Francisco de Vitoria Biography


(History of the World: The Renaissance)

Article abstract: Vitoria was a Spanish theologian and pioneer in the field of international law. He is principally associated with his idea that the nations of the world constitute a community based on natural law.

Early Life

Francisco de Vitoria was born in the small town of Vitoria in the Basque province of Álava. The exact date of his birth is uncertain, but scholars generally place it between 1480 and 1486, with 1483 being the year most often mentioned. When still very young, Vitoria entered the Dominican Order, of which his elder brother Diego was also a member. He went to San Pablo in Burgos for his education, and, because he showed promise as a scholar in the classics, he was sent to the College of the Dominicans in Paris for further study. While in Paris, he also attended classes at the Sorbonne. His education equipped him as a Humanist versed in Greek and Latin texts, and Vitoria is also said to have met the great Humanist Desiderius Erasmus during those years.

Vitoria arrived in Paris around 1506 and studied first at the Dominican College of Saint Jacques, becoming well versed in the classics before occupying the chair of theology there. He was influenced by nominalist teachers, who helped revive the study of the Summa theologiae (c. 1265-1273; Summa Theologica, 1911-1921) of Saint Thomas Aquinas in addition to, or sometimes instead of, the previous standard Dominican text, Sententiarum libri IV (1148-1151; four books of sentences) by Peter Lombard. He even became involved in the preparations of editions of Aquinas’ work that appeared in the period of 1514-1519. Before returning to Spain, he completed his degree of licentiate in theology at the Sorbonne on March 24, 1522.

Life’s Work

Vitoria embarked on his life’s work upon his return to Spain after earning his degree in theology. He had attained a good reputation among his colleagues and was able to serve at the College of Saint Gregory in Valladolid from 1523 to 1526 before being appointed to the chair of theology at the University of Salamanca. He would remain at the university until his death.

Vitoria made his first mark on history as he lectured on theology. He impressed a new character on this field of study, as his discussions were full of ideas, and drew other areas of learning into the consideration of theological questions. Such questions were not to be considered intellectual exercises but rather areas of legitimate practical concern in the real world. That such discussions and proposed solutions could actually produce serious consequences was shown in many lectures: notably those discussions on the rights and treatment of Native Americans in the newly discovered hemisphere and those on the question of what constitutes a just war. His teaching incorporated a desire for justice in world affairs and a strong belief that moral questions have an impact on all phases of life.

One of the greatest influences on Vitoria was his contact with the great Humanists, including Erasmus. Vitoria’s defense of the Indians and his humanitarian principles in relation to war bear the stamp of this influence. Vitoria distinguished himself as a professor and helped increase the reputation of the University of Salamanca. At first he was compelled to lecture on the Sententiarum libri IV of Peter Lombard while he preferred Saint Thomas Aquinas, but it later became the rule to discuss the Summa Theologica with references to Lombard—a practice which better suited Vitoria’s thinking. His courses soon met with favorable reactions as he combined solid doctrine with a clear, elegant style of exposition. Among his students were Melchor Cano, Domingo Soto, and Bartolomé de Medina. Although Vitoria did not publish his lectures, his students gathered many of them and published them after his death, as a tribute to him. Vitoria’s reputation for applying theology to practical matters and his broad knowledge were such that Charles V consulted him on a number of questions, including the arguments by Henry VIII of England for annulling his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

In 1532, Vitoria discussed the justifications for Spanish domination in the New World. In 1539 and 1540, Charles V consulted him about several matters relating to the conquest of the Indies. Then, in 1541, Vitoria was consulted on the question of baptizing Native Americans without religious instruction, a...

(The entire section is 1835 words.)