Renaissance Wisdom on War and Peace

Francisco de Vitoria Writings | Franscisco de Vitoria Bio

Francisco de Vitoria, Biographical Sketch

Francisco de Vitoria was a Spanish Catholic theologian, scholar and professor born  in or around 1486, six years before Columbus “discovered” America. Vitoria became one of the most influential interpreters and proponents of the just war doctrine.

After studying and teaching in Paris and earning a doctorate in theology, in 1526 Vitoria was elected Prime Chair of Theology at Salamanca University in Spain, where he taught for twenty years until his death in 1546. Living at one of the major crossroads of history, Vitoria studied and taught about war and peace in France and Spain during the French Renaissance and the Spanish Inquisition.

It was the violent Spanish Conquest of the New World that sparked Vitoria’s interest in just war theory and in war and peace issues generally. He was gravely concerned about the brutality of the Spanish conquerors toward the Indians, and highly critical of the various rationales that the Crown put forth to justify its wars against them and to impose upon them the Catholic faith. In his series of lectures On the American Indians, Vitoria tore apart every argument the Crown made for the conquest, including the so-called “right of discovery” and the asserted right to impose the Christian religion on the Indians. On the “right of discovery,” Vitoria wrote that the law “provides no support for possession of these lands, any more than it would if [the Indians] had discovered us.”

Vitoria’s concern about the Conquest led him to delve deeply into issues of just war — both the justice of going to war in the first place (jus ad bellum) and the justice of methods and means of pursuing war (jus in bello). His ultimate conclusions were that going to war could be justified only as a response to a serious injury received, and that it was unlawful to kill civilians, even unintentionally (what today we would call “collateral damage”) unless there was no other way to win a just war.

Despite his harsh criticism of the Crown, Vitoria not only survived the Inquisition, he found favor with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of Spain, who frequently consulted him.

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Francisco de Vitoria, Political Writings1

The “Right of Discovery”

 As to the right of discovery, “it was with this pretext alone that Columbus of Genoa first set sail.”

 “The law of nations . . . expressly states that goods which belong to no owner pass to the occupier. Since the goods in question here had an owner, they do not fall under this [legal principle]. Therefore, [the right of discovery] provides no support for possession of these lands, any more than it would if they had discovered us.”

The asserted right of the Spaniards to impose the Christian faith on the Indians

It is not sufficiently clear to me that the Christian faith has up to now been announced and set before the [Indians] in such a way as to oblige them to believe it . . . They are not bound to believe unless the faith has been set before them with persuasive probability.  But I have not heard of any miracles or signs, nor of any exemplary saintliness of life sufficient to convert them.  On the contrary, I hear only of provocations, savage crimes, and multitudes of unholy acts” [committed by the Spanish conquerors].

“However probably and sufficiently the faith may have been announced to the [Indians] and then rejected by them, this is still no reason to declare war on them and despoil them of their goods. . . . The proof is that belief is a matter of will, but fear considerably diminishes the freedom of will.”

 “Besides, war is no argument for the truth of the Christian faith.”

 Just War

 “Any person . . . may declare and wage defensive war.  This is clear from the principle ‘force may be resisted by force.'”

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What are the permissible reasons and causes of just war?

* * *

“First, difference of religion cannot be a cause of just war. . . .”  [See above.]

“Second, enlargement of empire cannot be a cause of just war. . . If it were not so, both parties in a war would have equally just cause to fight, and both would be innocent; from this it would follow that it was unlawful for either side to kill the other.”

“Third, the personal glory or convenience of the prince is not a cause of just war. The prince must order war and peace for the common good . . . The prince has his authority from the commonwealth, and must therefore exercise it for the good of the commonwealth . . . For a prince to abuse his position by forcing his subjects into  military service and by imposing taxes on them for the conduct of wars waged for his convenience rather than the public good, is . . . to make his subjects slaves.”

“Fourth, the sole and only just cause for waging war is when harm has been inflicted. . . . Offensive war is for the avenging of injuries and the admonishment of enemies . . . ; but there can be no vengeance where there has not first been a culpable offence. . . We may not use the sword against those who have not harmed us; to kill the innocent is prohibited by natural law.”

“Fifth, not every or any injury gives sufficient grounds for waging war . . . Since all the effects of war are cruel and horrible -– slaughter, fire, devastation -– it is not lawful to persecute those responsible for trivial offences by waging war upon them.”

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“For the just war it is necessary to examine the justice and causes of war with great care, and also to listen to the arguments of the opponents, if they are prepared to negotiate genuinely and fairly. . .  One must consult reliable and wise men who can speak with freedom and without anger or hate or greed.”

* * *

All those who are admitted or called or of their own accord attend the public or royal council are duty bound to examine the cause of just war. This is obvious because any person who has the power to prevent his neighbors’ danger or loss is obliged to do so, especially when it is a question of danger of death and greater evils, as it is in war.   If such men can by examining the causes of hostility with their advice and authority avert a war which is perhaps unjust, then they are obliged to do so.  If an unjust war is started because they neglect to do this, then they are taken to have given their consent to it; . . .  The blame rests with [them].”

* * *

“Care must be taken to ensure that the evil effects of the war do not outweigh the possible benefits sought by waging it.”


1 Excerpts from Vitoria Political Writings, Padgen ed. Cambridge University Press, 2003. from two lectures delivered at the University of Salamanca, Spain, in 1539.


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