Skip to main content Accessibility help

John Selden, the Law of Nature, and the Origins of Government*

  • J. P. Sommerville (a1)


  • An abstract is not available for this content so a preview has been provided below. Please use the Get access link above for information on how to access this content.



Hide All

1 Milton, John, Areopagitica, in Visiak, E. H. (ed.), Milton: complete poetry & selected prose (London, 1969), p. 695.

2 Ogg, David (ed.), Ioannis Seldeni ad fletam dissertatio (Cambridge, 1925), p. lxvi.

3 Tuck, Richard, Natural rights theories: their origin and development (Cambridge, 1979), pp. 82100, and more generally pp. 81, 101–77.

4 Ibid. p. 96.

5 Ibid. p. 97.

6 Ibid. p. 93.

7 Ibid. p. 92.

8 Ibid. p. 94.

9 Ibid. p. 166.

10 Ibid. p. 93.

11 Ibid. p. 120; cf. Tully, James, ‘Current thinking about sixteenth-and seventeenth-century political theory’, in The Historical Journal, XXIV (1981), 475–84, at p. 479.

12 Richard Tuck, Natural rights theories, p. 95.

13 Ibid. pp. 90, 95.

14 Ibid. pp. 95–7.

15 Ibid. p. 96.

16 Ibid. p. 84.

17 Ibid. pp. 96, 93.

18 Selden, John, De jure naturali et gentium, iuxta disciplinam Ebraeorum, libri septem (London, 1640), preface: ‘Atqueenumeratis, turnex Ebraeis tume Christianis aliquot, Capitibus Juris Naturalis, quod Noachidarum ebraeis dicitur, Illustrioribus, absolvitur Liber Primus.’

19 Ibid. pp. 41–2: ‘Jura quedam certa ac definita, quae omnium hominum tarn Gentilium quam Judaeorum esse volunt communia … eis dicta … Praecepta seu Jura Noachidarum seu Filiorum posterorumve Noachi; quo nomine universum genus humanum, post diluvium, venire palam est.’

20 Ibid. p. 85: ‘Neque igitur e Plurimarum neque ex Omnium, tametsi mores earum exploratos haberemus, Gentium usu aut observatione, Jus illud Naturale atque Universale, maximc quod sibi perpetuo constans est et numquam non obligat, petendum est.’

21 Ibid. pp. 104–5: ‘Nimirum Jus proprie dictum omnimodum est aut Divinum aut Humanum. Divinum seu ab ipso Numine immediatum indicatum, praestitutum, imperatumque, aut Naturale est quale jam memoravimus ipsisque hominum initiis coaevum, aut Positivum seu recentius ac postea in utroque federe adjectum.’ Cf. ibid. p. 102. Tuck, Natural rights theories, p. 114, states that John Vaughan ‘suggested a totally Seldenian interpretation of the natural laws’ and quotes in support of this view the following passage: ‘“ Therefore to assent to the laws of the Deity is natural to men … Of the Natural Laws, in this sense given to all Mankind by the Deity, from the beginning of time, concerning Marriage and bodily knowledge, See excellent matter in that incomparable Work of Mr Selden, De jure naturali & gentium juxta disciplinam Ebraeorum … ”’ (p. 115) Dr Tuck does not explain how the natural law could be said to have been given to mankind both ‘“from the beginning of time’”, and also not until the time of the Noachidae.

22 Selden, De jure naturali, p. 109: ‘Solenne est in libris eorum Juridicis, quod et supra memoravimus, imperata esse Capita haec Noachidis (quo nomine genus humanum universum eis venit) ac imperata esse Adae seu primo parenti. Unde et haec nunquam non volunt obligare.’

23 Ibid. p. 119: ‘Priora Sex in ipsis rerum initiis homini imperata a Numine esse aiunt.’

24 Selden, , Titles of honor, (London, 1631), p. 4. Digges, Dudley, The unlawfulnesse of subjects taking up armes against their soveraigne, in what case soever (Oxford, 1643), p. 16 , refers to ‘that truth delivered by Cedren, who makes Adam the catholique Monarch’. This does not, of course, provide evidence that Selden influenced Digges, but it does serve to show that both authors on occasion came a lot closer to Filmerian patriarchalism than has usually been recognized.

25 Tuck, Natural rights theories, pp. 95, I66. At p. 87 Dr Tuck states that Selden ‘asserted that initially the earth had been given in common to Adam and his descendants, and that they had divided it between them’. He does not explain how, in a state of anarchy, Adam and his descendants could have divided the earth. Tully, James, A discourse on property: John Locke and his adversaries (Cambridge, 1980), p. 91, states that ‘Selden gives an historical account of the transition to private property. Private dominion was unknown in the “golden days” and seems to have first appeared after the Flood with Noah and his sons. After this “exchanges, buying and selling came into fashion” and Cain is said to “first set bounds to fields”.’ It should be noted that Cain lived before the Flood. Moreover, , Selden, , Of the Dominion or Ownership of the Seas, translated by Nedham, Marchamont (London, 1652), pp. 1920, argued that God made Adam ‘Lord of the whole World, not without such a peculiar possession or proprietie to himself, which (so far as wee are able to judg of the Affairs of that Age, according to the waies and means received by Posteritie) did exclude his children from all Right, but by this voluntarie Grant or Resignation.’ Selden, ibid. pp. 17–20, asserted that while private property was the rule before the Flood, communal property was introduced in Noah's time. This is the precise reverse of Professor Tully's interpretation. Since private property existed before the Flood, the world at that time could manifestly not have been anarchic. An accurate rendition and stimulating critique of Selden's views on property is to be found in the eighth chapter of Filmer's Patriarcha, in Patriarcha and other political works, ed. Laslett, Peter (Oxford, 1949), pp. 63–6.

26 Selden, , Titles of honor (1631), p. 4. The italics are mine.

27 SirPollock, Frederick (ed.), Table talk of John Selden (London, 1927), p. 54.

28 Selden, De jure naturali, p. 109: ‘Hoc autem bifariam concipi potest. Aut scilicet intelligere eos ejusdem Juris capita tum in ipsis rebus initiis tum in ea quae fuit post diluvium instauratione Humano generi, ipsa Sanctissima Numinis Voce, fuisse imperata atque ad posteros per Traditionem solum inde manasse; aut tum fuisse Humano generi in ipsa creatione praestituta, tum Animae simul cuique Rationale facultatem ejusmodi inditam naturaliter esse ut homini cuilibet mentis non depravatae nee male se habenti ac diligenter satis et rite intuenti, ea quae sic imperata sint nee unquam sint non observanda, sicut et in demonstrativis principia ac theoremata, indicentur et fiant manifesta.’

29 There is no obvious English equivalent for this term, though ‘intellectual agency’, ‘active intellect’ and ‘abstractive intellectual power’ are possible renditions. The medieval debate on the ‘intellectus agens’ is discussed in Copleston, Frederick, A history of medieval philosophy, paperback edition, 2 vols. (New York, 1962), at, for example I, 218–19, 223, 253, 313; II, 109–10, 170, 176.

30 Selden, De jure naturali, p. III: ‘Atque ut in lumine claro et quemadmodum oportet incidente, oculo nullo modo se male habenti nee incommode posito objecta recte satis internoscuntur, quod non sit in tenebris, aut obscuro lumine, aut oculo aegro aut male sive se habente sive collocato, ita etiam menti seu intellectui humano non depravato ac diligentius intuenti Intellectus Agentis ope illuminante, Imperata ilia quae ex Naturae parentis institute sunt observanda uti et cetera etiam intellectus objecta (tarn scilicet Vera ac falsa quam Bona et mala) indicari.’

32 Ibid. p. 113: ‘manationem solummodo seu irradiationem…divinam’. ‘Non partem animae seu ejusce facultatem fuisse Intellectum Agentem, sed ipsum Numen sanctissimum quod immediate illuminaret, statuere vetustiores illae scholae.’

33 Ibid. p. 115: ‘Adeo ut inde magis invalescere coeperit sententia altera, nempe Intellectum Agentem esse partem Animae seu naturalem ejusdem facultatem, aut non formam separatam seu assistentem sed informantem ut in scholis ioquuntur.’

34 Ibid. p. 116.

35 Ibid.: ‘Ceterum et qui animae humanae partem esse faciunt, ipsi assistentem seu perpetuo indicantem intellectum Deum itidem esse volunt, “a quo lumen intellectuale ea participat”, ut Thomae verba sunt; qui item, inde, quemadmodum et alii, legem Naturalem “participationem legis aeternae in rationali creatura” (ut capite superiori etiam occurrit) appellat.’ At p. 102 he endorses this position and cites in its favour Aquinas, Molina and Suarez. The quotations from Aquinas are to be found in Summa tkeologiae, la, q.79, art. 4, and ia2ae, q.o,i, art. 2, ed. Gilby, Thomas et al. (London, 1964), xi, 160, and xxviii, 22.

36 Ibid. ‘Quomodocunque autem physice circa haec fuerit statuendum, certe in idem satis recidit, quantum ad rem quae prae manibus est, sive Numen ipsum sive Ministrum aliquem ex ejusdem autoritate intermedium sive Animae Humanae Partem seu Facultatem Intellectum Agentem facias; cum scilicet etiam qui partem seu facultatem Animae ilium faciunt, ipsi a Numine velut Oculo a sole Lumen intelligendi affulgere decernant, adeoque quae naturaliter Bona sint, quae Mala, ab ejusmodi illuminatione divina Rationi ac Intellectui humano rite disposito per Indicationem cum Imperio irishman.’ Selden's account is closely paralleled in Taylor, Jeremy, Ductor duhilanium, bk 2, ch. i, rule i, sect. 39, in The whole works of the right Rev. Jeremy Taylor, D.D., 10 vols., ix (London, 1851), 298: ‘In this whole affair, God is as the sun, and the conscience as the eye: or else God or some angel from Him being the inteUectus agens did inform our reason, supplying the place of natural faculties and being a continual monitor (as the Jews generally believe, and some Christians, especially about three or four ages since).’

37 Selden, Dejure naturali, pp. 86, 89. It was not reason assisted by God but unaided reason and the actual practice of nations which Selden held to be fallible guides to God's natural law.

38 Ibid. p. 48: ‘Unde et bene Theologi interdum obligationem Jurisconsultis Caesareis Naturalem dictam, eandem cum nudo conscientiae nexu seu eo quo ad jussa Numinis implenda tenemur, faciunt.' The theologians whom Selden cites on this point are the Jesuits Suarez and Lessius.

39 Ibid. p. 46.

40 Ibid. pp. 92–3: ‘Quin Ratio, quatenus talis solum et simplex, suadet et demonstrat, non jubet aut ad officium, nisi superioris eo qui jubetur accedat simul autoritas, obligat.’ I have adopted Dr Tuck's translation of this passage, Natural rights theories, pp. 93–4.

41 Selden, Dejure naturali, pp. 48–9.

42 Selden, Of the dominion or ownership of the seas, pp. 12–13. My italics.

43 Tuck, Natural rights theories, portrays Selden as maintaining both that ‘Punishmen t was… something the prospective incurring of which constituted being in a state of obligation’ (p. 92), an d that ‘obligation is constituted by fear of a prospective punishment’. It is obvious, however, that a prospective punishment is not identical with fear of a prospective punishment.

44 Sir Frederick Pollock (ed.), Table talk of John Selden, p. 68: ‘Ignorance of the law excuses no man.’ It is difficult to see how we can fear the penalty if we are ignorant of the law. So fear of the penalty clearly cannot constitute the obligation to obey the law.

45 Selden, Dejure naturali, p. 38: ‘Neque, opinor, an Jura ac Officia Naturalia seu Universalia inibi quidem utcunque contineantur dubitabit mortalium, quibus Juris illud corpus innotuit, quisquam praeter alastores illos atque Humani generis pestes, quibus nee sine philosophorum aliquot veterum patrocinio, Naturalia seu Hominum Communia nulla sunt Jura, nihil natura aut per se justum aut injustum, Turpe aut Honestum habetur, sed Arbitrio, Utilitate, ac Virium humanarum, spreto omnino Juris nomine, Potestate, omninomoda sic dicta tantummodo subniti videntur.’ Cf. Selden's comments on Carneades in Ibid. p. 81.

46 Tuck, Natural rights theories, p. 93

47 That later thinkers acknowledged this is shown not only by Cumberland, Richard, De legibus naturae disquisitio philosophica (London, 1672), sig aza, quoted in Tuck, Natural rights theories, p. 165, n. 21, but also by Stillingfleet, Edward, Irenicum: A weapon-salve, 2nd edn, (1662), p. 15: ‘yet I say, it is not bare reason which binds men to the doing of those things commanded in that Law, but as it is expressive of an eternall Law, and deduceth its obligation from thence. And so this Law, if we respect the rise, extent, and immutability of it, may be call 'd deservedly the Law of Nature; but if we look at the emanation, efflux, and originall of it, it is a divine Law.’ The margin refers to ‘Selden dejure nat. apud Ebrae. lib. I.e. 7 & 8.’ – that is to say, to the passages that we have discussed.

48 Cf. Selden's remarks in Sir Frederick Pollock (ed.), Table talk of John Selden: ‘Thejesuite s and the Lawyers of ffrance and the Low Country men have engrossed all learning, the rest of the world make nothing but Homilies’ (p. 71); ‘Popish Bookes teach and informe what wee know; we know much out of them; the ffathers; Church story, Schoolmen; all may passe for popish Bookes and if you take away them: what learning will you leave…?… Those puritan Preachers; if they have any thing Good; they have it out of popish Bookes’ (p. 23). Dr Tuck states that Selden's intellectual background was ‘Protestant, humanist and Aristotelian’ (Natural rights theories, p. 82). Selden was also, however, heavily indebted to Catholic and scholastic writers, and might perhaps be better described as an eclectic than as a Protestant humanist.

49 A brief account of this kind of theory is to be found in Frederick Copleston, A history of philosophy, III: Late mediaeval and renaissance philosophy, paperback edition, 2 vols. (New York, 1963). PP. 135–8, 215–22.

50 Selden, , Titles of honor (London, 1614), pp. 23. Selden repeats the Aristotelian thesis that men are naturally sociable in De Synedriis, 3 vols. (London, 1650), 1, 23, arguing that even if there were no historical record of magistracy amongst the Jews in the time of the Judges it would still be evident that it had existed, for man is a political animal: ‘Utrum autem Praefecturae fuerint illis tune temporis Juridicae, tametsi nulla omnino restarent earundem in sacris literis alibive vestigia, non magis esset dubitandum, quam utrum in societatem vitae Civilem coalescerent tune ipsi atque animalia, ut genus humanum reliquum, essent politica’

51 Selden, Titles of honor, pp. 4–5. Interestingly, Selden cites Machiavelli's Discourses to support his thesis that democracy was the original form of government.

52 Sir Frederick Pollock, ed., Table talk of John Selden, p. 137. Similar statements arc to be found in Hooker, The laws of ecclesiastical polity, vIII (11) 10, in The works of that learned and judicious divine Mr Richard Hooker, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1885), 11, 501, and in Weston, Edward, Iuris pontificii sanctuarium (n.p., 1613), pp. 207, 225.

53 Selden, , Jani Anglorum facies altera (London, 1610), pp. 123–6, translated by Westcot, R. in Tracts written by John Selden (London, 1683), pp. 93–4. The point about the three estates occurs at p. 94 of the latter book: ‘These Assemblies do now sit in great State, which with a wonderful harmony of the Three Estates, the King, the Lords and the Commons, or Deputies of the People, are joyned together.’ The original Latin is at p. 126 of Jani Anglorum fades altera.

54 Selden, , Titles of honor (1631), sig. †4a.

55 Ibid. pp. 4–5, 11.

56 Ibid. p. 10.

57 Ibid. p. 632. His earlier views on the history of parliament are set out in Jani Anglorum facies altera, pp. 123–6.

58 Sir Frederick Pollock (ed.), Table talk of John Selden, p. 64.

59 Sir Frederick Pollock (ed.), Table talk of John Selden, p. 92.

60 Selden, De jure naturali, pp. 92–4.

61 Ibid. pp. 93–4: ‘Quin et in quicquid simul Omnes etiam se obligari quacunque ratione velint, eo pariter et Omnes se solvere rite posse nemo non videt, nisi etiam superior aliqua [sic] homine autoritas ipsos ita velit manere obligatos.’

62 Ibid. p. 108, similarly construes Romans 13 as showing that the obligation to obey human laws entails an obligation to obey divine law. Amongst the authors whom Selden cites upon this matter are the Catholics Aquinas, Suarez, Azorius and Bellarmine.

63 According to the Jesuit Suarez, since men were at first free (that is to say no man was subject to another, though all were of course subject to God), they could gather together in a community only ‘by common consent’, and ‘by the will of all who were assembled therein’: Francisco Suarez, De legibus, III, ii, 4, and 111, ii, 3, translated in Williams, G. L. (ed.), Selections from three works of F. Suarez, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1944), 11, 374–5. In Defensio fidei catholicae, III, 3, 3, in Opera omnia, 28 vols. (Paris 1856–78), vol. XXIV, the same author states that ‘just contracts and agreements are to be kept’: ‘pacta et conventa justa servanda sunt’. According to the Protestant Vaughan, William, ‘a Common-wealth is a societie of free men, united together by a generall consent’ (The Golden-grove, moralized in three Bookes, 2nd edn (London, 1608), sig. R.5a-b). The important question was not whether free men had to renounce their liberty in order to enter civil society – it was obvious that they did – but whether the powers of the society or its governors were derived from such a renunciation. The common view (from which there is no reason to think that Selden diverged) was that they were not. Donne, John, Pseudo-martyr (London, 1610), p. 83, is typical in this respect: ‘If a companie of Savages, should consent and concurre to a civill maner of living, Magistracie, and Superioritie, would necessarily, and naturally, and Divinely grow out of this consent.’

64 Dr Tuck contends, indeed, that Selden regarded the jus zelotarum by which private men amongst the Jews might kill notorious criminals as ‘a relic of this originally universal right’ (Natural rights theories, p. 96). It seems, however, that Selden regarded the jus zelotarum as a purely Jewish custom, originating with Moses' return from Mount Sinai. In any case, it could not properly be regarded as a private right, and Selden took pains to point out that it could be exercised only on public authority and in accordance with the Mosaic law: ‘Origo unde manavit pendebatque jus hoc zelotarum, dicitur, ut non pauca recepti juris alia, traditio Mosis e Sinai’ (p. 488); discussing the misuse of this right by some Jews, Selden states: ‘Neque novum est nefarios homines patrii juris obtentu, qualecunque id fuerit, flagitia sua obtegere, ut scelesti illi hujus juris Zelotarum obtentu fecere. Quo tamen dum pii atque sancti utebantur, privati quidem ipsi, sed publica nixi autoritate atque moribus e majorum disciplina receptis, bene consultum est et numinis, et templi, et gentis sanctitati, quam tueri volebant atque inviolatam servare. Nee injuria vis inferebatur, quia patriis legibus, etiam a Mosis aevo deductis, ut ita inferri liceret, sic stabilitum' (p. 490) (De jure naturali).

65 Tuck, Natural rights theories, p. 85.

66 Selden, , Opera omnia, ed. Wilkins, D., 4 vols. (London, 1726), III, col. 1361, quoted in Tuck, Natural rights theories, p. 85. Dr Tuck may indeed be correct to read into this statement ‘tones of mock innocence’, for Selden was no champion of the clergy's claims. He took great pains, however, to avoid any formal denial of the jure divino status of tithes. Downing, Calybute, A discourse of the state ecclesiastically 2nd edn (Oxford, 1634), p. 88, was right to speak of Seldcn's work on tithes in the following manner: ‘I doe not beleeve that any can finde that hee ever delivers his judgement, denying them to bee jure divino… For his Historie is onely de facto, what hath beene done; he gives not his judgement de jure, what ought to have beene done.’

67 Tuck, Natural rights theories, p. 84.

68 Selden's notes to his edition of SirFortescue, John, De laudibus legum Angliae (London, 1616), p. 49.

69 Selden, Jani Anglorum facies altera, p. 31: ‘Scelus, et confusa nimium Naturae iura!’

* I am much indebted to Professors G. R. Elton and Quentin Skinner, and Mr Martin Dzelzainis, for kindly reading and commenting on a draft of this paper.

John Selden, the Law of Nature, and the Origins of Government*

  • J. P. Sommerville (a1)


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed