Francisco de Vitoria, on just war

One of the prominent figures in the Spanish Renaissance was Francisco de Vitoria (1483-1546). He was a Spanish Dominican, renewer of Theology and promoter of the Salamanca School of Natural Law. He is considered the founder of the science of International Law and the notion of human rights. One of the most relevant political philosophers of the 20th century, John Rawls, in his book entitled Law of Peoples and the Idea of Public Reason revisited quotes De Vitoria and, from a liberal conception, adheres to his just war theory. 

Precisely Francisco de Vitoria addresses this classic theme in his essay entitled ” Sobre el derecho de Guerra”/ On the law of war when he asks: “What can be the reason and cause of a just war?” We will address this question below, based on this author, from the perspective of Minerva Strategy Blog.

De Vitoria’s first approach to answering this question states that “diversity of religion is not sufficient cause for a just war.” And he justifies himself with that “even if the faith has been announced to the barbarians with sufficient signs of probability and they have not wanted to accept it, it is not, for that reason, lawful to persecute them with war and strip them of their goods” (Francisco de Vitoria, Sobre los indios, II.15).

Francisco de Vitoria was a professor at the University of Salamanca and his lectures, or relections, on various topics of interest have come down to us to this day. Specifically, the full title of the one dedicated to the notion of just war is entitled: ” Sobre el derecho de guerra de los españoles sobre los bárbaros”/On the law of war of the Spaniards over the barbarians. Contrary to what the black legend on the Spanish colonisation of Latin America claims, the School of Salamanca laid the foundations for human rights and the rules of International Law. And, as has been seen, De Vitoria did not justify war for diversity of religion.  

Another issue addressed by Francisco de Vitoria is that “it is not a just cause of a war to intend to expand dominions” and he argues: “this proposition is too evident to need to be demonstrated. For otherwise there would always be just cause for any of the belligerent wars, and so all would be innocent” (Francisco de Vitoria, Sobre el derecho de guerra, III.11).

The history of mankind contains many examples of rulers who have had expansionist policies beyond their borders.  The results of these offensive wars are part of History and memory. This would not be a justified strategy under current International Law, nor as a cost/benefit analysis in the medium and long term.

Francisco de Vitoria continues “neither is it just cause of a war to the prince’s own glory nor any other particular profit of the prince” and he states that “this proposition is also evident, for the prince must order to the common good of the Republic, both war and peace, and he cannot invest public funds in his own glory, in his own profit, much less expose his subjects to danger. The difference between the legitimate king and a tyrant lies in that the tyrant orders the government to his own interest and profit, while the king orders it to the public good, as Aristotle says” (Francisco de Vitoria, Sobre el derecho de guerra, III.12).

If the ruler wages war for his private benefit, he becomes a tyrant, as Aristotle argued in his work Politics. There the Stagirite philosopher proposed a classic typology of forms of government, where he distinguishes those leaders who promote the common good in their government actions -monarchy, aristocracy, politeia– and those who act for their own benefit or that of their own group -tyranny, oligarchy, democracy-. It is interesting because issues of accountability have been identified ever since the first book written on Political Science, which deals especially with issues of classical democracy in the polis of Athens.

The affirmative answer to the question posed by De Vitoria is the following: “the only just cause for waging war is the injury received” and he affirms that “in addition, offensive war is made to avenge an injury and to reprimand the enemies, as has already been said. But there can be no revenge where there has not preceded an injury and a fault. Therefore the conclusion is evident” (Francisco de Vitoria, Sobre el derecho de guerra, III.13).

Here we get to the heart of Francisco de Vitoria’s argument: defensive war, self-defence, is justified. Bobbio affirms: “it is lawful to repel violence with violence.” The Italian author asks himself: “But does the strategy of atomic war still allow us to maintain the distinction between offensive and defensive war?” (Norberto Bobbio, El problema de la guerra y las vías de la paz). De Vitoria did not speak of preventive wars, but in the answer to Bobbio it is worth analising whether a preventive war is justified in the face of a relevant threat. Situations of strategic funanbulism in scenarios of nuclear deterrence are placed in this risk analysis.

Francisco de Vitoria adds: “an injury of any gravity is not enough to make war”. He clarifies that “this proposition is proved because it is not even lawful to impose such serious penalties as death, exile or confiscation of goods on one’s own subjects for any fault. Now, since all the things that are done in war are grave and even atrocious, such as slaughter, arson, devastation, it is not lawful to punish with war those who have committed slight offences, since the measure of punishment must be in accordance with the gravity of the crime” (Francisco de Vitoria, Sobre el derecho de guerra, III.14).

The key to self-defence is proportionality. Thomas Aquinas already defended it by “moderating the defence according to the needs of the threatened security” (Thomas Aquinas, Suma Theologica, II-II, q. 64,a. 7, c). It is in that passage of the Theological Summa, where the theory of the double effect is formulated: an act has two effects, one intentional -preserving life- and another not, which would be incidental -the death of the aggressor-. The key for Thomas Aquinas is that the act be proportionate to its end.

An application of the doctrine of double effect is proposed by Rawls, when he states that civilian casualties are prohibited except insofar as they are the indirect and unintended result of a legitimate attack against a military target (Rawls, Law of Peoples and the Idea of Public Reason revisited).

The just war theory in Francisco de Vitoria is a classic in the reflection on public affairs. As a good classic, it allows more current re-readings and, as Italo Calvino said, it can be conceived as a talisman, a compass on which to orient oneself when approaching the territories of peace and war.

Thomas More, Comfort against Tribulation

In 1534, Thomas More (1478-1535), well-known author of the work Utopia and defender of Catholic orthodoxy against Luther and other writers, was captured in the Tower of London by the Thames after refusing the oath that King Henry VIII demanded from his subjects to grant him the title of Supreme Head of the Church of England. After 14 months, on  1 July 1535, he was put on trial and sentenced to death, and executed in the morning of 6 July.

Thomas More wrote several works during those months, including A Dialogue on Comfort against Tribulation, in which he stands firm in his convictions that have led him to the Tower of London, where he has lost his position and may lose his life. It is a book that makes many religious references and can be seen as an exercise in affirmation in the face of hard times. It also provides recommendations and great wisdom, which will be analysed below with the focus of the Minerva Strategy.

“But this arrow of pride, fly it never so high in the clouds, and be the man that it carrieth up so high never so joyful thereof… yet let him remember… that be this arrow never so light, it hath yet a heavy iron head… and therefore, fly it never so high… down must it needs come and on the ground must it light… and falleth, sometimes, not in a very clean place… but the pride turneth into rebuke and shame, and there is then all the glory gone.” (More, Thomas. A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation, II.16).

The Spanish Royal Academy of Language defines pride as “haughtiness and disordered appetite to be preferred to others”, while it can also be defined as “satisfaction and conceit by the contemplation of one’s own prerogatives with contempt for others”. Pride is a bad strategy because it can ruin interpersonal relationships, cause a lack of empathy and make it difficult to learn.

In some contexts and sectors, this human attitude is encouraged that avoids putting oneself in the other’s place and is the opposite of humility. It can be considered an obstacle to the good management of emotions and good relationships with others.

“Hard is it, Cousin, in many manner things, to bid or forbid, affirm or deny, reprove or allow, a matter nakedly proposed and put forth; or precisely to say “This thing is good,” or “This thing is naught,” without consideration of the circumstances.” (More, Thomas. A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation, II.17).

This recalls Ortega y Gasset’s famous phrase “Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia” (I am I and my circumstance) found in his work Meditaciones del Quijote – Meditations on the Quijote, published in 1914. The complete sentence, which is often quoted incompletely, is: “I am I and my circumstance, and if I do not save her, I do not save myself”. With this phrase, Ortega means that we cannot achieve fulfillment as individuals if we do not engage with our environment and strive to improve it.


In the case of Thomas More, it refers to the level of ethics and Law, which must take into account the circumstances of the particular case. This is related to the dichotomy between universalism and particularism, as well as the importance of the possibility that general solutions can be reinterpreted according to new circumstances.

“We shall yet, Cousin, consider in these outward “goods of fortune,”  as richesse… good name… honest estimation… honorable fame, and authority— in all these things we shall, I say, consider… that either we love them and set by them as things commodious unto us for the state and condition of this present life… or else as things that we purpose by the good use thereof to make them matter of our merit, with God’s help, in the life after to come. Let us, then, first consider them as things set by and beloved for the pleasure and commodity of them for this present life.” (More, Thomas. A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation, III.9).

In today’s digital age, it is possible to reinterpret the good name, honour and honourable fame. It is necessary to reconceptualise the terms private, public and intimate. However, it seems that slander, disinformation, rumors and fake news are gaining ground. The worst thing is that there seems to be no standards for verifying news and everything goes.More than ever, Philosophy is necessary

“And into this pleasant frenzy of much foolish vainglory be there some men brought sometimes by such as themselves do, in a manner, hire to flatter them, and would not be content if a man should do otherwise…but would be right angry, not only if a man told them truth when they do naught indeed… but also if they praise it but slenderly.” (More, Thomas. A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation, III.10).

It is common to find professional sycophants who constantly praise everything they receive from their superiors. A minimum level of politeness and courtesy is granted to avoid ungratefulness. However, in professional contexts, it is good to be able to express critical views. If one is a boss, it is important to empower others in a positive way and never denigrate or humiliate them.

“Let us now consider in like wise what great worldly wealth ariseth unto men by great offices, rooms, and authority—to those worldly-disposed people, I say, that desire them for no better purpose” (More, Thomas. A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation, III.11)

Thomas More played significant roles in England during the reign of Henry VIII, who  chose to establish the Church of England and separate from the Catholic Church for his own benefit. Thomas More chose to remain true to his beliefs, leave his offices and disobey the sovereign. More’s hierarchy of values and the importance he places on office explain this.

“The greatest grief that is in bondage or captivity is this, as I trow: that we be forced to do such labor as with our good will we would not. But then against that grief Seneca teacheth us a good remedy: “Semper da operam ne quid invitus facias”—“Endeavor thyself evermore that thou do nothing against thy will. . . . But that thing that we see we shall needs do… let us use always… to put our good will thereto” (More, Thomas. A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation, III.18).This point is fundamental in Thomas More’s tragedy, but it can also have a significant impact in professional and personal contexts. On the one hand, extremely unjust actions can be opposed, which is a classic theme in the Philosophy of Law. Nevertheless, there are many things that we do not want to do, and paradoxically to his story, Moro advises that we put our good will to do them. It is a way to overcome tribulation.

All Individuals are philosophers, but do they all employ strategy?

Each of us is a philosopher. This may well come as a surprise and is an unusual statement to make because people rarely discuss Philosophy only at surface level.

It is important to differentiate between academic Philosophy and Philosophy as a way of life. Generally, the first is considered a complicated realm reserved for specialists. While the second asserts that “everyone is a philosopher.” The key in Philosophy consists in the question “Why?” Curiosity constitutes typical philosophical attitude and helps to understand concepts. Almost everyone has this interest. Every individual has their own truth, which is a compass for living one’s life.

Now, however, comes the second aspect: are we all strategists? Typically, associating strategy with human behaviour carries negative ethical implications. This, however, becomes considerably more complex on closer inspection. Strategy refers to the appropriate alignment between means and ends. Strategos commanded the military forces inside the polis of ancient Greece. The initial definition of strategy is a military concept and has evolved from game theory into corporate or political strategy.

Determining objectives using a strategy entails formulating a plan that elucidates the interdependence of actions among the specified components and references to situations of cooperation and/or conflict. The History of Ideas contains corporate, political, and personal insights pertinent to the study of strategy. We hope that these concepts will be further developed. Welcome to Minerva Strategy Blog!