Early Modern Natural Law Theories: Contexts and Strategies in the Early Enlightenment


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Ian Hunter

The aim of this paper is to examine the shifting spirit and rhetoric of English travel collections between the end of the 16th century and the early 18th century. In the new framework, trade and commerce take precedence over Christianity. Reason and experience indicate that a spirit of commerce, rather than religion, provides the connection between the countries and nations of the world. This narrative creates an external, preset, and authorizing discourse within the collections of Hakluyt, Purchas, Churchill, and Harris — a discourse or framework that posits a nature or reality that is hierarchical, historical, and teleological They use this pre-assigned cultural narrative to catalogue, explain, and authorize their experiences of unfamiliar lands and peoples.

The emphasis upon knowledge compels travelers to document the exact particulars of foreign cultures and experiences in order to render comprehensive accounts that justify the beginning and ending points of their metaphysical narrative. In encouraging the collection of empirical knowledge, the editors outline specific practices that travelers should follow to provide accounts of exactitude and verisimilitude.

Emeritus Professor Ian Hunter FAHA

The new notion, however, distances and removes an externally authorizing telos and its universalizing assumptions from the natural order, in part because empirically acquired travel experiences derive their authority from particular travelers, whose inclinations and critical reasoning capacity help them interpret laws of nature established by God at creation These travelers are citizens within discrete states 21 , who weigh, measure, and observe, using their reasoning faculty to determine how their inclinations and actions or choices accord or do not accord with the laws of nature Importantly, when people determine their local and immediate interest by their internal authority — that is, their ability to choose critically in relation to the laws of nature, their proximate environment — without relying upon a preset external narrative, then they cultivate their surroundings, and by developing the local, they interact within a larger space of other peoples and nations, thereby encouraging and promoting prosperity at home and abroad, without overtly positing a determinate cultural limit to a larger world community.

Thus, the natural law framework diminishes the external authority of a fixed hierarchical, historical, and teleological reality that determines the significance of unfamiliar cultures and peoples, and instead privileges the discrete, local, particular, internal and self-interested authority of people and nations by connecting their critical reasoning capacity with the laws of nature This shift in travel discourse fashions a new nature and discourse in which people and states realize their mutual interests by focusing on the authority of the local, and in doing so unite all within an ever-expansive, commercial, indeterminate global order.

The editor relates a well-known anecdote:. Richard Hakluyt, my cosin, […] at a time when I found lying open upon his boord certeine bookes of Cosmographie, with a universall Mappe: he seeing me somewhat curious […] began to instruct my ignorance, by shewing me the division of the earth […]: he pointed with his wand to all the knowen Seas, Gulfs, Bays, Straights, Capes, Rivers, Empires, Kingdomes, Dukedoms and Territories of ech part […]. By documenting particular inventions and improvements to navigation over the centuries, the editors document the progression of the biblical account.

By superimposing the biblical story on navigation, the Churchills intimate that subsequent travel accounts will contribute to an on-going biblical story. The particular narratives will offer specific insights into the complexity of cultures, peoples, and nations and how they fit into a progressive overarching narrative, determined by divine providence.

The biblical narrative authorizes travel experiences. This expansionist doctrine outlines a discourse of travel and exploration that asserts a Christian narrative wherein people move toward prosperity, upwards in a hierarchy and thereby realize their higher unity with God This narrative will help people understand where they reside within the progression of the Western narrative so that they may ascend towards happiness and prosperity in a European-defined global community.


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By pointing to the importance of providence and prosperity, Harris superimposes, like the Churchills, a teleological narrative upon travel, which authorizes travel experiences. I, col. In an unexplored and un-traveled world, experiences and observations already fit into the predetermined pattern outlined by the biblical narrative. The narrative serves as an authorizing template for documenting and cataloguing phenomena. The beginning of the story has been written, and now by collecting particulars, explorers accumulate knowledge, detailing the unfolding storyline.

Navigation originates with Noah and the ark, and thereafter they build more ships, which ultimately increases commerce between nations. By drawing upon the biblical narrative and natural law language and connecting these to commerce, Osborne represents a pivotal point within the change of discourse as empiricism, local authority, and reciprocity supersede the older discourse of history, teleology, and hierarchy First, natural law rhetoric of the seventeenth century removes the notion of a teleological narrative from accounts of nature.

II, prop. IV, prop. I, ch. III, sec. Rather people determine happiness by applying their natural faculties, sense and reason, to acquire knowledge of their surroundings from laws of nature.

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People may use their faculties, reason and sense, to determine the laws of nature, established by God at creation, to determine right or wrong action and prosper within their local surroundings. Knowledge does not point to an innate, preset teleological order within nature; rather, people use their reason and senses to determine how they should act For Cumberland, people understand natural law through science, as long as they practice empirical discipline, perceiving necessary relationships in nature, authored by God. III All people are rational agents, who unite reciprocally within the same kingdom or city of God, irrespective of beliefs, customs, or practices This larger community does not derive its validity from a preset narrative and telos , but rather, it unites discrete peoples and nations within a larger limitless system through their particular inclinations and critical reasoning capacity As we will see, these seventeenth-century natural law notions offer the conceptual scaffolding for the editors of mid-eighteenth-century travel collections to frame their discourse when accounting for travel and navigation as well as distant peoples and nations.

Instead of appealing to rank and status, he appeals to a new group with its alternate narrative of prosperity — merchants and commerce.


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Such a statement is significant, especially when compared to earlier travel collections, because for the Churchills and Harris, reason and experience indicate how travel experiences fit within the Christian narrative writ into nature, revealing how they advance to a Christian telos. If we reflect on the Reason of the Thing, it will appear, that Commerce is founded on Industry, and cherished by Freedom. These are such solid Pillars, that whatever Superstructure is erected upon them, cannot easily be overthrown by Force, but must be ruined by Sap: This too we find justified by History and Experience.

Campbell notes,. Instead of connecting navigation and trade to an authorizing cultural narrative, he connects it to the inclinations and critical reasoning capacity of particular groups, providing for themselves in their immediate environment. People unite together in a larger community or they interact globally by focusing on and cultivating their immediate environment, satisfying and fulfilling their local interest.

Like reductionism, it denied natural law any validity at all and replaced it with a fresh source of moral and political authority. Unlike the reductionists, however, the proponents of this strategy sought to maintain the prescriptive power traditionally associated with natural law.

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There were three notable attempts of this kind. Like natural law, the general will was rationally knowable and binding, but it was also rooted in what, for Rousseau at least, were thought to be the empirically given realities of each political association. This doctrine was therefore significantly variable from polity to polity yet thought to be both certain and scientifically respectable, descriptive and prescriptive.

Not surprisingly it proved a potent weapon in the rhetorical arsenal of the French Revolution. Like Rousseau, the Physiocrats Mirabeau and Quesnay sought an ultimate source of normative judgment that was both descriptive and prescriptive.

Tim Hochstrasser

In their case, however, that source was pre-civilized nature, which privileged agriculture as the solely productive sector in political economy. Still others combined the core insights of Physiocratic political economy with the empirical facts of human sensibility. Their metaphysical analysis—so unique among Enlightenment critics of natural law—and their materialist reading of human sensibility entailed that mankind necessarily sought to avoid pain and fulfill its desires and wills. Given the universality of this fact, they claimed to demonstrate that a broadly republican and liberal political order was the sole way to achieve these goals.

Non-prescriptive reductionism marked the most radical intellectual departure from the preceding tradition of moral and political thought. Naturalizers, by contrast, were less philosophically radical. The least philosophically radical strategy was that of offering prescriptive replacements for natural law. The prescriptions were new, but they functioned largely in the same fashion as what they replaced, offering mandatory and certain guides to moral and political action: one set of a priori principles was simply replaced with another.

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From the perspective of political practice, however, the respective implications of each of these philosophies were almost entirely the reverse. Prescriptive replacements for natural law offered a revolutionary political agenda whose universality and certainty underwrote and legitimated the radical and often violent measures required to put them into effect. French revolutionary thought drew heavily on Rousseau, Physiocracy, and the ideas of early Ideologues, such as Condorcet and Sieyes.

Naturalizers like Voltaire and Diderot were comparatively mild in their political prescriptions, offering grounds for criticism and reform but not wholesale reconstruction. By contrast, in a purely political sense, the reductionists were the least radical. Since they viewed moral and political norms as given natural phenomena, their moral theories offered little ground for political reconstruction.

Natural Law Theory: Crash Course Philosophy #34

In fact, this strategy aimed to lower the stakes of and polemics surrounding political action and debate by showing that there were few moral problems to solve. It sought to convince the literate public that the contemporary world was already imbued with all the moral and political norms it needed, and thus required little intervention. If anything, its purpose was to make contemporary Europeans satisfied with the modern social and political order emerging in their midst. Calas claimed his innocence to his death by torture on the wheel in His death garnered the interest of Voltaire, who eventually had his conviction overturned on the grounds that Calas had been unjustly convicted out of anti-Protestant prejudice.

Published by the Witherspoon Institute. Document Archive. Search this site:. Naturalizing Natural Law Naturalizers such as Voltaire, Diderot, and their precursors such as Montaigne continued to use the vocabulary of natural law, but redefined what natural law is and how it can be known in terms of a new conception of the natural. Moral Reductionism The second main way in which Enlightenment thinkers challenged natural law was by rejecting its prescriptive function entirely and offering instead a reductive account of morality grounded in the extra-rational facts of human psychology.

Prescriptive Replacements of Natural Law Toward the end of the Enlightenment, there emerged a more radical alternative to natural law. Copyright The Witherspoon Institute.

Early Modern Natural Law Theories: Contexts and Strategies in the Early Enlightenment Early Modern Natural Law Theories: Contexts and Strategies in the Early Enlightenment
Early Modern Natural Law Theories: Contexts and Strategies in the Early Enlightenment Early Modern Natural Law Theories: Contexts and Strategies in the Early Enlightenment
Early Modern Natural Law Theories: Contexts and Strategies in the Early Enlightenment Early Modern Natural Law Theories: Contexts and Strategies in the Early Enlightenment
Early Modern Natural Law Theories: Contexts and Strategies in the Early Enlightenment Early Modern Natural Law Theories: Contexts and Strategies in the Early Enlightenment
Early Modern Natural Law Theories: Contexts and Strategies in the Early Enlightenment Early Modern Natural Law Theories: Contexts and Strategies in the Early Enlightenment

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