The Law of Nations or the Principles of Natural Law (1758)

Emmerich de Vattel

Second Object of a Good Government; To Procure the True Happiness of the Nation

§ 110. A nation ought to labor after its own happiness.
LET us continue to lay open the principal objects of a good government. What we have said in the five preceding chapters relates to the care of providing for the necessities of the people, and procuring plenty in the state: this is a point of necessity; but it is not sufficient for the happiness of a nation. Experience shows that a people may be unhappy in the midst of all earthly enjoyments, and in the possession of the greatest riches. Whatever may enable mankind to enjoy a true and solid felicity, is a second object that deserves the most serious attention of the government. Happiness is the point where center all those duties which individuals and nations owe to themselves; and this is the great end of the law of nature. The desire of happiness is the powerful spring that puts man in motion: felicity is the end they all have in view, and it ought to be the grand object of the public will (Prelim. § 5). It is then the duty of those who form this public will, or of those who represent it — the rulers of the nation — to labor for the happiness of the people, to watch continually over it, and to promote it to the utmost of their power.

§ 111. Instruction.
To succeed in this, it is necessary to instruct the people to seek felicity where it is to be found; that is, in their own perfection, — and to teach them the means of obtaining it. The sovereign cannot, then, take too much pains in instructing and enlightening his people, and in forming them to useful knowledge and wise discipline. Let us leave a hatred of the sciences to the despotic tyrants of the east: they are afraid of having their people instructed, because they choose to rule over slaves. But though they are obeyed with the most abject submission, they frequently experience the effects of disobedience and revolt. A just and wise prince feels no apprehensions from the light of knowledge: he knows that it is ever advantageous to a good government. If men of learning know that liberty is the natural inheritance of mankind; on the other hand they are more fully sensible than their neighbors, how necessary it is, for their own advantage, that this liberty should be subject to a lawful authority: — incapable of being slaves, they are faithful subjects.

§ 112. Education of youth.
The first impressions made on the mind are of the utmost importance for the remainder of life. In the tender years of infancy and youth, the human mind and heart easily receive the seeds of good or evil. Hence the education of youth is one of the most important affairs that deserve the attention of the government. It ought not to be entirely left to fathers. The most certain way of forming good citizens is to found good establishments for public education, to provide them with able masters — direct them with prudence — and pursue such mild and suitable measures, that the citizens will not neglect to take advantage of them. How admirable was the education of the Romans, in the flourishing ages of their republic, and how admirably was it calculated to form great men! The young men put themselves under the patronage of some illustrious person; they frequented his house, accompanied him wherever he went, and equally improved by his instructions and example: their very sports and amusements were exercises proper to form soldiers. The same practice prevailed at Sparta; and this was one of the wisest institutions of the incomparable Lycurgus. That legislator and philosopher entered into the most minute details respecting the education of youth,1 being persuaded that on that depended the prosperity and glory of his republic.

§ 113. Arts and sciences.
Who can doubt that the sovereign — the whole nation — ought to encourage the arts and sciences? To say nothing of the many useful inventions that strike the eye of every beholder, — literature and the polite arts enlighten the mind and soften the manners: and if study does not always inspire the love of virtue, it is because it sometimes, and even too often, unhappily meets with an incorrigibly vicious heart. The nation and its conductors ought then to protect men of learning and great artists, and to call forth talents by honors and rewards. Let the friends of barbarism declaim against the sciences and polite arts; — let us, without deigning to answer their vain reasonings, content ourselves with appealing to experience. Let us compare England, France, Holland, and several towns of Switzerland and Germany, to the many regions that lie buried in ignorance, and see where we can find the greater number of honest men and good citizens. It would be a gross error to oppose against us the example of Sparta, and that of ancient Rome. They, it is true, neglected curious speculations, and those branches of knowledge and art that were purely subservient to pleasure and amusement; but the solid and practical sciences — morality, jurisprudence, politics, and war — were cultivated by them, especially by the Romans, with a degree of attention superior to what we bestow upon them.

In the present age, the utility of literature and the polite arts is pretty generally acknowledged, as is likewise the necessity of encouraging them. The immortal Peter I. thought that without their assistance he could not entirely civilize Russia, and render it flourishing. In England, learning and abilities lead to honor and riches. Newton was honored, protected, and rewarded while living, and after his death, his tomb was placed among those of kings. France also, in this respect, deserves particular praise; to the munificence of her kings she is indebted for several establishments that are no less useful than glorious. The Royal Academy of Sciences diffuses on every side the light of knowledge and the desire of instruction. Louis XV. furnished the means of sending to search, under the equator and the polar circle, for the proof of an important truth; and we at present know what was before only believed on the strength of Newton’s calculations. Happy will that kingdom be, if the too general taste of the age does not make the people neglect solid knowledge, to give themselves up to that which is merely amusing, and if those who fear the light do not succeed in extinguishing the blaze of science!

§ 114. Freedom of philosophical discussion.
I speak of the freedom of philosophical discussion, which is the soul of the republic of letters. What can genius produce, when trammeled by fear? Can the greatest man that ever lived contribute much towards enlightening the minds of his fellow-citizens, if he finds himself constantly exposed to the cavils of captious and ignorant bigots — if he is obliged to be continually on his guard, to avoid being accused by innuendo-mongers of indirectly attacking the received opinions? I know that liberty has its proper bounds — that a wise government ought to have an eye to the press, and not to allow the publication of scandalous productions, which attack morality, government, or the established religion. But yet, great care should be taken not to extinguish a light that may afford the state the most valuable advantages. Few men know how to keep a just medium; and the office of literary censor ought to be intrusted to none but those who are at once both prudent and enlightened. Why should they search in a book for what the author does not appear to have intended to put into it? And when a writer’s thoughts and discourses are wholly employed on philosophy, ought a malicious adversary to be listened to, who would set him at variance with religion? So far from disturbing a philosopher on account of his opinions, the magistrate ought to chastise those who publicly charge him with impiety, when in his writings he shows respect to the religion of the state. The Romans seem to have been formed to give examples to the universe. That wise people carefully supported the worship and religious ceremonies established by law, and left the field open to the speculations of philosophers. Cicero — a senator, a consul, an augur — ridicules superstition, attacks it, and demolishes it in his philosophical writings; and, in so doing, he thought he was only promoting his own happiness and that of his fellow citizens: but he observes that “to destroy superstition is not destroying religion; for,” says he, “it becomes a wise man to respect the institutions and religious ceremonies of his ancestors: and it is sufficient to contemplate the beauty of the world, and the admirable order of the celestial bodies, in order to be convinced of the existence of an eternal and all-perfect being, who is entitled to the veneration of the human race.”2 And in his Dialogues on the Nature of the Gods, he introduces Cotta the academic, who was high-priest, attacking with great freedom the opinions of the stoics, and declaring that he should always be ready to defend the established religion, from which he saw the republic had derived great advantages; that neither the learned nor the ignorant should make him abandon it: he then says to his adversary,” These are my thoughts, both as pontiff and as Cotta. But do you, as a philosopher, bring me over to your opinion by the strength of your arguments: for a philosopher ought to prove to me the truth of the religion he would have me embrace, whereas I ought in this respect to believe our forefathers, even without proof.”3

Let us add experience to these examples and authorities. Never did a philosopher occasion disturbances in the state, or in religion, by his opinions: they would make no noise among the people, nor ever offend the weak, if malice or intemperate zeal did not take pains to discover a pretended venom lurking in them. It is by him who endeavors to place the opinions of a great man in opposition to the doctrines and worship established by law, that the state is disturbed, and religion brought into danger.

§ 115. Love of virtue, and abhorrence of vice, to be excited.
To instruct the nation is not sufficient: — in order to conduct it to happiness, it is still more necessary to inspire the people with the love of virtue, and the abhorrence of vice. Those who are deeply versed in the study of morality are convinced that virtue is the true and only path that leads to happiness; so that its maxims are but the art of living happily; and he must be very ignorant of politics, who does not perceive how much more capable a virtuous nation will be, than any other, of forming a state that shall be at once, happy, tranquil, flourishing, solid, respected by its neighbors, and formidable to its enemies. The interest of the prince must then concur with his duty and the dictates of his conscience, in engaging him to watch attentively over an affair of such importance. Let him employ all his authority in order to encourage virtue, and suppress vice: let the public establishments be all directed to this end: let his own conduct, his example, and the distribution of favors, posts, and dignities, all have the same tendency. Let him extend his attention even to the private life of the citizens, and banish from the state whatever is only calculated to corrupt the manners of the people. It belongs to politics to teach him in detail the different means of attaining this desirable end — to show him those he should prefer, and those he ought to avoid on account of the dangers that might attend the execution, and the abuses that might be made of them. We shall here only observe, in general, that vice may be suppressed by chastisements, but that mild and gentle methods alone can elevate men to the dignity of virtue; it may be inspired, but it cannot be commanded.

§ 116. The nation may hence discover the intention of its rulers.
It is an incontestable truth, that the virtues of the citizens constitute the most happy dispositions that can be desired by a just and wise government. Here then is an infallible criterion, by which the nation may judge of the intentions of those who govern it. If they endeavor to render the great and the common people virtuous, their views are pure and upright; and you may rest assured that they solely aim at the great end of government — the happiness and glory of the nation. But if they corrupt the morals of the people, spread a taste for luxury, effeminacy, a rage for licentious pleasures — if they stimulate the higher orders to a ruinous pomp and extravagance — beware, citizens! beware of those corruptors! they only aim at purchasing slaves in order to exercise over them an arbitrary sway.

If a prince has the smallest share of moderation, he will never have recourse to these odious methods. Satisfied with his superior station and the power given him by the laws, he proposes to reign with glory and safety; ho loves his people, and desires to render them happy. But his ministers are in general impatient of resistance, and cannot brook the slightest opposition: if he surrenders to them his authority, they are more haughty and intractable than their master: they feel not for his people the same love that he feels: “let the nation be corrupted (say they) provided it do but obey.” They dread the courage and firmness inspired by virtue, and know that the distributor of favors rules as he pleases over men whose hearts are accessible to avarice. Thus a wretch who exercises the most infamous of all professions, perverts the inclinations of a young victim of her odious traffic; she prompts her to luxury and epicurism; she inspires her with voluptuousness and vanity, in order the more certainly to betray her to a rich seducer. This base and unworthy creature is sometimes chastised by the magistrate; but the minister, who is infinitely more guilty, wallows in wealth, and is invested with honor and authority. Posterity, however, will do him justice, and detest the corruptor of a respectable nation.

§ 117. The state, or the public person, ought to perfect its understanding and will.
If governors endeavored to fulfill the obligations which the law of nature lays upon them with respect to themselves, and in their character of conductors of the state, they would be incapable of ever giving into the odious abuse just mentioned. Hitherto we have considered the obligation a nation is under to acquire knowledge and virtue, or to perfect its understanding and will; — that obligation, I say, we have considered in relation to the individuals that compose a nation; it also belongs in a proper and singular manner to the conductors of the state. A nation, while she acts in common, or in a body, is a moral person (Prelim. § 2) that has an understanding and will of her own, and is not less obliged than any individual to obey the laws of nature (Book I. § 5), and to improve her faculties (Book I. § 21). That moral person resides in those who are invested with the public authority, and represent the entire nation. Whether this be the common council of the nation, an aristocratic body, or a monarch, this conductor and representative of the nation, this sovereign of whatever kind, is therefore indispensably obliged to procure all the knowledge and information necessary to govern well, and to acquire the practice and habit of all the virtues suitable to a sovereign.

And as this obligation is imposed with a view to the public welfare, he ought to direct all his knowledge, and all his virtues, to the safety of the state, the end of civil society.

§ 118. And to direct the knowledge and virtues of the citizens to the welfare of the society.
He ought even to direct, as much as possible, all the abilities, the knowledge, and the virtues of the citizens to this great end; so that they may not only be useful to the individuals who possess them, but also to the state. This is one of the great secrets in the art of reigning. The state will be powerful and happy, if the good qualities of the subject, passing beyond the narrow sphere of private virtues, become civic virtues. This happy disposition raised the Roman republic to the highest pitch of power and glory.

§ 119. Love for their country.
The grand secret of giving to the virtues of individuals a turn so advantageous to the state, is to inspire the citizens with an ardent love for their country. It will then naturally follow, that each will endeavor to serve the state, and to apply all his powers and abilities to the advantage and glory of the nation. This love of their country is natural to all men. The good and wise Author of nature has taken care to bind them, by a kind of instinct, to the places where they received their first breath, and they love their own nation, as a thing with which they are intimately connected. But it often happens that some causes unhappily weaken or destroy this natural impression. The injustice or the severity of the government too easily effaces it from the hearts of the subjects; can self-love attach an individual to the affairs of a country where every thing is done with a view to a single person? — far from it: — we see, on the contrary, that free nations are passionately interested in the glory and the happiness of their country. Let us call to mind the citizens of Rome in the happy days of the republic, and consider, in modern times, the English and the Swiss.

§ 120. In individuals.
The love and affection a man feels for the state of which he is a member, is a necessary consequence of the wise and rational love he owes to himself, since his own happiness is connected with that of his country. This sensation ought also to flow from the engagements he has entered into with society. He has promised to procure its safety and advantage as far as in his power: and how can he serve it with zeal, fidelity, or courage, if he has not a real love for it?

§ 121. In the nation or state itself, and in the sovereign.
The nation in a body ought doubtless to love itself, and desire its own happiness as a nation. The sensation is too natural to admit of any failure in this obligation: but this duty relates more particularly to the conductor, the sovereign, who represents the nation, and acts in its name. He ought to love it as what is most dear to him, to prefer it to every thing, for it is the only lawful object of his care, and of his actions, in every thing he does by virtue of the public authority. The monster who does not love his people is no better than an odious usurper, and deserves, no doubt, to be hurled from the throne. There is no kingdom where the statue of Codrus ought not to be placed before the palace of the sovereign. That magnanimous king of Athens sacrificed his life for his people.4 That great prince and Louis XII, are illustrious models of the tender love a sovereign owes to his subjects.

§ 122. Definition of the term country.
The term, country, seems to be pretty generally known: but as it is taken in different senses, it may not be unuseful to give it here an exact definition. It commonly signifies the State of which one is a member: in this sense we have used it in the preceding sections; and it is to be thus understood in the law of nations.

In a more confined sense, and more agreeably to its etymology, this term signifies the state, or even more particularly the town or place where our parents had their fixed residence at the moment of our birth. In this sense, it is justly said, that our country cannot be changed, and always remains the same, to whatsoever place we may afterwards remove. A man ought to preserve gratitude and affection for the state to which he is indebted for his education, and of which his parents were members when they gave him birth. But as various lawful reasons may oblige him to choose another country, — that is, to become a member of another society; so. when we speak in general of the duty to our country, the term is to be understood as meaning the state of which a man is an actual member; since it is the latter, in preference to every other state, that he is bound to serve with his utmost efforts.

§ 123. How shameful and criminal to injure our country.
If every man is obliged to entertain a sincere love for his country, and to promote its welfare as far as in his power, it is a shameful and detestable crime to injure that very country. He who becomes guilty of it, violates his most sacred engagements, and sinks into base ingratitude: he dishonors himself by the blackest perfidy, since he abuses the confidence of his fellow-citizens, and treats as enemies those who had a right to expect his assistance and services. We sec traitors to their country only among those men who are solely sensible to base interest, who only seek their own immediate advantage, and whose hearts are incapable of every sentiment of affection for others. They are, therefore, justly detested by mankind in general, as the most infamous of all villains.

§ 124. The glory of good citizens.5 Examples.
On the contrary, those generous citizens are loaded with honor and praise, who, not content with barely avoiding a failure in duly to their country, make noble efforts in her favor, and are capable of making her the greatest sacrifices. The names of Brutus, Curtius, and the two Decii, will live as long as that of Rome. The Swiss will never forget Arnold de Winkelried, that hero, whose exploit would have deserved to be transmitted to posterity by the pen of a Livy. He truly devoted his life for his country’s sake: but he devoted it as a general, as an undaunted warrior, not as a superstitious visionary. That nobleman, who was of the country of Underwald, seeing, at the battle of Sempach, that his countrymen could not break through the Austrians, because the latter, armed cap-a-pie, had dismounted and forming a close battalion, presented a front covered with steel, and bristling with pikes and lances, — formed the generous design of sacrificing himself for his country. “My friends,” said he to the Swiss, who began to be dispirited, ” I will this day give my life to procure you the victory: I only recommend to you my family: follow me, and act in consequence of what you see me do.” At these words he ranged them in that form which the Romans called cuneus, and placing himself in the point of the triangle, marched to the center of the enemy, when, embracing between his arms as many of the enemy’s pikes as he could compass, he threw himself to the ground, thus opening for his followers a passage to penetrate into the midst of this thick battalion. The Austrians, once broken, were conquered, as the weight of their armor then became fatal to them, and the Swiss obtained a complete victory.6


     1.    See Xenophon, Lacedæmon. Respublica.
     2.    Nam, ut vere loquamur, superstitio fusa per gentes oppressit omnium fere animos, atque omnium imbecillitatem occupavit…. multum enim et nobismet ipsis et nostris profuturi videbamur, si eam funditus sustulissemus. Nec vero (id enim diligenter intelligi volo) superstitione tollendâ religio tollitur. Nam et majorum instituta tueri, sacris cæremonilsque retinendis, sapientis est: et esse præstantem aliquam æternamque naturam, et eam suspiciendam, admirandamque hominum generi, pulchritudo mundi, ordoque coelstium cogit confiteri. De Divinatione, lib. ii.
     3.    Harum ego religionem nullam unquam contemnendam putavi: mihique ita persuasi, Romulum auspiciis, Numam sacris constitutis, fundamenta jecisse nostræ civitatis, quæ nunquam profecto sine summa placatione Deorum immortalium tanta esse potjisset Habes, Balbe, quid Cotta, quid pontifex sentiat. Fac nunc ego intelligam, quid tu sentias: a te enim philosophe rationem accipere debeo religionis; majoribus autem nostris, etiam nulla ratione reddita, credere. De Natura Decorum, lib. iii.
     4.    His country being attacked by the Heraclidæ, he consulted the oracle of Apollo; and being answered, that the people whose chief should be slain should remain victorious, Codrus disguised himself, and rushing into the battle, was killed by one or the enemy’s soldiers.
     5.    See observations, post, § 190, p. 92. — C.
     6.    This affair happened in the year 1386. The Austrian army consisted of four thousand chosen men, among whom were a great number of princes, counts and nobility of distinguished rank, all armed from head to foot. The Swiss were no more than thirteen hundred men. ill armed. In this battle, the duke of Austria perished, with two thousand of his forces, in which number were six hundred and seventy-six noblemen of the best families in Germany. History of the Helvetic Confederacy, by De Wateville, vol. i. p. 183. — Tschudl — Etterlln. — Schodeler. — Ræbman. — (See the national consequences of this valor, stated post. § 190, pp. 92-3.)