1902 Encyclopedia > Samuel von Pufendorf

Samuel von Pufendorf
German jurist, political philosopher, economist, statesman and historian
(1632-94)




SAMUEL PUFENDORF (1632-1694), was born at Chemnitz, Saxony, on the 8th of January 1632, the same year which also saw the birth of three other illustrious political and philosophical writers—Locke, Cumberland, and Spinoza. He belonged to an ecclesiastical family; his father was a Lutheran pastor, and he himself was destined for the ministry. Having completed his pre-liminary studies at the celebrated school of Grimma, he was sent to study theology at the university of Leipsic, at that time the citadel of Lutheran orthodoxy. Its narrow and dogmatic teaching was profoundly repugnant to the liberal nature of the young student, who was not long in bidding adieu to the professors of theology and throwing himself passionately into the study of public law. He soon went so far as to quit Leipsic altogether, and betook himself to Jena, where he formed an intimate friendship with Erhard Weigel the mathematician, a man of great distinction. Weigel was imbued with the Cartesian philosophy; and it was to his teaching and to the impetus he gave to the application of the mathematical method that Pufendorf owes the exact and ordered mind, and the precision, frequently approaching almost to dryness, which characterize his writings. It was also under Weigel's in-fluence that he developed that independence of character which never bent before other writers, however high their position, and which showed itself in his profound disdain for " ipsedixitism," to use the piquant phrase of Bentham.

Pufendorf was twenty-five years old when he quitted Jena. He hoped to find a career in some of the adminis-trative offices which were so frequently the refuge of the learned in the small states of ancient Germany; but in this he was unsuccessful. In 1658, thanks to his eldest brother Isaiah, who had given up university teaching to enter the Swedish service, he went, in the capacity of tutor, into the family of Petrus Julius Coyet, one of the resident ministers of Charles Gustavus, king of Sweden, at Copen-hagen. At this time Charles Gustavus was endeavouring to impose upon Denmark a burdensome alliance, and in the middle of the negotiations he brutally opened hostilities. The anger of the Danes was turned against the envoys of the Swedish sovereign; Coyet, it is true, succeeded in escaping, but the second minister, Steno Bjelke, and the whole suite were arrested and thrown into prison. Pufen-dorf shared this misfortune, and the future successor of Grotius was subjected to a strict captivity of eight months' duration. Like Grotius, he too had his Loevestein. The young tutor, deprived of books, occupied himself during his captivity in meditating upon what he had read in the works of Grotius and Hobbes. He mentally constructed a system of universal law; and, when, at the end of his captivity, he accompanied his pupils, the sons of Coyet, to the university of Leyden, he was enabled to publish the fruits of his reflexions under the title of Elementa jurisprudential, universalis, libri duo. The work was de-dicated to Charles Louis, elector palatine, an enlightened prince and patron of science, who offered Pufendorf a chair of Boman law at Heidelberg, and when this was declined he created a new chair, that of the law of nature and nations, the first of the kind in the world. Pufen-dorf accepted it, and was thus in 1661, at the age of twenty-nine, placed in the most enviable of positions. He showed himself equal to his task, and by his science and eloquence proved himself to be an honour and an orna-ment to the university.

The keenly sarcastic tract De statu imperii germanici, liber unus, dates from this period of his life. Small in bulk, it is great in significance, and is one of Pufen-dorf's most important works. Written with the assent of the elector palatine, but published under the cover of a pseudonym at Geneva in 1667, it was supposed to be addressed by a gentleman of Verona, Severinus de Mon-zambano, to his brother Laslius. The pamphlet made a great sensation. Its author arraigned directly the organization of the holy empire and exposed its feebleness, denounced in no measured terms the faults of the house of Austria, and attacked with remarkable vigour the politics of the ecclesiastical princes. But he did not thus describe the evil without at the same time suggesting the remedy. Thinking that Germany could not attain to a true monarchy without a great revolution, he proposed to call together a confederation, with a perpetual council representing all the members and occupying itself with external affairs. Before Pufendorf, Philipp Bogislaw von Chemnitz, publicist and soldier, had written, under the pseudonym of " Hippolytus a Lapide," De ratione status in imperio nostro Romano-Germanico. Inimical, like Pufendorf, to the house of Austria, Chemnitz had gone so far as to make an appeal to France and Sweden. Pufendorf, on the contrary, rejected all idea of foreign intervention. But in his plan, in which national initiative was all in all, were propounded the ideas of an army supported at the general expense, the secularization of the ecclesiastical principalities, the abolition of convents, and the expulsion of the Jesuits. His little book is perhaps the most im-portant that was produced in relation to the public law and politics of Germany, and it is noteworthy that he reveals himself as a consummate statesman, having a broad comprehension of the present and a clear insight into the future. Subsequent events proved the justice of his conclusions.





In 1670 Pufendorf was called to the university of Lund. The influence of his brother Isaiah, as also some disagreements which he had had with his colleagues at Heidelberg, influenced his decision to accept the call ; but by this acceptance he did not break with German culture, for in Scandinavia that culture was predominant. The sojourn at Lund was fruitful. In 1672 appeared the De jure naturai et gentium, libri odo, and in 1675 a résumé of it under the title of Be officio hominis et civis. The treatise De jure naturae et gentium is the first systematic work on the subject. Grotius, whom Pufendorf has been accused of having too servilely followed, had more especially treated of international relations ; and on the other hand Olden-dorp, Hemming, and Winkler treated of the rudimentary part of the subject. Pufendorf took up in great measure the theories of Grotius and sought to complete them by means of the doctrines of Hobbes and of his own ideas. Judging of the work of Pufendorf as a whole, Mr Lorimer has felt justified in saying that "his conception was a magnificent one, and in the effort which he made to realize it he has left behind him a work which, notwithstanding the unpardonable amount of commonplace which it con-tains and its consequent dulness, is entitled to the respect of all future jurists. It was nothing less than an attempt to evolve from the study of human nature a system of jurisprudence which should be of universal and permanent applicability." The author derived law from reason, from the civil law, and from divine revelation, and established thus three " disciplines "—natural law, civil law, and moral theology. Natural law is all that is commanded to us by pure reason, and hence resulted the first important point in Pufendorf's theory, viz., that natural law does not ex-tend beyond the limits of this life and that it confines itself to regulating external acts. Pufendorf combats Hobbes's conception of the state of nature, and concludes that the state of nature is not one of war but of peace. But this peace is feeble and insecure, and if something else does not come to its aid it can do very little for the preservation of mankind. As regards public law Pufen-dorf, while recognizing in the state (civitas) a moral person (persona moralis), teaches that the will of the state is but the sum of the individual wills that constitute it, and that this association esnlains the state. In this a priori conception, in which he scarcely gives proof of historical insight, he shows himself as one of the precursors of J. J. Bousseau and of the Contrat social. On the subject of international law, with which he occupies himself incidentally, it is to be noted that Pufendorf belongs to the philosophical school, and also that he powerfully defends the idea that international law is not restricted to Christendom, but constitutes a common bond between all nations because all nations form part of humanity. As was to be expected, the work made a sensation : it provoked enthusiastic admiration as well as anger and indignation; the author was praised to the skies on the one hand, and accused of irreligion and atheism on the other. The universities of Lund and Leipsic, above all, furnished adversaries and critics. Being passionately attacked, he defended himself with passion, and he may be held to have come victorious out of these conflicts in which his combative and sarcastic soul delighted, for Pufendorf dearly loved a fray.

In 1677 he was called to Stockholm in the capacity of historiographer-royal. To this new period belong among others the work On the Spiritual Monarchy of the Rope, which was afterwards inserted in his Introduction to the History of the principal States in Europe at the present Day, also the great Gommentariorum de rebus Suecicis, libri XXVI, ah expeditione Gustavi Adolphi regis in Germanium ad abdicationem usque Christina} and a History of Charles Gustavus. In his historical works Pufendorf is hopelessly dry; but he professes a great respect for truth and generally draws from archives. The treatise On the Spiritual Monarchy of the Pope alone recalls Severinus de Monzambano. There we find the same vigour and the same passion, and all through its pages we feel the indig-nation of the Protestant who sees the noble cause of reli-gious liberty menaced by the papacy and by its two allies Louis XIV. and James II. Of the same nature is another work of this period, De habitu religionis christianse ad vitam civilem, in which he undertakes to trace the limits between ecclesiastical and civil power, and where he expounds for the first time completely the theory known under the name of "Kollegial System" or "Kollegialismus," which was actually applied later in Prussia. This work is dated 1687. In 1688 Pufendorf was called to the service of Frederick William, elector of Brandenburg. He accepted the call; but he had no sooner arrived than the elector died. His son Frederick III. fulfilled the promises of his father, and Pufendorf, historiographer and privy coun-cillor, was instructed to write The History of the Elector William the Great. The king of Sweden did not on this account cease to testify his goodwill towards Pufendorf, and in 1694 he created him a baron. In the same year, on the 26th of October, Pufendorf died at Berlin and was buried in the church of St Nicholas, where an inscription to his memory is still to be seen.

The value of the man whose life has been thus briefly sketched was great; he was at once philosopher, lawyer, economist, historian, we may even add statesman. His influence also was considerable, and ho has left a profound impression on thought, and not on that of Germany alone. Posterity has, however, done him scant justice, and has not acknowledged what it really owes to him. Much of the responsibility for this injustice rests with Leibnitz, who would never recognize the incontestable greatness of one who was con-stantly his adversary. Everybody knows the bitter criticism which he made on Pufendorf, " vir parum jurisconsultus et minime philo-sophus." This is only the condensed expression of a multitude of judgments passed by him on the author of the Do jure naturae, et gentium. It was on the subject of the pamphlet of Severinus de Monzambano that the quarrel began. The conservative and timid Leibnitz was beaten on the battlefield of politics and public law, and the aggressive spirit of Pufendorf aggravated yet more the dis-pute, and so widened the division. From that time the two writers could never meet on a common subject without attacking each other. The combat was almost always decided in favour of Pufen-dorf, but the irony of fate has ratified the words of his adversary, and the future has accepted an estimate dictated by anger and spite.

See H. von Treitschke, "Samuel von Pufendorf,''Preussische Jahrbiicher, 1875, vol. xxxv. p. 614, and vol. xxxvi. p. 61 ; Bluntschli, Deutsches Staats-Worter-buch, vol. viii. p. 424, and Geschichte des alîgemeinen Statsrechts und der Politik, p. 108; Lorimer, The Institutes of the Law of Nations, vol. i. p. 74; Droysen, "Zur Kritik Pufendorf s," in his Abhandlungen zur neueren Geschichte ; Roscher, Geschichte der National-Oekonomik in Deutschland, p. 304 ; Franklin, Das deutsche Reich nach Severinus von Monzambano. (E. N.)






The above article was written by: Prof. Ernest Nys, University of Brussels.



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