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

Samuel von Pufendorf

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.

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.”