Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Pufendorf on Natural Equality, Human Dignity, and Self-Esteem

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Pufendorf on Natural Equality, Human Dignity, and Self-Esteem

Article excerpt

While the idea that human beings are somehow equal by nature has a long history, it became a topic of more intense philosophical reflection in the seventeenth century, when Thomas Hobbes, Samuel Pufendorf, and John Locke used this notion to articulate their doctrines of the state of nature and the contractual origins of human power relations. These three theorists were not the most egalitarian political writers of the seventeenth century, but they presented their rival views on the character, foundation, and consequences of natural human equality in greater detail than any of their contemporaries.

Today, this philosophical discourse on natural equality is best known from the works of Hobbes and Locke. However, no one in the seventeenth century had more to say about natural equality than Pufendorf, whose massive main work on natural law, De jure naturae et gentium (1672), included a long chapter on the topic. This was the most extensive theoretical discussion of natural equality in seventeenth-century political theory. It was also widely read, as Pufendorf's main work, together with its abridged version De officio hominis et civis (1673), was translated into several European languages and reprinted numerous times in the eighteenth century.1

In modern research, Pufendorf's doctrine of natural equality has received relatively little attention, and the assessments that have been made have not always been positive. Two American theorists of human equality have characterized De jure's chapter 3.2. on natural equality as "a curious essay" which not only conflates fact and value, but also fails to give "any solid clue" regarding the meaning of natural equality.2 In German scholarship, however, Pufendorf has been credited with founding natural equality on human dignity. This interpretation was introduced by Hans Welzel, according to whom Pufendorf established not only natural equality but, after some false starts, his entire theory of natural law on the dignity of humanity, thus anticipating the Kantian doctrine of Menschenwürde? While subsequent scholars have usually not followed Welzel in seeing human dignity as the foundation of Pufendorf's natural law doctrine, the view that he deduced natural equality from the dignity of humanity is repeated in numerous studies.4

In this article my aim is to show that, while Pufendorf's discussion of natural equality left a great deal to be desired in terms of clarity and precision, it is still possible to identify some major principles which guided his remarks on the topic. I will, however, partly question the proto-Kantian interpretation of Pufendorf's doctrine put forward by Welzel. To this end, I will first pay more attention than previous commentators to the highly unequal distribution of abilities Pufendorf found in the human species. I will then point out that by natural equality Pufendorf referred to two logically separate ideas. Human beings are equal by nature in the sense of having an equal obligation to obey natural law and in the sense of having similar innate duties toward each other. My argument is that the dignity Pufendorf attributed to human nature did not indicate the Kantian idea of absolute and incomparable worth but only a comparative superiority in relation to other creatures. This comparative dignity of human nature offered a foundation for the equal obligation to obey natural law, but not for the similarity of innate duties. The latter followed from the fundamental principle of natural law, the duty to maintain sociality, and from observations concerning human self-esteem. Pufendorf failed, however, to distinguish properly between the two meanings of natural equality, and his failure in this regard has made his discussion on the topic somewhat difficult to follow.


In order to understand Pufendorf's doctrine of natural equality, we must first pay attention to the fact that it is not accompanied by a belief in the relative similarity of human capabilities. …

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