Skip navigation

The Core Curriculum

Francisco de Vitoria

1492 CE – 1546 CE

Francisco de Vitoria (Wikimedia Commons)Francisco de Vitoria (Wikimedia Commons) Francisco de Vitoria was a Catholic philosopher, jurist and a leading figure in the School of Salamanca, site of a renaissance in Catholic social and legal thought in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation.   An important contributor to Catholic “just war” theory, Vitoria is also regarded as a founder of “international law” who drew upon the Catholic tradition of natural law to develop a critique of Spanish policies in the Americas. 

In 1537, Vitoria delivered a lecture entitled De Indis in which he explored by what right the Indians had come under the rule of Spaniards.  According to historian Anthony Pagden, Vitoria’s lecture was the “most detailed and far reaching discussion of the subject.  It was also the first to claim that ‘the affair of the Indies,’ as it had come to be called, was a question neither of the limits of papal jurisdiction, nor of Roman law, but of the law of nature.  What was at issue in the prolonged debates over the conquest of the Americas was not the Castilian crown’s sovereignty in America.  It was the nature of the rights, and in particular rights of property, which that sovereignty entailed.”   In short, Vitoria denied that the native peoples could be understood as "slaves by nature" in Aristotelian terms.

Written by Simón Calle, Department of Music, Columbia University


Works Consulted:

Anthony Pagden, “Dispossessing the Barbarism: The Language of Spanish Thomism and the Debate over the Property Rights of the Americas” in David Armitage (ed) Theories of Empire, 1450-1800: The European Impact on World History, 1450-1800, Vol. 20.  Brookfield, Vt: Ashgate/Variorum, 1998, 159-178.

Brian Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law, and Church Law 1150-1625.  Grand Rapids, Mi:  William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.

Margaret Kohn  "Colonialism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)