Secularizing Ontology: Hugo Grotius into the land of conquest

Secularizing Ontology: Hugo Grotius into the land of conquest

The famous argument of “even if God did not exist” is often considered a key moment not only in the process of secularization between natural laws and their traditional theological foundation in God, but also (more generally conceived) between Christian belief and Western modern culture. Originally exposed by the father of Modern Natural Law, the Calvinist Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) in 1625, this argument seems to show one of its possible backgrounds in the relationship with the ontologies of some Reformed Calvinists of that time.

In a letter sent to the Ambassador of France in Den Haag, Bejamin Aubery du Maurier (1566–1636), dated 13th May 1615, Grotius actually suggested studying metaphysics through reading the metaphysical work of the Reformed Clemens Timpler (1563/4–1624): “After physics, I recommend you to taste a bit of metaphysics, that is, the first philosophy: who could offer you something delightful, is Timpler, whose book [e.g., on metaphysics] is not at all lengthy or obscure”.

According to Timpler’s metaphysics (properly renamed “ontology” by the Calvinist Jacob Lorhard in 1606), ontology is the science of “all that is intelligible”, formally presenting itself as a general and “neutral” science of reality. As a consequence, ontology could also be presented as a science independent of every confessional issue and any influence of a (particular) theology, thus promoting a significant secularization of metaphysics from theology.

Free from its link with theology, ontology nonetheless becomes incapable of preserving the status of universal, autonomous, and neutral science that it had wanted to be, offering itself as a sort of “conquered land,” co-opted by other particular and “regional” sciences, such as physics, mathematics, etc.

This is just one of the topics that will be explored in the “Modern Philosophy and Christianity” course in this Master’s program.


Article written by Marco Lamanna