The Principles of Natural and Politic Law (1748)

Jean Jacques Burlamaqui

In what the Law of Nature consists, and that there is such a thing. First considerations, drawn from the existence of God and his authority over us.

I. AFTER having settled the general principles of law, our business is now to apply them to natural law in particular. The questions, we have to examine in this second part, are of no less importance, than to know whether man, by his nature and constitution, is really subject to laws properly so called? What are these laws? Who is the superior, that imposes them? By what method or means is it possible to know them? Whence results the obligation of observing them? What consequence may follow from our negligence in this respect? And, in fine, what advantage on the contrary may arise from the observance of these laws?

II. Let us begin with a proper definition of the terms. By natural law we understand a law, that God imposes on all men, and which they are able to discover and know by the sole light of reason, and by attentively considering their state and nature.

Natural law is likewise taken for the system, assemblage, or body of the laws of nature.

Natural Jurisprudence is the art of attaining to the knowledge of the laws of nature, of explaining and applying them to human actions.

III. But whether there be really any natural laws is the first question, that presents itself here to our inquiry. In order to make a proper answer, we must ascend to the principles of natural theology, as being the first and true foundation of the law of nature. For, when we are asked whether there are any natural laws, this question cannot be resolved, but by examining the three following articles. 1. Whether there is a God? 2. If there is a God, whether he has a right to impose laws on man? 3. Whether God actually exercises his right in this respect, by really giving us laws, and requiring we should square thereby our actions? These three points will furnish the subject of this and the following chapters.

IV. The existence of God, that is of a first, intelligent, and selfexistent being, on whom all things depend, as on their first cause, and who depends himself on no One; the existence, I say, of such a being is one of those truths, that show themselves to us at the first glance. We have only to attend to the evident and sensible proofs, that present themselves to us, as it were, from all parts.

The chain and subordination of causes among themselves, which necessarily requires we should fix on a first cause, the necessity of acknowledging a first mover, the admirable structure and order of the universe, are all so many demonstrations of the existence of God, within the reach of every capacity. Let us unfold them in a few words.

V. 1. We behold an infinite number of objects, which, being united, form the assemblage, we call the universe. Something therefore must have always existed. For, were we to suppose a time, in which there was absolutely nothing, it is evident that nothing could have ever existed; because, whatsoever has a beginning must have a cause of its existence; since nothing can produce nothing. It must be therefore acknowledged, that there is some eternal being, who exists necessarily and of himself; for he can be indebted to no one else for his origin; and it implies a contradiction, that such a being does not exist.

Moreover this eternal being, who necessarily and of himself subsists, is endued with reason and understanding. For, to pursue the same manner of arguing, were we to suppose a time, in which there was nothing but inanimate beings, it would have been impossible for intelligent beings, such as we now behold, ever to exist. Intellection can no more proceed from a blind and unintelligent cause, than a being, of any kind whatsoever, can come from nothing. There must therefore have always existed a father of spiritual beings, an eternal mind, the source, whence all others derive their existence. Let what system soever be adopted concerning the nature and origin of the soul, our proof subsists still in its full force. Were it even to be supposed, that the cogitative part of man is no more, than the effect of a certain motion or modification of matter, yet we should still want to know how matter acquired this activity, which is not essential to it, and this particular and so much admired organization, which it cannot impart to itself. We should inquire, who is it, that has modified the body in such a manner proper to produce such wonderful operations, as those of intellection, which reflects, which acts on the very body itself with command, which surveys the earth, and measures the heavens, recollects past transactions, and extends its views to futurity. Such a masterpeice must come from the hands of an intelligent cause; wherefore it is absolutely necessary to acknowledge a first, eternal, and intelligent Being.

VI. An eternal Spirit, who has within himself the principle of his own existence, and of all his faculties, can be neither changed nor destroyed; neither dependant nor limited; he should even be invested with Infinite perfection, sufficient to render him the sole and first cause of all, so that we may have no occasion to seek for any other.

But does not (some will ask) this quality of an eternal and intelligent being belong to matter itself, to the visible world, or to some of the parts thereof?

I answer that this supposition is absolutely contrary to all our ideas. Matter is not essentially and of itself intelligent; nor can it be supposed to acquire intellection but by a particular modification, received from a cause supremely intelligent. Now this first cause cannot have such a modification from any other being; for he thinks essentially and of himself; wherefore he cannot be a material being. Besides, as all the parts of the universe are variable and dependant, how is it possible to reconcile this with the idea of an infinite and all perfect being?

As for what relates to man, his dependance and weakness are much more sensible, than those of other creatures. Since he has no life of himself, he cannot be the efficient cause of the existence of others. He is unacquainted with the structure of his own body, and with the principle of life; incapable of discovering in what manner motions are connected with ideas, and which is the proper spring of the empire of the will. We must therefore look out for an efficient, primitive, and original cause of mankind, beyond the human chain, be it supposed ever so long; we must trace the cause of each part of the world beyond this material and visible world.

VII. 2. After this first proof, drawn from the necessity of a first, eternal, and intelligent being, distinct from matter; we proceed to a second, which shows us the Deity in a more sensible manner; and more within the reach of common capacities. The proof I mean is the contemplation of this visible world, wherein we perceive a motion and order, which matter has not of itself, and must therefore receive from some other being.

Motion or active force is not an essential quality of body. Extension is of itself rather a passive being; it is easily conceived at rest; and, if it has any motion, we may well conceive it may loose it without being stript of its existence; it is a quality or state, that passes and is accidentally communicated from one body to another. The first impression must therefore proceed from an intrinsic cause; and, as Aristotle has welt expressed it,1 The first mover of bodies must not be moveable himself, must not be a body. This has been also agreed to by Hobbes.2 But the acknowledging, says he, of one God eternal, infinite, and omnipotent, may more easily be derived from the desire men have to know the causes of natural bodies, and their several virtues and operations, than from the fear of what was to befal them in time to come. For he, who, from any effect he seeth come to pass, should reason to the next and immediate cause thereof, and thence to the cause of that cause, and plunge himself profoundly in the pursuit of causes, shall at last come to this, that there must be (as even the heathen philosophers confessed) one first mover; that is, a first and eternal cause of all things; which is that, which men mean by the name of God.

VIII. 3. But, if matter has not been able to move of itself, much less was it able to move to the exact degree, and with all the determinations necessary to form such a world, as we behold, rather than a confused chaos.

In fact, let us only cast our eyes on this universe, and we shall every where discover, even at the first glance, an admirable beauty, regularity, and order; and this admiration will increase in proportion as, in searching more closely into nature, we enter into the particulars of the structure, proportion, and use of each part. For then we shall clearly see, that every thing is relative to a certain end, and that these particular ends, though infinitely varied among themselves, are so dexterously managed and combined, as to conspire all to a general design. Notwithstanding this amazing diversity of creatures, there is no confusion; we behold several thousand different species, which preserve their distinct form and qualities. The parts of the universe are proportioned and balanced, in order to preserve a general harmony; and each of those parts has exactly its proper figure, proportions, situation, and motion, either to produce its particular effect, or to form a beautiful whole.

It is evident therefore, that there is a design, a choice, a visible reason in all the works of nature; and consequently there are marks of wisdom and understanding, obvious, as it were, even to our very senses.

IX. Though there have been some philosophers, who have attributed all these phµnomena to chance, yet this is so ridiculous a thought, that I question whether a more extravagant chimera ever entered into the mind of man. Is it possible for any one to persuade himself seriously, that the different parts of matter, having been set in some unaccountable manner in motion, produced of themselves the heavens, the stars, the earth, the plants, and even animals and men, and whatever is most regular in the organization? A man, that would pass the like judgment on the least edifice, on a book or picture, would be looked upon, as a mad, extravagant person. How much more shocking is it to common sense to attribute to chance so vast a work, and so wonderful a composition, as this universe?

X. It would be equally frivolous to alledge the eternity of the world, in order to exclude a first intelligent cause. For, besides the marks of novelty, we meet with in the history of mankind, as the origin of nations and empires, and the invention of arts and sciences, etc. besides the assurance we have from the most general and most ancient tradition, that the world has had a beginning (a tradition, which is of great weight in regard to a matter of fact, like this,) besides I say all this, the very nature of the thing does not allow us to admit of this hypothesis any more than that of chance. For the question is still, whence comes this beautiful order, this regular structure and design, in a word, whence proceed those marks of reason and wisdom, that are so visibly displayed in all parts of the universe? To say that it has been always so, without the intervention of an intelligent cause, does not explain the thing, but leaves us in the same embarrassment, and advances the same absurdity, as those, who awhile ago were speaking to us of chance. For this is in reality telling us, that whatever we behold throughout the universe is blindly ranged, without design, choice, cause, reason, or understanding. Hence the principal absurdity of the hypothesis of chance occurs likewise in this system; with this difference only, that, by establishing the eternity of the world, they suppose a chance, that from all eternity hit upon order; whereas those, who attribute the formation of the world to the fortuitous junction of its parts, suppose that chance did not succeed till a certain time, when it fell in at length with order, after an infinite number of trials and fruitless combinations. Both acknowledge therefore no other cause than chance, or properly speaking they acknowledge none at all; for chance is no real cause; it is a word, that cannot account for a real effect, such as the arrangement of the universe.

It would not be a difficult matter to carry these proofs to a much greater length, and even to increase them with an additional number. But this may suffice for a work of this kind; and the little we have said intitles us methinks to establish the existence of a First Cause, or of a Creator, as an incontestable truth, that may serve henceforward for the basis of all our reasonings.

XI. As soon as we have acknowledged a Creator, it is evident, that he has a supreme right to lay his commands on man, to prescribe rules of conduct to him, and to subject him to laws; and it is no less evident, that man on his side finds himself, by his natural constitution, under an obligation of subjecting his actions to the will of this supreme Being.

We have already shown,3 that the true foundation of sovereignty, in the person of the sovereign, is power united with wisdom and goodness; and that, on the other hand, weakness and wants in the subjects are the natural cause of dependence. We have only therefore to see, whether all these qualities of sovereign are to be found in God; and whether men, on their side, are in a state of infirmity and wants, so as to depend necessarily on him for their happiness.

XII. It is beyond doubt, that he, who exists necessarily and on himself, and has created the universe, must be invested with infinite power. As he has given existence to all things by his own will, he may likewise preserve, annihilate, or change them, as he pleases.

But his wisdom is equal to his power. Having made every thing, he must know every thing, as well the causes, as the effects thence resulting. We see besides in all his works the most excellent ends, and a choice of the most proper means to attain them; in short, they all bear, as it were, the stamp of wisdom.

XIII. Reason informs us, that God is a being essentially good; a perfection, which seems to flow naturally from his wisdom and power. For how is it possible for a being, who of his nature is infinitely wise and powerful, to have any inclination to hurt? Surely no sort of reason can ever determine him to it. Malice, cruelty, and injustice, are always a consequence of ignorance or weakness. Let man therefore consider but never so little the things, which surround him, and reflect on his own constitution, he will discover, both within and without himself, the benevolent hand of his Creator, who treats him like a father. It is from God we hold our life and reason; it is he, that supplies most abundantly our wants, adding the useful to the necessary, and the agreeable to the useful. Philosophers observe, that whatever contributes to our preservation, has been arrayed with some agreeable quality.4 Nourishment, repose, action, heat, cold, in short whatever is useful to us, pleases us in its turn, and so long as it is useful. Should it cease to be so, because things are carried to a dangerous excess, we have notice therefore by an opposite sensation. The allurement of pleasure invites us to use them, when they are necessary for our wants; disrelish and lassitude induce us to abstain from them, when they are likely to hurt us. Such is the happy and sweet economy of nature, which annexes a pleasure to the moderate exercise of our senses and faculties, insomuch that whatever surrounds us becomes a source of satisfaction, when we know how to use it with discretion. What can be more magnificent, for example, than this great theatre of the world, in which we live, and this glittering decoration of heaven and earth, exhibiting a thousand agreeable objects to our view? What satisfaction does not the mind receive from the sciences, by which it is exercised, enlarged, and improved?

What conveniences do not we draw from human industry? What advantage do not we derive from an intercourse with our equals; what charms in their conversation! what sweetness in friendship, and the other connexions of the heart! When we avoid the excess and abuse of things, the greatest part of life abounds with agreeable sensations. And if to this we add, that the laws, which God gives us, tend, as hereafter we shall see, to perfect our nature, to prevent all kind of abuse, and to confine us to a moderate use of the good things of life, on which the preservation, excellence, and happiness, as well public as private, of man depend, what more is there wanting to convince us, that the goodness of God is not inferior cither to his wisdom or power?

We have therefore a superior undoubtedly invested with all the qualities necessary to found the most legitimate and most extensive authority. And since on our side experience shows us, that we are weak and subject to divers wants; and since every thing we have, we have from him, and he is able either to augment or diminish our enjoyments; it is evident, that nothing is wanting here to establish on the one side the absolute sovereignty of God, and on the other hand our unlimited dependance.


   1.    Aristot. Metaphys.
   2.    Leviathan, chap. vii. p. 53. edit. 1651.
   3.    See part i. chap. ix.
   4.    See an excellent treatise lately published at Geneva, for Barillot and Son, in 12 mo, 1747, intitled, The Theory of agreeable Sensations; where, after pointing out the rules that nature follows in the distribution of pleasure, the principles of natural theology and ethics are established.