The Principles of Natural and Politic Law (1748)

Jean Jacques Burlamaqui

That man ought to square his conduct by rule; the method of finding out this rule; and the foundations of right in general.

LET us begin with an explication of the terms. A rule, in its proper signification, is an instrument, by means of which we draw the shortest line from one point to another, which for this very reason is called a straight line.

In a figurative and moral sense, a rule imports nothing else, but a principle, or maxim, which furnishes man with a sure and concise method of attaining to the end, he proposes.

II. The first thing we are to inquire in regard to this subject1 is, whether it is really agreeable to the nature of man to submit his actions to a fixt and invariable rule? Or whether, on the contrary, he is allowed to abandon himself indifferently to all the motions of his will, and thus to enjoy, without either limit or impediment, the extreme facility, with which this faculty turns itself on all sides, in consequence of its natural flexibility?

The reflections, we have given in the preceding chapters, are of themselves, and independent of any other argument, a sufficient and convincing proof, that the nature and constitution of man requires the establishment of some rule. Every thing in nature has its destination and end; and consequently, each creature is conducted to its end by a proper principle of direction. Man, who holds a considerable rank among the beings that surround him, participates undoubtedly of this fixt and universal order. And, whether we consider him in himself as an intelligent and rational being, or view him as a member of society, or whether in fine we regard him as the handy work of God, and deriving from this first Being his faculties, state, and existence; all these circumstances evidently indicate an end, a destination, and consequently imply the necessity of a rule. Had man been created to live at random without any fixt and determinate view, without knowing whither he is to direct his course, or what road he ought to take; it is evident that his noblest faculties would be of no manner of use to him. Wherefore, waving all disquisitions concerning the necessity of a rule, let us endeavor rather to discover what this rule is which alone, by enlightning the understanding, and directing our actions to an end worthy of him, is capable of forming the order and beauty of human life.

III. When we speak of a rule in relation to human actions, two things are manifestly supposed; the first, that human conduct is susceptible of direction, as we have already proved; the second, that man in all his steps and actions proposes to himself a scope or end, which he is desirous to attain.

IV. Now let man reflect but never so little on himself, he will soon perceive, that every thing he does is with a view of happiness, and that this is the ultimate end he proposes in all his actions, or the last term, to which he reduces them. This is a first truth, of which we have a continual conviction from our internal sense. Such in effect is the nature of man, that he necessarily loves himself; that he seeks in every thing and every where his own advantage, and can never be diverted from this pursuit. We naturally desire, and necessarily wish for good. This desire anticipates all our reflections, and is not in our own election; it predominates in us, and becomes the primum mobile of all our determinations; our hearts being never inclined towards any particular good, but by the natural impression, which determines us to good in general. It is not in our power to change this bent of the will, which the Creator himself has implanted in us.

V. This system of providence extends to all beings, endowed with sense and knowledge. Even brute animals have a like instinct; for they all love themselves, endeavouring at self-preservation by all sorts of means, eagerly pursuing whatever seems good or useful to them, and turning on the contrary, from whatever appears prejudicial or bad. The same propensity shews itself in man, not only as an instinct, but moreover as a rational inclination approved and strengthened by reflection. Hence, whatsoever presents itself to us, as an object proper to promote our happiness, must of necessity please us; and every thing, that appears opposite to our felicity, becomes of course the object of our aversion. The more we study man, the more we are convinced, that here in reality lies the source of all our tastes; here the grand spring, which sets us in motion.

VI. And indeed, if it be natural to every intelligent and rational being to act always with a fixt view and determinate end, it is no less evident, that this view or end must be ultimately reduced to himself; and consequently to his own advantage and happiness. The desire therefore of happiness is as essential to a man, and as inseparable from his nature, as reason itself, for reason, as the very etymology of the word implies, is nothing more than a calculation and account. To reason is to calculate, and to draw up an account, after balancing every thing, in order to see on which side the advantage lies. It would therefore imply a contradiction to suppose a rational being, that could absolutely forego its interest, or be indifferent with regard to its own felicity.

VII. We must therefore take care not to consider self-love and that sense or inclination, which fixes us so strongly to our happiness, as a principle naturally vicious, and a fruit of human depravation. This would be accusing the Author of our existence, and converting his noblest gifts into poison. Whatever comes from a Being supremely perfect is in itself good; and were we to condemn the sense or inclination of self-love as bad in itself, under a pretence that, by a misconstruction and wrong use thereof, it is the source of an infinite number of disorders, we should for the very same motives be obliged to condemn reason; because it is from the abuse of this faculty, that the grossest errors and most extravagant irregularities of men proceed.

It may appear surprising to some, that we should have stopt here to investigate and explain the truth of a principle, which one would imagine is obvious to every body, to the learned as well as the vulgar. And yet it was absolutely necessary; because this is a truth of the very last importance, which gives us the key, as it were, of the human system. It is true, that all ethical writers agree, that man is made for happiness, and naturally desires it; (for how is it possible not to hear the voice of nature, which rises from the very bottom of the heart?) But a great many, after acknowledging this principle, seem to lose sight of it, and, not attending to the consequences, that flow from it, erect their systems on different, and sometimes quite opposite foundations.

VIII. But if it be true, that man does nothing but with a view of happiness, it is no less certain, that reason is the only way he has to attain it.

In order to establish this second proposition or truth, we have only to attend to the very idea of happiness, and to the notion we have of good and evil. Happiness is that internal satisfaction of the soul which arises from the possession of good; good is whatever is agreeable to man, for his preservation, perfection, entertainment, and pleasure. Evil is the opposite of good.

Man incessantly experiences, that there are some things convenient, and others inconvenient to him; that the former are not all equally convenient, but some more than others; in fine, that this conveniency depends, for the most part, on the use, he knows how to make of things, and that the same thing, which may suit him, using it after a certain manner and measure, becomes unsuitable, when this use exceeds its limits. It is only therefore by investigating the nature of things, as also the relations, they have between themselves and with us, that we are capable of discovering their fitness or disagreement with our felicity, of discerning good from evil, of ranging every thing in its proper order, of setting a right value on each, and of regulating consequently our researches and desires.

But is there any other method of acquiring this discernment, but by forming just ideas of things and their relations, and by deducing from these first ideas the consequences, that flow from them by exact and close argumentations? Now it is reason alone, that directs all these operations. Yet this is not all; for as, in order to arrive at happiness, it is not sufficient to form just ideas of the nature and state of things, but it is also necessary, that the will should be directed by those ideas and judgments in the series of our conduct; so it is certain, that nothing but reason can communicate and support in man the necessary strength for making a right use of liberty, and for determining in all cases according to the light of his understanding, in spite of all the impressions and motions that may lead him to a contrary pursuit.

IX. Reason is therefore the only mean, in every respect, that man has left to attain to happiness, and the principal end, for which he has received it. All the faculties of the soul, its instincts, inclinations, and even the passions, are relative to this end; and consequently it is this same reason, that is capable of pointing out the true rule of human actions, or, if you will, she herself is this primitive rule. In fact, were it not for this faithful guide, man would lead a random life, ignorant even of what regards himself, unacquainted with his own origin and destination, and with the use he ought to make of whatever surrounds him; stumbling like a blind man, at every step; lost in fine and bewildered in an inextricable labyrinth.

X. Thus we are conducted naturally to the first idea of the word Right, which in its most general sense, and that, to which all the particular significations bear some relation, is nothing else but whatever reason certainly acknowledges, as a sure and concise mean of attaining happiness, and approves as such.

This definition is the result of the principles hitherto established. In order to be convinced of its exactness, we have only to draw these principles together, and unite them under one prospect. In fact, since right (droit) in its primary notion signifies whatever directs, or is well directed; since direction supposes a scope and an end, to which we are desirous of attaining; since the ultimate end of man is happiness; and, in fine, since he cannot attain to happiness but by the help of reason; does it not evidently follow, that Right in general is whatever reason approves, as a sure and concise mean of acquiring happiness? It is likewise in consequence of these principles, that reason, giving its approbation to itself, when it happens to be properly cultivated, and arrived to that state of perfection, in which it knows how to use all its discernment, bears, by way of preference or excellence, the appellation of right reason, as being the first and surest mean of direction, whereby man is enabled to acquire felicity.

That we may not forget any thing in the analysis of these first ideas, it is proper to observe here, that the Latins express what we call Right by the word jus, which properly signifies an order or precept.2 These different denominations undoubtedly proceeded from this, that reason seems to command with authority whatever it avows to be a right and sure mean of promoting our felicity. And as we have only to seek for what is right, in order to know what reason commands us, hence the natural connection of these two ideas arose in respect to the rules of right reason. In a word, of two ideas naturally connected, the Latins have followed one, and we the other.


   1.    See Puffendorf, Law of nature and nations, book ii, chap. i.
   2.    Jus a jubendo; Jura enim veteres Jusa vel Jussa vocabant. Festus; jusa, Jura.