The Principles of Natural and Politic Law (1748)
Jean Jacques Burlamaqui
Of the real origin of civil societies.
I. CIVIL society is nothing more, than the union of a multitude of people, who agree to live in subjection to a sovereign, in order to find, through his protection and care, the happiness, to which they naturally aspire.
II. Whenever the question concerning the origin of civil society is started, it may be considered in two different ways; for either I am asked my opinion concerning the origin of governments in reality and in fact; or else in regard to the right of congruity and fitness; that is, what are the reasons, which should induce mankind to renounce their natural liberty, and to prefer a civil state to that of nature? Let us see first what can be said in regard to the fact.
III. As the establishment of society and civil government is almost coeval with the world, and there are but very few records extant of those first ages; nothing can be advanced with certainty concerning the real origin of civil societies. All, that political writers say upon this subject, is reduced to conjectures, that have more or less probability.
IV. Some attribute the origin of civil societies to paternal authority. These observe, that all the ancient traditions inform us, that the first men lived a long time; by this longevity, joined to the multiplicity of wives, which was then permitted, a great number of families saw themselves united under the authority of one grandfather; and as it is difficult for a society, any thing numerous, to maintain itself without a supreme authority, it is natural to imagine, that their children, accustomed from their infancy to respect and obey their fathers, voluntarily resigned the supreme command into their hands, so soon as they arrived to a full maturity of reason.
V. Others suppose, that the fear and diffidence, which mankind had of one another, was their inducement to unite together under a chief, in order to shelter themselves from those mischiefs, which they apprehended. From the iniquity of the first men, say they, proceed war, as also the necessity, to which they were reduced, of submitting to masters, by whom their rights and privileges might be determined.
VI. Some there are in fine, who pretend, that the first beginnings of civil societies are to be attributed to ambition, supported by force or abilities. The most dexterous, the strongest, and the most ambitious reduced at first the simplest and weakest into subjection; those growing states were afterwards insensibly strengthened by conquests, and by the concurrence of such, as became voluntary members of those societies.
VII. Such are the principal conjectures of political writers in regard to the origin of societies, to which let us add a few reflections.
The first is, that, in the institution of societies, mankind in all probability thought father of redressing the evils, which they had experienced, than of procuring the several advantages resulting from laws, from commerce, from the arts and sciences, and from all those other improvements so frequently mentioned in history.
2. The natural disposition of mankind, and their general manner of acting, do not by any means permit us to refer the institution of all governments to a general and uniform principle. More natural it is to think, that different circumstances gave rise to different states.
3. We behold without doubt the first image of government in democratic society, or in families; but there is all the probability in the world, that it was ambition, supported by force or abilities, which first subjected the several fathers of families under the dominion of a chief. This appears very agreeable to the natural disposition of mankind, and seems further supported by the manner, in which the scripture speaks of Nimrod,1 the first king mentioned in history.
4. When such a body politic was once framed, several others joined themselves to it afterwards through different motives; and other fathers of families, being afraid of insults or oppression from those growing states, determined to form themselves Into the like societies, and to choose to themselves a chief.
5. Be this as it may, we must not imagine, that those first states were such, as exist in our days. Human institutions are ever weak and imperfect in their beginnings, there is nothing but time and experience, that can gradually bring them to perfection.
The first states were in all probability very small. Kings in those days were only a kind of chieftains, or particular magistrates, appointed for deciding disputes, ox for the command of armies. Hence we find by the most ancient histories, that there were sometimes several kings in one and the same nation.
VIII. But to conclude, whatever can be said in regard to the original of the first governments consists, according to what we have already observed, in mere conjectures, that have only more or less probability. Besides this is a question rather curious, than useful or necessary; the point of importance, and that particularly interesting to mankind, is to know whether the establishment of government and of supreme authority, was really necessary, and whether mankind derive from it any considerable advantages. This is what we call the right of congruity or fitness, and what we are going now to examine.
1. See Genesis 10:8, and seq.