Pufendorf, Samuel von (1632–1694)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated


Samuel von Pufendorf, the German political and legal philosopher and historian, was born in Dorfchemnitz, in Meissen, Saxony, the son of a poor Lutheran pastor. A scholarship enabled Pufendorf to attend the famous Prince's School at Grimma. From 1650 to 1656 he attended lectures on Lutheran theology and Aristotelian philosophy at Leipzig. Somewhat later he studied contemporary philosophy at Jena, where he also read newly published books on mathematics and discovered the works of Hugo Grotius and Thomas Hobbes. At Jena he came in contact with Erhard Weigel, a former teacher of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, whose strange but original method of teaching ethics "mathematically" made a lasting impression upon Pufendorf. To Weigel, Pufendorf owed the inspiration for his first work on the general principles of law, Elementorum Jurisprudentiae Universalis. In 1658 Pufendorf became a tutor in the house of the Swedish ambassador to Denmark. When war broke out between Sweden and Denmark, Pufendorf was imprisoned for eight months, and it was during this imprisonment that he composed the booklet inspired by Weigel. Upon his release Pufendorf migrated in 1659 to the Netherlands, where the work was published in 1660.

On the recommendation of Grotius's elder son, Pufendorf was offered the chair of natural and international law at Heidelberg, the first such chair at a German university. He was soon appointed also as instructor of the heir to the crown of the Palatinate, and thus he began to mix with the electoral court, where he avidly studied the burning contemporary political problems. Out of this study came a pseudonymous work on the condition of the Holy Roman Empire, De Statu Imperii Germanici (1667), a work later famous for its statement that the constitution of the Empire resembles a monster, being neither a monarchy nor an aristocracy nor a democracy.

After his appointment as professor of natural law at the University of Lund in Sweden, Pufendorf wrote his fundamental work on national and international law, De Jure Naturae et Gentium (1672). The eight volumes of this compendium, which contains a veritable encyclopedia of the social sciences, are rather difficult reading. Pufendorf therefore produced an abstract of this work, titled De Officio Hominis et Civis (1673), which was soon translated into English, French, and German and thus found many readers abroad. By 1684 a Swiss Calvinist theologian was lecturing on the De Officio Hominis at Lausanne, but Lutheran theologians in both Sweden and Germany criticized Pufendorf's ideas vehemently. The king of Sweden himself had to protect his professor of law and induce the authorities of the university to defend Pufendorf against the charge of heresy. Pufendorf replied bitterly to the charge, and a long paper war ensued. Finally, Pufendorf published a "sanguinary" (his own description) polemical treatise titled Eris Scandica (Frankfurt, 1686), containing all his essays and letters relating to the controversy.

In 1677 Pufendorf was appointed by the king as court historian in Stockholm, where he spent ten years working on his extensive, thirty-three-volume history of Sweden, a work of no importance today except as an example of careful work and precise reporting. His shorter Einleitung zu der Historie der vornehmster Reiche und Staaten (2 vols., Frankfurt, 16821685) is more highly esteemed.

From 1688 until his death shortly after having been knighted by his former sovereign, the king of Sweden, Pufendorf lived in Berlin, where he had been called as court historian by the elector of Brandenburg.

A noted representative of the Baroque era, Pufendorf was a man of great self-confidence and stolid self-reliance. He had unshakable faith in the power of scientific reason and wished to establish it in the fields of jurisprudence and politics. He believed in the certainty of mathematics and rejoiced in the reunion of philosophy and mathematics then taking place. Although he wished to treat the problematic questions of jurisprudence and politics "mathematically," he was a true empiricist who sought to introduce a "scientific" method into the study of history. He was therefore eager to undertake the thoroughly planned research into public archives that resulted in his history of Sweden.

Pufendorf thus united the two major trends of his age, Baconian empiricism and Cartesian logicism. One of the last polyhistors, he united in his work all the methods of historical, sociological, and juridical thinking. A political figure rather than simply a lawyer, Pufendorf profoundly criticized the constitution of the Holy Roman Empire and its political conception. He argued for the founding of a European federation of sovereign states. He did not defend national or regional absolutism, however popular they were at the time; instead, he tried to unite the Hobbesian doctrine that the state should be governed by the rule of law and based on natural law in the empirical sense of the term (the war of all against all, status necessitatis ) with the Grotian doctrine that the rule of international law should be based on natural law in an emotional sense (an inclination for society, ordo amoris ). On this account Pufendorf has often been called a predecessor of eighteenth-century rationalism. Such a view is supported by his letter to his younger friend Christian Thomasius, in which he claimed that he "never had boldness enough to draw the utmost conclusions" from his philosophical rationalism and voluntarism.

Despite Leibniz's opinion that Pufendorf was "a man of no great judgment," his legal thought was of considerable importance and great philosophical interest. He was undoubtedly one of the most outstanding social philosophers on the European continent in the seventeenth century. It may be an exaggeration to call Pufendorf the first "philosopher of culture" (Kulturphilosoph ) in Germany, but he was the first to grasp the fundamental concept of the sociological theory of law and politics. He saw the social realities of human life as a whole. His structural distinction between physical facts and moral institutions inspired a new way of studying social facts in their independence and uniqueness. Following Weigel, Pufendorf distinguished four elements of social being: personality (persona ), rank or profession (status ), quality, and quantity. Every pattern of social order should be examined on the basis of these fundamental structures; for example, a state may be described in terms of its sovereignty, type of government, power, and population.

These elements, the ontological foundations of every community, have simultaneously to be interpreted as fundamental ethical principles of social life. Pufendorf designated three patterns of well-formed communities: humanity, ordered by the law of reason; Christianity, ordered by the law of God; and citizenship, ordered by the law of the state. Natural law, including religious and rational principles, therefore limits both civic and moral duties. Philosophy of law comprises both sociology and political science on the one hand, and jurisprudence and ethics on the other. This new discipline, which Pufendorf called simply natural law, was intended to unite all the tasks of interpreting social order and to combine the scholastic methods of the sixteenth-century Spanish thinkers with the newer ideas of Grotius and Hobbes.

In apparent contradiction to these sources of his thought on social order was Pufendorf's strong belief in reason of state (ratio status ). Although he often emphasized the self-determination and self-sufficiency of the state, he did not mean by this a totalitarian absolutism. And although he proclaimed the independence of political power against every ecclesiastical claim, he never taught the modern ideology of unlimited government, and his views were therefore not contradictory to the rule of law. What Pufendorf said about the relation of church and state must be interpreted dialectically. He conceded neither decisive authority to reason of state nor the right of moral constraint to the church.

Pufendorf may be called the initiator of the seventeenth-century movement of "scientific" natural law in Germany. By introducing the ideas of Grotius and Hobbes into German thought he made their ideas really effective for the first time. He liberated the natural-law theory from the domination of scholasticism and humanism. In so doing he built up an independent political science that always took into account contemporary history and reason of state. A clever and levelheaded politician, he predicted the decline of the Hapsburg monarchy after the Treaty of Westphalia. In criticizing the "monstrous" constitution of the empire he sought to advance a European commonwealth based on the natural and rational principles of international law. As a historian, Pufendorf introduced the empirical study of archives and gave an effective example of a new method of historical insight, and he may be regarded as an important predecessor of nineteenth-century historicism.

See also Aristotelianism; Cartesianism; Empiricism; Grotius, Hugo; Historicism; Hobbes, Thomas; Humanism; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Natural Law; Rationalism; Scientific Method; Sovereignty; Thomasius, Christian; Voluntarism.


works by pufendorf

Elementorum Jurisprudentiae Universalis Libri Duo. The Hague, 1660.

De Statu Imperii Germanici ad Laelium Fratrem, Dominum Trezolani, Liber Unus. Geneva, 1667.

De Jure Naturae et Gentium Libri Octo. Lund, Sweden, 1672. Translated by Basil Kennett as Of the Law of Nature and Nations. London, 1710.

De Officio Hominis et Civis Prout Ipsi Praescribuntur Lege Naturali. Libri Duo. Lund, Sweden, 1673. Reprinted with translation by F. G. Moore. 2 vols. Oxford, 1927. Translated by Andrew Tooke et al. as The Whole Duty of Man according to the Law of Nature, edited by Ian Hunter and David Saunders. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003.

De Habitu Religionis Christianae ad Vitam Civilem. Bremen, 1687. Translated as Of the Relation between Church and State. London, 1719.

Of the Nature and Qualification of Religion in Reference to Civil Society. Translated by J. Crull; edited by Simone Zurbuchen. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002.

works on pufendorf

Carr, Craig L., and Michael J. Seidler. "Pufendorf, Sociality and the Modern State." History of Political Thought 17 (3) (1996): 354378.

Dufour, Alfred. "Pufendorf." In The Cambridge History of Political Thought, 14501700, edited by J. H. Burns and M. Goldie. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Hunter, Ian. Rival Enlightenments: Civil and Metaphysical Philosophy in Early Modern Germany. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Krieger, Leonard. The Politics of Discretion: Pufendorf and the Acceptance of Natural Law. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.

Scheuner, Ulrich. "Samuel Freiherr von Pufendorf." In Die Grossen Deutschen, Vol. 5, 126ff. Berlin, 1957.

Schneewind, J. B. "Pufendorf's Place in the History of Ethics." Synthese 72 (1987): 123155.

Welzel, Hans. Die Naturrechtslehre Samuel Pufendorfs. Berlin, 1958.

Wolf, Erik. Grosse Rechtsdenker der deutschen Geistesgeschichte, 4th ed., 311366. Tübingen, 1963. Bibliography on pp. 367370.

Erik Wolf (1967)

Bibliography updated by Philip Reed (2005)