Early Modern France
While the grandest systems of natural law emerged in Germany, there was also a sustained focus on ethical discourse of this type among the French Huguenots, exiled by Louis XIV (1638–1715) after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, and forced therefore to construct a new political identity for themselves within a cosmopolitan intellectual framework, rather than that of a state. Their most eloquent writers, such as Jean Barbeyrac (1674–1744) and Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui (1694–1748), sought to defend a right to religious conscience while retaining a political order that was primarily absolutist in character. The particular circumstances of their ideological preferences therefore led them to develop a proto-liberal language of rights in association with religious toleration that was genuinely original and powerfully influential, not least on John Locke (1632–1704). But the Huguenots also had to confront more directly than any other group of writers the potentially illiberal and austerely utilitarian (using that term loosely) aspects of Pufendorfian absolutism, whose voluntarist assumptions sometimes appeared to produce results rather similar to the divine-right absolutism pursued for wholly different reasons by Louis XIV. This was a paradox not lost on Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), who, with intimate knowledge of the local Swiss context of these writers, later castigated the Huguenots, and the natural law school as a whole, as a very clear case study in subservience to absolutism and a failure to follow through an analysis of the rights of conscience with sufficient rigor.
In four particular respects, the natural law disputes of the period between 1625 and 1760 left an important philosophical legacy. Firstly, the issues of how far religious toleration was to be permitted, what its political consequences should be, and what were the sources of its intellectual justification were played out within and refracted through the discourse of natural law above all others. Natural law theories therefore provided the framework for the discussion of the major question of the day on the interface between political theory and practical politics. Secondly, although this was not fully intended, the crucial separation of the fields of ethics and moral theology, argued for by Grotius, Pufendorf, and their followers, ultimately resulted in the final downgrading and devaluing of the formal divine content and origin of ethics and the promotion of individuals as separate self-sufficient moral persons capable of undertaking rational voluntary transactions. Thirdly, this Pufendorfian argument produced several very important discussions of the nature of contractarian government, of the right to own property and to pursue economic interactions untrammeled by the state, that powerfully anticipated some of the most radical and influential ideas of the philosophes and of the Scottish Enlightenment. Finally, the natural lawyers' preoccupation with securing links between the law of nature and the law of nations established the view that reason of state arguments were not sufficient in the world of public affairs, thus—ironically—reinstating a link between "eternal" principles of human ethics and the law of nations, just when the link between divine and natural law had been irretrievably severed.
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