The Principles of Natural and Politic Law (1748)
Jean Jacques Burlamaqui
That natural laws have been sufficiently notified, of their
proper characteristics, the obligation they produce, etc.
I. AFTER what has been hitherto said in relation to the principles of natural law, and the way we come to know them, there is no need to ask, whether God has sufficiently notified those laws to man. It is evident we can discover all their principles, and deduce from them our several duties, by that natural light, which to no man has been ever refused. It is in this sense we are to understand what is commonly said, that this law is naturally known to all mankind. For, to think with some people, that the law of nature is innate, as it were, in our minds, and actually imprinted in our souls from the first moment of our existence, is supposing a thing, that is not at all necessary, and is moreover contradicted by experience. All, that can be said on this subject, is, that the most general and most important maxims of the law of nature are so clear and manifest, and have such a proportion to our ideas, and such an agreeableness to our nature, that so soon, as they are proposed to us, we instantly approve of them; and as we are disposed and accustomed from our infancy to feel these truths, we consider them as born with us.
[Men may assist one another in this respect.]
II. But we must take care to observe, that, when we say man may acquire the knowledge of natural laws, by using his reason, we do not exclude the succours, he may receive elsewhere. Some there are, who, having taken a particular care to cultivate their minds, are qualified to enlighten others, and to supply, by their instructions, the rudeness and ignorance of the common run of mankind. This is agreeable to the plan of providence. God having designed man for society, and given him a constitution relative to this end, the different helps, which men receive of one another, ought to be equally rankled among natural means, with those, which every one finds within himself, and draws from his own fund.
In effect all men are not of themselves capable of unfolding methodically the principles of natural law, and the consequences thence resulting. It is sufficient, that middling capacities are able to comprehend at least those principles, when they are explained to them, and to feel the truth and necessity of the duties, that flow from them, by comparing them with the constitution of their own nature. But if there be some capacities of a still inferior order, they are generally led by the impressions of example, custom, authority, or some present and sensible utility. Be this as it will, every thing rightly considered, the law of nature is sufficiently notified to empower us to affirm, that no man, at the age of discretion, and in his right senses, can alledge for a just excuse an invincible ignorance on this article.
[The manner, in which the principles of the law of nature have been established, is a fresh proof of the reality of those laws.]
III. Let us make a reflection, which presents itself here very naturally. It is, that whosoever attends seriously to the manner, in which we have established the principles of the laws of nature, will soon find, that the method we have followed is a fresh proof of the certainty and reality of those laws. We have waved all abstract and metaphysical speculations, in order to consult plain fact, and the nature and state of things. It is from the natural constitution of man, and from the relations, he has to other beings, that we have taken our principles; and the system thence resulting has so strict and so necessary a connexion with this nature and state of man, that they are absolutely inseparable. If to all this we join what has been already observed in the foregoing chapters, we cannot methinks mistake the laws of nature, or doubt of their reality, without renouncing the purest light of reason, and running into Pyrrhonism.
[Natural laws are the effect of the divine goodness.]
IV. But as the principles of the laws of nature are, through the wisdom of the Creator, easy to discover, and as the knowledge of the duties, they impose on as, is within the reach of the most ordinary capacities; it is also certain, that these laws are far from being impracticable. On the contrary, they bear so manifest a proportion to the light of right reason, and to our most natural inclinations; they have also such a relation to our perfection and happiness; that they cannot be considered otherwise, than as an effect of the divine goodness towards men. Since no other motive, but that of doing good, could ever induce a being, who is selfexistent and supremely happy, to form creatures endowed with understanding and sense; it must have been in consequence of this same goodness, that he first vouchsafed to direct them by laws. His view was not merely to restrain their liberty, but he thought fit to let them know what agreed with them best, what was most proper for their perfection and happiness; and in order to add greater weight to the reasonable motives, that were to determine them, he joined thereto the authority of his commands.1
This gives us to understand why the laws of nature are such as they are. It was necessary, pursuant to the views of the Almighty, that the laws, he prescribed to mankind, should be suitable to their nature and state; that they should have a tendency of themselves to procure the perfection and advantage of individuals, as well as of the species; of particular people, as well as of the society. In short, the choice of the end determined the nature of the means.
[The law of nature do not depend on an arbitrary institution.]
V. In fact there are natural and necessary differences in human actions, and in the effects, by them produced. Some, agree of themselves with the nature and state of man, while others disagree and are quite opposite thereto; some contribute to the production and maintenance of order, others tend to subvert it; some procure the perfection and happiness of mankind, others are attended with their disgrace and misery. To refuse to acknowledge these differences would be shutting one’s eyes to the light, and confounding it with darkness. These are differences of a most sensible nature; and, whatever a person may say to the contrary, sense and experience will always refute those false and idle subtleties.
Let us not therefore seek any where else, but in the very nature of human actions, in their essential differences and consequences, for the true foundation of the laws of nature, and why God forbids some things, while he commands others. These are not arbitrary laws, such as God might not have given, or have given others of a quite different nature. Supreme wisdom can, no more than supreme power, act any thing absurd and contradictory. It is the very nature of things, that always serves for the rule of his determinations. God was at liberty, without doubt, to create or not to create man; to create him such as he is, or to give him a quite different nature. But, having determined to form a rational and social being, he could not prescribe any thing unsuitable to such a creature. We may even affirm, that the supposition, which makes the principles and rules of the law of nature depend on the arbitrary will of God, tends to subvert and destroy even the very idea of natural law. For, if these laws were not a necessary consequence of the nature, constitution, and state of man, it would be impossible for us to have a certain knowledge of them, except by a very clear revelation, or by some other formal promulgation on the part of God. But agreed it is, that the law of nature is, and ought to be, known by the mere light of reason. To conceive it therefore as depending on an arbitrary will would be attempting to subvert it, or at least would be reducing the thing to a kind of Pyrrhonism; by reason we could have no natural means of being sure, that God commands or forbids one thing rather than an other. Hence, if the laws of nature depend originally on divine institution, as there is no room to question; we must likewise agree, that this is not a mere arbitrary institution, but founded, on one side, on the very nature and constitution of man; and, on the other, on the wisdom of God, who cannot desire an end, without desiring at the same time the means, that alone are fit to obtain it.
[Our opinion is not very wide from that of Grotius.]
VI. It is not amiss to observe here, that the manner, in which we establish the foundation of the law of nature, does not differ in the main from the principles of Grotius. Perhaps this great man might have explained his thoughts a little better. But we must own, that his commentators, without excepting Puffendorf himself, have not rightly understood his meaning, and consequently have passed a wrong censure on him, by pretending, that the manner, in which be established the foundation of the law of nature, is reduced to a vicious circle. If we ask, says Puffendorf,2 which are those things, that form the matter of natural laws? The answer is, that they are those, which are honest or dishonest of their own nature. If we inquire afterwards, what are those things, that are honest or dishonest of their own nature? There can be no other answer given, but that they are those, which firm the matter of natural laws. This is what the critics put into the mouth of Grotius.
But let us see whether Grotius says really any such thing. The law of nature, says he,3 consists in certain principles of right reason, which inform us, that an action is morally honest or dishonest, according to the necessary agreeableness or disagreeableness it has with a rational and sociable nature; and consequently that God, who is the author of nature, commands or forbids such actions. Here I can see no circle; for putting the question whence comes the natural honesty or turpitude of commanded or forbidden actions? Grotius does not answer in the manner, they make him; on the contrary, he says that this honesty or turpitude proceeds from the necessary agreeableness or disagreeableness of our actions with a rational and social nature.4
[The effect of the laws of nature is an obligation of conforming thereto our conduct.]
VII. After having seen, that the laws of nature are practicable of themselves, evidently useful, highly conformable to the ideas, which right reason gives us of God, suitable to the nature and state of man, perfectly agreeable to order, and in fine sufficiently notified; there is no longer room to question, that laws, invested with all these characteristics, are obligatory, and lay men under an indispensable obligation of conforming their conduct to them. It is even certain, that the obligation, which God imposes on us by this mean, is the strongest of all, by reason of its being produced by the concurrence and union of the strongest motives, such as are most proper to determine the will. In fact the counsels and maxims of reason oblige us, not only because they are in themselves very agreeable, and founded on the nature and immutable relations of things; but moreover by the authority of the supreme Being, who intervenes here, by giving us clearly to understand, he is willing we should observe them, because of his being the author of this nature of things, and of the mutual relation they have among themselves. In fine the law of nature binds us by an internal and external obligation at the same time; which produces the highest degree of moral necessity, and reduces liberty to the very strongest subjection, without destroying it.5
Thus the obedience, due to natural law, is a sincere obedience, and such as ought to arise from a conscientious principle. The first effect of those laws is to direct the sentiments of our minds, and the motions of the heart. We should not discharge what they require of as, were we externally to abstain from what they condemn, but with regret and against our will. And as it is not allowable to desire what we are not permitted to enjoy; so it is our duty not only to practise what we are commanded, but likewise to give it our approbation, and to acknowledge its utility and justice.
[Natural laws are obligatory in respect to all men.]
VIII. Another essential characteristic of the laws of nature is, that they be universal, that is, they should oblige all men without exception. For men are not only equally subject to God’s command, but moreover the laws of nature having their foundation in the constitution and state of man, and being notified to him by reason, it is plain they have an essential agree ableness to all mankind, and oblige them without distinction; whatever difference there may be between them in fact, and in whatever state they are supposed. This is what distinguishes natural from positive laws; for a positive law relates only to particular persons or societies.
[Grotius’s opinion with regard to divine, positive, and universal law.]
IX. It is true that Grotius,6 and after him several divines and civilians, pretend that there are divine, positive, and universal laws, which oblige all men, from the very moment they are made sufficiently known to them. But, in the first place, were there any such laws, as they could not be discovered by the sole light of reason, they must have been very clearly manifested to all mankind; a thing, which cannot be fully proved; and if it should be said, that they oblige only those, to whom they are made known; this destroys the idea of universality, attributed to them, by supposing that those laws were made for all men. Secondly the divine, positive, and universal laws, ought to be moreover of themselves beneficial to all mankind, at all times, and in all places; and this the wisdom and goodness of God require. But for this purpose these laws should have been founded on the constitution of human nature in general, and then they would be true natural laws.7
[Natural laws are immutable, and admit of no dispensation.]
X. We have already observed, that the laws of nature, though established by the divine will, are not the effect of an arbitrary disposition, but have their foundation in the very nature and mutual relations of things. Hence it follows, that natural laws are immutable, and admit of no dispensation. This is also a proper characteristic of these laws, which distinguishes them from all positive law, whether divine or human.
This immutability of the laws of nature has nothing in it repugnant to the independence, supreme power, or liberty of an allperfect Being. Since he himself is the author of our constitution, he cannot but prescribe or prohibit such things, as have a necessary agreeableness or disagreeableness to this very constitution, and consequently he cannot make any change, or give any dispensation in regard to the laws of nature.8 It is a glorious necessity in him not to contradict himself; it is a kind of impotency falsely so called, which, far from limiting or diminishing his perfections, adds to their external character, and points out all their excellency.
[Of the eternity of natural laws.]
XI. Considering the thing, as has been now explained, we may say, if we will, that the laws of nature are eternal; though, to tell the truth, this expression is very incorrect of itself, and more adapted to throw obscurity, than clearness upon our ideas. Those, who first took notice of the eternity of the laws of nature, did it very probably out of opposition to the novelty and frequent mutations of civil laws. They meant only, that the law of nature is antecedent, for example, to the laws of Moses, of Solon, or of any other legislator, in that it is coeval with mankind; and so far they were in the light. But to affirm, as a great many divines and moralists have done, that the law of nature is coeternal with God, is advancing a proposition, which reduced to its just value is not exactly true; by reason that, the law of nature being made for man, its actual existence supposeth that of mankind. But if we are only to understand hereby, that God had the ideas thereof from all eternity, then we attribute nothing to the laws of nature but what is equally common to every thing, that exists.9
We cannot finish this article better than with a beautiful passage of Cicero, preserved by Lactantius.10 Right reason, says this philosopher, is indeed a true law, agreeable to nature, common to all men, constant, immutable, eternal. It prompts men to their duty by its commands, and deters them from evil by its prohibitions, It is not allowed to retrench any part of this law, nor to make any alterations therein, much less to abolish it entirely. Neither the senate nor people can dispense with it; nor does it require any interpretation, being clear of itself and intelligible. It is the same at Rome and Athens; the same today and tomorrow. It is the same eternal and invariable law, given at all times and places, to all nations; because God, who is the author thereof, and has published it himself, is always the sole master and sovereign of mankind. Whosoever violates this law renounces his own nature, divests himself of humanity, and will be rigorously chastised for his disobedience, though he were to escape what is commonly distinguished by the name of punishment.
But let this suffice in regard to the 1aw of nature considered, as a rule to individuals. In order to embrace the entire system of man, and to unfold our principles in their full extent, it is necessary we say something likewise concerning the rules, which nations ought to observe between each other, and are commonly called the law of nations.
1. See part i. chap. x. sect, 3.
2. See Puffendorf, Law of nature and Nations, book ii. ch. iii. § 4, Apol. § 19.
3. See Grotius, Rights of War and Peace, look i. chap. i. § 10.
4. See Barbeyrac’s fifth note on the Law of Nature and Nations, book ii. chap. iii. § 4.
5. See part i. chap. vi. sect. 13.
6. See Rights of War and Peace, book i. chap. sec. 15. with Barbeyrac’s notes.
7. See Barbeyrac’s sixth note on Puffendorf’s Law of Nature and Nations book i. chap. xi. sec. 18.
8. Puffendorf, Law of Nature and Nations, book ii. chap. iii, § 6. and Grotius, Rights of War and Peace, book i. chap. i. § 10.
9. The immutability of the laws of nature is acknowledged by all those, who reason with any exactness. See Instit. lib. 1. tit 2. sect. 11. Noodt. Probabil. Juris, lib. 2. cap. 11.
10. Est quidem vera lex recta ratio, naturæ congruens, diffusa in omnes, constans, sempiterna; quæ vocet ad officium jubendo, vetando a fraude deterreat, qua tamen neque probos frustra jubet, aut vetat; Dec improbos jubendo aut vetando movet. Huic legi sec obrogari fas est, neque derogari ex hac aliquid licet; neque tota abrogari potest. Nec verò aut per senatum, aut per populum solvi hac lege possumus; neque est quærendus explanator aut interpres ejus alius. Nec erit alia lex Romæ, alia Athenis, alia nunc, alia posthac; sed omnes gentes, et omni tempore, una lex et sempiterna et immutabilis continebit; unusque erit communis quasi magister et imperator omnium Deus. Ille legis hujus inventor, disceptator, lator; cui qui non parebit ipse se fugiet, ac naturam hominis aspernabitur; atque hoc ipso luet maximas poenas, etiamsi cætera supplicia, quæ putantur, effugerit. Cicero de Republ. lib. 3. apud Lactant Instit. Divin. lib. 6. cap. 8.