Misrepresentations of God’s Role in Pufendorf’s Theory of Natural Law
The evolution of natural law theories is often described using the “language of secularity.” Natural law theories are said to be “secular,” “secularized,” or slowly abandoning their dependence on God. Natural law scholarship runs the risk of ascribing secular tendencies too early or inaccurately. Identifying God’s place in distinct theories and how God’s role differs among competing visions is crucial for an accurate portrayal of the development of natural law. This paper offers a case study of “premature secularization” in commentaries on Samuel Pufendorf (1632-1694). Pufendorf developed perhaps the best known natural law theory of the eighteenth century, taught all across Europe, as well as Russia and America. Drawing on the views of Grotius and Hobbes, Pufendorf put forward sociality (ealizatio) as the basic principle of natural law. Pufendorf was the primary representative of theological voluntarism that stood in opposition to the intellectualist tradition of Aquinas, Grotius, and Leibniz. Grasping God’s role in Pufendorf’s theory is a sine qua non in mapping the competition and evolution of natural law theories. Some recent, prominent commentaries on Pufendorf misrepresent and under-emphasize God’s ineliminable role in his theory. First, the “language of secularity” is used often, but not defined or qualified properly. Second, the grounds of justification for Pufendorf’s natural law are recounted without detailing the foundational role of God as lawgiver, the crux of any voluntarist theory. Third, comparisons between Pufendorf and Grotius elide crucial differences based on their competing theological outlooks. As a result, Pufendorf’s theory appears less dependent on God than it really is. The case study of Pufendorf scholarship shows the dangers of “premature secularization” and identifies historiographic hurdles of writing about modern natural law. To alleviate the difficulty, a suggestion is made to distinguish justifications of a natural law theory (often religious) from “secondary” features that can become secularized.