 1645.

His remains were returned to Delft, where he is still buried in the Nieuwe Kerk.

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“By understanding a lot, I could not finish anything.”- Hugo de Groot

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