Natural rights revisited during Salamanca University’s 800th anniversary
Religion & Liberty Online

Natural rights revisited during Salamanca University’s 800th anniversary

Note: Some PowerBlog readers might be wondering why the Acton Institute is holding a Rome, Italy, conference on November 29: Globalization, Justice, and the Economy on 16th and 17th Century Spanish scholasticism (The conference will be broadcast on LiveStream. More information here.) Below is an overview of the importance of this school of thought and the historical implications for the nascent era of globalization.  

With a royal charter established in 1218, a vibrant cathedral school became the Universidad de Salamanca, the world’s third oldest continuously operating university which is fast-approaching its 800th anniversary. While the present-day university has significantly lost its prestige as the “Oxford of Spain,” falling to a world rank of 557, we must not forget the indelible mark Salamanca’s Renaissance scholars left on modernity’s political and economic revolutions.

Class at the University of Salamanca. Martin de Cervera. 1621

In the early 16th century the spires of Salamanca’s colegios mayors quickly became the most influential seats of learning in Southern Europe. This was during Spain’s Golden Age of fine arts, literature, material sciences, global exploration, and international commerce which attracted the best and brightest scholars from all over the European continent.  What’s more, under Ferdinand II and Isabella I, Spanish Roman Catholicism had reached its most fervent era of expression following the expulsion of the last Muslim stronghold in Granada. Meanwhile in Central and Northern Europe political, religious and economic worldviews were veering away from the then mainstay of Roman Catholic Thomistic thinking in the direction of secular humanism, empirical rationalism, and, above all, in the direction of the Protestant Reformation and its salvific understanding of work and providence.

The world stage was set for a new paradigm, for at least a new coherent collective conversation about man, his nature and his ultimate purpose in the world. It would mean a radical shift from seeing the earth as flat and one-dimensional, with civilizations and persons as singular and ultimately disconnected entities, to one which was round and infinitely interconnected by a nexus of absolute truths about human nature and the world in which it could flourish. The result would be a new grand balance of the moral and social order around the globe spelled out in human rights and liberties.

Providential Moment

The University of Salamanca, particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries, was the protagonist in this providential moment in which European intellectuals articulated the Christian message of inviolable human dignity and liberty in such a way that these truths could be heard and lived by all peoples on earth. This was timely just as Europe began colonizing  the Americas, in lands where Christianity had never stepped foot.  A global world stood ready and primed for a single absolute anthropology.

Salamanca represented the New Evangelization of its time. At the center of the Good News were the natural rights of man due to all peoples. Many new constitutions of nations born following the American colonial period would be based on such rights which included the right to life, the rights to own private property and free exchange.

Lord Acton once said that worldwide influence of the moral anthropology of the Salamanca scholars would serve as the basis for later thinkers such as Locke, Rousseau, and Adam Smith whose Wealth of Nations would revolutionize how we understand economic and political liberties throughout modernity.

The School of Salamanca

Led by the Dominican Francisco de Vitoria in the early 16th century, a circle of lay and religious intellectuals – the Escuela de Salamanca – was formed to discuss the basis for natural rights and freedoms in the socio-economic and political order of the New World, while reflecting on lacunae of natural rights and liberties within their own Old World nations.

The intensity of the debates heightened during the period of the Spanish Inquisition, during which many Catholic intellectuals risked being jailed, silenced and ex-communicated for their ideas which challenged the status quo. Furthermore, reports from missionaries in the Americas recounted gross violations of natural rights, as some European explorers, merchants and colonists apparently behaved as if the native peoples enjoyed no natural liberties. This resulted in war, the expropriation of lands and wealth, not to mention numerous violent deaths.

Salamanca scholars from the Dominican and Jesuit ranks, therefore, rose to pronounce vociferously their beliefs about human anthropology: namely that all human beings were persons in the fullest sense of the word – despite race, culture or religion – and enjoyed human dignity and certain liberties within the context of natural law.

Joining the School of Salamanca were a number of bold thinkers like Domingo de Soto (1494-1560), Martin de Azpilcueta (1491-1586), Tomás de Mercado (1525-1575), and Francisco Suárez (1548-1617). They were mainly theologians, moral philosophers and legal scholars of Thomist scholasticism. However, three scholars deserve particular attention in terms of their contribution to the new social-economic-political order: Francisco de Vitoria, Luis de Molina and Juan de Mariana.

Francisco de Vitoria, a Domincan friar and the School’s founder, was perhaps the most influential. De Vitoria rigorously defended of the native Americans as rightful owners of their lands and as fully possessing the faculties of reason and free will. They were not a subspecies of the human person since, as he argued, they had already formed civilizations with myriad laws, customs, rules and governments despite some vulgar pagan traditions they practiced, like human sacrifice. In addition, de Vitoria argued belligerent action could not be taken against the natives in order to seize lands and entire cities in the name of the pope or Spanish Kings – as was ordered by El Requerimiento. Thus, while writing De Iure Belli in support of some possibilities of just war, de Vitoria found no warrant for attacking the native peoples while advising peaceful cooperation and trade.

Luis de Molina was a Jesuit who had taught at the University of Coimbra, but had originally came to Salamanca to study law. He was the most active in the Salamanca anthropological debates about human liberty.  While writing extensively on the legitimacy of human free will despite divergent beliefs about divine providence and God’s foreknowledge, Luis de Molina was able to gain ground in arguing for the primacy of human free choice in many areas of economic judgement. His Treatise on Money included commentaries on natural prices, financial regulation and even the origins of inflation as precious metals flooded European markets from Latin American gold and silver mines. He emerged as a leader in studying economies from the empirical observations of human desire and volition and in accordance with naturally observable occurences of supply and demand and in terms of prudential speculation about scarce or abundant commodities.

Juan de Mariana was another Jesuit who had taught in Rome and Paris and who commented prolifically on the nature of political authority, particularly in his treatise On the King and the Royal Institution. De Mariana questioned various scenarios of extreme political power in which kings and politicians went beyond the prescriptions of natural law, while violating principles of subsidiarity and individual liberty due to all citizens and subjects. He argued for the legitimacy of removing tyrants – even deposing by them by brute force, during an age of advancing imperial regimes and monarchical abuses of power.  His views on tyrannicide  brought controversy to the Jesuits –  leading them to being perceived as naturally disobedient to civil authority.


Boiling Point and Resolution: Freedom vs. Pre-Determination

The Salamanca debates reached their peak as religion saturated all political, economic and, in general, moral reasoning in Renaissance Europe. Tensions, however, existed between trending secularization of culture, rational atheism, expanding world political power.

The boiling point in such tensions centered  around the notions and consequences of human creativity, liberty and individuality as debates revolved around views of the global social equilibrium while at the same time articulating the particulars of the common good, free choice and divine providence.

The “modern problem” really came down to whether man could be free at all and, most importantly, whether his agency of free will and faculty of reason could be used to make effective prudential choices and improve his state of life both as a productive citizen and economic participant in society.

Indeed this core anthropology of freedom weighed heavily on the concurrent advocacy in Salamanca for the validity of economic and political liberties across the globe as the ius gentium – the law of nations  –   irrespective of sovereign rule, cultural traditions and race.

The debate reached its climax in what became known in Renaissance history as the “De Auxiliis Polemic.” Following the publication of Luis De Molina’s 1588 treatise of free will and grace, Concordia liberi arbitrii cum gratiae donis, heated discussions ensued for years on whether man was fundamentally pre-determined or fundamentally free.

For De Molina it was not a question of “either/or” but rather “both/and.”

Many Catholic intellectuals, including some Dominicans, called upon Pope Clement VIII to quash de Molina’s position in favor of free will as incompatible with divine omniscience and providence. However it was finally Pope Paul V who in 1607 granted de Molina and his fellow Jesuits and Dominicans  in Salamanca the right to defend their ideas without fear of heretical condemnation.

With the papal pronouncement, the globe was then destined to spin in the right anthropological direction for both a free and ordered human global society, thereby extending all natural liberties to all peoples of all nations, near and far.

Photos: Wikimedia. Public domain here and here.

Michael Severance

Michael Severance earned his B.A. in philosophy and humane letters from the University of San Francisco, where he also studied at the university's St. Ignatius Institute, a great books program. He then pursued his linguistic studies in Salamanca, Spain where he obtained his Advanced Diploma in Spanish from Spain's Ministry of Education before obtaining his M.A. in Philosophy and Modern Languages from the University of Oxford. While living in Italy, Michael has worked in various professional capacities in religious journalism, public relations, marketing, fundraising, as well as property redevelopment and management. As Istituto Acton's Operations Manager, Michael is responsible for helping to organize international conferences, increase private funding, as well as expand networking opportunities and relations among European businesses, media and religious communities, while managing the day-to-day operations of the Rome office.