Pufendorf Advocates a Unified Germany Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Samuel von Pufendorf argued that the Holy Roman Empire and its territorial states were inherently unstable because of the absence of a unified sovereignty—even the Holy Roman Emperor had limited actual power. Pufendorf called for replacing this instability with a strong German state specifically—an absolute monarchy.

Summary of Event

The complex political entity called the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation was a unique arrangement that evolved from the Middle Ages as a result of wars, treaties, intrigue, and numerous compromises. Before the Thirty Years’ War Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648);Holy Roman Empire and , the empire encompassed the present-day countries of Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Austria, parts of France, and northern Italy. The empire was composed of a large number of estates of varying sizes that were mostly governed by kings, princes, or bishops. The empire’s titular head, the Holy Roman Emperor, was elected by seven electors, who were rulers of major territories within the empire. The sharing of powers between the emperor and the territorial rulers led to frequent, bitter disagreements, culminating in the destructive Thirty Years’ War, which lasted from 1618 to 1648. [kw]Pufendorf Advocates a Unified Germany (1667) [kw]Germany, Pufendorf Advocates a Unified (1667) Government and politics;1667: Pufendorf Advocates a Unified Germany[2290] Philosophy;1667: Pufendorf Advocates a Unified Germany[2290] Europe;1667: Pufendorf Advocates a Unified Germany[2290] Holy Roman Empire Pufendorf, Samuel von

The Peace of Westphalia (1648) Westphalia, Peace of (1648) made a number of important changes in the constitutional structures of the empire. Switzerland and the Netherlands became fully independent nation-states. Elsewhere, the institutional powers of the emperor and the imperial court were diminished, while the territories acquired additional powers, such as the right to enter into treaties. As a result, the territorial governments would develop more and more into sovereign states, thus preventing German-speaking people from forming a single nation-state similar to the models of England and France. The further division of the empire into Catholic and Protestant territories, moreover, meant an end to the medieval notion of the “unity” of Western Christendom under the leadership of the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor.

Before the Thirty Years’ War, most German legal scholars—almost all of them employees of the state—had attempted to defend the imperial government by arguing that it corresponded to the categories of government that were found in Aristotle’s political philosophy. In order to fit the empire into Aristotelian categories, these legal scholars had emphasized the preponderance of either the monarchical or the aristocratic elements of the constitution. As a result of the suffering and destruction of the war, however, it was probably inevitable that many German intellectuals would find such an approach less than persuasive and conclude that the Holy Roman Empire was in need of structural change. Samuel von Pufendorf Pufendorf, Samuel von was one of the major political philosophers in Germany to emphasize this critical perspective.

During his youth, Pufendorf’s personal experiences in the war encouraged him to seek political structures conducive to peace and order. While a student at the University of Leipzig and Jena, he studied Aristotle and other classical writers, and he was influenced even more by the writings of Hugo Grotius Grotius, Hugo and Thomas Hobbes Hobbes, Thomas . Like many intellectuals of the century, Pufendorf was greatly impressed with scientific advances, and he came to believe that it was possible to use scientific methods in developing a scientific theory of structural change. Through his philosophical friends, he attracted the interest of the tolerant Calvinist ruler of the Palatinate, Elector Karl Ludwig Ludwig, Karl , to whom he dedicated his first book, on jurisprudence, Elementorum jurisprudentiae universalis Elementorum jurisprudentiae universalis (Pufendorf) (1660; English translation, 1929), which attempted to reconcile the theories of Grotius and Hobbes. Also in 1660, the elector appointed Pufendorf to a seat of international law at the University of Heidelberg.

It was at Heidelberg that Pufendorf wrote and published his strong critique of the empire, De statu imperii Germanici (1667; The Present State of Germany Present State of Germany, The (Pufendorf) , 1690). Because of the controversial nature of the book, he concealed his identity with the pseudonym Severinus de Monzambano. Arguing that the empire had a unique form of government that did not fit into the traditional categories, even if interpreted loosely, he characterized the empire as “an irregular state-body, much like a monster.” He was especially troubled by the lack of an undivided sovereignty in either the emperor or in territorial rulers. He disliked the fact that territorial rulers and estates shared much of the sovereignty over subjects of the empire. In his view, this “irregular constitution of government” was the principle reason that Germany was unable to preserve internal order or defend against external threats.

Pufendorf recommended that Germany should became an absolutist monarchy Monarchy, absolute , as in France under King Louis XIV. If accomplishing this were impossible, he suggested that the second-best option was the breakup of the empire into fully independent and sovereign states. He recognized, however, that it would take many years for either of these changes to take place. Philosophy;Germany

Samuel von Pufendorf.

(Library of Congress)

Meanwhile, in order to maintain peace and stability under the status quo, Pufendorf insisted that it was essential to safeguard the legal rights of all members of the empire. Although his constitutional theories were highly abstract, he tried to examine the ways in which constitutional structures actually operated in practice—a perspective usually missing in other political philosophers of the time.

Although he shared many of Hobbes’s views about the need for a unified sovereignty, he believed that rulers had an obligation to defend the well-being of their subjects. Anticipating several ideas of John Locke, Locke, John Pufendorf defined the purpose of the state in terms of natural law and asserted that individuals possessed natural rights and liberties. A pious Lutheran, he believed that principles of natural law were established by God, the divine lawgiver. Unlike Locke, he located the full sovereignty of the state in the ruler and failed to recognize that enforcement of individual rights required parliamentary or judicial institutions. Pufendorf insisted on the rights of subjects, but he greatly minimized the strong tendency of absolutist regimes to violate these rights.

Apparently, Pufendorf’s authorship of De statu imperii Germanici was widely known, and it provoked a considerable amount of unpleasant controversy. In 1667, when Charles XI of Sweden offered him a full professorship in law at the University of Lund, he quickly accepted, and he would live in Sweden for the next eighteen years. Pufendorf indicated no sense of regret about living in a non-German speaking country, for he followed the supranational Humanist tradition of seeking an appreciative patron wherever he might be located. Even when advocating German unification, Pufendorf appeared to lack a sense of German patriotism.

In his later writings, Pufendorf formulated a complex variant of “enlightened absolutism,” sometimes called “natural-law absolutism,” which insisted on the absolutist leader’s duty to respect natural rights and liberties. His most esteemed work, De jure naturae et gentium (1672; Of the Law of Nature and Nations Of the Law of Nature and Nations (Pufendorf) , 1703), is an encyclopedic study of law, which includes the theory that human sociality is based on a sense of natural justice implanted in the hearts of all humanity by God. A condensed version for the general reading public was published as De officio hominis et civis juxta legem naturalem (1673; The Whole Duty of Man According to the Law of Nature Whole Duty of Man According to the Law of Nature, The (Pufendorf) , 1691).

His next work was a 33-volume history of Sweden, which is not often read but is praised for its factual precision. His two-volume study of comparative history, Einleitung zu der Historie des vornehmsten Reiche und Staaten (1682; An Introduction to the History of the Principal Kingdoms and States of Europe Introduction to the History of the Principal Kingdoms and States of Europe, An (Pufendorf) , 1697), further clarified his arguments in favor of a unified sovereignty for Germany. Soon thereafter, when reacting to Louis XIV’s policy of religious intolerance, he wrote a book advocating a separation between religion and the state.


The developments of the next two centuries would confirm much of Pufendorf’s position on the structural weakness of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. Unable to evolve into a viable nation-state, the empire continued to deteriorate until it was finally dissolved by Napoleon in 1806. Pufendorf, however, underestimated the ability of the territorial units of the empire—such as Brandenburg-Prussia, Bavaria, and Baden—to develop into powerful states. Reflecting the experiences of his age, it is not surprising that Pufendorf greatly underestimated the adaptability of federalism and failed to see its advantages for large heterogeneous populations.

Pufendorf’s political writings anticipated many of the ideas and values of the Enlightenment of the next century. He is recognized as one of the earliest German proponents of enlightened absolutism, which relied on the conscience of leaders to protect individual rights and liberties. Some historians, including John Gagliardo, argue that Pufendorf was the first major theorist of German public law to analyze the Holy Roman Empire from a historical and descriptive approach. Previous theorists had been so preoccupied with the categories of classical Aristotelian politics that they had tended to ignore the realities of the imperial government in practice.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carr, Craig. Political Writings of Samuel Pufendorf. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. The editor’s introduction to this collection provides a useful summary of Pufendorf’s mature views on natural law, sovereignty, and absolutism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dufour, Alfred. “Pufendorf.” In The Cambridge History of Political Thought, 1450-1700, edited by Jimmy H. Burns and Mark Goldie. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. A good analysis of Pufendorf’s theories about government and natural law.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gaglilardo, John. Reich and Nation: The Holy Roman Empire as Idea and Reality, 1763-1806. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980. A useful account of the constitutional history of the empire, emphasizing Pufendorf’s historical approach, which looked at how the empire operated in practice.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haakonssen, Knud, ed. Grotius, Pufendorf, and Modern Natural Law. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1999. This work discusses various aspects of Pufendorf’s philosophy, including his ideas on the modern state and human rights, and an analysis of his place in the history of ethics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hunter, Ian. Rival Enlightenments: Civil and Metaphysical Philosophy in Early Modern Germany. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Asserts that Pufendorf’s civil philosophy was fundamentally different from the metaphysical approaches of philosophers Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Immanuel Kant.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Krieger, Leonard. The German Idea of Freedom: History of a Political Tradition. Boston: Beacon Press, 1957. Krieger argues that Pufendorf was a proponent of a limited form of absolutism, which he calls “natural-law absolutism.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schneewind, Jerome. The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. A scholarly survey that views Pufendorf as a pivotal moral philosopher on the way to Kant’s theory of autonomy.
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