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Pufendorf on the danger of rulers confusing their own self-interest with that of the State (1695)

The German philosopher of natural law Samuel von Pufendorf (1632-1694) was also an historian who thought that Rulers needed to be better informed about history in order to avoid confusing their own selfish interests with the real interests of the State:

(O)ne might ask, How it often times happens, that great Errors are committed in this kind against the Interest of the State. To this may be answer’d, That those who have the Supream Administration of Affairs, are oftentimes not sufficiently instructed concerning the Interest both of their own State, as also that of their Neighbours; and yet being fond of their own Sentiments, will not follow the Advice of understanding and faithfull Ministers. Sometimes they are misguided by their Passions, or by Time-serving Ministers and Favourites. But where the Administration of the Government is committed to the Care of Ministers of State, it may happen, that these are not capable of discerning it, or else are led away by a private Interest, which is opposite to that of the State; or else, being divided into Factions, they are more concern’d to ruin their Rivals, than to follow the Dictates of Reason.

I must also mention one thing more, which may serve as an Instruction to young Men, viz. That this Interest may be divided into an Imaginary and Real Interest. By the first I understand, when a Prince judges the Welfare of his State to consist in such things as cannot be perform’d without disquieting and being injurious to a great many other States, and which these are oblig’d to oppose with all their Power: As for Example, The Monarchy of Europe, or the universal Monopoly, this being the Fuel with which the whole World may be put into a Flame. Num si vos omnibus imperare vultis, sequitur ut omnes servitutem accipiant? If you would be the only Masters of the World, doth it thence follow, that all others should lay their Necks under your Yoke?9 The Real Interest may be subdivided into a Perpetual and Temporary. The former depends chiefly on the Situation and Constitution of the Country, and the natural Inclinations of the People; the latter, on the Condition, Strength and Weakness of the neighbouring Nations; for as those vary, the Interest must also vary. Whence it often happens, that whereas we are, for our own Security, sometimes oblig’d to assist a neighbouring Nation, which is likely to be oppress’d by a more potent Enemy; we at another time are forc’d to oppose the Designs of those we before assisted; when we find they have recover’d themselves to that degree, as that they may prove Formidable and Troublesome to us.

But seeing this Interest is so manifest to those who are vers’d in State-Affairs, that they can’t be ignorant of it; one might ask, How it often times happens, that great Errors are committed in this kind against the Interest of the State. To this may be answer’d, That those who have the Supream Administration of Affairs, are oftentimes not sufficiently instructed concerning the Interest both of their own State, as also that of their Neighbours; and yet being fond of their own Sentiments, will not follow the Advice of understanding and faithfull Ministers. Sometimes they are misguided by their Passions, or by Time-serving Ministers and Favourites. But where the Administration of the Government is committed to the Care of Ministers of State, it may happen, that these are not capable of discerning it, or else are led away by a private Interest, which is opposite to that of the State; or else, being divided into Factions, they are more concern’d to ruin their Rivals, than to follow the Dictates of Reason. Therefore some of the most exquisite parts of Modern History consists [sic] in this, that one knows the Person who is the Sovereign, or the Ministers, which rule a State, their Capacity, Inclinations, Caprices, Private Interests, manner of proceeding, and the like: Since upon this depends, in a great measure, the good and ill management of a State. For it frequently happens, That a State, which in it self consider’d, is but weak, is made to become very considerable by the good Conduct and Valour of its Governours; whereas a powerfull State, by the ill management of those that sit at the Helm, oftentimes suffers considerably. But as the Knowledge of these Matters appertains properly to those who are employ’d in the management of Foreign Affairs, so it is mutable, considering how often the Scene is chang’d at Court. Wherefore it is better learn’d from Experience and the Conversation of Men well vers’d in these Matters, than from any Books whatsoever. And this is what I thought my self oblig’d to touch upon in a few Words in this Preface.

About this Quotation:

In this quote we see Pufendorf applying his theory of international law and foreign relations to specific historical examples, in this case the recent history of a dozen or so European states. It is designed to serve as a kind of manual for would-be statesmen and rulers with the strong warning that it is too easy for rulers to be deceived by “their Passions, or by Time-serving Ministers and Favourites” into ignoring the real interests of the state and its people. One of the greatest temptations he argues is that rulers want to pursue the “imaginary” goal of creating a “universal monopoly” of power, the desire for which is “the Fuel with which the whole World may be put into a Flame”. The antidote to this temptation of power is the study of history which Pufendorf describes quaintly as “the most pleasant and usefull Study for Persons of Quality, and more particularly for those who design for Employments in the State.”

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