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  • Natural Law and Laws of Nature in Early Modern Europe: Jurisprudence, Theology, Moral and Natural Philosophy
  • Sybil M. Jack
Daston, Lorraine and Michael Stolleis, eds, Natural Law and Laws of Nature in Early Modern Europe: Jurisprudence, Theology, Moral and Natural Philosophy, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2008; pp. 350; 3 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. £60.00; ISBN 9780754657613.

Drawing together experts from a range of backgrounds to examine a complex topic from a variety of perspectives is a difficult undertaking. Daston and Stolleis organized several workshops on the subject of natural law and laws of nature. The first outcome of the exchange of information and ideas that these produced has been this collection of stimulating essays on different elements of the subject. Individual scholars will seek out the essays that are particularly relevant to their own field and will not be disappointed, but the strength of the volume lies in the interaction between the writers that the workshops achieved, so that, for instance, the theological arguments that interact with the development of new scientific ideas suddenly clarify the matrix in which both were operating. Read with care, the volume casts light on most aspects of cultural, religious and intellectual life and their importance for the origins of the modern state.

The shifting meaning of the terms natural law and laws of nature has often been overlooked when historians write about the ideas of the Reformation or the economic and scientific revolution. Debate over 'how humans know' natural law was an issue for those now dubbed scientists, like Boyle and Newton, as well as for philosophers such as Descartes and lawyers like Leibniz and Grotius. Biblical exegesis is not routinely included in modern accounts of science but this is clearly an error. The essays tease out the true innovations in the changes of definition, particularly the move to connect natural laws with causal explanations. The editors summarize what resulted by saying that 'natural laws had become the glue that joined cause and effect in both the natural and moral realm' (p. 12).

In a volume where all sixteen contributions are impressive one can only pick out for special comment the ones that particularly resonate with one's personal interests. To me, Jean-Robert Armogathe's analysis of the theological matrix is crucial as is Michael Stolleis' investigation of the different ways in which law was itself legitimated. All the contributors are concerned to explain how a relative uniformity in medieval times broke down in the seventeenth century into competing explanations. Writers in the scientific strand, however, as Catherine Wilson makes clear, were not from the start in themselves philosophically coherent or in agreement. [End Page 204]

The range of areas in which the shift in definitions had an impact on the state as well as religion is well seen in Andreas Roth's essay on 'Crimen contra naturam'. Here Grotius' influence led to a shift in which punishment for sodomy, homosexuality, masturbation, bigamy, incest, parricide and suicide was to be limited to cases in which the crime disturbed social peace. Increasingly legality and morality were separated.

Anne-Charlotte Trepp shows how nature became critical as 'a central medium of early modern attribution of meaning and concepts of salvation' (p. 123). By examining three pastors and medical doctors who were not key philosophers, she demonstrates how ideas were incorporated into the perceptions of the more ordinary middle class of educated men.

Another essay that uses lesser-known people to considerable effect is Hubert Treiber's comparison of Matthias Bernegger and Richard Cumberland and their development of a physical concept of law. This is a concrete example of the discovery of laws deductively by a 'meticulous chronicling of natural particulars and variability' (p. 29) that is set out in Ian Maclean's essay on expressing nature's regularities in the late Renaissance. Certainty and security were goals in a number of the areas studied and here the role of mathematics is touched on although its underlying importance may merit greater attention.

One gap that might be filled in any later collection is the absence of an essay on medical thought, where there were changes that could be said to amount to a...


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