The Principles of Natural and Politic Law (1748)

Jean Jacques Burlamaqui

Continuation of the principles, relative to the nature of man. Of will and liberty.

I. IT was not sufficient, pursuant to the views of the Creator, that the human mind should be possessed of the faculty of knowing things, and of forming thereof ideas; it was likewise requisite, it should be endowed with an active principle to set it in motion, and with a power whereby man, after knowing the objects, that occur to him, should be capable of determining to act, or not to act, according, as he judges proper. This faculty is what we call the will.

The will is therefore nothing else but that power of the soul, by which it is determined of itself, and by virtue of an active principle inherent in its nature, to seek for what is agreeable to it, to act after a certain manner, and to do or to omit an action with a view of happiness.

By Happiness we are to understand the internal satisfaction of the mind, arising from the possession of good; and by good, whatever is suitable or agreeable to man for his preservation, perfection, conveniency, or pleasure. The idea of good determines that of evil, which, in its most general signification, implies whatever is opposite to the preservation, perfection, conveniency, or pleasure of man.

II. Instincts, inclinations, and passions, are reducible to the will. Instincts are sentiments, excited in the soul by the wants of the body, which determine it to provide immediately against them. Such are hunger, thirst, aversion for whatever is hurtful etc. Inclinations are propensities of the will, which leads it rather toward some sorts of objects, than others, but in an even, tranquil manner; a manner so proportioned to all its operations, that, instead of obstructing or interrupting, it generally facilitates them. As for the passions, they are indeed in the same manner, as the inclinations, motions of the will towards certain objects, but motions of a more impetuous and turbulent kind, motions, that dispossess the soul of its natural tranquility, and hinder it from directing properly its operations. Then it is that the passions become most dangerous distempers. The cause of the passions is generally the allurement of some sensible good, which solicits the soul, and impels it with too violent an impression.

It is easy to conceive, by what has been here said, that the inclinations, passions, and instincts, have a very great affinity with one another. They are all alike propensities or motions, which have frequently the same objects; but there is this difference between these species of emotions, that instincts are necessarily the same in all men, by a natural consequence of their constitution, and of the union between the body and the soul; whereas the inclinations and passions, particularly considered, have nothing necessary in their nature, and are surprisingly different in different men.

Let us make an observation here, which falls in very naturally; it is, that we often give the name of Heart to the will, considered as susceptible of the forementioned emotions; and the reason of this in all probability is, because these emotions were supposed to have their seat in the heart.

III. Such is the nature of the soul, that the will not only acts always spontaneously, that is, of its own proper motion, of its own accord, and by an internal principle; but likewise, that its determinations are generally accompanied with liberty.

We give the name of liberty to that force or power of the soul, whereby it modifies and regulates its operations as it pleases, so as to be able to suspend, continue, or alter its deliberations and actions; in a word, so as to be able to determine and act with choice, according as it thinks proper. It is by this excellent faculty, that man has a kind of command over himself and his actions; and as be is hereby rendered also capable of conforming to rule, and answerable for his conduct, it is therefore necessary to give a further explication of the nature of this faculty.

Will and liberty being faculties of the soul, they cannot be blind or destitute of knowledge but necessarily suppose the operation of the understanding. How is it possible in fact to determine, suspend, or alter our resolutions, unless we know what is proper for us to choose? It is contrary to the nature of an intelligent and rational being to act without intellection and reason. This reason may be either superficial or bad; yet it has some appearance at least, some glimmering, that makes us give it a momentary approbation. Wherever there is election or choice, there must be a comparison, and a comparison implies at least a confused reflection, a kind of deliberation, though of a quick and almost imperceptible nature, on the subject before us.

The end of our deliberations is to procure us some advantage. For the will tends generally towards good, that is, to whatsoever is really or apparently proper for rendering us happy; insomuch, that all actions depending on man, and that are any way relative to his end, are for this very reason subject to the will. And as truth, or the knowledge of things, is agreeable to man; and in this signification truth is also a good, it follows that truth forms one of the principal objects of the will.

Liberty, like the will, has goodness and truth for its object; but it has less extent with regard to actions; for it does not exercise itself in all the acts of the will, but only in those, which the soul has a power of suspending or altering, as she pleases.

IV. But if any one should inquire, which are those acts, wherein liberty displays itself? We answer, that they are easily known by attending to what passes within us, and to the manner, in which the mind conducts itself in the several cases, that daily occur; as, in the first place, in our judgments concerning true and false; secondly, in our determinations in relation to good and evil; and finally in indifferent matters. These particulars are necessary, in order to be acquainted with the nature, use, and extent of liberty.

With regard to truth we are formed in such a manner, that, so soon as evidence strikes the mind, we are no longer at liberty to suspend our judgment. Vain would be the attempt to resist this sparkling light; it absolutely forces our assent. Who, for example, could pretend to deny that the whole is greater than a part, or that harmony and peace are preferable, either in a family or state, to discord, tumults, and war?

The same cannot be affirmed in regard to things, that have less perspicuity and evidence; for in these the use of liberty displays itself in its full extent. It is true our mind inclines naturally to that side, which seems the most probable; but this does not debar it from suspending its assent, in order to seek for new proofs, or to refer the whole inquiry to another opportunity. The obscurer things are, the more we are at liberty to hesitate, to suspend, or defer our determination. This is a point sufficiently evinced by experience. Every day, and at every step as it were, disputes arise, in which the arguments on both sides leave us, by reason of our limited capacity, in a kind of doubt and equilibrium, which permits us to suspend our judgment, to examine the thing anew, and to incline the balance at length to one side rather than to the other. We find, for example, that the mind can hesitate a long time, and forbear determining itself, even after a mature inquiry, in respect to the following questions. Whether an oath, extorted by violence, is obligatory? Whether the murder of Cæsar was lawful?

Whether the Roman senate could with justice refuse to confirm the promise, made by the Consuls to the Samnites, in order to extricate themselves from the Caudine Forks; or whether they ought to have ratified and given it the force of a public treaty? etc.

V. Though there is no exercise of liberty in our judgment, when things present themselves to us in a clear and distinct manner; still we must not imagine, that the intire use of this faculty ceases in respect to things, that are evident. For, in the first place, it is always in our power to apply our minds to the consideration of those things, or else to divert them thence, by transfering somewhere else our attention. This first determination of the will, by which it is led to consider or not to consider the objects, that occur to us, merits particular notice, because of the natural influence it must have on the determination, by which we conclude to act or not to act, in consequence of our reflection and judgment. Secondly, we have it likewise in our power to create, as it were, evidence in some cases, by dint of attention and inquiry; whereas, at first sitting out, we had only some glimmerings, insufficient to give us an adequate knowledge of the state of things. In fine, when we have attained this evidence, we are still at liberty to dwell more or less on the consideration thereof; which is also of great consequence, because on this depends its greater or less degree of impression.


These remarks lead us to an important reflection, which may serve for answer to an objection, raised against liberty. “It is not in our power (say they) to perceive things otherwise, than as they offer themselves to our mind; now our judgments are formed on this perception of things, and it is by these judgments, that the will is determined, the whole is therefore necessary and independent of liberty.”


But this difficulty carries little more with it, than an empty appearance. Let people say what they will, we are always at liberty to open, or to shut our eyes to the light; to exert, or relax our attention. Experience shows, that when we view an object in different lights, and determine to search into the bottom of matters, we descry several things, that escaped us at first sight. This is sufficient to prove, that there is an exercise of liberty in the operations of the understanding as well, as in the several actions thereon depending.

VI. The second question, we have to examine, is whether we are equally free in our determinations in regard to good and evil.

To decide this point, we need not stir out of ourselves; for here also by facts, and even by our internal experience, the question may be determined. Certain it is, that in respect to good and evil, considered in general, and as such, we cannot properly speaking exercise our liberty, by reason that we feel ourselves drawn towards the one by an invincible propensity, and estranged from the other by a natural and insuperable aversion. Thus it has been ordered by the Author of our being, whilst man has no power in this respect to change his nature. We are formed in such a manner, that good of necessity allures us; whereas evil, by an opposite effect, repels us, as it were, and deters us from attempting to pursue it.

But this strong tendency to good, and natural aversion to evil in general does not debar us from being perfectly free in respect to good and evil, particularly considered; and though we cannot help being sensible of the first impressions, which the objects make on us, yet this does not invincibly determine us to pursue, or shun those objects. Let the most beautiful and most fragrant fruit, replenished with exquisite and delicious Juice, be unexpectedly set before a person, oppressed with thirst and heat; he will find himself instantly inclined to seize on the blessing offered to him, and to ease his inquietude by a salutary refreshment. But he can also stop and suspend his action, in order to examine whether the good, he proposes to himself, by eating this fruit, will not be attended with evil; in short, he is at liberty to weigh and deliberate, in order to embrace the safest side of the question. Besides, we are not only able, with the assistance of reason, to deprive ourselves of a thing, whose flattering idea invites us; but moreover we are able to expose ourselves to a chagrin or pain, which we dread, and would willingly avoid, were we not induced by superior considerations to support it. Can any one desire a stronger proof of liberty?

VII. True it is notwithstanding, that the exercise of this faculty never displays itself more, than in indifferent things. I find, for instance, that it depends intirely on myself to stretch out, or draw back my hand; to sit down or to walk, to direct my steps to the right or left, etc. On these occasions, where the soul is left intirely to itself, either for want of external motives, or by reason of the opposition, and as it were equilibrium of motives, if it determine on one side, this may be said to be the pure effect of its pleasure and good will, and of the command it has over its own actions.

VIII. Let us stop here awhile to inquire, how comes it that the exercise of this power is limited to particular goods and nonevident truths, without extending itself to good in general, or to such truths, as are perfectly clear. Should we happen to discover the reason thereof, it will furnish us with a new reason to admire the wisdom of the Creator in the constitution of man, and with the means at the same time of being better acquainted with the end and true use of liberty.

And first we hope there is nobody but will admit, that the end of God in creating man was to render him happy. Upon this supposition it will be soon agreed, that man cannot attain to happiness any other way, than by the knowledge of truth, and by tile possession of real good. This is evidently the result of the notions above given of good and happiness. Let us therefore direct our reflections towards this prospect. When things, that are the object of our researches, present themselves to our minds with a feeble light, and are not accompanied with that splendor and clearness, which enables us to know them perfectly, and to judge of them with full certainty; it is proper and even necessary for us to be invested with a power of suspending our judgment; to the end that, being necessarily determined to acquiesce in the first impression, we should be still at liberty to carry on our inquiry, till we arrive to a higher degree of certainty, and, if possible, as far, as evidence itself. Were not this the case, we should be exposed every moment to error, without any possibility of being undeceived. It was therefore extremely useful and necessary to man, that under such circumstances he should have the use and exercise of his liberty.

But when we happen to have a clear and distinct view of things and their relations, that is when evidence strikes us, it would be of no manner of signification to have the use of liberty, in order to suspend our judgment. For certainty being then in its very highest degree, what benefit should we reap by a new examen or inquiry, were it in our power? We have no longer occasion to consult a guide, when we see distinctly the end, we are tending to, and the road, we are to take. It is therefore an advantage to man to be unable to refuse his assent to evidence.

IX. Let us reason pretty near in the same manner on the use of liberty with respect to good and evil. Man, designed for happiness, should certainly have been formed in such a manner, as to find himself under an absolute necessity of desiring and pursuing good, and of shunning on the contrary evil in general. Were the nature of these faculties such, as to leave him in a state of indifference, so as to be at liberty in this respect to suspend or alter his desires, plain it is, that this would be esteemed a very great imperfection in him; an imperfection, that would imply a want of wisdom in the Author of his being, as a thing directly opposite to the end, he proposed, in giving him life.

No less an inconveniency would it be, on the other hand, were the necessity, which man is under, of pursuing good and avoiding evil to be such, as would insuperably determine him to act, or not to act, in consequence of the impressions, made on him by each object. Such is the state of human things, that we are frequently deceived by appearances; it is very rare that good or evil presents itself to us pure and without mixture; but there is almost always a favorable, and an adverse side, an inconveniency mixt with utility. In order to act therefore with safety, and not to be mistaken in our account, it is generally incumbent on us to suspend our first motions, to examine more closely into things, to make distinctions, calculations, and compensations; all which require the use of liberty. Liberty is therefore, as it were, a subsidiary faculty, which supplies the deficiencies of the other powers, and whose office ceaseth as soon, as it has redressed them.

Hence let us conclude, that man is provided with all the necessary means for attaining to the end for which he is designed; and that in this, as in every other respect, the Creator has acted with wonderful wisdom.

X. After what has been said concerning the nature, operations, and use of liberty, it may seem perhaps unnecessary to attempt here to prove that man is indeed a free agent, and that we are as really invested with this, as with any other faculty.

Nevertheless, as it is an essential principle, and one of the fundamental supports of our edifice, it is proper to make the reader sensible of the indubitable proof, with which we are furnished by daily experience. Let us therefore consult only ourselves. Every one finds that he is master, for instance, to walk or sit; to speak, or hold his tongue. Do we not also experience continually, that it depends intirely on ourselves to suspend our judgment, in order to proceed to a new inquiry? Can any one seriously deny, that, in the choice of good and evil, our resolutions are unconstrained? That, notwithstanding the first impression, we have it In our power to stop of a sudden, to weigh the arguments on both sides, and to do in short wherever can be expected from the freest agent? Were I invincibly drawn towards one particular good rather than another, I should feel then the same impression, as that, which inclines me to do good in general, that is, an impression, that would necessarily drag me along, an impression, which there would be no possibility of resisting. Now experience makes me feel no such violence with respect to any particular good. I find I can abstain from it; I can defer using it; I can prefer something else to it; I can hesitate in my choice; in short, I am my own master to choose; or, which is the same thing, I am free.

Should we be asked, how comes it, that, not being free in respect to good in general, yet we are at liberty with regard to particular goods? My answer is, that the natural desire of happiness does not insuperably draw us towards any particular good, because no particular good includes that happiness, for which we have a necessary inclination.

Sensible proofs, like these, are superior to all objection, and productive of the most inward conviction, by reason it is impossible, that, when the soul is modified after a certain manner, it should not feel this modification, and the state, which consequently attends it. What other certainty have we of our existence? And how is it, we know that we think, we act, but by our inward sense?

This sense of liberty is so much the less equivocal, as it is not momentary or transient. It is a sense, that never leaves us, and of which we have a daily and a continual experience.

Thus we see there is nothing better established in life, than the strong persuasion, which all mankind have of liberty. Let us consider the system of humanity, either in general or particular, we shall find that the whole is built upon this principle. Reflections, deliberations, researches, actions judgments, all suppose the use of liberty. Hence the ideas of good and evil, of vice and virtue. Hence, as a natural consequence, arises praise or blame, the censure or approbation of our own, or other people’s conduct. The same may be said of the affections and natural sentiments of men towards one another, as friendship, benevolence, gratitude, hatred, anger, complaints, and reproaches. None of these sentiments could take place, unless we were to admit of liberty. In fine, as this prerogative is in some measure the key of the human system, he, who does not allow it to man, subverts all order, and introduces general confusion.

XI. It is natural here to inquire, how it was ever possible for any body seriously to doubt, whether man is master of his actions, whether he is free? I should be less surprized at this doubt, were it concerning a strange or remote fact; a fact, that was not transacted within ourselves. But the question is in regard to a thing, of which we have an internal, immediate feeling, a constant and daily experience. Strange, that any one should call in question a faculty of the soul! may not we as well doubt of the understanding and will, as of the liberty of man? For, if we are content to abide by our inward sense, there is no more room to dispute of one, than of the other. But some too subtle philosophers, by considering this subject in a metaphysical light, have stript it, as it were, of its nature; and, finding themselves at a loss to solve a few difficulties, they have given a greater attention to these difficulties, than to the positive proofs of the thing; which insensibly led them to imagine, that the notion of liberty was all an illusion. I own it is necessary, in the research of truth, to consider an object on every side, and to balance equally the arguments for and against; nevertheless we must take care, we do not give to those objections more than their real weight. We are informed by experience, that in several things, which in respect to us are invested with the highest degree of certainty, there are many difficulties notwithstanding, which we are incapable of resolving to our satisfaction; and this is a natural consequence of the limits of the mind. Let us conclude therefore that when a truth is sufficiently evinced by solid reasons, whatever can be objected against it ought not to stagger or weaken our conviction, so long as they are such difficulties only, as embarrass or puzzle the mind, without invalidating the proofs themselves This rule is so very useful in the study of the sciences, that one should keep it always in sight.1 Let us resume now the thread of our reflections.

XII. The denomination of voluntary or human actions In general is given to all those, that depend on the will; and that of free, to such, as come within the jurisdiction of liberty, which the soul can suspend or turn as it pleases. The opposite of voluntary is involuntary; and the contrary of free is necessary, or whatever is done by force or constraint. All human actions are voluntary, inasmuch as there are none, but what proceed from ourselves, and of which we are the authors. But if violence, used by an external force, which we are unable to resist, hinders us from acting, or makes us act without the consent of our will; as when a person stronger than ourselves lays hold of our arm to strike or wound another person, the action thence resulting, being involuntary, is not properly speaking our deed or action, but that of the agent, from whom we suffer this violence.

The same cannot be said of actions, that are forced and constrained, only as we are determined to commit them, through fear of a great and imminent evil, with which we are menaced; as for instance, were an unjust and cruel prince to oblige a judge to condemn an innocent person, by menacing to put him to death if he did not obey his orders. Actions of this sort, though forced in some sense, because we commit them with reluctancy, and would never consent to them, were it not for a very pressing necessity; such actions, I say, are ranked nevertheless among the number of voluntary actions, because, after all, they are produced by a deliberation of the will which chuses between two inevitable evils, and determines to prefer the least to the greatest. This will become more intelligible by a few examples.

A person gives alms to a poor man, who exposes his wants and misery to him; this action is at the same time both voluntary and free. But suppose a man who travels alone and unarmed, falls into the hards of robbers, and that these miscreants menace him with instant death, unless he gives them all he has; the surrender, which this traveller makes of his money in order to save his life, is indeed a voluntary action, but constrained at the same time, and void of liberty. For which reason there are some, that distinguish these actions by the name of mixt,2 as partaking of the voluntary and involuntary. They are voluntary because the principle, that produces them is in the agent itself, and the will determines to commit them as the least of two evils. But they partake of the involuntary, because the will executes them contrary to its inclination, which it would never do, could it find any other expedient to clear itself of the dilemma.

Another necessary elucidation is, that we are to suppose that the evil, with which we are menaced, is considerable enough to make a reasonable impression on a prudent or wise man, so far as to intimidate him; and besides, that the person, who compels us, has no right to restrain our liberty; insomuch that we do not lie under an obligation of bearing with any hardship or inconveniency, rather than displease him. Under these circumstances, reason would have us determine to suffer the less evil, supposing at least, that they are both inevitable. This kind of constraint lays us under what is called a moral necessity; whereas, when we are absolutely compelled to act without being able, in any shape whatsoever, to avoid it, this is termed a physical necessity.

It is therefore a necessary point of philosophical exactness to distinguish between voluntary and free. In fact it is easy to comprehend, by what has been now said, that all free actions are indeed voluntary, but all voluntary actions are not free. Nevertheless, the common and vulgar way of speaking frequently confounds those two terms, of which we ought to take particular notice, in order to avoid all ambiguity.

We give likewise the name of manners sometimes to free actions, inasmuch as the mind considers them as susceptible of rule. Hence we call morality the art, which teaches the rules of conduct, and the method of conforming our actions to those rules.

XIII. We shall finish what relates to the faculties of the soul by some remarks, which will help us to understand better their nature and use.

1. Our faculties assist one another in their operations, and, when they are all united in the same subject, they act always jointly. We have already observed that the will supposes the understanding, and that the light of reason serves for a guide to liberty. Thus the understanding, the will, and liberty; the senses, the imagination, and memory; the instincts, inclinations, and passions; are like so many different springs, which concur all to produce a particular effect; and it is by this united concurrence we attain at length to the knowledge of truth, and the possession of solid good, on which our perfection and happiness depends.

XIV. 2. But in order to procure to ourselves those advantages, it is not only necessary that our faculties be well constituted in themselves, but moreover we ought to make a good use of them, and maintain the natural subordination, there is between them and the different morions, which lead us towards, or divert us from certain objects. It is not therefore sufficient to know the common and natural state of our faculties, we should likewise be acquainted with their state of perfection, and know in what their real use consists. Now truth being, as we have seen, the proper object of the understanding, the perfection of this faculty is to have a distinct knowledge of truth; at least of those important truths, which concern our duty and happiness. For such a purpose, this faculty should be formed to close attention, a just discernment, and solid reasoning. The understanding thus perfected, and considered as having actually the principles, which enable us to know and to distinguish the true and useful, is what is properly called reason; and hence it is that we are apt to speak of reason, as of a light of the mind, and as of a rule, by which we ought always to be directed, in our judgments and actions.

If we consider in like manner the will in its state of perfection, we shall find it consists in the force and habit of determining always right, that is, not to desire any thing, but what reason dictates, and not to make use of our liberty, but in order to chuse the best. This sage direction of the will is properly called Virtue, and sometimes goes by the name of Reason. And, as the perfection of the soul depends on the mutual succours, which the faculties, considered in their most perfect state, lend to one another, we understand likewise sometimes by reason, taken in a more vague, and more extensive sense, the soul itself, considered with all its faculties, and as making actually a good use of them. Thus the term reason carries with it always an idea of perfection, which is sometimes applied to the soul in general, and at other times to some of the faculties in particular.

XV. 3. The faculties, of which we were treating, are common to all mankind; but they are not found always in the same degree, neither are they determined after the same manner. Besides, they have their periods in every man; that is, their increase, perfection, infeebling, and decay, in the same manner almost as the organs of the body. They vary likewise exceedingly in different men. One has a brighter understanding; another a quicker sensation; this man has a strong imagination; while another is swayed by violent passions. And all this is combined and diversified in an infinite number of ways, according to the difference of temperaments, education, examples, and occasions, that furnish opportunities for exercising certain faculties or inclinations, rather than others; for it is the exercise, that strengthens them more or less. Such is the source of that prodigious variety of geniuses, tastes, and habits, which constitutes what we call the characters and manners of men; a variety, which, considered in general, very far from being unserviceable, is of great use in the views of providence.

XVI. But, whatever strength may be attributed to the inclinations, passions, and habits, still it is necessary to observe, that they have never enough to impel man invincibly to act contrary to reason. Reason has it always in her power to preserve her superiority and rights. She is able, with care and application, to correct vicious dispositions, to prevent and even to extirpate bad habits; to bridle the most unruly passions by sage precautions, to weaken them by degrees, and finally to destroy them entirely, or to reduce them within their proper bounds. This is sufficiently proved by the inward feeling, that every man has of the liberty, with which he determines to follow this sort of impressions; proved by the secret reproaches, we make to ourselves, when we have been too much swayed by them; proved, in fine, by an infinite variety of examples. True it is, that there is some difficulty in surmounting these obstacles; but this is richly compensated by the glory attending so noble a victory, and by the solid advantages thence arising.


   1.    There is a wide difference between seeing that a thing is absurd, and not knowing all, that regards it; between an unanswerable question in relation to a truth, and an unanswerable objection against it; though a great many confound these two sorts of difficulties. Those only of the latter order are able to prove, that what was taken for a known truth cannot be true, because otherwise some absurdity must ensue. But the others prove nothing, but the ignorance we are under in relation to several things that regard a known truth. Bibliota. Raison. Tom. 7. p. 346.
   2.    See Puffendorf on the law of nature and nations, book i. chap. iv. § 9.