The Principles of Natural and Politic Law (1748)

Jean Jacques Burlamaqui

Of the authority and sanction of natural laws; and 1, of the good or evil, that naturally and generally follow from virtue or vice.1

I. WE understand here, by the authority of natural laws, the force they receive from the approbation of reason, and especially from their being acknowledged to have God for their author; this is what lays us under a strict obligation of conforming our conduct to them, because of the sovereign right, which God has over his creatures. What has been already explained, concerning the origin and nature, reality and certainty of those laws, is sufficient methinks to establish also their authority. Yet we have still some small matter to say in relation to this subject. The force of laws, properly so called, depends principally on their sanction.2 This is what gives a stamp, as it were, to their authority. It is therefore a very necessary and important point, to inquire whether there be really any such thing, as a sanction of natural laws, that is, whether they are accompanied with comminations and promises, punishments and rewards.

[The observance of natural laws forms the happiness of man and society.]

II. The first reflection, that presents itself to our minds, is that the rules of conduct, distinguished by the name of natural laws, are proportioned in such manner to our nature, to the original dispositions and natural desires of our soul, to our constitution, to our wants and actual situation in life, that it evidently appears they were made for us. For in general, and every thing well considered, the observance of those laws is the only means of procuring a real and solid happiness to individuals, as well as to the public; whereas the infraction thereof precipitates men into disorders prejudicial alike to individuals, as to the whole species. This is, as it were, the first sanction of natural laws.

[Eclaircissements on the state of the question.]

III. In order to prove our point, and to establish rightly the state of the question, we must observe, 1. that when the observance of natural laws is said to be capable alone of forming the happiness of man and society, we do not mean, that this happiness can be ever perfect, or superior to all expectation; humanity having no pretence to any thing of this kind; and if virtue itself cannot produce this effect, it is not at all probable that vice has any advantage over her in this respect.

2. As we are inquiring which is the proper rule, that man ought to go by, our question is properly reduced to this point, whether in general, and every thing considered, the observance of natural laws is not the properest and surest means to conduct man to his end, and to procure him the purest, the completest, and the most durable happiness, that can possibly be enjoyed in this world; and not only with regard to some persons, but to all mankind; not only in particular cases, but likewise through the whole course of life.

On this footing, it will not be a difficult task to prove, as well by reason as by experience, that the proper and ordinary effect of virtue is really such, as has been mentioned, and that vice, or the irregularity of passions, produces a quite opposite effect.

[Proof of the above mentioned truth by reason.]

IV. We have already shewn, in discoursing of the nature and state of humanity, that, in what manner and light soever we consider the system of humanity, man can neither answer his end, nor perfect his talents and faculties, nor acquire any solid happiness, or reconcile it with that of his fellow creatures, but by the help of reason; that it ought to be therefore his first care to improve his reason, to consult it, and to follow the counsels thereof; that it informs him, there are some things, which are fit, and others unfit for him; that the former have not all an equal fitness, nor in the same manner; that he ought therefore to make a proper distinction between good and evil, in order to regulate his conduct; that true happiness cannot consist in things incompatible with his nature and state; and, in fine, that since the future ought to be equally the object of his views, as the present and past, it is not sufficient, in order to attain certain happiness, to consider merely the present good or evil of each action, but we should likewise recollect what is past, and extend our views to futurity, in order to combine the whole, and see what ought to be the result thereof in the entire duration of our being. These are so many evident and demonstrable truths. Now the laws of nature are no more than consequences of these primitive truths; whence it appears that they have necessarily, and of themselves, a great influence on our happiness. And how is it possible to call this in question, after having seen in the course of this work, that the sole method to discover the principles of those laws, is to set out with the study of the nature and state of man, and to enquire afterwards into what is essentially agreeable to his perfection and happiness.

[Proofs by experience. 1. Virtue is of itself the principle of an inward satisfaction; and vice a principle of disquiet and trouble.]

V. But that, which appears so clear and so well established by reason, is rendered incontestable by experience. In fact we generally observe, that virtue, that is, the observance of the laws of nature, is of itself a source of internal satisfaction, and that it is infinitely advantageous in its effects, whether in particular to individuals, or to human society in general, whereas vice is attended with quite different consequences,

Whatever is contrary to the light of reason and conscience cannot but be accompanied with a secret disapprobation of mind, and afford us vexation and shame. The heart is afflicted with the idea of the crime, and the remembrance thereof is always bitter and sorrowful. On the contrary, every conformity to right reason is a state of order and perfection, which the mind approves; and we are framed in such a manner, that a good action becomes the seed as it were of a secret joy; and we always recollect it with pleasure. And Indeed what can be sweeter or more comfortable, than to be able to bear an inward testimony to ourselves, that we are what we ought to be, and that we perform what is reasonably our duty, what fits us best, and is most conformable to our natural destination? Whatever is natural is agreeable; and whatever is according to order, is a subject of satisfaction and content.

[Of external goods and evils, which are the consequence of virtue and vice.]

VI. Besides this internal principle of joy, which attends the practice of natural laws, we find it produces externally all sorts of good effects. It tends to preserve our health, and to prolong our days; it exercises and perfects the faculties of the mind; it renders us fit for labour, and for all the functions of domestic and civil life; it secures to us the right use and possession of all our goods and property; it prevents a great number of evils, and softens those it cannot prevent; it procures us the confidence, esteem, and affection of other men; whence result the greatest comforts of social life, and the most effectual helps for the success of our undertakings.

Observe on what the public security, the tranquillity of families, the prosperity of states, and the absolute welfare of every individual are founded. Is it not on the grand principles of religion, temperance, modesty, beneficence, justice, and sincerity? Whence arise, on the contrary, the greatest part of the disorders and evils, that trouble society, and break in upon the happiness of man? Whence, but from the neglect of those very principles? Besides the inquietude and infamy, that generally accompanies irregularity and debauch, vice is likewise attended with a multitude of external evils, such as the enfeebling of the body and mind, distempers and untoward accidents, poverty very often and misery, violent and dangerous parties, domestic jars, enmities, continual fears, dishonor, punishments, contempt, hatred, and a thousand crosses and difficulties in every thing we undertake One of the ancients has very elegantly said,3 that malice drinks one half her own poison.

[These different effects of virtue and vice are still greater among those who are invested with power and authority.]

VII. But if such are the natural consequences of virtue and vice in respect to the generality of mankind, these effects are still greater among those, who by their condition and rank have a particular influence on the state of society, and determine the fate of other men. What calamities might not the subjects apprehend, if their sovereigns were to imagine themselves superior to rule, and independent of all law; if, directing every thing to themselves, they were to listen only to their own whims and caprice, and to abandon themselves to injustice, ambition, avarice, and cruelty? What good, on the contrary, must not arise from the government of a wise and virtuous prince; who, considering himself under a particular obligation of never deviating from the rules of piety, justice, moderation, and beneficence, exercises his power with no other view, but to maintain order within, and security without, and places his glory in ruling his subjects uprightly, that is, in making them wise and happy? We need only have recourse to history, and consult experience, to be convinced, that these are real truths, which no reasonable person can contest.

[Confirmation of this truth by the confession of all nations.]

VIII. This is a truth so generally acknowledged, that all the institutions, which men form among themselves for their common good and advantage, are founded on the observance of the laws of nature; and that even the precautions, taken to secure the effect of these institutions, would be vain and useless, were it not for the authority of those very laws. This is what is manifestly supposed by all human laws in general; by the establishments for the education of youth; by the political regulations, which tend to promote the arts and commerce; and by public as well as private treaties. For of what use would all those things be, or what benefit could accrue from them, were we not previously to establish them on justice, probity, sincerity, and the sacred inviolability of an oath, as on their real foundation and basis?

[Confirmation of the same truth, by the absurdity of the contrary.]

IX. But in order to be more sensibly satisfied of this truth, let any one try, who pleases, to form a system of morality on principles directly opposite to those, we have now established. Let us suppose, that ignorance and prejudice take the place of knowledge and reason; that caprice and passion are substituted instead of prudence and virtue. Let us banish justice and benevolence from society, and from the commerce of mankind, to make room for unjust self-love, which, calculating every thing for itself, takes no notice of other people’s interest, or of the public advantage. Let us extend and apply these principles to the particular conditions of human life, and we shall see what must be the result of a system of this kind, were it ever to be received and pass for a rule. Can we imagine it would be able to produce the happiness of society, the good of families, the advantage of nations, and the welfare of mankind? No one has ever yet attempted to maintain such a paradox; so evident and glaring is the absurdity thereof.

[Answer to some particular objections.]

X. I am not ignorant, that injustice and passion are capable in particular cases of procuring some pleasure or advantage. But, not to mention that virtue produces much oftener and with greater certainty the same effects; reason and experience inform us, that the good, procured by injustice, is not so real, so durable, nor so pure, as that, which is the fruit of virtue. This is because the former, being unconformable to the state of a rational and social being, is defective in its principle, and has only a deceitful appearance.4 It is a flower, which, having no root, withers and falls almost as soon as it blossoms.

With regard to such evils and misfortunes, as are annexed to humanity, and to which it may be said, that virtuous people are exposed as well as others; certain it is, that virtue has here also a great many advantages. In the first place, it is very proper of itself to prevent or remove several of those evils; and thus we observe that wise and sober people actually escape a great many precipices and snares, into which the vicious and inconsiderate are hurried. 2. In cases, wherein wisdom and prudence cannot prevent those evils, yet it gives the soul a sufficient vigor to support them, and counterbalances them with sweets and consolations, which contribute to abate in great measure their impression. Virtue is attended with an inseparable contentment, of which nothing can bereave us; and our essential happiness is very little impaired by the transitory and, in some measure, external accidents, that sometimes disturb us.

Surprised I am, says Isocrates,5 that any one should imagine, that those, who adhere constantly to piety and justice, must expect to be more unhappy than the unrighteous, and have not a right to premise themselves greater advantages from the gods and men. For my part, I am of opinion, that the virtuous alone abundantly enjoy whatever is worthy of our pursuit; and the wicked, on the contrary, are entirely ignorant of their real interests. He, that prefers injustice to justice, and makes his sovereign good consist in depriving another man of his property, is like methinks to those brute creatures, that we caught by the bait. The unjust acquisition flatters his senses at first, but he soon finds himself involved in very great evils. Those on the contrary, who take up with justice and piety, are not only safe for the present, but have likewise reason to conceive good hopes for the remainder of their lives. I own indeed, that this does not always happen; yet his generally confirmed by experience. Now in things, whose success cannot be infallibly foreseen, it is the business of a prudent man to embrace that side, which most generally turns out to his advantage. But nothing is more unreasonable, than the opinion of these, who, believing that justice has something in it more beautiful and more agreeable to the gods than injustice, imagine nevertheless that those, who embrace the former, are more happy than such as abandon themselves to the latter.

[The advantage always ranges itself on the side of virtue; and this is the first sanction of the laws of nature.]

XI. Thus, every thing duly considered, the advantage is without comparison on the side of virtue. It manifestly appears, that the scheme of the divine wisdom was to establish a natural connexion between physical and moral evil, as between the effect and the cause; and, on the contrary, to entail physical good, or the happiness of man, on moral good, or the practice of virtue; insomuch that, generally speaking, and pursuant to the original institution of things, the observance of natural laws is as proper and necessary to advance both the public and particular happiness, as temperance and good regimen is naturally conducive to the preservation of health. And as these natural rewards and punishments of virtue and vice are an effect of the divine institution, they may be really considered, as a kind of sanction of the laws of nature, which adds a considerable authority to the maxims of right reason.

[General difficulty drawn from the exceptions, which render this first sanction insufficient.]

XII. And yet we must acknowledge, that this first sanction does not as yet seem sufficient to give all the authority and weight of real laws to the counsels of reason. For, if we consider the thing strictly, we shall find, that, by the constitution of human things, and by our natural dependance upon one another, the general rule above mentioned is not so fixt and invariable, but it admits of divers exceptions, by which the force and effect thereof must certainly be weakened.

[The goods and evils of nature and fortune are distributed unequally, and not according to each person’s merit.]

1. Experience in general shows us, that the degree of happiness or misery, which every one enjoys in this world, is not always exactly proportioned and measured to the degree of virtue or vice of each particular person. Thus health, the goods of fortune, education, situation of life, and other external advantages, generally depend on a variety of conjunctures, which render their distribution very unequal; and these advantages are frequently lost by accidents, to which all men are equally subject. True it is, that the difference of rank or riches does not absolutely determine the happiness or misery of life; yet agree we must, that extreme poverty, the privation of all necessary means of instruction, excessive labour, afflictions of the mind, and pains of the body, are real evils, which a variety of casualties may bring as well upon virtuous as other men.

[The evils produced by injustice, fall as well upon the innocent, as the guilty.]

2. Besides this unequal distribution of natural goods and evils, honest men are no more sheltered, than others, from divers evils arising from malice, injustice, violence, and ambition. Such are the persecutions of tyrants, the horrors of war, and so many other public or private calamities, to which the good and the bad are indiscriminately subject. It even frequently happens, that the authors of all those miseries are those, who feel least their effects; either because of their extraordinary success and good fortune, or because their insensibility is arrived to that pitch, as to let them enjoy, almost without trouble and remorse, the fruit of their iniquities.

[Sometimes even virtue itself is the cause of persecution.]

3. Again. It is not unusual to see innocence exposed to calumny, and virtue itself becomes the object of persecution. Now in those particular cases, in which the honest man falls, as it were, a victim to his own virtue, what force can the laws of nature be said to have, and how can their authority be supported? Is the internal satisfaction, arising from the testimony of a good conscience able alone to determine man to sacrifice his property, bis repose, his honor, and even his life? And yet those delicate conjunctures frequently happen; and the resolution then taken may have very important and extensive consequences in relation to the happiness and misery of society.

[The means which human prudence employs to remedy those disorders, are likewise insufficient.]

XIII. Such is indeed the actual state of things. On the one side we see, that in general the observance of natural laws is alone capable of establishing some order in society, and of constituting the happiness of man; but on the other it appears, that virtue and vice are not always sufficiently characterised by their effects, and by their common and natural consequences, to make this order on all occasions prevail.

Hence arises a considerable difficulty against the moral system by us established. All laws, some will say, ought to have a sufficient sanction to determine a reasonable creature to obey, by the prospect of its own good and interest, which is always the the primum mobile of its actions. Now though the moral system, you have spoke of, gives in general a great advantage to its followers over those, who neglect it; yet this advantage is neither so great, nor so sure, as to be capable of indemnifying us sufficiently in each particular case for the sacrifices, we are obliged to make in the discharge of our duty. This system is not therefore as yet supported with all the authority and force, necessary for the end, that God proposes; and the character of law, especially of a law, proceeding from an allwise being, requires still a more distinct, surer, and more extensive sanction.

That legislators and politicians have been sensible of this deficiency is manifest, by their endeavouring to supply it in the best manner they are able. They have published a civil law, which tends to strengthen the law of nature; they have denounced punishments against vice, promised rewards to virtue, and erected tribunals. This is undoubtedly a new support of justice, and the best method, that could be contrived to prevent the forementioned inconveniencies. And yet this method does not provide against every disorder, but leaves still a great vacuum in the moral system.

For 1. There are several evils, as well natural as arising from human injustice, from which all the powers of man cannot preserve even the most virtuous. 2. Human laws are not always drawn up in conformity to justice and equity. 3. Let them be supposed never so just, they cannot extend to every case. 4. The execution of those laws is sometimes committed to weak, ignorant, or corrupt men. 5. How great soever the integrity of a magistrate may be, still there are many things, that escape his vigilance. He cannot see and redress every grievance. 6. It is not an unexampled case, that virtue, instead of finding a protector in its judge, meets with an implacable enemy. What resource shall be left to innocence in that case? To whom shall she fly for succor, if the very person, who ought to undertake her protection and defence, is armed against her.

XIV. Thus the difficulty still subsists; a great difficulty of very great consequence, because on the one side it makes against the plan of a divine providence, and on the other it may contribute to invalidate what we have said in respect to the empire of virtue, and its necessary connexion with the felicity of man.

So weighty an objection, that has been started in all ages, deserves we should carefully endeavour to remove it. But the greater and more real it is, the more probably we may presume it has a proper solution. For how is it to be imagined, that the Divine Wisdom could have left such an imperfection, such an enigma in the moral order, after having regulated every thing so well in the physical world?

Let us therefore see whether some new reflections on the nature and distinction of man, will not direct us to a different place from the present life, for the solution we are here inquiring. What has been said concerning the natural consequences of virtue and vice on this earth already shows us a demi-sanction of the laws of nature. Let us try whether we cannot find an entire and proper one, whose species, degree, time, and manner, depend on the good will of the legislator, and are sufficient to make all the compensations, required by strict justice, and to place in this, as in every other respect, the system of the divine laws much above those of human institution.


   1.    See Puffendorf, Law of Nature and Nations, book ii, chap. iii. sect. 21.
   2.    See part i. chap. x. sect. 11.
   3.    Seneca, ep. 82. Quemadmodum Attalus noster dicere solebat, malitia ipsa maximam partem veneni sui bibit.
   4.    See part i, chap. vi. sect. 3.
   5.    Qaumaza d si tis oistai taV thn eusixeian kai thn dikaiosunhn askantaV, kai karteresn kai menesn en tatoiV eqelontaV, elai on ezein tvn ponhpvn. all ac hgamenaV kai para JeoiV kai para anqrwpoiV pleon oisesqai, tvn allwn. egw men gar oiomai tataV monaV, wn dei pleonektein, taV d allaV ade ginwskein aden wn beltion estin. orv gar taV men thn adikian protimvntaV, kai to laxein ti tvn alletriwn megiston agaqon nouizontaV, omoia pascontaV toiV deleazomenoiV tvn zwwn, kai katarcaV men apolauontaV wn an laxwsin, oligw d usteron en toiV megistoiV kakoiV ontaV. taV de met eusexeiaV kai dikaiosunhV zvntaV, eu te toiV parasi cronoiV asjalvV diagontaV, kai peri ta sumpantoV aivnoV hdiaV taV elpidaV econtaV. kai taut ei mh kata pantwn atwV eiqistai sumxainein, alla to g wV epi to polu taton gignetai ton tropon. crh de taV eu fronantaV, epeidh to mellon aei sunoisein a kaqorvmen, to pollakiV wqelan tato fainesqai proairamenaV. pantwn d alogwtaton peponqasin, osoi kallion men epithdeuma nomizasin einai, kai Jeojilesteron thn dikaiosunhn thV adikiaV. ceiron d ozoetai biwsesqai taV tauth crwmenaV, tvn thn ponhrian prohrhmenwn. Isocrat. Orat. de Permutatione.