The Principles of Natural and Politic Law (1748)

Jean Jacques Burlamaqui

That God, in consequence of his authority over us, has actually thought proper to prescribe to us laws or rules of conduct

I. TO prove the existence of God, and our dependance in respect to him, is establishing the right he has of prescribing laws to man. But this is not sufficient; the question is, whether he has actually thought proper to exercise this right? He can undoubtedly impose laws on us; but has he really done it? And though we depend on him for our life, and for our physical faculties, has he not left us in a state of independence in respect to the moral use, to which we are to apply them? This is a third and capital point, we have still left to examine.

II. 1. We have made some progress already in this research, by discovering all the circumstances, necessary to establish an actual legislature. On the one side we find a superior, who by his nature is possessed in the very highest degree of all the conditions requisite to establish a legitimate authority; and on the other we behold man, who is God’s creature, endowed with understanding and liberty, capable of acting with knowledge and choice, sensible of pleasure and pain, susceptible of good and evil, of rewards and punishments. Such an aptitude of giving and receiving laws cannot be useless. This concurrence of relations and circumstances undoubtedly denotes an end, and must have some effect, just as the particular organization of the eye shows we are destined to see the light. Why should God have made us exactly fit to receive laws, if he intended none for us? This would be creating so many idle and useless faculties. It is therefore not only possible, but very probable, that our destination in general is such, unless the contrary should appear from much stronger reasons. Now instead of there being any reason to destroy this first presumption, we shall see, that every thing tends to confirm it.

III. 2. When we consider the beautiful order, which the supreme wisdom has established in the physical world, it is impossible to persuade ourselves, that he has abandoned the spiritual or moral world to chance and disorder. Reason, on the contrary, tells us, that a wise being proposes to himself a reasonable end in every thing he does, and that he uses all the necessary means to attain it. The end, which God had in view with regard to his creatures, and particularly with respect to man, cannot be any other, on the one side, than his glory; and on the other, the perfection and happiness of his creatures, so far as their nature or constitution will admit. These two views, so worthy of the Creator, are perfectly combined. For the glory of God consists in manifesting his perfections, his power, his goodness, wisdom, and justice; and these virtues are nothing else but the love of order and of the good of the whole. Thus a being absolutely perfect and supremely happy, willing to conduct man to that state of order and happiness, which suits his nature, cannot but be willing at the same time to employ whatever is necessary for such an end; and consequently he must approve of those means, that are proper, and disapprove of such, as are improper for attaining it. Had the constitution of man been merely physical or mechanical, God himself would have done whatever is expedient for his work; but man being a free and intelligent creature, capable of discernment and choice, the means, which the Deity uses to conduct him to his end, ought to be proportioned to his nature, that is, such as man may engage in, and concur with, by his own actions.

Now, as all means are not equally fit to conduct us to a certain end, all human actions cannot therefore be indifferent. Plain it is, that every action, contrary to the ends, which God has proposed, is not agreeable to the divine Majesty; and that he approves, on the contrary, those, which of themselves are proper to promote his ends. Since there is a choice to be made, who can question but our Creator is willing we should take the right road; and that, instead of acting fortuitously and rashly, we should behave like rational creatures, by exercising our liberty and7 the other faculties he has given us, in the manner most agreeable to our state and destination, in order to promote his views, and to advance our own happiness, together with that of our fellow creatures?

IV. These considerations assume a new force, when we attend to the natural consequences of the opposite system. What would become of man and society, were every one to be so far master of his actions, as to do every thing he listed, without having any other principle of conduct than caprice or passion? Let us suppose, that God, abandoning us to ourselves, had not actually prescribed any rules of life, or subjected us to laws; most of our talents and faculties would be of no manner of use to us. To what purpose would it be for man to have the light of reason, were he to follow only the impulse of instinct, without watching over his conduct? What would it avail him to have the power of suspending his judgment, were he to yield stupidly to the first impressions? And of what service would reflection be, were he neither to choose nor deliberate; and were he, instead of listening to the counsels of prudence, to be hurried away by blind inclinations? These faculties, which form the excellence and dignity of our nature, would not only be rendered hereby entirely frivolous, but moreover would become prejudicial even by their excellence; for the higher and nobler the faculty is, the more the abuse of it proves dangerous.

This would not only be a great misfortune for man, considered alone, and in respect to himself; but would still prove a greater evil to him, when viewed in the state of society. For this more than any other state requires laws, to the end, that each person may set limits to his pretensions, without invading another man’s right.

Were it otherwise, licentiousness must be the consequence of independence. To leave men abandoned to themselves is leaving an open field to the passions, and paving the way for injustice, violence, perfidy, and cruelty. Take away natural laws, and that moral tie, which supports justice and honesty in a whole nation, and establishes also particular duties either in families, or in the other relations of life; man would be then the most savage and ferocious of ail animals. The more dexterous and artful he is, the more dangerous he would prove to his equals; his dexterity would degenerate into craft, and his art into malice. Then we should be divested of all the advantages and sweets of society; and thrown into a state of war and libertinism.

V. 3. Were any one to say, that man himself would not fail to remedy these disorders, by establishing laws in society; (beside that human laws would have very little force were they not founded on the principles of conscience;) this remark shows there is a necessity for laws in general, whereby we gain our cause. For, if it be agreeable to the order of reason, that men should establish a rule of life among themselves, in order to be screened from the evils, they might apprehend from one another, and to procure those advantages, that are capable of forming their private and public happiness; this alone ought to convince us, that the Creator, infinitely wiser and better than ourselves, must have undoubtedly pursued the same method. A good parent, who takes care to direct his children by his authority and counsels, is able to preserve peace and order in his family. Is it then to be imagined, that the common father of mankind should neglect to give us the like assistance? And if a wise sovereign has nothing so much at heart, as to prevent licentiousness by salutary regulations; how can any one believe, that God, who is a much greater friend to man, than man is to his equals, has left all mankind without direction and guide, even on the most important matters, on which our whole happiness depends? Such a system would be no less contrary to the goodness, than to the wisdom of God. We must therefore have recourse to other ideas, and conclude, that the Creator having, through a pure effect of his bounty, created man for happiness, and having implanted in him an insuperable inclination to felicity, subjecting him at the same time to live in society, he must have given him also such principles, as are capable of inspiring him with a love of order, and rules to point out the means of procuring and attaining it.

VI. 4. But let us enter into ourselves, and we shall actually find, that what we ought to expect in this respect from the divine wisdom and goodness, is dictated by right reason, and by the principles engraved in our hearts.

If there be any speculative truths, that are evident, or if there be any certain axioms, that serve as a basis to the sciences; there is no less certainty in some principles, that are laid down in order to direct our conduct, and to serve as the foundation of morality. For example; that the allwise and allbountiful Creator merits the respects of the creature; that man ought to seek his own happiness; that we should prefer the greater to the less evil; that a benefit deserves a grateful acknowledgment; that the state of order excels that of disorder, etc. Those maxims, and others of the same sort, differ very little in evidence from these, The whole is greater than its part; or the cause precedes the effect, etc. Both are dictated by pure reason; and hence we feel ourselves forced, as it were, to give our assent to them. These general principles are seldom contested; if there be any dispute, it relates only to their application and consequences. But so soon as the truth of these principles is discovered, their consequences, whether immediate or remote, are entirely as certain provided they be well connected; the whole business being to deduce them by a train of close and conclusive argumentations.

VII. In order to be sensible of the influence, which such principles, with their legitimate consequences, ought to have over our conduct, we have only to recollect what has been already said, in the first part of this work,1 concerning the obligation we are under of following the dictates of reason. As it would be absurd in speculative matters to speak and judge otherwise, than according to that light, which makes us discern truth from falsehood; so it would be no less preposterous to deviate in our conduct from those certain maxims, which enable us to distinguish good from evil. When once it is manifest, that a particular manner of acting is suitable to our nature, and to the great end we have in view; and that another, on the contrary, does not suit our constitution or happiness; it follows, that man, as a free and rational creature, ought to be very attentive to this difference, and to take his resolutions accordingly. He is obliged to it by the very nature of the thing; because it is absolutely necessary, when a person is desirous of the end, to be desirous also of the means; and he is obliged for it moreover because he cannot mistake the intention and will of his superior in this respect.

VIII. In fact God being the author of the nature of things and of our constitution, if, in consequence of this nature and constitution, we are reasonably determined to judge after a certain manner, and to act according to our judgment, the Creator sufficiently manifests his intention, so that we can no longer be ignorant of his will. The language therefore of reason is that of God himself. When our reason tells so clearly, that we must not return evil for good, it is God himself, who by this internal oracle gives us to understand what is good and just, what is agreeable to him and suitable to ourselves. We said that it is not at all probable, that the good and wise Creator should have abandoned man to himself, without a guide and direction for his conduct. We have here a direction, that comes from him; and since he is invested in the very highest degree, as we have already observed, with the perfections, on which a legitimate superiority is founded, who can pretend to question, that the will of such a superior is law to us? The reader I suppose has not forgot the conditions requisite to constitute a law; conditions, that are all to be met with in the present case. 1. There is a rule. 2. This rule is just and useful. 3. It comes from a superior, on whom we entirely depend. 4. In fine, it is sufficiently made known to us by principles, engraved in our hearts, and even by our own reason. It is therefore a law properly so called, which we are really obliged to observe. But let us inquire a little further, by what means this natural law is discovered, or, which amounts to the same thing, from what source we must derive it. What we have hitherto proved only in a general manner will be further illustrated and confirmed by the particulars, on which we are now going to enlarge. For nothing can be a stronger proof of our having hit upon the true principles, than, when unfolding and considering them in their different branches, we find they are always conformable to the nature of things.


   1.    Chap. vi.