Samuel von Pufendorf
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.
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.
(The entire section is 2,563 words.)