Baron Samuel von Pufendorf

The German jurist and historian Baron Samuel von Pufendorf (1632-1694) is best known for his influential writings on international and natural law. His works became standard textbooks for both juristical and historical students in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Samuel von Pufendorf was born on Jan. 8, 1632, near Chemnitz, Saxony. The son of a Lutheran minister, he began his higher education with the study of theology at the University of Leipzig. His dislike of theological studies caused him to change to legal studies, which he pursued at the University of Jena. In 1658 he traveled to Copenhagen, where he became a tutor to the children of the Swedish ambassador to Denmark. As a result of war between Denmark and Sweden, the Swedish official and his entire retinue were arrested. Pufendorf, consequently, spent 8 months in prison. He apparently used this time to reflect on his previous legal studies, for, after his release, he went to Leiden and published in 1660 a complete system of universal law in his Elementorum jurisprudentiae universalis libri duo (The Two Books of the Elements of Universal Jurisprudence). This work was dedicated to the ruler of the Palatinate, who rewarded Pufendorf by creating a new chair of political and natural law at the University of Heidelberg. While in Heidelberg, he published De statu imperii Germanici (On the State of the German Empire), a critical analysis of the organization of the Holy Roman Empire.

In 1670 Pufendorf accepted a new professorial position at the University of Lund in Sweden. There in 1672 he published his greatest work, De jure naturae et gentium libri octo (The Eight Books on the Law of Nature and Nations). A summary was published the following year, entitled De officio hominis et civis (On the Duty of Man and Citizen). In these works Pufendorf expanded upon the theories of Hugo Grotius and Thomas Hobbes. He rejected Hobbes's view of man in his natural state by maintaining that the state of nature was one of peace, not of war. Pufendorf developed a concept of secularized natural law, holding that natural law was concerned with man in this life and was derived from human reason.

In 1677 Pufendorf virtually gave up his preoccupation with law and turned to historical studies. In that year he became the official historian to the Swedish king. As a result, he wrote histories of the reigns of Gustavus II and Charles Gustavus. Called to the service of Elector Frederick William of Brandenburg and his successor, Elector Frederick III, Pufendorf completed a history of the former's reign, but he had barely begun one on Frederick III when he died on Oct. 26, 1694. Although his historical works were rather stilted, they were based on archival material and demonstrated a respect for truth. Pufendorf's general history of Europe, also written during this period of his life (1682), became the "first modern textbook in European history."


Further Reading on Baron Samuel von Pufendorf

There is little biographical material on Pufendorf in English. A study of his life and ideas is Leonard Krieger, The Politics of Discretion: Pufendorf and the Acceptance of Natural Law (1965). See also George Louis Bissonnette, Pufendorf and the Church Reforms of Peter the Great (1962). General background is in Harry Elmer Barnes, A History of Historical Writing (1937), and Herbert Butterfield, Man on His Past: The Study of the History of Historical Scholarship (1960).