Samuel von Pufendorf

(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)
0111206639-Pufendorf.jpg Samuel von Pufendorf (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Pufendorf’s teachings on jurisprudence, theology, and ethics made possible significant advances in the development of natural law theories in the Western world of the early modern age.

Early Life

The family background of Samuel Pufendorf has been described as extending over four generations of Lutheran clergy, who had practiced that calling for about a century. Relatively little has been recorded, however, about Samuel’s father, except that he was a pastor of relatively modest means. When Samuel was born, as the third of four children, on January 8, 1632, the family resided in Dorfchemnitz, a village in Saxony. During the next year, they moved to Flöha, about five miles from Chemnitz. Because of the promise and academic aptitude Samuel and his elder brother Esaias had shown, they received financial support from a wealthy nobleman, which enabled them to attend the well-known Prince’s School in Grimma. The education that was received there consisted of lessons in grammar, rhetoric, logic, Bible reading, and Lutheran dogma; while he later complained of excessive rigidity and dullness among his teachers, Pufendorf maintained with some satisfaction that he availed himself of the ample free time that was allowed students to make himself familiar with works of classical Greek and Latin writers. After attending this secondary school between 1645 and 1650, he was enrolled at the University of Leipzig; though his father had hoped and expected that his son’s education there would prepare him for the ministry, Pufendorf, again following the example of his brother, turned away from theology, which both of them regarded as a discipline that was presented in an overly conservative manner. Among the subjects that did interest him were history, jurisprudence, philology, and philosophy; this eclectic bent, bordering sometimes on indiscriminate erudition, may have foreshadowed traits of this sort in his later writings.

In 1656, Pufendorf went on to the University of Jena, where in two years he earned the degree of Magister. He read works on mathematics and studied modern philosophy; he devoted special attention to the writings of Hugo Grotius and Thomas Hobbes. Moreover, with the encouragement of Erhard Weigel, a professor of mathematics who subsequently was to become known as one of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s early mentors, Pufendorf became impressed with the notion that ethical principles could be adduced with the rigor of mathematical logic. Although schematic conceptions of that sort did not gain Pufendorf’s unwavering adherence, a confluence of ideas evidently was taking form by which the conception of natural law guided by natural reason had become foremost.

Shortly after he left Jena, Pufendorf, with the assistance of his brother Esaias, obtained a position as tutor to the family of Peter Julius Coyet, the Swedish minister in Copenhagen. Yet when Sweden, which previously had been at war with Denmark, broke off peace negotiations to reopen hostilities, Danish authorities put the minister’s staff and attendants under arrest. During a period of eight months when Pufendorf was imprisoned, he had the opportunity to compose his first work on the principles of law. In 1659, he left for the Netherlands, where Coyet had resumed his diplomatic work in The Hague, and in 1660 Pufendorf’s Elementorum jurisprudentiae universalis libri duo (English translation, 1929) was published. At the University of Leiden, he was able to pursue further studies in classical philology. He also obtained a recommendation from Pieter de Groot, a son of Hugo Grotius, who was an agent in the Netherlands for Karl Ludwig, the Elector of the Palatinate. Pufendorf had arranged to have his book dedicated to the elector, and in 1661 he was offered a position, the first of its kind in Germany, in philology and international law at the University of Heidelberg.

Life’s Work

Pufendorf’s appointment was to the faculty of philosophy, rather than law, and his disenchantment with the place he actually received may have been reflected in a trenchant and polemical, but also bold and insightful, study of the law and constitution of the Holy Roman Empire. His De statu imperii Germanici, ad Laelium fratrem, dominum Trezolani, liber unus (1667; The Present State of Germany, 1690), published abroad under a pseudonym, was banned by the imperial censor. In this work, Pufendorf attacked pretense and empty formality in the imperial constitution. In a famous passage, he contended that the empire, being neither a monarchy nor a democracy nor yet an aristocracy, resembled a monstrosity of irregular proportions; sovereignty on behalf of the state had been compromised, according to Pufendorf, by conflicting forms of authority exercised by its constituent rulers within the empire. The outcry which attended the circulation of this work, taken with Pufendorf’s continuing dissatisfaction with his academic lot, left him open to offers from other patrons of learning. Although he had married Katharina Elisabeth von Palthen, a wealthy widow, in 1665, he felt sufficiently uneasy about his position in Germany that he accepted another appointment, advanced on behalf of King Charles XI of Sweden, to take up a full professorship at the University of Lund. Some of Pufendorf’s later publications dealt once more with problems of the German constitution but conceded in effect that easy resolutions were not at hand.

More theoretical, and of greater importance for Pufendorf’s subsequent reputation, was the major work De jure naturae et gentium libri octo (1672; Of the Law of Nature and Nations, 1703), of which De officio hominis et civis juxta legem naturalem libri duo (1673; The Whole Duty of Man According to the Law of Nature, 1691) provided a condensed version for the general reading public. Great controversy arose over his effort to treat natural law at some distance from theological doctrines. According to Pufendorf, while Christianity could be regarded as ordained by the law of God, citizenship was ordered by the law of the state. Although natural law was derived from both rational and religious principles, it imposed obligations of a...

(The entire section is 2563 words.)