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The light of conscience: Jean Barbeyrac on moral, civil and religious authority

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posted on 2023-06-08, 14:04 authored by Sophie Bisset
Jean Barbeyrac (1674-1744) is best known for his annotated French translations of the natural law treatises of Hugo Grotius, Samuel Pufendorf and Richard Cumberland and has generally been understood through the prism of his interpretations of these. However, not only was he in fact an independent natural law thinker, who drew eclectically from a vast array of authors, synthesising their ideas to construct his own distinct theory; he also wrote extensively on morals and politics in other genres, works that have received very little attention and never been seen in their coherence with his natural law ideas. This thesis considers Barbeyrac as a thinker in his own right, drawing together all of his major and many of his minor works and situating them within a number of the wider contexts Barbeyrac inhabited: namely, as a Huguenot refugié, a member of the Republic of Letters and a professional academician. Barbeyrac’s central concern was the relationship between moral, civil and religious authority, and the core of his solution was a comprehensive concept of conscience that unified and naturalised man’s moral and religious duties and served as the source of authoritative moral judgement. The first three chapters of the dissertation focus on the structure of his natural law theory, arguing that the attempt to establish conscience as a comprehensive faculty of moral judgement caused intractable philosophical tensions, reflected in his innovative but inchoate theory of permissive natural law. The final two chapters extend this analysis beyond Barbeyrac’s natural law, arguing that despite his efforts to balance the potentially competing demands that arise when the authority of conscience comes into conflict with other sources of moral authority, namely ecclesiastical and civil, Barbeyrac had to insist that, ultimately, individuals must uphold the first and principal duty of natural law to follow the light of conscience.


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