Puf the tragic dragon

That Samuel von Pufendorf (1632–94) was some kind of liberal one might take from the company he kept (especially after his death), and from his generally bad attitude towards Hapsburgs.

Should gentle reader be a Yankee constitutional scholar, he will be familiar with Pufendorf because he will have heard that the Fathers of the U.S.A. Constitution were reading him (in the original Latin). Their advanced views on the law of nations, and thus of what constitutes a nation, owed much to him. (They had a bad attitude towards Hapsburgs, too.)

Jefferson had probably been reading him in the bath the night before he wrote the Declaration of Independence. (This is pure speculation on my part, incidentally.) His rival Alexander Hamilton was equally familiar with this territory, to say nothing of little Madison and the rest. Jefferson’s mental map of the intersection between the natural law, and international law, strikes me as Pufendorfian to a fault.

I was reading P. back when all the cool kids were reading Locke and Hobbes; unfortunately in that wet-first order. They were also reading philosophical pornographers, such as Hume, but that is another story. …

The English-speaking “enlightenment” has since lost contact with the earlier German, though alas not with the later German and French enlightenmenti, and thus the history of nationhood and statecraft emerging from the Thirty Years’ War has been gradually obscured. The treason of the French monarchy, siding with the Protestants against the Hapsburgs — one of history’s great cosmic powerplays, in my view — was overwritten by the glib flippancies of Kant and Voltaire. ┬áThe horrible Rousseau would fill public space in the mind of France, during the slide downhill to the French Revolution. But that came later to west Atlantic shores. The American Founders were more stolidly Prusso-German than fashionably Parisian, and their boots had sunk deeper in the mud of history. Indeed, they’d slap on olive-face and dress up as Romans.

We cannot understand our English-speaking intellectual ancestors if we narrow our view through anachronism. The fact that the American Revolution starts bubbling nearly a generation before the French is of huge chronological significance. It succeeded because it was grounded in an older, more generous, explicitly Christian soil, however much blood had been shed into it.

Today’s national ideas and ideals are products of a fundamentally Protestant, and I would say Lutheran conception of how to organize the world, in light of certain hard facts, such as the survival of Catholicism. The earlier modern thinking was still consciously Christian. It aspired to maintain moral conventions that the French revolutionists would seek to overthrow. These northerners wished only to transplant those conventions from southern to northern gardens. Some withering was inevitable.

What once pleased me about Pufendorf was how he balanced or even corrected Hobbes (whose sonorous prose rhetoric had tended to hypnotize me). In the place of a nature “red in tooth and claw,” in a state of perpetual war, Pufendorf postulated a nature at peace, but always insecure and needing legal signposts. Which one, I asked myself, will be the instinctive enemy of tyranny? Or more maturely, now that we know the answer, is there nevertheless something about “liberalism,” in the finest sense, that engenders tyranny, even while proclaiming resistance to it?

It is not so much Pufendorf himself for whom I am shilling, as an immersion into the formative period of modern political thought; not least because this takes us back to the age when a coherent Catholic response to it was also in formation, descending from the Council of Trent.

Today, of course, it has gone into hiding.