Mr. Grotius Goes to Washington

A funny thing happened a couple weeks ago in Washington, D.C. On a Friday night not far from the city’s most boozy blocks near Adam’s Morgan, a dozen or so Protestant and Roman Catholic scholars, practitioners, and aspiring practitioner-scholars gathered to discuss a great text and its relevance to the political and intellectual life of the West. The text was The Laws of War and Peace, the magnum opus of Dutch Reformed thinker Hugo Grotius, who is often credited as the father of international law.

What Was the Meeting?

We gathered to conduct an experiment, of sorts. Our goal was to explore whether thoughtful Christians involved someway in religion, public service, or the intersection thereof could hold court on a foundational work of political significance and come away enriched intellectually, with deeper insight into the nature of the secular order in which we serve and inhabit. Rubbing shoulders were folks in academia, think tanks, journals, and current and former military members.

Discussion on Hugo Grotius at Walter Russell Mead’s home.

The night opened with Peter Escalante of New St. Andrews College, who presented remarks based on preassigned readings and guided us to the focal questions of Grotius’s work. In any Socratic dialogue, the purpose is to chip away at the rough impressions of a text to unearth the foundational concerns, problems, and intellectual moves of the author. We proceeded that night at a jackhammer’s pace. It’s a pleasure to behold intelligent men and women from diverse backgrounds and viewpoints united in purpose and passion for drilling to the root of a subject.

The Result

What unfolded was a dazzling display of erudition on the nature of law, sovereignty, international relations, general and special revelation, modernity, Christendom, Protestant and Romanist political theologies, espionage, and just war tradition, punctuated with humor and breaks for hors d’oeuvre andbiblical beverages. Welcome to conversation about Christian tradition and great books.

This sort of evening might be dismissed as a typical “drink and think” soiree engaged in by rarefied social circles in Coastal or university towns. If it was about seeing and being seen, networking, or performing intellectual pantomime, you’d be right. Except it wasn’t. That Friday was what people intend when they valorize the “life of the mind.” Our Federal City needs more of this: sober-minded, public spirited men and women who wear lightly their professional status and analyze complex moral problems together.

If law is to be guided by right reason, and state power exercised in the light of wisdom, ongoing conversation by those involved in the worlds of thought and action must be joined. Nights such as this, sponsored by organizations dedicated to retrieving the past for the sake of orienting us to our present difficulties, must happen more often. Thanks to the Davenant Institute, Philos Project, and the Institute for Religion and Democracy, mature Christian deliberation in Washington, D.C. took a couple steps forward.


Written by Nathan Hitchen

Nathan Hitchen is a member of Equal Rights Institute’s Board of Directors. He completed his M.A. at the Johns Hopkins Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. Prior to Johns Hopkins, Nathan participated in the John Jay Institute fellowship, a program in theology and political philosophy, and then worked at a number of domestic and foreign policy think tanks in Washington, D.C. After graduate school, Nathan worked for the Corporate Executive Board and currently is an analyst. He and his wife and daughter live in Virginia.