Liberty Matters

Pufendorf: Some Comments on His Intentions and Significance


Samuel Pufendorf is not a household name, and despite our best efforts, Knud Haakonssen and the rest of us contributors to this forum are unlikely to change that.  Pufendorf’s major book, Of the Law of Nature and Nations, is so long and detailed that even his admirers call it ponderous and tedious.  It will challenge the memory capacity of even our most advanced e-readers and the patience of our most advanced human readers.  We are not likely to see this or any Pufendorf book atop the New York Times bestseller list any time soon.
There are nonetheless many reasons why we, at least we scholars, might well be interested in the philosopher and thus in debt to Haakonssen, not only for his interesting contribution to this forum but also for his editorship of Liberty Fund’s invaluable series of natural-law texts and perhaps most of all for undertaking a new edition of Pufendorf’s huge masterwork. Kudos to Knud.
Pufendorf, for those not immersed in 17th-century texts, was a German philosopher whose life spanned the second two-thirds of the 17th century, a truly great period in political philosophy, for it encompassed the working years of Hugo Grotius, Thomas Hobbes, Baruch Spinoza, and John Locke, to name a few of the century’s luminaries. Pufendorf in his day was seen as comparable to these greats, before suffering a decline in reputation in the next century. One indication of the esteem in which he was held is Locke’s recommendation of Pufendorf’s On the Law of Nature as “the best book of that kind” in his Thoughts concerning Reading and Study.[4] This was not mere puffery by Locke, for readers knowledgeable in Pufendorf can find many tracks of the German thinker all through Locke’s writings on politics and even in his Essay concerning Human Understanding.(Compare Locke on mixed modes and Pufendorf on moral concepts as modes in Bk. I ch.1 of On the Law of Nature.)[5]
Setting Pufendorf in a larger context we can see his importance—then and even now—in the way he responded to the particular challenge of his century. Sometimes people speak of the Reformation Settlement, but it would be more accurate to call the 17th century the period of the Reformation unsettlement of Europe. To simplify a great deal, the dominant mode of thinking in Europe pre-Reformation was Christian Aristotelianism, a mixture in which Christianity was essentially Catholicism and Aristotle was the philosophic component of a more or less coherent synthesis.  The traditional natural-law doctrine, as developed by Thomas Aquinas many years before, and adhered to in many variants up through the 17th century, was a leading instantiation of this Christian Aristotelianism. With the coming of the Reformation and, not long after, of the new natural philosophy/natural science, this synthesis shattered, as though the large atom of Christian Aristotelianism had been subjected to a particle beam of very high energy. What been a rather coherent body of thought broke into a bevy of successor doctrines, some bearing strong resemblance to the original synthesis (e.g., Francisco Suarez, Richard Hooker), others eschewing the philosophic dimension and building on the Christian elements (e.g., Martin Luther, Robert Filmer), and yet others setting to one side all sectarian or even theistic concerns to construct secular political philosophies (e.g., Spinoza, Grotius, Hobbes).
The Reformation not only set off this sort of chain reaction in the intellectual world, but produced an even more violent upheaval in the political world. It was an era of religious war all over Europe, a situation feeding and fed by the intellectual fermentation just discussed.  Not only did the wars pit Protestants against Catholics, but in some places Protestants of one sort against Protestants of another sort. The new philosophic currents were especially strong in those places, for it became crystal clear there that sectarian claims were not going to be capable of establishing political order.  Given the failure of biblically or theologically based doctrines to bring peace, a premium was put on doctrines that avoided so far as possible sectarian/biblical grounding.  The result was the second flowering of natural-law philosophy—doctrines based on nature and accessible to reason and valid for all regardless of confessional commitment.  Grotius was an especially good example: he developed a natural-law doctrine that he claimed would be true and valid even if there were no God. Few thinkers of the age would go so far, but there was a discernible effort to invoke a God not attached to the various competing and conflicting sects but rather a God known through natural theology.
Pufendorf finds his place within this last class of successor doctrines.  That place is between or somehow in relation to two pioneers of the new natural-law doctrines, Grotius and Hobbes.  Although they share more than a few things, Grotius and Hobbes stood as two fundamental alternatives within the rationalistic wing of successor doctrines. They shared an effort to develop a natural-law philosophy of a thoroughly non-Thomistic sort.  Beyond that important similarity, they differed substantially.  One way to understand the difference between them lies in their respective stances toward the philosophic half of the Christian Aristotelian synthesis.  Grotius endorses and remains loyal to a very truncated but nonetheless real part of Aristotelianism;  Hobbes identifies the Aristotelian philosophy as part of the “kingdom of darkness”.[6]  That difference is reflected in turn in several divergences in their political philosophies overall and in their natural-law doctrines in particular. The largest difference probably is the most trite but is nonetheless of great importance: Grotius maintains a version of the Aristotelian claim that “man is by nature a political animal.” For Grotius that claim persists in the modified form of “man is the social animal” or the “rationally sociable animal.”  On the Aristotelian maxim Grotius accepts in modified form Hobbes comments: “this axiom, though very widely accepted, is nonetheless false; the error proceeds from a superficial view of human nature (De Cive, 1.2).
In place of rational sociality Hobbes places his extraordinarily individualistic doctrine, to which both Grotius and Pufendorf object.  Natural law is accordingly quite differently derived in the two thinkers.  For Grotius human beings are by nature sociable beings and the natural law is what conduces to social life.  As the law of human nature, it contains all the necessary marks of law, including especially obligatoriness.  Compared to the understanding of natural law in the Thomistic tradition, this is a narrow view, limited as it is to society and its requirements.  But compared to Hobbes it is very robust.  Among other important implications of Grotius’s doctrine is the relation between right and law so far as these come to be distinguished in his theory. Law and therefore duty is the primary concept, and derivative from that is right (as the claim an individual may raise under law). 
Hobbes’s theory works quite differently. Hobbes draws a much firmer distinction between law and right: “Right consisteth in the liberty to do, or to forbeare; whereas Law, determineth and bindeth to one of them, so that Law and Right, differ as much as Obligation and Liberty; which in one and the same matter are inconsistent (Leviathan, ch. 14 beginning).  According to Hobbes right is genuinely natural and exists in “a state of mere nature”; it serves as the basis from which laws, even the laws of nature, are derived. But contrary to Grotius, Hobbes describes the laws of nature as “but conclusions, or theorems concerning what conduceth to the conservation and defence of themselves,” i.e., conduces to that to which, under the right of nature, human beings have a right.  The laws of nature make men more sociable, but they are in the service of the individualistic “conservation and defence of themselves" (Leviathan, ch. 15 end).  He has also said that these “dictates of reasonLaw, properly, is the word of him” which he has called laws of nature are improperly so called. They are but “conclusions or theorems.”  His point is that they are neither natural nor law.  They are no more natural than, e.g., genetically modified food, which serves a human natural need but for all that is not thereby natural.  The “theorems” are also not law, for they lack the quality both Hobbes and Grotius conceive as necessary to law—obligatoriness.  “, that by right hath command over others,” ibid.).
Different as they are, Pufendorf admired the philosophies of both Grotius and Hobbes, and his own theory can best be understood as an attempt to reconcile, if not synthesize his two predecessors. Given the great variety of post-Reformation doctrines, this effort if successful would be of real significance in unifying the two threads of the new rationalist natural-law thinking. Pufendorf’s ambition was thus very great as a matter of philosophy—to reconcile the very social (or, as we might say, communitarian) Grotius with the very individualist (or we might say proto-liberal) Hobbes.  It was also politically ambitious in that it sought a theoretical grounding for a peaceful resolution to the theo-politics of the age.  In order to fulfill his agenda Pufendorf made many fine contributions to thinking clearly about politics and law, some of which I hope to discuss in future postings.  He was driven to refine the conceptual foundations of philosophy of law by his perception of the shortcomings of both the theories he hoped to reconcile.  Although he decreed Grotius “incomparable” and admitted to having “drawn much from that marvelous book, De Jure Belli ac Pacis, he also admitted to owing “no small debt to Thomas Hobbes,” of whom he said that his “basic conception ... although it savors somewhat of the profane, is nevertheless for the most part extremely acute and sound.” (Emphasis added.) 
But he had issues with both. To pick out only one here:  he found Hobbes’s retreat from genuine natural law to be problematic at the same time that he found Grotius’s effort to develop the natural law as genuine law to be unsuccessful in that it failed to establish the obligatoriness of his natural law. These failings, among others, led him to modify both theories even as he attempted to reconcile them.  In trying to fill the gaps in a philosophically rigorous way he produced arguably the most successful of the new natural-law doctrines, one not only of great historical interest but one with a real claim to be taken seriously philosophically. But only “arguably the most successful,” for his task is more than daunting and there is by no means a consensus that he did or could succeed. 
In my next post I hope to address Haakonssen’s statement on Pufendorf, but for now goodbye.
[4.] John Locke, "Some Thoughts concerning Reading and Study for a Gentleman" in The Works of John Locke in Nine Volumes, (London: Rivington, 1824 12th ed.). Vol. 2. </titles/762#Locke_0128-02_659>.
[5.] John Locke, Of Human Understanding, Book III., Chap. IX. "Of the Imperfection of Words," in The Works of John Locke in Nine Volumes, (London: Rivington, 1824 12th ed.). Vol. 2. </titles/762#lf0128-02_label_380>.
[6.] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan Part IV, in , Hobbes’s Leviathan reprinted from the edition of 1651 with an Essay by the Late W.G. Pogson Smith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909) </titles/869>. For details on Grotius see my Natural Rights and the New Republicanism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), 12,136,138,143,145,149. For Grotius and Aristotle see, The Law of War and Peace, Prolegomena, 29, 37, in Hugo Grotius, The Rights of War and Peace, edited and with an Introduction by Richard Tuck, from the Edition by Jean Barbeyrac (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005). Vol. 1. </titles/1425>.