Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui

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Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui (24 June 1694 – 3 April 1748) was a Swiss legal and political theorist, who popularised a number of ideas propounded by other thinkers.

Born in Geneva, at the age of twenty-five he was designated honorary professor of ethics and the law of nature at the University of Geneva. Before taking up the appointment he travelled through France and England, and made the acquaintance of the most eminent writers of the period.

On his return he began to lecture, and soon gained a wide reputation, from the simplicity of his style and the precision of his views. He continued to lecture for fifteen years, when he was compelled on account of ill-health to resign. His fellow-citizens at once elected him a member of the council of state, and he gained as high a reputation for his practical sagacity as he had for his theoretical knowledge. He died at Geneva on the 3rd of April 1748.

His works were Principes du droit naturel (1747) and Principes du droit politique (1751). These have passed through many editions, and were very extensively used as text-books. Burlamaqui's style is simple and clear, and his arrangement of the material good. His fundamental principle may be described as rational utilitarianism, and represents a digest of the thoughts of like-minded theorists, particularly Richard Cumberland and Hugo Grotius.

Burlamaqui's treatise The Principles of Natural and Politic Law was translated into six languages (besides the original French) in sixty editions. His vision of constitutionalism had a major influence on the American Founders; for example, Burlamaqui’s understanding of checks and balances was much more sophisticated and practical than that of Montesquieu, in part because Burlamaqui’s theory contained the seed of judicial review. He was frequently quoted or paraphrased, sometimes with attribution and sometimes not, in political sermons during the pre-revolutionary era. He was the first philosopher to articulate the quest for happiness as a natural human right, a principle that Thomas Jefferson later restated in the Declaration of Independence."

Burlamaqui's description of European countries as forming "a kind of republic the members of which, independent but bound by common interest, come together to maintain order and liberty" is quoted by Michel Foucault in his 1978 lectures at the Collège de France, in the context of a discussion of diplomacy and the law of nations.

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