The Principles of Natural and Politic Law (1748)

Jean Jacques Burlamaqui

That the proofs we have alledged have such a probability and fitness, as renders them sufficient to fix our belief, and to determine our conduct.

I. WE have seen how far our reason is capable of conducting us with regard to the important question of the immortality of the soul, and a future state of rewards and punishments. Each of the proofs, we have alledged, has without doubt its particular force; but joining to the assistance of one another, and acquiring a greater strength by their union, they are certainly capable of making an impression on every attentive and unprejudiced mind, and ought to appear sufficient to establish the authority and sanction of natural law in as full an extent as we desire.

[Objections. These proofs contain no more than a fit or suitable reason. General answer.]

II. If any one should say, that all our reasonings on this subjects are only probability and conjecture, and properly reducible to a plausible reason or fitness, which leaves the thing still at a greater distance from demonstration; I shall agree, if he pleases, that we have not here a complete evidence; yet the probability, methinks, is so very strong, and the fitness so great and so well established, that this is sufficient to make it prevail over the contrary opinion, and consequently to determine us.

For we should be strangely embarrassed, if in every question, that arises, we should refuse to be determined by any thing but a demonstrative argument. Most commonly we are obliged to be satisfied with an assemblage of probabilities, which, in a conjunct consideration, very seldom deceive us, and ought to supply the place of evidence in subjects unsusceptible of demonstration. It is thus that in natural philosophy, in physic, criticism, history, politics, commerce, and generally in all the affairs of life, a prudent man is determined by a concurrence of reasons, which, every thing considered, he judges superior to the opposite arguments.

[What is meant by a suitable reason.]

III. In order to render the force of this kind of proof more obvious, it will not be amiss to explain here at first what we mean by a plausible reason or fitness; to inquire afterwards into the general principle, on which this sort of reasoning is founded; and to see in particular what constitutes its force, when applied to the law of nature. This will be the right way to know the just value of our arguments, and what weight they ought to have in our determinations.

A plausible reason or fitness is that, which is drawn from the necessity of admitting a point as certain, for the perfection of a system in other respects solid, useful, and well connected, but which would be defective without this point; when there is no reason to suppose that it has any essential effect.1 For example, upon beholding a great and magnificent palace, we remark an admirable symmetry and proportion; where all the rules of art, which form the solidity, convenience, and beauty of a building, are strictly observed. In short all that we see of the building denotes an able architect. May it not therefore be reasonably supposed, that the foundation, which we do not see, is equally solid and proportioned to the great mass it bears? Can it be imagined, that the architect’s ability and knowledge should have forsaken him in so important a point? In order to form such a supposition, we should have certain proofs of this deficiency, or have seen, that in fact the foundation is imperfect; otherwise we could not presume so improbable a thing. Who is it, that, on a mere metaphysical possibility of the architect’s having neglected to lay the foundation, would venture a wager, that the thing is really so?

[General foundation of this manner of reasoning.]

IV. Such is the nature of fitness. The general foundation, of this manner of reasoning is, that we must consider not only what is possible, but what is probable; and that a truth, of itself very little known, acquires a probability by its natural connexion with other truths more obvious. Thus natural philosophers do not question that they have discovered the truth, when an hypothesis happily explains all the phenomena; and an event, very little known in history, appears no longer doubtful, when we see it serves for a key and basis to many other indubitable events. It is on this principle in a great measure, that moral certainty is founded,2 which is so much used in most sciences, as well in the conduct of life, and in things of the greatest importance to individuals, families, and to the whole society.

[This kind of fitness is every strong in respect to natural law.]

V. But if this manner of judging and reasoning takes place so frequently in human affairs, and is in general founded on so solid a principle; it is still much surer when we are to reason on the works of God, to discover his plan, and to judge of his views and designs. For the whole universe, with the several, systems, that compose it, and particularly the system of man and society, are the work of a supreme understanding. Nothing has been done by chance, nothing depends on a blind, capricious, or impotent cause; every thing has been calculated and measured with a profound wisdom. Here therefore, more than any where else, we have a right to judge, that so powerful and so wise an author, has omitted nothing necessary for the perfection of his plan; and that consistent with himself he has fitted it with all the essential parts, for the design he proposed. If we ought to presume reasonably such a care in an able architect, who is nothing more than a man subject to error; how much more ought we to presume it in a being of infinite wisdom?

[This fitness has different degrees. Principles to judge of it.]

VI. What we have been now saying shews, that this fitness is not always of the same weight, but may be more or less strong in proportion to the greater or less necessity, on which it is established. And to lay down rules on this subject, we may say in general, 1. That the more we know the views and design of the author; 2. The more we are assured of his wisdom and power; 3. The more this power and wisdom are perfect; 4. The more considerable are the inconveniences, that result from the opposite system; and the more they border upon the absurd; the more pressing we find the consequences, drawn from this sort of considerations. For then we have nothing to set in opposition to them by way of counterbalance; and consequently it is on that side, we are determined by right reason.

VII. These principles are of themselves applicable to our subject, and this in so just and complete a manner, that the reason, drawn from probability or fitness, cannot be carried any farther. After what has been said in the preceding chapters, it would be entering into useless repetitions to attempt to prove here all the particulars; the thing sufficiently proves itself. Let us be satisfied with observing, that the fitness in favor of the sanction of natural laws is so much the stronger and more pressing, as the contrary opinion throws into the system of humanity an obscurity and confusion, which borders very much upon the absurd, if it does not come quite up to it. The plan of the Divine Wisdom becomes in respect to us an insoluble enigma; we are no longer able to account for any thing; and we cannot tell why so necessary a thing should be wanting in a plan so beautiful in other respects, so useful, and so perfectly connected.

VIII. Let us draw a comparison between the two systems, to see which is most conformable to order, most suitable to the nature and state of man, and, in short, most reasonable and worthy of God.

Suppose, on one side, that the Creator proposed the perfection and felicity of his creatures, and in particular the good of man and society. That for this purpose, having invested man with understanding and liberty, and rendered him capable of knowing his end, of discovering and following the road, that can alone conduct him to it, he lays him under a strict obligation of walking constantly in this road, and of ever following the light of reason, which ought always to direct his steps. That in order to guide him the better, he has given him all the principles necessary to serve him as a rule. That this direction and these principles, coming from a powerful, wise, and good superior, have all the characteristics of a real law. That this law carries already along with it, even in this life, its rewards and punishments; but that this first sanction being insufficient. God, in order to give to a plan so worthy of his wisdom and goodness its fall perfection, and to furnish mankind in all possible cases with necessary motives and helps, has moreover established a proper sanction in respect to natural law, which will be manifested in a future life; and that, attentive to the conduct of man, he proposes to make him give an account of his actions, to recompense virtue, and to punish vice, by a retribution exactly proportioned to the merit or demerit of each person.

Let us set now in opposition to this first system the other, which supposes that every thing is limited, in respect to man, to the present life, and that he has nothing to hope or fear beyond this term; that God, after having created man and instituted society, concerns himself no more about them; that, after giving us a power of discerning good and evil by the help of reason, he takes no manner of notice of the use we make thereof, but leaves us in such a manner to ourselves, that we are absolutely at liberty to do as we please; that we shall have no account to give to our Creator, and that, notwithstanding the unequal and irregular distribution of the goods and evils of this life, notwithstanding the disorders caused by rhe malice or injustice of mankind, we have no redress or compensation ever to expect from God.

[The system of the sanction of natural laws is far preferable to the opposite system.]

IX. Can any one say, that this last system is comparable to the first? Does it set the divine perfections in so great a light? Is it so worthy of the divine wisdom, bounty, and justice? Is it so proper to stem the torrent of vice, and to support virtue, in delicate and dangerous conjunctures? Does it render the structure of society as solid, and invest the laws of nature with such an authority, as the glory of the supreme Legislator and the good of humanity require? Were we to choose between two societies, one of which admitted the former system, while the other acknowledged only the latter, is there a prudent man, who would not highly prefer to live in the first of these societies?

There is certainly no comparison between those two systems, in respect to beauty and fitness; the first is a work of the most perfect reason; the second is defective, and provides no manner of remedy against a great many disorders. Now even this alone points out sufficiently on which side the truth lies; because the business is to judge and reason of the designs and works of the Deity, who does every thing with infinite wisdom.

[Objection. Answer.]

X. Let no one say, that, limited as we are, it is temerity to decide after this manner; and that we have too imperfect ideas of the divine nature and perfections, to be able to judge of his plan and designs with any certainty. This reflection, which is in some measure true, and in some cases just, proves too much, if applied to our subject, and consequently has no weight. Let us but reflect a little, and we shall find, that this thought leads us insensibly to a kind of pyrrhonism, which would be the subversion of all order and economy. For in fine there is no medium; we must choose one of the two systems, above explained. To reject the first is admitting the second with all its inconveniences. This remark is of some importance, and alone is almost sufficient to show us the force of fitness in this case; because not to acknowledge the solidity of this reason is to lay one’s self under a necessity of receiving a defective system; a system loaded with inconveniences, and whose consequences are very far from being reasonable.

[Of the influence, which those proofs ought to have over our conduct. We should act in this world on the foundation of the belief of a future state.]

XI. Such are the nature and force of the fitness, on which the proofs of the sanction of natural laws are established. All, that remains now, is to see what impression these proofs united ought to make on our minds, and what influence they should have over our conduct. This is the capital point, in which the whole ought to terminate.

1. In the first place I observe, that though all, that can be said in favor of the sanction of natural laws, were still to leave the question undecided, yet it would be reasonable even in this very uncertainty to act, as if it had been determined in the affirmative. For it is evidently the safest side, namely that, in which there is less at all events to lose, and more to gain. Let us state the thing as dubious. If there be a future state, it is not only an error not to believe it, but likewise a dangerous irregularity to act, as if there were no such thing. An error of this kind is attended with pernicious consequences; whereas, if there is no such thing, the mistake in believing it produces in general none but good effects; it is not subject to any inconveniences hereafter, nor does it, generally speaking, expose us to any great difficulties for the time present. Be it therefore as it may, and let the case be ever so unfavorable to natural laws, a prudent man will never hesitate which side he is to embrace, whether the observance, or the violation of those laws. Virtue will certainly have the preference of vice.

2. But if this side of the question is the most prudent and eligible, even under a supposition of doubt and uncertainty, how much more will it be so, if we acknowledge, as we cannot avoid, that this opinion is at least more probable than the other? A first degree of verisimilitude, or a simple though slight probability, becomes a reasonable motive of determination, in respect to every man, who calculates and reflects. And, if it be prudent to conduct ourselves by this principle in the ordinary affairs of life, does prudence permit us to deviate from this very road in the most important affairs, such as essentially interest our felicity?

3. But in fine if proceeding still further, and reducing the thing to its true point, it is agreed that we have actually, if not a strict demonstration of a future life, at least a probability, founded on many reasonable presumptions, and so great a fitness, as borders very near upon certainty; it is still more evident, that, in the present state of things, we ought to act on this footing, and are not reasonably allowed to form any other rule of conduct.3

[It is a necessary consequence of our nature and state.]

XII. Nothing indeed is more worthy of a rational being, than to seek for evidence on every subject, and to be determined only by clear and certain principles. But since all subjects are not susceptible thereof, and yet we are obliged to determine; what would become of us, if we were always to wait for a perfect demonstration? In failure of the highest degree of certainty, we must take up with the next to it; and a great probability becomes a sufficient reason of acting, when there is none of equal weight to oppose it. If this side of the question be not in itself evidently certain, it is at least an evident and certain rule, that, in the present state of things, it ought to have the preference.

This is a necessary consequence of our nature and condition. As we have only a limited knowledge, and yet are under a nesessity of determining and acting; were it requisite for this purpose to have a perfect certainty, and were we to refuse to accept of probability, as a principle of determination, we should be either obliged to determine in favor of the least probable side, and contrary to verisimilitude, (which nobody methinks will attempt to maintain) or we should be forced to spend our days in doubt and uncertainty; to fluctuate continually in a state of irresolution, and to remain ever in suspence, without acting, without resolving upon any thing, or without having any fixt rule of conduct; which would be a total subversion of the system of humanity.

[Reason lays us under an obligation of so doing.]

XIII. But if it be reasonable in general to admit of fitness and probability, as the rule of conduct, for want of evidence; this rule becomes still more necessary and just in particular cases, in which, as hath been already observed, a person runs no risk in following it. When there is nothing to lose if we are mistaken, and a great deal to win if we are not; what can we desire more for a rational motive of acting? Especially when the opposite side exposes us to very great danger, in case of error; and affords us no manner of advantage, supposing we are in the right. Under such circumstances there is no room for hesitating; reason obliges us to embrace the safest side; and this obligation is so much the stronger, as it arises from a concurrence of motives of the greatest weight and solidity.

In short if it be reasonable to embrace this side, even in case of an entire uncertainty, it is still more so when there is some probability in its favor; it becomes necessary if these probabilities are cogent and numerous; and in fine the necessity still increases, if, at all events, this is the safest and most advantageous part. What can any one desire more, in order to produce a real obligation,4 according to the principles we have established in regard to the internal obligation imposed by reason?

[It is a duty that God himself imposes on us.]

XIV. Again. This internal and primitive obligation is confirmed by the Divine Will itself, and consequently rendered as strong, as possible. In fact, this manner of judging and acting being, as we have seen, the result of our constitution, such as the Creator has formed it; this alone is certain proof, that it is the will of God we should be directed by those principles, and consider it is a point of duty. For whatever, as we have already observed,5 is inherent in the nature of man, whatever is a consequence of his original constitution and state, acquaints us dearly and distinctly with the will of the Creator, with the use he expects we should make of our faculties, and the obligations, to which he has thought proper to subject us. This is a point, that merits great attention. For if we may affirm, without fear of mistake, that the Deity is actually willing, that man should conduct himself in this life on the foundation of the belief of a future state, and as having every thing to hope or to fear on his side, according as he has acted justly or unjustly; does there not thence arise a more than probable proof of the reality of this state, and of the certainty of rewards and punishments? Otherwise we should be obliged to say, that God himself deceives us, because this error was necessary for the execution of his designs, as a principle essential to the plan he has formed in respect to humanity. But to speak after this manner of the most perfect Being, of a Being, whose power, wisdom, and goodness, are infinite, would be using a language equally absurd and indecent. For this very reason, that as the abovementioned article of belief is necessary to mankind, and enters into the views of the Creator, it cannot be false. Whatever the Deity sets before us as a duty, or as a reasonable principle of conduct, must be certainly true.


XV. Thus every thing concurs to establish the authority of natural laws. 1. The approbation they receive from reason. 2. The express command of God, 3. The real advantages, which their observance procures us in this world; and in fine the great hopes and just fears, we ought to have in respect to futurity, according as we have observed or despised those laws. Thus it is that God binds us to the practice of virtue by such strong and so numerous connexions, that every man, who consults and listens to reason, finds himself under an indispensable obligation of rendering them the invariable rule of his conduct.

XVI. Some perhaps will object, that we have been too diffusive in respect to the sanction of natural laws. True it is, that most of those, who have written concerning the law of nature, are more concise on this article, and Puffendorf himself does not say much about it.6 This author, without absolutely excluding the consideration of a future life from this science, seems nevertheless to confine the law of nature within the bounds of the present life, as tending only to render us sociable.7 And yet he acknowledges, that man is naturally desirous of immortality, and that this has induced heathens to believe the soul immortal; that this belief is likewise authorised by an ancient tradition concerning the goddess of revenge; to which he adds, that in fact it is very probable God will punish the violation of the laws of nature; but that there is still a great obscurity in this respect, and nothing but revelation can put the thing out of doubt.8

But were it even true, that reason affords us nothing but probabilities in regard to this question, yet we must not exclude from the law of nature all considerations of a future state; especially if these probabilities are so very great, as to border upon certainty. The above article enters necessarily into the system of this science, and forms a part thereof so much the more essential, that, were it not for this, the authority of natural law would be weakened, as we have already demonstrated; and it would be difficult (to say nothing more) to establish on any solid grounds several important duties, which oblige us to sacrifice our greatest advantages to the good of society or to the support of equity and justice. Necessary therefore it was to examine with some care, how far our natural light may lead us in respect to this question, and to show the force of the proofs, that our reason affords us, and the influence those proofs ought to have over our conduct.

True it is, as we have already observed, that the best way to know the will of God in this respect, would be an express declaration on his part. But if reasoning, as mere philosophers, we have not been able to make use of so decisive a proof, nothing can hinder us, as Christian philosophers, from availing ourselves of the advantage we have from revelation, in order to strengthen our conjectures. Nothing indeed can be a better argument, that we have reasoned and conjectured right, than the positive declaration of the Deity on this important point. For, since it appears in fact, that God is willing to recompense virtue and to punish vice in another life, it is no longer possible to doubt of what we have advanced, namely, that this is extremely conformable to his wisdom, goodness, and justice. The proofs, we have drawn from the nature of man, from God’s designs in his favor, from the wisdom and equity, with which he governs the world, and from the present state of things, are not a work of the imagination, or an illusion of selflove; no, they are reflections dictated by right reason. And when revelation comes up to their assistance, it sets then in full evidence what already had been rendered probable by the sole light of nature.

But the reflection, we have here made, regards not only the sanction of natural laws, it may also be extended to the other parts of this work. It is to us a great pleasure to see, that the principles, we have laid down, are exactly those, that the Christian religion adopts for its basis, and on which the whole structure of religion and morality is raised. If on one side this remark serves to confirm us in these principles, by assuring us, that we have hit upon the true system of nature; on the other, it ought to dispose us to have an infinite esteem for a revelation, which perfectly confirms the law of nature, and converts moral philosophy into a religious and popular doctrine; a doctrine, founded on facts, and in which the authority and promises of the Deity manifestly intervene in the fittest manner to make an impression upon man. This happy agreement between natural and revealed light is equally honorable to both.



   1.    See chap. viii, sect. 2.
   2.    See M. Boullier’s philosophical essay on the souls of brutes, etc. second edition; to which has been joined a treatise of the true principles, that serve as a foundation to moral certainty, Amst. 1737.
   3.    See part i. chap. vi. § 6.
   4.    See part i. chap, vi. sect. 9, and 13.
   5.    See part ii. chap. iv. sect. 5.
   6.    The reader may see in a small treatise, intitled Judgment of anonymous, etc. and inserted in the 5th edition of the Duties of a man and a citizen, the remarks, that Mr. Leibnitz, author of that treatise, makes against Puffendorf upon this score. Barbeyrac, who has joined his own remarks to Mr. Leibnitz’s work, justifies Puffendorf pretty well. And yet an attentive observer will find there is still something wanting to the entire justification of this author’s system.
   7.    See Puffendorf’s Preface on the Duties of Man and a Citizen, sect. 6, 7.
   8.    See the Law of Nature and Nations, book ii. chap. iii. sect. 21.