Patrick RILEY

Leibniz on Natural Law in the Nouveaux Essais.

vendredi 1er octobre, 9h00-9h30

Résumé de la communication :

"There are fundamental maxims constituting the law itself", Leibniz writes in the Nouveaux essais IV, vii, 19, "which, when they are taught by pure reason, and do not arise from the arbitrary power of the state, constitute natural law." That privileging of "pure reason" over "the arbitrary power of the state" – that privileging of Plato over Hobbes – leads to what Leibniz calls jurisprudentia universalis or jurisprudence universelle. And the central idea of Leibniz’ "universal jurisprudence", which aims to find quasi-geometrical eternal moral verities equally valid for all rational beings, human or divine, is that natural justice is "the charity of the wise" (caritas sapientis) – that it is not mere conformity to sovereign-ordained "positive" law (in the manner of Hobbes’ De Cive and Leviathan), nor mere negative refraining from harm (at the cost of positive benevolence). The equal stress on "charity" and on "wisdom" suggests that Leibnizian natural law is a kind of fusing of Platonism – in which the wise know the eternal truths such as "absolute" goodness (Phaedo 75d), which the gods themselves also know and love (Euthyphro 9e-10e), and therefore deserve in natural justice to rule (Republic 443d-e) – and of Pauline Christianity, whose key moral ideal is that charity or love is the first of the virtues ("though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal"). There is, historically, nothing remarkable in trying to fuse Platonism and Christianity: for Augustine’s early De Doctrina Christiana I, 27, with its notion that justice is "ordered" or "measured" love, is just such a fusion. But Leibniz, the last of the great Christian Platonists – who also tried to fuse "wise charity" with the highest degree of Roman law, honeste vivere (to live honorably) – left the world just as Hume, Rousseau and Kant were about to transform and "secularize" it definitively. It is not surprising, then, that in his greatest writing on "natural" justice, the Méditation sur la notion commune de la justice (c. 1703), Leibniz should begin with a verbatim paraphrase of Plato’s Euthyphro – in which the gods themselves do not make or change eternal moral verities, but eternally love them because they are true – and then equate the legal-positivist Hobbes with the Thrasymachus who insists (in Republic book I) that justice is merely the interest of the most powerful.

Leibniz’ most bold and striking equation of "natural law" with Cristian-Platonic "wise charity" is to be found in his remarkable Elementa Iuris Perpetui (1695), which begins by insisting that natural justice is not simply the "first" of the virtues, à la Aristotle or Aquinas, but that such justice "contains" all of the moral virtues, and that it relates to "the republic good" or "the perfection of the universe" or "the glory of God" – where these three distinct things are morally equivalent in Leibniz’ usual sense (the sense that in working with wise charity for the common good of humanity one is following the "presumptive will" of God as just monarch of the best of all possible worlds).

But the really bold and striking thing in this 1695 writing is that Leibniz goes on to say that "the precepts of the eternal law, which are called ‘natural’, are nothing other than the laws of the perfect state .... The principles in question are three : neminem laedere, suum cuique tribuere, pie vivere. The first [to injure no one] is the precept of peace, the second [to render each his due] is that of commodious living, the third [to live piously or charitably] is that of salvation." In this remarkable paragraph, the "eternal", the "natural", and the Roman are made equivalent (as "perfect laws"), and that jurisprudential Trinity then governs not just the "human forum" but the perfect state of the best kosmos – at least once one transforms honeste vivere into pie vivere. No longer are Roman legal maxims just historical residues of a concrete legal and jurisprudential system; they have become the principles of "natural" (indeed of "eternal") justice. But this is not surprising in Leibniz, who could rank himself among those for whom "the Roman laws are not considered as laws, but simply as written reason [la raison écrite]." And when Leibniz goes on to say, slightly later, that since "the love of God" or of the summum bonum "prevails over every other desire", the "supreme and most perfect criterion of natural justice consists in this third precept of true piety", and that "human society itself must be ordered in such a way that it conforms as much as possible to the divine" (to that "universal society which can be called the City of God"), he has finally equated the eternal, the "natural", the Roman "written reason", and the divine. And since universal justice is caritas sapientis, he has equated the eternal, the natural, the Roman, the reasonable, the divine, and the charitable. (Even for so very synthetic a mind as Leibniz’, this is an amazing synthesis!)

If in the Preface to the Theodicy one had learned that the duty of wise charity is given by "supreme reason" (as Christ himself saw), in the Elementa Iuris Perpetui charity is the heart of living piously, and that pious living is a "sublimated" form of Roman-law honeste vivere. In the end, then, Leibniz the "natural lawyer" wants to say something like this: "Roman" justice = Christian caritas sapientis = reason = nature = eternity = divinity. For "after the writings of the geometers there is nothing that one can compare, for force and solidity, to the writings of the Roman jurisconsults ... never has natural law been so frequently interrogated, so faithfully understood, so punctually followed, as in the works of these great men" (to Kestner, 1716, Dutens IV, 3, 267).