Natural Law in the Encyclopédie (1751-1772)

  • Joshua Kirby

Student thesis: Phd


Despite long-standing recognition that the constellation of ethical and political ideas developed by the seventeenth-century Natural Law School played an important part in the development of Enlightenment thought, the relationship between the two remains a fertile area of research in intellectual history. Filling a lacuna in existing scholarship, this thesis contends that central tenets of the ethical and political philosophies developed by the Natural Law School were appropriated by the more liberal and progressive contributors to the Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers (1751-1772); which is frequently considered to be the summa of Enlightenment thought, and emblematic of the conflict between the new 'philosophical spirit' and the traditional hierarchies, institutions, and values of the ancien régime.It argues that by establishing the loi naturelle and natural rights of the individual as the foundation of both ethics and politics in many of its articles, the Encyclopédie questions the certainty and validity of Catholicism as the basis for both, and that it therefore played an important role in undermining the moral authority of the Church as well as the political authority of the State. In particular, it asserts that the more liberal and humanitarian contributors to the project put the central tenets of Natural Law thinking into practice, in order to tackle and propose reform of what they perceive to be some of the worst injustices in contemporary society, namely with regard to the related questions of slavery and luxury. For those encyclopédistes who believe in universal rights and the loi naturelle, both the slave trade and the attitude of their contemporaries to luxury seem to embody values very different to those they wanted to promote; in their eyes both are representative of a society in which self-interest and the satisfaction of individual passions are valued over and above any consideration for the needs, welfare, and rights of others.
Date of Award1 Aug 2015
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorDavid Adams (Supervisor) & Peter Cooke (Supervisor)


  • Human rights
  • loi naturelle
  • Luxury
  • Jaucourt
  • Slavery
  • Diderot
  • Encyclopedie
  • Political Philosophy
  • Moral Philosophy
  • Ethics
  • Natural Law
  • Enlightenment
  • Justice

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