Vattel's Natural Law


Exerpts frm Vattel | Locke vs. Leibniz | Vattel's Natural Law | Law of Nations | Declaration of Independence | U.S. Constitution | Alexander Hamilton

Vattel's Conception of Natural Law


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Part 3 of:
"Life, Liberty, and The Pursuit of Happiness, How the Natural Law Concept of G. W. Leibniz Inspired America's Founding Fathers."
For the Introduction and Table of Contents, go to:
Leibnizian Natural Law

From the standpoint of our argument, the following items
summarize the key points of Emmerich de Vattel's
application of a Leibnizian natural law viewpoint, to
the issues of the law of nations.

Human Nature Is Creative Reason

Vattel begins {The Law of Nations} by attacking the
prevailing doctrines of natural law, for failing to
distinguish human from animal behavior. The Roman
emperor Justinian defined natural law as ``|`that which
nature teaches to all animals': Thus he defines the
natural law in its most extensive sense, not that
natural law which is peculiar to man, and which is
derived as well from his rational as from his animal
nature.'' Vattel then attacks the writings of Grotius,
Hobbes, Puffendorf, and Wolff, for being based on the
same false axioms of human nature.

Grotius cut his teeth writing legal opinions for
the Dutch East India Company, which was set up as part
of the Venetian takeover of the Netherlands. In {On the
Law of War and Peace,} Grotius used Aristotle to defend
the oligarchical system: ``Further, as Aristotle said
that some men are by nature slaves, that is, are suited
to slavery, so there are some peoples so constituted
that they understand better how to be ruled than to
rule.'' Having adopted Aristotle's axioms that
human nature is fixed, as the basis for his natural law
hypothesis, Grotius derives a false natural law, writing
``The law of nature, again, is unchangeable--even in the
sense that it cannot be changed by God.'' He fails
to understand Plato's {Parmenides} dialogue, that the
Creator of the universe is the source of change which
generates the elements of the universe, and, hence, is
more real than those elements within that created

Christian Wolff, who is often presented as the
successor to Leibniz, based his natural law hypothesis
on axioms of human nature, which were completely
opposite to Leibniz's. Wolff wrote that, ``the whole
nation may best be thought of in the likeness of a man,
whose soul is the director of the state, but whose body
is the subjects as a whole.'' Wolff was a defender
of ``enlightened absolutism,'' where the vast majority
of people were reduced to little more than muscle labor.
His extensive discussions of perfection and happiness
were designed to mimic Leibniz, but stripped of
Leibniz's guiding conception that all men possess
creative reason. Consequently, Wolff's mercantilistic
system was a static conception of economics, and not
based on the development of the productive powers of

In {The Law of Nations,} Vattel establishes a
system of law governing relations between nation-states,
based on natural law. In the ``Preliminaries'' section,
Vattel first establishes a natural law hypothesis which
is coherent with the approach of Leibniz and LaRouche,
in direct opposition to the Lockean, positivist approach
which dominates law today. He then applies this natural
law hypothesis, in Book I, to develop the law governing
nations, and in the three other Books, to develop the
law governing relations between nations.

Vattel shows that the nature of man requires that
society be organized to develop 'agape' in its members. In
a section which is a remarkable predecessor to the
proof developed two hundred years later by Lyndon LaRouche,
Vattel demonstrates that man's ability to provide for
himself through technology developed by creative reason,
defines human nature as fundamentally different from
animal nature. Reason, or the capacity to develop new
technologies through scientific discovery, allows
mankind to survive and perfect himself, while animal
nature is based merely on sense impressions. Vattel
attacks the absurd notion, that human nature could be
defined by looking at an isolated individual. The
potential for speech and reason is inherent within each
individual, but can only be developed through the
education of the young by others. Therefore, man must
work for the perfection of creative reason in himself,
and in others, for society to flourish. He writes,

"Man is so formed by nature, that he cannot supply
all his own wants, but necessarily stands in need
of the intercourse and assistance of his
fellow-creatures, whether for his immediate
preservation, or for the sake of perfecting his nature,
and enjoying such a life as is suitable to a rational
being. This is sufficiently proved by experience. We
have instances of persons, who, having grown up to
manhood among the bears of the forest, enjoyed not the
use of speech or of reason, but were, like the brute
beasts, possessed only of sensitive faculties. We see
moreover that nature has refused to bestow on men the
same strength and natural weapons of defense with which
she has furnished other animals--having, in lieu of
those advantages, endowed mankind with the faculties of
speech and reason, or at least a capability of acquiring
them by an intercourse with their fellow-creatures.
Speech enables them to communicate with each other, to
give each other mutual assistance, to perfect their
reason and knowledge; and having thus become
intelligent, they find a thousand methods of preserving
themselves, and supplying their wants. Each individual,
moreover, is intimately conscious that he can neither
live happily nor improve his nature without the
intercourse and assistance of others. Since, therefore,
nature has thus formed mankind, it is a convincing proof
of her intention that they should communicate with, and
mutually aid and assist each other.

"Hence is deduced the establishment of natural
society among men. The general law of that society is,
that each individual should do for the others everything
which their necessities require, and which he can
perform without neglecting the duty that he owes to
himself: a law which all men must observe in order to
live in a manner consonant to their nature, and
conformable to the views of their common Creator,-- a
law which our own safety, our happiness, our dearest
interests, ought to render sacred to every one of us."
({The Law of Nations,} Preliminaries, Sec. 10)

Since men can live ``consonant to their nature'' only
by the development of their creative potential through
collaboration with others, a society which does not
develop the emotion of 'agape' in its members, is
self-destructive. Vattel leaves no doubt that he is
diametrically opposed to the doctrines espoused by
the Enlightenment philosophers such as Hobbes,
Locke, and Jeremy Bentham. These doctrines, which
the British oligarchy promoted, argued that the
best society is achieved by each individual merely
following his individual greed. Vattel writes,

"It is easy to conceive what exalted felicity the
world would enjoy, were all men willing to observe
the rule that we have just laid down. On the contrary,
if each man wholly and immediately directs all his
thoughts to his own interest, if he does nothing for
the sake of other men, the whole human race together
will be immersed in the deepest wretchedness. Let us
therefore endeavor to promote the general happiness of
mankind: all mankind, in return, will endeavor to
promote ours, and thus we shall establish our felicity
on the most solid foundations. (Preliminaries, Sec. 10)

Vattel elaborates a program for national economic
development, which centers on the increase of the
productive powers of labor. This makes possible the
increase in the population density, which is a
necessity for a successful society. However, economic
development is only a means to allow the people to
labor after their principal duty, and that is their
own perfection.

The question of private property shows how the
different natural law hypotheses of Locke and Vattel,
lead to totally different conceptions of how society
should be governed. John Locke's absurd formulation is,
that the origin of private property can be traced back
to antiquity, to a primitive man picking up acorns under
a tree. According to Locke, an individual's private
property is merely the result of his past labor. Locke
concludes from this, that the rights of private property
are sacred and cannot be regulated by society.

Vattel locates the origin of private property in
the increase in the population density, which
necessitated the development of agriculture, to
supersede a hunting and gathering society. "If each
nation had, from the beginning, resolved to appropriate
to itself a vast country, that the people might live
only by hunting, fishing, and wild fruits, our globe
would not be sufficient to maintain a tenth part of its
present inhabitants." (Book I, Chap. XVIII, Sec. 209)
The advancement of society, to a more advanced mode of
production, required that land be cultivated, with
private property the best means for doing this.

Society has the need and, therefore, the right to
regulate private property, to ensure development.
Nations which claim uninhabited areas must develop them,
for their claims to be valid, and the landed aristocracy
is not allowed to hold large tracts of land without
cultivating them. In addition, since government must
provide direction to society to ensure the development
of the productive powers of the nation, if the owners of
a corporation act in a fashion that injures society, or
which will ruin the corporation, the sovereign has the
duty to constrain the prodigal.

Sovereign Nations, Not World Government

Vattel locates how the duty to contribute to the general
happiness of mankind, is not removed by the formation of
nation-states. Instead, when men join in a nation, they
must still fulfill their duties towards the rest of
mankind. He writes,

"That society, considered as a moral person, since
possessed of an understanding, volition, and strength
peculiar to itself, is therefore obliged to live on
the same terms with other societies or states, as
individual man was obliged, before those establishments,
to live with other men ... the object of the great
society established by nature between all nations is
also the interchange of mutual assistance for their
own improvement, and that of their condition.
(Preliminaries, Sec. 11-12)

From this, Vattel arrives at the first general law of
relations between nations:

"The first general law that we discover in the very
object of the society of nations, is that each
individual nation is bound to contribute every thing in
her power to the happiness and perfection of all the
others. (Preliminaries, Sec. 13)

"The second general law of relations between nations
is the sovereignty of all nations:

``Each nation should be left in the peaceable enjoyment
of that liberty which she inherits from nature.'' This
is derived from natural law, since nations, like
individuals, are naturally free and independent of each
other, regardless of the size or strength of the nation.
``A dwarf is as much a man as a giant; a small republic
is not less a sovereign state than the most powerful

Nothing makes most modern writers on international
law more upset, than Vattel's explicit rejection of the
idea of a world government, or supranational
institutions, governing nation-states. Numerous writers
in the early 1900's, raved that Vattel had to be reduced
to obscurity, because of his defense of national
sovereignty. Vattel rejects the formulation, advanced by
Christian Wolff, that a {civitatis maximae,} or great
republic, exists above all nation-states:

It is the essence of all civil society 'civitatis,'
that each member thereof should have given up a part
of his rights to the body of the society, and that there
should exist a supreme authority capable of commanding
all the members, of giving to them laws, and of punishing
those who refuse to obey. Nothing like this can be
conceived or supposed to exist between nations. Each
sovereign State pretends to be, and in fact is,
independent of all others. (Preface, p. xiii)

"The sovereign nation-state is the
best institution, to understand and perform the duties
which the state owes to its citizens. As Vattel puts it,
``A nation ought to know itself. Without this knowledge,
it cannot make any successful endeavors after its own
perfection.'' Furthermore, if nations reserve the right
to judge other nations and intervene in their internal
affairs, this ``opens the door to all the ravages of
enthusiasm and fanaticism, and furnishes ambition with
numberless pretexts."

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Law of Nations

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