Jean-Jacques BurlamaquiPrinciples of Natural and Politic Law

Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui, ‘Of the Nature of Man, considered with regard to Right: Of the Understanding, and whatever is relative to this Faculty’ in Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui, Principles of Natural and Politic Law (translated into English by Thomas Nuggent, [1748] Indiana: Liberty Fund, 2006).


Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui (1694-1748) is a prominent scholar of Natural Law and part of the Natural Law tradition of the Romandie of the 18th century, together with Jean Barbeyrac (1674-1744), Emer de Vattel (1714-1767) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). A native Genevan, and a professor of civil law, Burlamaqui’s works are strongly influenced by a Calvinist approach to government and public law and the emerging doctrines of natural law at the time. A corner stone of his vision is the natural right to the quest for happiness. Therefore, in his view, the main purpose of positive laws is to facilitate this natural right to bonheur or félicité. His ideas on sovereignty, checks and balances, the linkage of ethics, natural and positive law, state and government have been appreciated for their synthesis and clarity and it is said that they found their way into the libraries, minds and political works of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. His work is not directly related to international law, but he speaks of the law of nations as a foundation of ethics and law and provides one of the influential foundations upon which others built.


The text is the first chapter in the first volume of Burlamaqui’s Principles of Natural and Politic Law. The first volume was entitled ‘Principles of Natural Law’ (translation 1817).  The relationship of ethics and law is clearly structured: Ethics consists of four components:  (i) the state of nature of man is followed by (ii) the law nations (statehood) which in turn provides the basis for (iii) civil law and the later for (iv) morals. This structure provides the basis for twelve points of the “General principles of Right”. These points essentially seek to provide guidance for a proper course of life as the prime objective of wisdom. Rights are understood in terms of directions given to man. Such rights rely upon the human nature as distinct from mere physical existence. They are based upon the human quality of a rational soul which provides the basis of will, liberty and understanding. Perception and understanding is influenced by the objects and by attention paid to the objects. This is how knowledge and insight is formed and evidence produced and which distinguishing things. To this truth, ignorance and errors are obstacles. They may either be voluntary or involuntary, essential or accidental. Burlamaqui does not address how they should be addressed. It is implied that they must be avoided reach full perception, understanding and thus directions by rights and the law.

These notions of right law, enshrined in the nature and reason of man provide essential foundations of autonomy in the age of enlightenment, not only of man, but also of the emerging statehood in the international society.


You can find a scan (PDF) of the original text here: Burlamaqui – The Principles of Natural and Politic Law


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