from Of the Law of Nature and Nations


Samuel von Pufendorf was born into a long line of Lutheran clergy in Saxony. He studied at the universities of Leipzig and Jena, shifting from early studies in theology to philosophy, philology, history, and law. While he was working as a tutor for the Swedish ambassador in Copenhagen, Denmark, war broke out between the two countries; Pufendorf was subsequently arrested and spent eight months in prison. During this time, he began his first book on the principles of law.

Seven years later, at the request of the king of Sweden, Pufendorf took up a full professorship at the University of Lund. It was here that Pufendorf published his major work, Of the Law of Nature and Nations (1672). By examining national and international law, Pufendorf argued that every individual, by virtue of his or her innate human dignity, had a right to freedom and equality. In believing that self-interest is the source of action in society, he viewed slavery as unnatural and unreasonable. Pufendorf was influenced by Thomas Hobbes, who also placed emphasis on “nature” as a basis for ethical relationships. Unlike Hobbes, however, Pufendorf assumed that the state of nature is peaceful, not hostile. Pufendorf held the secular view that natural law and ethical principles stem from human reason, and that law and ethics should concern man in his social context.

In the section entitled “On the Duties of Man Towards Himself in the Cultivation of His Mind as Well as in the Care of His Body and of His Life,” Pufendorf addresses the specific matters of “whether there be any obligation to preserve one’s life” and “whether suicide be lawful” by analyzing the works of previous philosophers, many of whose views he rejects. In this discussion, which provides evidence of his voluminous scholarship, he appears to answer secular arguments with religious ones, arguing that suicide is an injury to God and to the human race, and insists that the law of nature requires self-preservation. He considers situations in which one person takes risks to save the life of another, or where a disgraceful death may be avoided, or where a person lets himself be killed by another, but denies “the absolute power of a man over his own life.”

In 1677, Pufendorf abandoned his writings on law and went to Stockholm where he became the royal historiographer, writing a 33-volume history of Sweden. In 1688, he moved to Berlin where he continued to write histories. Pufendorf’s works were standards for students of history and law, but fell into obscurity after the 18th century.


Samuel von Pufendorf [Puffendorf], Of the Law of Nature and Nations, tr. Basil Kennett, 3rd ed. Printed for R. Sare, R. Bonwicke, T. Goodwyn, J. Walthoe, M. Wotton, S. Manschip, R. Wilkin, B. Tooke, R. Smith, T. Ward, and W. Churchill, London 1717. Book II, Ch. 4, sections 16-19: “The Duties of Man with Regard to Himself,” pp. 177-182. Spelling modernized; internal citations, footnotes and Greek passages deleted.



On the Duties of Man Towards Himself in the Cultivation of his Mind as well as in the Care of his Body and of his Life

How passionately every man loves his own life, and how heartily he studies the security and preservation of it, is evident beyond dispute. But it will admit of a debate whether the bare natural instinct which he enjoys in common with beasts, inclines him to these desires; or whether he is not engaged in them by some superior command of the law of nature. For, in as much as no one can, in a legal sense, stand obliged to himself, such a law seems to be of no force or significance which is terminated in my self, which I can dispense with when I please, and by the breach of which I do no one an injury. Besides, it looks like a needless thing to establish a law about this point, since the anxious tenderness of self-love would beforehand drive us so forcibly on the care of our own safety, as to render it almost impossible for us to act otherwise. If then a man were born only for himself, we confess it would be convenient that he should be left entirely to his own disposal, and be allowed to do whatever he pleased with himself. But since by the universal consent of all wise men it is acknowledged, that the Almighty Creator made man to serve him, and to set forth his glory in a more illustrious manner, by improving the good things committed to his trust; and since Society, for which a man is sent into the world, cannot be well exercised and maintained, unless every one, as much as in him lies, takes care of his own preservation; (the safety of the whole society of mankind, being a thing unintelligible, if the safety of each particular member were an indifferent point), it manifestly appears, that a man by throwing aside all care of his own life, though he cannot properly be said to injure himself, yet is highly injurious both to Almighty God, and to the general body of mankind.

It was not rightly inferred in the argument that we just now mentioned, that the law of nature did not concern itself with this matter, because instinct did before drive us on the like good resolution. We should rather imagine, that the force of instinct was superadded (as an able second) to the dictate of reason; as if this help alone could scarce make a tie strong enough to keep mankind together. For indeed, if we reflect on the troubles and miseries that constantly wait on human life, and do so far outweigh that little and mean portion of pleasure, which through a perpetual repetition, grows every day more flat and languid, so that we must needs loath it in every enjoyment; and if we consider farther, how many men have their days prolonged only to make them capable of more misfortunes and evils; who is there, almost, who would not rid himself of the burden of life, as soon as possible, if instinct did not render it so light and so sweet; or unless so much bitterness or so much terror were joined to our notion of death? And yet who is there almost who would not break through the bare opposition of instinct, had not the command of our Creator secured us with a much stronger bar and restraint? ‘Nature,’ says Quintillian, ‘hath invented this chief device for the preservation of mankind, to make us die unwillingly, thus enabling us to bear so vast a load of misfortunes as falls to our share, with some patience and quiet.’ And Socrates in Xenophon declares it to be … the artifice of a wise workman, or builder, ‘to have implanted in men a Desire of producing offspring; in women a desire of nursing and bringing them up; and in all, when brought up, a vast desire of living, and as a great a fear of death.’ And this last motive is the main security of every man from the violence of others. For how easy were it to kill, were it not so hard to die? Hence he presently becomes master of other men’s lives, who hath once arrived at the contempt of his own. And the regard that others have to their own safety, is the best defence of mine.

‘Tis a question of more difficulty, whether at all, or how far a man hath power over his own life, either to expose it to extreme danger, or to consume it by slow means and degrees or lastly, to end it in sudden and violent manner. Many of the Ancients allowed a man an absolute right in these points, and thought he might either voluntarily offer his life as a pledge for another’s, or devote it freely, without any such design of preserving the life of his friend; or whenever he grew weary of living, might prevent the tardiness of nature and fate. Pliny calls the ability to kill one’s self, the most excellent convenience, in the midst of so many torments of life. Whom we can by no means excuse from flat impiety, for daring to think so abjectly of the greatest gift of Heaven. It is our business to examine what seems most agreeable in this case, to the law of nature. And here we may take it first of all to be true beyond dispute, that since men both can and ought to apply their pains to the help and service of another; and since some certain kinds of labour, and an overstraining earnestness in any, may so affect the strength and vigour of a man, as to make old age and death come on much sooner, than if he had passed his days in softness, and in easy pursuits; any one may, without fault, voluntarily contract his life in some degree, upon account of obliging mankind more signally, by some extraordinary services and benefits. For since we do not only live to our selves, but to God, and to human society; if either the glory of our Creator, or the safety and good of the general community require the spending of our lives, we ought willingly to lay them out on such excellent uses. Pompey the Great, in a time of famine at Rome, when the officer who had the care of transporting the corn, as well as all his other friends, entreated him not to venture to sea in so stormy a season, nobly answered them, That I should go ‘tis necessary, but not that I should live. And Achilles in Homer, when his fate was put to his choice, preferred a hasty death in the glorious adventures of war, to the longest period of age, to be passed idly and ingloriously at home.

Farther, in as much as it frequently happens, that the lives of many men cannot be preserved, unless others expose themselves, on their behalf, to a probable danger of losing their own; this makes it evident, that the lawful governour may lay an injunction on any man in such cases, not to decline the danger upon pain of the severest punishment. And on this principle is founded the obligation of soldiers, which we shall enlarge upon in its proper place. ‘Tis a noble saying of Socrates in Plato’s Apology, In whatever station a man is fixed, either by his own choice, as judging it the best, or by the command of his superior; in that he ought resolutely to continue, and to undergo any danger that may assault him there; reckoning neither death nor any other evil so grievous, as cowardice and infamy.

Nor doth it seem at all repugnant either to natural reason, or to the Holy Scriptures, (which command us to lay down our lives for our brethren) that, without any such rigid injunction of a superior, a man should voluntarily expose himself to a probability of losing his life for others; provided he hath good hopes of thus procuring their safety, and that they are worthy of so dear a ransom: For it would be silly and senseless, that a man should venture his own life for another whom ‘tis impossible to preserve; and that a person of worth and excellence should sacrifice himself for the security of an insignificant paltry fellow. We conceive it then to be lawful, that a man may either give himself as a surety for another, especially for an innocent and worthy person, or as a hostage for the safety of many, in the case of treaties; upon pain of suffering death, if either the accused person does not appear, or the treaty be not observed. Though the other party to whom he stands bound on either of these accounts, cannot fairly put him to death upon such failure; as we shall elsewhere make out. But that those vain customs of men’s devoting themselves out of foolhardiness and ostentation (such as we observed to be in use amongst the Japanese), are contrary to the law of nature, we do not in the least doubt. For there can be no virtue in an action where there’s no reason. Nor do we pretend to maintain, that the law of nature obliges a man to prefer the lives of others to his own; especially supposing the cases and circumstances to be equal. For besides that the common inclination of mankind is an argument to the contrary, we might allege the testimony of witnesses beyond all exception, allowing a man to be always dearest to himself, and charity still to begin at home.

It remains that we examine, whether or no a man, at his own free pleasure, either when he grows weary of life, or on the account of avoiding some terrible impending evil, or some ignominious and certain death, may hasten his own fate, as a remedy to his present or to his future misfortunes. On this point we have a famous saying of Plato, in Phaedo, frequently mentioned with honour and commendation by Christian writers: … We are placed, as it were, upon the guard, in life; and a man must not rid himself of this charge or basely desert his post. Which Lactantius hath expressed more fully in his Divine Institutions; As, says he, we did not come into the world upon our own pleasure or choice, so neither must we quit our station otherwise than by the command of him who gave it us; who put us into this tenement of the body, with orders to dwell here, ‘til he should please to remove us. It is worth while to hear how Plato describes the self-murderer, whom he hath condemned to a disgraceful burial. He that kills himself, preventing by violence the stroke of fate, being forced to his end neither by the sentence of the judges, nor by any inevitable chance, nor on the account of defending his modesty in extreme danger; but thus unjustly condemning and executing himself, out of cowardice and unmanliness of spirit. Aristotle hath well seconded his master. To die, says he, either to get rid of poverty or of love or of any other trouble or hardship, is so far from being an act of courage, that it rather argues the meanest degree of fear. For ‘tis weakness to fly and to avoid those things which are hard and painful to be undergone. Grotius hath observed, that persons guilty of self-murder were excluded from decent honours of burial, both amongst the Gentiles and the Jews. But amongst the latter, one case is commonly excepted, and allowed as a just reason for killing one’s self; and that is when a man finds he shall otherwise be made a reproach to God, and to religion. For acknowledging the power over our lives not to be in our own hands, but in God’s, they took it for granted, that nothing but the will of God either manifest or presumptive, could excuse the design of anticipating our fate. As instances of this excepted case, they allege the examples of Sampson, who chose to die by his own strength, when he found the True Religion exposed to scorn in his person and misfortunes: and of Saul, who fell on his own sword, lest he should have been derided and insulted over by God’s and his enemies; and lest, if he should have yielded himself prisoner, the slavery of his country and kingdom should inevitably follow. For the Jews are of opinion, that Saul recovered his wisdom and honour, as to the last act of his life; in as much as after the ghost of Samuel had foretold his death in the battle, yet he refused not to engage for his country and for the law of his God; whence he merited eternal praise, even by the testimony ofDavid; who likewise commended so highly the piety of those men, who honoured their prince’s relics with a decent burial.

Some extend this exception and allowance to many other cases which bear a resemblance to the former. And the foundation they build upon is this, that as no man can be properly bound or obliged to himself, so no man can do an injury to himself, when he takes away his own life. As for a man’s being engaged by the Law of Nature to preserve himself, they say the reason of this is, because he is constituted and appointed by God for the maintenance of human society, which he must not by any means forsake, like an idle soldier, who runs away from the post assigned him in battle: And that therefore my obligation to save my own life, is not a debt to myself, but to God, and to the community of mankind. So that if that respect to God and to mankind be taken off and be removed, the care of my life is recommended to me only by sensitive instinct, which not rising to the force of a law, an action repugnant to it cannot be accounted sinful. On these considerations, they think the case of those persons deserves a favourable judgment, and at least a kind pity, rather than a rigorous censure, who lay violent hands upon themselves, when they see that they shall otherwise infallibly suffer a death of torture and ignominy from their enemies; since it cannot be for the interest of the public, that they must needs die in so infamous a manner: Or else, when they see such an injury likely to be offered to them, as if they undergo, they shall be ever after scorned and derided by the rest of mankind. Of the former sort are those who seeing themselves condemned to death, either by cruel enemies abroad, or bloody tyrants at home, have willfully prevented the stroke; either to avoid the tortures and the shame of a public execution, or to procure some benefit to their friends or families by this expedient. Thus Tacitus, giving an account of some of the accused persons under Tiberius, who made themselves away, observe, that the fear of the executioner rendered these acts very frequent. And that whereas such as suffered death in public, were denied the privilege of burial, and had their goods confiscated; those who died by their own hands were decently interred, and their last wills stood good with full effect; these indulgences serving as a reward for their haste. And here, by the way, we may remark, that Martial’s censure doth not always hold good,

‘Tis mad to die for fear of death;

For, as Aeschines hath well distinguished, To die is not so terrible, as to bear the infamy that attends some kinds of deaths.

The other sort of persons whose death we observed to be so favourably interpreted by some Casuists are those women and beautiful boys, who have killed themselves to avoid the violation of their chastity. And in their behalf, they urge this plausible excuse, that being assaulted with such a danger as they could not otherwise, unless by a miracle, escape, they might well conclude, that their Almighty Sovereign and General now gave them a dismission, and that they might well presume on the consent and leave of mankind, to whom they were already lost: it being no one’s interest that they should not anticipate their death for so little a time, to avoid the feeling of such tortures and abuses as might, perhaps, tempt them to yield to a more grievous sin: and in as much as it seemed unreasonable to condemn generous souls to such a necessity, as that they must wait for the sword of villains, who would enhance the bitterness of death, by their foul and ignominious usage.

But to leave this particular point without venturing at a determination; thus much we take to be evident, that those who voluntarily put an end to their own lives, either as tired out with the many troubles which commonly attend our mortal condition; or from an abhorrence of indignities and evils, which yet would not render them disgraceful members of human society; or through fear of such pains and torments as by resolutely enduring, they might have become useful examples to others; cannot be well cleared of the charge of sinning against the law of nature. Sir Thomas Moreseems to be of another opinion in his Utopia, but his reasons do not prevail with us to alter our judgment.

But those are, on all accounts, to be exempted from the crime of self-murder, who lay violent hands on themselves, under any disease robbing them of the use of reason. Many persons likewise who have run into voluntary destruction, upon an exceeding fright and consternation, have on that account been excused by moderate and candid judges.

It ought to be observed farther on this head, that it makes no difference whether a man kill himself, or force others to dispatch him. For he who at such a time, or on such occasion, ought not to die, is by no means excused, if he makes use of another man’s hands to procure his death; since what a man doth by another, he is supposed in law to have done himself, and must therefore bear the guilt or imputation of the fact. David was guilty of the death of Uriah, though he got it effected by the hands of the Ammonites. So were Pilate and Pharisees guilty of that of our Saviour, though they did not themselves fasten him to the cross, but ordered the soldiers to do it. Although the person who lends his hands to such a service, may likewise bring himself in for a share in the fault. For this reason we don’t admire the reflection which Florus makes on the deaths of Brutus and Cassius; Who, says he, doth not wonder, that these wise and great persons did not employ their own hands in their concluding strokes? Perhaps it was part of their persuasion, that they ought not to defile themselves by such attempts, but that in delivering their most holy and most pious souls from the confinement of their bodies, they should make use of their own judgment, in the intention, and of other men’s wickedness in execution. For if it were unlawful for them at that time to end their lives, it was indifferent whether they fell by their own, or by others’ violence. But if it were lawful, how can any wickedness or guilt be imputed to the servants who afflicted them? Though the historian might, in some measure, be excused, if the same custom were practised in his country, which Aeschines mentions amongst the Grecians, that if a person murdered himself, the hand that performed the deed was buried apart from the rest of the body.

To conclude, since we deny that a man hath absolute power over his own life, it is plain that we cannot approve of those laws, which in some countries either command or permit people to make themselves away. Such a law Diodorus Siculus reports to have been in force amongst the inhabitants of the island Ceylon, ordaining, “That the people should live only to such a number of years, which being run out, they eat a certain herb that put them into their long sleep, and dispatched them without the least sense of pain.” And thus too amongst the C[r]eans, all persons above sixty years old, were obliged by the laws to poison themselves, to supply food for the rest. Though Aelian gives this better reason for the practice; “that having arrived at such an age they were conscious to themselves, that they were no longer able to promote their country’s interest by their service; growing now towards stupidity and dotage.” Procopius relates a custom of the Heruli, by which those who were weakened and disabled, either by disease or age, voluntarily sent themselves out of the world: the wives hanging themselves at the tombs of their husbands, if they lost them in this manner…

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