Francisco de Vitoria

Francisco de Vitoria
Francisco de Vitoria

Francisco de Vitoria, the political and legal philosopher and theologian, was born in Vitoria, capital of the Basque province of Álava, Spain.

While still a boy, he joined the Dominican order in Burgos, and in 1509 or 1510 he was sent to the Collège Saint-Jacques in Paris, where he finished his courses in the humanities and went on to study philosophy and theology.

While a student of theology, he directed an edition of the Secunda Secundae (“Second Part of the Second Part” of the Summa) of St. Thomas Aquinas. The date of his ordination is unknown.

Sermones Dominicales
Sermones Dominicales

From 1516 to 1522 or 1523 he taught theology in the écoles majeures of the Collège Saint-Jacques and edited the Sermones Dominicales of Peter of Covarrubias, the Summa Aurea of St. Antoninus of Florence, and the Diccionario moral of Peter Bercherio. He obtained the licentiate and doctorate in theology in 1522.

After teaching theology at St. Gregory’s monastery in Valladolid from 1523 to 1526, he won by competition the “chair of prime,” the most important chair of theology, at the University of Salamanca and held it until his death.

Melchior Cano, Mancio, Ledesma, Tudela, Orellana, and Barron, among others, were his disciples. Vitoria helped to formulate the imperial legislation regarding the newly discovered American territories.

extraordinary lectures
extraordinary lectures


With the exception of the prologues to his editions of the works mentioned, Vitoria published nothing during his lifetime.

His works include lecturas (his class lectures as preserved in the notes taken by his disciples), many of which have been published recently; relectiones (extraordinary lectures, which are summaries or popularizations of his ordinary lectures), published for the first time in 1557; and several writings on different topics.

Vitoria is famous chiefly for his relectiones, the most important of which are De Potestate Civili, De Potestate Ecclesiae Prior, De Potestate Ecclesiae Posterior, De Potestate Papae et Concilii, and, particularly, De Indis and De Iure Belli.

political society
political society

According to Vitoria, political society (respublica) is a perfect, self-sufficient society, a moral and juridical person. It is a natural, not a conventional, society. In other words, it is required by nature and has its end set by nature.

Actual states are the result of positive human acts, but men are obliged by natural law to live in some form of political society, outside of which no good or full human life is possible.

The end of society is twofold: to promote the common good and virtuous life of its citizens and to protect their rights. The proximate origin of political society is the will of families.

property of the state
property of the state

Authority is an essential property of the state, for without it the organic unity of the citizens and their activity, necessary for the attainment of the common temporal good, would be impossible. Like every natural right, authority derives ultimately from nature’s author and resides originally in the body politic.

However, since political society is incapable of exercising public authority directly, it must transfer it to one or several rulers. Particular forms of government depend on the will of the citizens. The absolutely best form is monarchy, “for the whole world is most wisely ruled by one Prince and Lord.”

The reason behind this claim is that monarchy, better than any other form, creates and preserves the necessary unity of social action without unduly curtailing the citizen’s freedom; “freedom in monarchy,”Vitoria remarked, “is no less than in democracy, wherein discussions and seditions, inimical to liberty, are the unavoidable result of the participation of many in government.”

international society
international society

Beyond individual states there is a larger society, the international society constituted by the whole human family. It, too, is natural and necessary, although less strictly so, for the satisfaction of man’s needs and the development and perfection of his faculties.

International society possesses its own authority, which is immanent in the whole of humankind. From this universal authority derive the laws that establish the rights and correlative duties of the different states.

The sum of these laws forms the ius gentium, which is partly made up of conclusions drawn from the principles of natural law by natural reason and partly of positive customs and treaties among nations.

chief rights
chief rights

Vitoria established the chief rights of every nation, whether great or small, as the right to existence; the right to juridical equality; the right to independence (except where a nation is juridically and politically so immature as to be incapable of self-rule, in which case a more civilized nation may temporarily administer it under mandate or keep it in trusteeship); the right to free communication and trade, denial of which by another nation could justify war; and the right—and the duty—of every state to intervene in defense of nations victimized by domestic tyrants or threatened or attacked by stronger nations.

War is licit as a last resort, according to Vitoria, when all other means of persuasion have failed. The cause that justifies a war, whether defensive or offensive, is the violation of a right.

Defensive war
Defensive war

An essential condition for the licitness of a war is that the evils resulting from it will not be greater than the good intended. Defensive war can be justly undertaken by any person; offensive war can be launched only by public authority.

The ruler waging a just war is invested with power by human society. Just as the state has the power to punish criminals among its citizens, so humankind has the power to punish a nation guilty of injustice.

All means necessary for the attainment of victory are permissible in a just war. Once victory is achieved, the conquering nation should exercise its rights over the conquered with moderation and Christian charity.

international law
international law

The thesis that Vitoria was the founder of modern international law has been definitively established by numerous scholars. It was officially acknowledged in 1926, when the Dutch Association of Grotius gave the University of Salamanca a gold medal coined to honor Vitoria as the founder of international law.

Also in 1926 the Asociación Francisco de Vitoria was founded in Spain for the purpose of studying and spreading Vitoria’s ideas through publications, conferences, and special courses at the University of Salamanca.
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