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Kant’s Conceptions of Colonialism, Free Trade, and Cosmopolitical Providence

from the Point of View of a History of Ideas: their Origins in Libanius,

Francisco de Vitoria, and Hugo Grotius

In his ‚perpetual peace’, Kant takes a critical stance towards political colonialism.
Nevertheless, he advocates the construction of a global community with equal legal
standards. In order to achieve this community, he puts his hopes in the power of
informal instead of political coercion.

The informal coercion that Kant depicts comes mainly out of global economy and
global discourse. To him, both phenomena have an unavoidable tendency to civilize
the world, even against the will of the individuals or the individual states. This
tendency can be understood in terms of a ‘cosmopolitical providence’. It is built upon
the underlying belief in a providential design, which will inevitably lead to the
construction of a global community.

Concerning the question of colonialism, Kant’s informal approach seems at first

glance to be advanced. His conception endorses any form of local differences,
economic and political. In the form of ‘antagonisms’ and ‘different needs’, both kinds
of differences are essential to the workings of the providential machine.

But this concept’s ability to combine the appreciation of differences with an all-
inclusive universalistic point of view is not new. The “Spirit of commerce” stems
indirectly – via Hugo Grotius – from the Greek rhetorician Libanius, who praises
differences in the same breath as he subdues them to a universalistic, in the literal
sense of the word, ‘imperialist’ design. Likewise, Kant’s endorsement of a global
discourse can be seen as a secularization of the Christian concept of mission as
formulated by Francisco de Vitoria, who legitimated the Castilian conquista by using
the very argument Kant seems to renew.

In the following, I recontextualize the two pillars of Kant’s ‘cosmopolitical

providence’ and show the effects of this recontextualization on an interpretation of
Francisco de Vitoria

On the surface, Kant’s relationship to colonialism and to Vitoria is a negative one. In

his attack on colonialism, Kant implicitly mentions a concept of the Dominican friar.
He criticizes “the inhospitable actions of the civilized and especially of the
commercial states of our part of the world“: „The injustice which they show to lands
and peoples they visit (which is equivalent to conquering them) is carried by them to
terrifying lengths.“, he writes. He criticizes the fact that the enjoyment of a temporally
unlimited, global right of hospitality and domicile cannot be distinguished from
colonialism. As examples for such a colonialism that is legitimized by the right of
hospitality, he mentions Africa and the East- and West-Indies.

The conflict, or rather the alliance, between colonialism and the right of hospitality
that Kant depicts, stems form Vitoria’s relectio de indis recenter inventis of 1539,
which deals with possible legitimizations of the Castilian conquista. In the first
instance, just like Kant later, Vitoria strengthened local sovereignty against colonialist
aspirations. This is why he got to be known as the „founder of the law of peoples“. In
order to justify conquista, he also developed a global right of hospitality and free
trade called ius communicationis. Vitoria’s argumentation allowed the Spaniards who
were in America to refer to their right of hospitality. If the Amerindians tried to expel
the Spanish, the latter would be able to defend their right of hospitality by a bellum
iustum, a ‚just war’.

In the lecture, it says: “To keep certain people out of the city or province as being
enemies, or to expel them when already there, are acts of war. (…) If the Indian
natives wish to prevent the Spaniards from enjoying any of their above-named rights
under the law of nations, for instance, trade or other above-named matter, the
Spaniards (…) can defend themselves and do all that consists with their own safety, it
being lawful to repel force by force.”

In Vitoria’s time, more simple forms of the legitimization of colonialism were used,
such as the Donation of Constantine in the requerimiento. In the early 17th century
however, in the work of the Dutchman Hugo Grotius, one can find a hint that, at least
within the realm of theory, Vitoria’s argument was employed.
Grotius writes: “Vitoria holds that, if the Spaniards should be prohibited by the
American Indians from travelling or residing among the latter, or if they should be
prevented from sharing in those things which are common property under the law of
nations or by custom — if, in short, if they should be barred from the practice of
commerce — these causes might serve them as just grounds for war against the
Indians […].”

Grotius, in turn, has a rather concrete political reason to quote this passage. He uses
Vitoria’s argument in his legal opinion de iure praedae. It was his intention to employ
this very argument against Spanish claims of a monopoly on trade. Taking Vitoria as
his starting-point, Grotius argued that the Dutch could wage a just war against the
Spanish if they hindered them from trading freely. Grotius, however, the father of the
legal principle of the ‘freedom of the seas’, restricted Vitoria’s ius communicationis to
a mere, temporally limited right to trade, similar to Kant.

In addition to Grotius, the topos of the right of hospitality was a common one to be
discussed within the early modern debate on international law. Bartolomé de las
Casas, Domingo de Soto and Samuel Pufendorf argued against it in the same manner
as later did Kant. It is therefore not surprising that Kant also takes up the subject.

In order to evaluate this contextualization for an interpretation of the ‘perpetual

peace’, it is crucial to understand why the right to hospitality was such an important
topos in that time. One answer to this includes the notion at the heart of Vitoria’s ius
communicationis: The communicatio, which is derived from the Aristotelian
anthropology of man as a zoon politikon. Following the Thomist/Aristotelian corporal
view of political communities, it follows also to regard the whole society of men as
one body, one corpus mysticum as it says in Dante and Aquinas. A right to travel
within this global body of mankind must have seemed natural to theorists of this
school of thought. Communitas – community – was closely linked to Communicatio,
which signified communication in the broadest possible sense. This surely also plays
a role in Kant.
But it doesn’t fully explain how the typical intrusive aspect of the right of hospitality
developed. A plausible candidate for this is the ius praedicandi, which Innocent IV
formulated in the 13th century. On the surface, Innocent – like Vitoria, later – granted
non-Christians the right to be the legitimate owners of their lands. But he also
demanded that they admit Christian missionaries. If they failed to admit the priests,
Christian rulers were allowed to punish non-Christians by leading a ‘just war’ against

Before Vitoria gave his lecture de indis in 1539, it was Innocent’s argument that had
foremost been used to justify conquista. One simply assumed the Amerindians would
have expelled missionaries in order to legitimate the use of force against them. One
finds this line of thought in John Mair, Palacios Rubios, Matias de Paz, and
Bartolomé de Las Casas, but also in official documents such as the Leyes de Burgos
of 1512.

When Vitoria uses the right of hospitality in order to reach a balance between a
superficial acknowledgement of extra-European sovereignty and a legitimization of
conquest, he secularizes the argument of Innocent IV. The global community of
believers according to European standards, which the ius preadicandi of Innocent
wanted to achieve, is thus transformed into a global community under a law of
peoples according to European standards, which the ius communicationis guarantees.

One understands immediately why the right of hospitality was such a fiercely
discussed topic during the time of Vitoria and Grotius, and still was when Kant was
writing. Being a secularization of the right of mission, the right of hospitality is not an
end in itself, but rather it is a right that signifies the inclusive principle of a global
community and is therefore its necessary condition. It was the eschatological aim of
Christianity to achieve the global community that the right of hospitality made

Although Kant limits the right of hospitality, he keeps the construction. It is even of
crucial importance to his concept. He perceives it as an instrument to achieve a global
legal community and as the necessary condition of such a community. He writes: The
right of hospitality was a “condition of the possibility of seeking to communicate”. In
the English translation, this contains an obvious memory of Vitoria’s ius
communicationis. In German, Kant writes Verkehr, which is a clear translation of the
term commercium that signifies all kinds of traffic and is often employed by Vitoria
and his followers.

For Kant, the global community that is founded on the right of hospitality serves in
turn as a legitimization for a global law in general and the right of hospitality as
Weltbürgerrecht in particular: „Since the narrower or wider community of the peoples
of the earth has developed so far that a violation of rights in one place is felt
throughout the world, the idea of a law of world citizenship is no high-flown or
exaggerated notion.“

Inasmuch as it naturally precedes global communication, the informal global

community is also a logical precondition for Kant’s „transcendental principle“ of
publicity, which regulates international treaties. Especially in the civilizing function,
which Kant grants to global publicity, a secularized idea of mission is apparent.

In the ‘perpetual peace’, there is a strong connection between the right of hospitality,
a global informal community, a global discourse and a global legal community. This
construction legitimates itself by reciprocal links between its parts. Without the
underlying teleology of Christian mission, one can not at all understand why a global
community and a global discourse is a desirable thing in the first place. In fact,
despite small episodes of Entanglement, Kant speaks of a global community that is
not mutual, but installed, driven, and dominated solely by Europeans. There is
absolutely no reason why this hegemonic structure should be protected by a universal

In fact, Kant himself is aware of this problem. He grants Japan and China the right to
protect their territories from traffic with the Europeans. But this remains an episode
within his larger universalistic design. The differences and antagonisms, which Kant
endorses on the surface, are not perceived as differences in themselves, to use
Derrida’s language, ends in themselves, to use the Kantian language, but rather means
to an end, differences that are meant to ultimately dissolve in the coming global
community. In the meantime they have to conform to the European model of global
law and participate in the global discourse that is run by Europeans.
Grotius and Libanius

Shortly after his treatment of the right of hospitality, Kant points out, why a global
community is inevitable in a providential scheme. Keeping in mind the insights so far,
the strategic place of this passage clearly demands a concept that is ontologically
strong enough to replace the Christian eschatology that justified mission. Kant finds it
in an ontology of difference that links trade and nature and culminates in a
providential design.

“Salt and iron were discovered.“, he writes. „These were perhaps the first articles of
commerce for the various peoples and were sought far and wide; in this way a
peaceful traffic among nations was established, and thus understanding, conventions,
and peaceable relations were established among the most distant peoples.“

According to Kant, difference in nature brings about different needs, which brings
about trade, which brings about traffic, which brings about international peaceable
relations. All this has no normative aspect to him, but is rather meant in an empirical
way. This is exactly why the argument is so strong.

It is however not original, but corresponds to a few similar ones from Kant’s time,
among others Montesquieu’s and Hume’s. It was a known topos of the time, normally
labelled as the ‚doux commerce’-hypothesis: The idea that trade ‚sweetens’ human
behaviour. It is however obvious that Kant’s version of the topos is particularly close
to that of the Dutch lawyer Hugo Grotius:

In Grotius’ Mare Liberum it says: “God himself speaketh this in nature, seeing he will
not have all those things, whereof the life of man standeth in need, to be sufficiently
ministered by nature in all places and also vouchsafeth some nations to excel others in
arts. To what end are these things but that he would maintain human friendship by
their mutual wants and plenty […].”
Grotius wrote this paragraph, as later did Kant, to strengthen his version of Vitoria’s
ius communicationis by a more illustrative argument. By doing so, Grotius seems to
implicitly quote an author who is much older: the Greek rhetorician Libanius. Ever
since the Latin translation of his texts by the Dutchman Erasmus of Rotterdam,
Libanius had been a part of the humanist canon. Grotius explicitly quotes him in other
places. Concerning the doux-commerce-hypothesis, it is therefore plausible that
Grotius paraphrased the following passage:

“The creator of the universe did not accord all things to all parts of the earth, but he
has divided his gifts among different countries, so that peoples should have need one
of the other, in order that from their mutual dependence they should be led to
maintain community together. Thus He has brought commerce into existence as a
means available to all the world of enjoying in common all things wherever they were

Because of the image of a sole creator-god, this passage is sometimes mentioned as a

proof for Christian influences in the text of the Stoic rhetorician Libanius. But this
passage also clearly reflects the purely Stoic idea of dioikesis. According to this
concept, there is a providential order inherent to the world: The reasonable creator
God has distributed the pieces of the world like pieces of a puzzle, with the
perspective of a whole design in mind – puzzle pieces, which would by themselves
tend to move to their right places. The global trade of different goods in this way
reflects the providential design of God, who created goods differently. This surely
was important to Grotius and Kant, who both owe a great deal to the Stoa. Clearly
Kant reflects this kind of providentialism in the ‘perpetual peace’.

But even more important is the concrete political context of this paragraph by
Libanius. The passage quoted stems from the Panegyric to the emperors Constans
and Constantius II from around the year 344. In this historical period, the Roman
Empire was cut in two, divided between Constans and Constantius II, who where both
sons of Constantine the great. According to the formal rules of the genre of the
panegyric, Libanius tries to praise this desperate situation. The text is thus mainly
occupied with euphemizing the breaking apart of the Roman Empire. Concerning
both Emperors, Libanius says for example: “The Empire may be divided in space, but
it is united in their mutual love.” This is not so wrong considering the good relations
between the two brothers. The third son of Constantine the great, however, had been
killed in a struggle between the brothers only four years before.

There are speculations about how far this speech is merely ironic. To contemporaries,
who knew about the factual problems of the empire, Libanius’s euphemization of its
division may have seemed comic. Obviously, it can surely not be understood as an
appreciation of difference as such or as an appreciation of the fact that there are
different peoples. It is rather a tragic, or tragi-comic attempt to save what is left to
save of the unity that once was, the disintegrated Roman Empire.

In Kant, this situation is not much different. He inherits the teleological concept of a
global community from the missionary approach and the providentialism from the
Stoa. From Libanius in particular, he inherits the ability to euphemize real existing
differences as forming part of a larger, providential design. The differences he seems
to endorse in fact only have value in as much as they can be of use in a larger, global,
economic unity. Especially since to him, the larger unity, which ‘cosmopolitical
providence’ produces, lies in the future, differences exist solely in the interim. Via
this eschatological delay, future economic unity also justifies existing economic
differences. Injustices concerning the unequal satisfaction of needs will be
harmonized in the end. Clearly, Libanius also influenced Smith’s and Mandeville’s
concept of the invisible hand.


Kant doesn’t need to rely on political coercion as a means to develop a global legal
community. It is rather the informal sector that fulfils this function: global discourse
and economy. In spite of the “soft” nature of this informal kind of power, the
inevitable dynamics Kant asserts for it is ontologically strong. Kant grounds it directly
in nature and presents it as an empirical insight, not as normative demand. This is
especially problematic, because, as was shown, Kant’s idea of a 'cosmopolitical
providence' owes much to Christian missionary eschatology and the Imperial idea.
His realist utopia is thus more utopian than realist. And it is exactly utopian and even
dystopian because it claims to be based upon empirical findings. This conception is
post-colonial inasmuch as Kant promotes a cultural and economic colonialism instead
of a political one.