Natural Law 1625-1850. An International Research Project (Halle/Erfurt)

Vignette from Pufendorf: De officio hominis et civis, Utrecht 1752.
Vignette from Pufendorf: De officio hominis et civis, Utrecht 1752.

The publication in 1625 of Hugo Grotius’ major work, De iure belli ac pacis, marked the beginning of a new form of natural law and a new phase in its history. As a branch of moral and political theology, natural law had a long earlier history in Catholic thought and in ecclesiastical and civil polity. Grounded in civil law and politics, and taking shape as an independent academic subject, the new natural law emerged first in Protestant countries but soon found reception in Catholic contexts. The vocabulary of natural law quickly proved useful for formulating issues in a wide array of intellectual and practical cultures, ranging from jurisprudence, political and moral philosophy, and literature, to constitutional design, law reform, judicial practice, and diplomacy and international law.

The teaching of natural law thus often came to play the role of an intellectual clearing-house at the centre of the arts, law, and politics curriculum, organising the school-learning through which early-modern thinkers set out. Drawing its materials from the practices of European public law, politics, and diplomacy, the language of natural law made these available in the more abstract and teachable vocabulary of obligation and rights, sovereignty and freedom, without escaping the profound contentions in which they were rooted. In order to understand these historical processes and thus to deal with our own questions of continuity and discontinuity of thought, we have to study natural law in its full intellectual and practical complexity.

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