Universität Erfurt

Dr. Mads Langballe Jensen

Post-Doktorand am Max-Weber-Kolleg
von Oktober 2015 bis September 2016


Danish Natural Law circa 1700. The History of an Enlightenment

The years following the polemic between the Danish theologian and court preacher Hector Gottfried Masius and the Leipzig/Halle professor Christian Thomasius concerning the divine institution of sovereignty, and the relative authority of theology and natural law in this question, saw the rise to prominence of the discipline and discourse of “modern” Protestant natural law, particularly as developed by Samuel Pufendorf and Christian Thomasius, in Denmark-Norway. Despite the prominent place the discourse of natural law came to hold in early enlightenment moral philosophical, political and legal university teaching and public discussion more generally (several textbooks and treatises as well as numerous university disputations on natural law were published in the first half of the eighteenth century), it has been almost entirely neglected in the historiography of eighteenth century Danish philosophy. The purpose of the present project is to describe the discourse(s) and discussion(s) of natural law in Denmark-Norway in detail and analyse their significance for the formation of the early enlightenment.

The project should be seen as a contribution to a growing body of scholarship on “modern” Protestant natural law. Three perspectives in particular inform the project. First, that following the publication of Hugo Grotius’ De iure belli ac pacis, natural law was established as a foundational academic discipline as well as a general moral-political discourse across political and confessional boundaries, the local variations and “dialects” of which stand in need of investigation. Second, that natural law stood at the centre of Christian Thomasius’ reconfiguration of the “Wissenschaftssystem” at the university in Halle, emphasising the empirical and historical study of man, politics and history. Third, that the voluntarist variant of natural law developed by Samuel Pufendorf and Christian Thomasius underpinned a “civil enlightenment” aimed at a deconfessionalisation of the state and rivalling both orthodox Lutheran thought and the intellectualist natural law of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Christian Wolff.

Several central figures in the early enlightenment in Denmark-Norway were followers of Pufendorf and Thomasius, including Christian Reitzer, Ludvig Holberg, Christian Amthor and Andreas Hojer. The project investigates their reception, adoption, and use of Pufendorfian-Thomasian natural law and how, in doing so, they shaped the early enlightenment in Denmark-Norway. One question, which arises is the nature of this reception of Pufendorf’s and Thomasius’ political and academic programmes in a state, which had recently backed Masius against Thomasius, and which, it has recently been argued, was characterised by a “Lutheran-based political consensus” that was never seriously challenged before the later 18th century. On the basis of hitherto unexplored sources, the project will explore the means and nature of the transfer and transformation of natural law theorising, and the reception and adoption of Thomasius’s intellectual programme in a significantly different intellectual and political context, and shed light on a neglected form of enlightenment in eighteenth century Denmark-Norway.

My work at the Max-Weber-Kolleg Erfurt will in the first instance focus on the German context and connections of the Danish authors on natural law. The authors and thinkers responsible for introducing Pufendorfian-Thomasius natural law in Denmark-Norway had all studied for greater of lesser periods of time at German universities, and particularly under Thomasius in Halle. A first aim is to identify the books the Danish authors read and the lectures they attended in Germany, drawing both on published works and, where available, manuscripts and student notes from relevant lectures. A second aim is to give a general outline of German discussions on natural law with a particular focus on locations, authors and issues identified as relevant in the works of the Danish authors. Third, the project will turn to an analysis of the Danish works on natural law in the context constructed in the previous two steps. This should allow us to determine in detail how the Danish authors drew on the German debates and works on natural law and whether one can talk about a distinctively Danish dialect within the practical language of natural law.



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