Burlamaqui and Reason

English: Engraved portrait of Jean-Jacques Bur...

English: Engraved portrait of Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui (1694-1748), a Swiss jurist and philosopher. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Reason does not play a major role in Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui’s notion of natural rights because he sees goodness in terms of God. Burlamaqui states that a natural right is a right that belongs “originally and essentially to man” (Williams 89). It is inherent to a man’s nature because it is a process “by which he experiences the condition of being human, independently of any particular act on his part” (Williams 89). In general, Burlamaqui views natural law as “a law that God imposes on all men” (Williams 99). In particular, he states that “it is beyond doubt (and everybody is in agreement about this) that the efficient cause of the laws of nature, and of the obligation that they engender, is the will of the Supreme Being” (Williams 99). For Burlamaqui, God is the “supreme rule of conduct in everything connected with society,” and, as a result, his views about natural and acquired rights are inseparably linked to religious morality (Williams 99).Burlamaqui states that the goodness of an individual is connected to his belief and devotion to God. This argument implies that individuals not guided by God and religion cannot be good, and, therefore, are the opposite of good, i.e. evil.


These assumptions guide Burlamaqui’s views on Reason. His idea of Reason is something equivalent to his notion of God. He suggests that reason only allows people to work toward the happiness of mankind, and that other people “must” encourage the use of reason in society (Williams 88). Burlamaqui defines reason as man using his abilities to achieve excellence, excellence that is guided by morality and a devotion to God (DeNinno). In other words, he sees Reason “as a foundational principle” (Heller Burlamaqui 2).


Though Burlamaqui says that argues for the natural rights of all men, his argument is actually not an argument for the natural rights of all men. Burlamaqui’s argument for the natural rights of all men excludes those men who do not share a devotion to God. He links Reason with equality by stating that “creatures of the same rank… have a general equal common rights so that they can live together, and share the same advantages. We are thus obligated to regard ourselves as being naturally equal” (Williams 99). According to his reasoning, people who are not devoted to God are essentially outside of the social order, and, therefore, not equal to others. Burlamaqui does not consider these people as “creatures of the same rank,” and he does not regard them as “being naturally equal” (Williams 99).Therefore, Burlamaqui’s argument for the natural rights of all men is actually an argument for the natural rights of only a particular group of men.

Immanuel Kant, who wrote his essays forty years after Burlamaqui, viewed reason in a very different way. Instead of equating Reason with God or God’s will, Kant uses the word reason to refer to man’s ability to reason and to think. Kant argues in favor of developing citizens’ reasoning and thinking skills so that they can harness each individual’s “truth-finding power” (Heller Burlamaqui 2). In other words, Kant views reason and reasoning as an internal mechanism that needs to be practiced and developed because of its ability to reach and find truth.


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