The Reading Room
OLL’s January Birthday: Samuel Pufendorf (January 8, 1632 – October 26, 1694)
This January’s OLL Birthday Essay is dedicated to the German philosopher Samuel Pufendorf, whose work on Natural Law built on that of Hobbes and Grotius and subsequently influenced the Scottish Enlightenment and all later thinking about Natural Law.
Pufendorf was born in Dorfchemnitz, a small village near the town of Thalheim in Saxony. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) was still raging, and the family was fully exposed to its horrors. Many have speculated that his traumatic childhood influenced his future interest in the study of law, peace, and tolerance. Though his family was poor, the generosity of a local nobleman provided young Samuel and his elder brother, Esaias, an excellent primary education. His father, a Lutheran pastor, wanted his son to go into the ministry and Samuel enrolled in the seminar in Leipzig. Repelled by the dogmatism of the teachers and curriculum, he left in 1656 for the University of Jena where he studied law. While there he was exposed to the work of Descartes, Grotius, and Hobbes, and also seems to have developed his natural predilection for independent thinking.
In 1658, right after his graduation with a degree from Jena, Pufendorf’s brother (who had in the meantime become a diplomat in service to the Swedish Crown) arranged a job for him in Copenhagen as the tutor of the family of Peter Julius Coyet, the Swedish ambassador to Denmark. He arrived to take up his duties just in time for the outbreak of war between Sweden and Denmark. Coyet and his family were able to escape, but most of his retinue, including the unfortunate Pufendorf, were imprisoned by the Danes. During his eight months in jail, Pufendorf passed the time by developing the outline for a system of universal law, based largely on his recollections of Grotius and Hobbes. Upon his release, he found refuge at the University of Leiden where he published his meditations as Two Books on the Elements of Universal Jurisprudence in 1660.
Pufendorf had dedicated his book to the Elector Palatine, Karl Ludwig who, in 1661 created a Chair in Natural Law at the University of Heidelberg (the first of its kind in Germany) for Pufendorf, who subsequently taught there until 1668. He settled into his new situation further when, in 1665, he married the widow of a colleague, Katharina Elisabeth von Palthern.
His comfortable existence at Heidelberg began to unravel after his publication, in 1667, of The Present State of Germany, in which he strongly criticized the constitutional order of the Holy Roman Empire (especially the ecclesiastical princes) and of the House of Habsburg itself. The imperial censors promptly banned the book, which probably contributed to its tremendous popularity and immediate translation into several languages.
Though Pufendorf was prudent enough to write the book under a pseudonym, his authorship was soon an open secret. He did not help matters when he criticized the imposition of a new imperial tax on printed documents, and he had to leave his position at Heidelberg in 1668. The overall situation in Germany was anyway poor, as it was still recovering from the destruction of the Thirty Years War, so he renewed some of his Swedish contacts and, in 1670, he accepted an invitation by King Charles XI of Sweden to take up a position as professor of law at the newly established University of Lund. He lived for almost two decades in Sweden, where he published most of his works on Natural Law. Probably the most important of these was his Of the Law of Nature and Nations (1672) and an abridged version (published a year later), The Whole Duty of Man according to the Law of Nature. These books marked a dramatic departure from previous Natural Law theories, by positing the essential peaceful sociability of human beings, what he termed socialitas. Based on this principle, every person had a natural right to freedom and equality, living in society with his fellow humans. Importantly, this forced him to reject the Aristotelian concept of the “natural slave,” instead arguing that slavery was a situation contingent on interpersonal arrangements and force.
In 1677 the Danes once again upset his comfortable existence by occupying Lund. He fled to Stockholm where he was appointed court historian, and also for a time served as privy councilor and secretary of state for King Charles XI. In this capacity he wrote a (rather predictably) anti-Danish account of the history of Sweden. In 1687 he published one of his most influential works, Of the Nature and Qualification of Religion. The book was remarkable for a number of reasons, chief of which was a rethinking of the boundaries between Church and State. While arguing for the superiority of the State in civil matters, it also defended the Church’s ecclesiastical authority. The delineation of their respective jurisdictions provided the sociopolitical architecture for the restructuring of Church-State relations in Germany which, along with the book’s arguments stressing the importance of individual conscience, provided the grounds for increased religious toleration. He dedicated his book to Friedrich Wilhelm I, Grand Elector of Brandenburg-Prussia, who was famous for granting asylum to the Huguenots after they had been expelled from France in 1685. This had its intended effect, and the next year Pufendorf was invited to the court in Berlin where he was appointed privy councilor and official court historian.
In 1694, the year of his death, he was ennobled as Samuel Baron von Pufendorf. He is buried in Berlin in the Church of St. Nicholas, where an inscription still marks his tomb.
As a pre-Enlightenment philosopher, Pufendorf’s influence on the development of the idea of Natural Law was tremendous. Locke, Rousseau and Diderot all recommended his works as essential reading in law school curricula. They also profoundly influenced Blackstone and Montesquieu and thus America’s Founding Fathers.