This article was last modified on April 17, 2011.

Suarez Paves the Way for Grotius: 1600

Francisco Suárez (5 January 1548 – 25 September 1617) was a Spanish Jesuit priest, philosopher and theologian, one of the leading figures of the School of Salamanca movement, and generally regarded among the greatest scholastics after Thomas Aquinas.

Suárez’ main importance stems probably from his work on natural law, and from his arguments concerning positive law and the status of a monarch. In his extensive work Tractatus de legibus ac deo legislatore he is to some extent the precursor of Grotius and Samuel Pufendorf, in making an important distinction between natural law and international law, which he saw as based on custom. Though his method is throughout scholastic, he covers the same ground, and Grotius speaks of him in terms of high respect. The fundamental position of the work is that all legislative as well as all paternal power is derived from God, and that the authority of every law resolves itself into His. Suárez refutes the patriarchal theory of government and the divine right of kings founded upon it — doctrines popular at that time in England and to some extent on the Continent. He argued against the sort of social-contract theory that became dominant among early-modern political philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, but some of his thinking found echoes in the more liberal, Lockean contract theorists.

Human beings, argued Suárez, have a natural social nature bestowed upon them by God, and this includes the potential to make laws. But when a political society is formed, the authority of the state is not of divine but of human origin; therefore, its nature is chosen by the people involved, and their natural legislative power is given to the ruler. Because they gave this power, they have the right to take it back, to revolt against a ruler — but only if the ruler behaves badly towards them, and they’re obliged to act moderately and justly. In particular, the people must refrain from killing the ruler, no matter how tyrannical he may have become. If a government is imposed on people, on the other hand, they not only have the right to defend themselves by revolting against it, they are entitled to kill the tyrannical ruler.

Suarez follows Thomas Aquinas even before John Locke does, saying the world is commonly owned, and opposing Adamite reasoning, saying he does not believe private dominion is a donation from God. [Tully: 68] “Nature has conferred upon all men in common dominion over all things, and consequently has given every man a power to use those things; but nature has not so conferred private dominion”. Again, God or nature did not give anyone, Adam or otherwise, private property.

Copleston suggests that under this view, laws against theft are “an infringement of the natural law” or that natural law is subject “to human power.” Suarez rejects both of these by arguing for “negative” common dominion rather than positive. [Copleston: 211]

The Bible does give the world to Adam, but there is debate whether it is his private property or merely his to be a steward of. And again, should the story of Adam turn out to be false, it could not be the origin of property. One wonders how African or Asian society would interpret the Adamite view.

Suarez says that “no one should be prevented from making the necessary use of the common property”, again following Aquinas. In short, although private property may exist in the law, it is not bestowed by God or nature. If a man should truly need the property of another, such as bread, he may take it with no violation of natural law. Or, put another way, private property is neither prescribed or proscribed by nature or God. “Nature did not divide goods among private individuals; but the private appropriation of goods was not forbidden by natural law.” [Copleston: 212]

Suarez does legitimate slavery, in at least some cases, “for the very reason that man is proprietor (dominus) of his own liberty, it is possible to sell or alienate the same”. [Tully: 112] To what degree this is taken may be debatable. Surely no man would sell himself into complete slavery, but this may allow the idea of a conquered people in war becoming the slaves of the victors. To exactly what extent Suarez meant his words, I am not sure.


Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy, Volume 3: Late Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy: Ockham, Francis Bacon, and the Beginning of the Modern World. Newman Press, 1953.

Tully, James. A Discourse on Property: John Locke and his Adversaries Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Also try another article under Philosophical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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