The seventeenth century witnessed what has been called the “heroic” period in the development of modern natural law theory.1 Beginning with Hugo Grotius, Protestant thinkers began to experiment with scholastic natural law ideas to produce a distinctive and highly successful tradition of natural jurisprudence that would come to dominate European political thought. Viewed from the eighteenth century, the success of the tradition could be, and often was, taken for granted, but such retrospective views could often conceal the extent to which the early pioneers faced real challenges in their attempts to reconcile natural law ideas with the rigors of Protestant theology. In this context, Richard Cumberland is perhaps one of the great unsung heroes of the natural law tradition. Cumberland’s De Legibus Naturae constituted a critical intervention in the early debate over the role of natural jurisprudence at a moment when the natural law project was widely suspected of heterodoxy and incoherence.
Hugo Grotius’s work undoubtedly generated a great deal of interest among Protestant thinkers, but it also occasioned a critical response that threatened to undermine the whole project. The most dangerous writer in this respect was Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes simultaneously adapted and subverted the new jurisprudence, producing a theory that would become notorious for its apparent atheism and absolutism. As a result, early natural law writers were dogged by accusations of Hobbism, the charge that behind their attempts to forge a new tradition lay the reduction of moral and political obligation to self-interest alone. Cumberland’s De Legibus Naturae, with its sustained assault on Hobbes’s ideas, constituted one of the most important and influential responses to this damaging accusation. Cumberland not only produced one of the most effective critiques of Hobbes’s ideas, but he also used the opportunity to propose a new and distinctively scientific approach to questions of moral and political obligation. Cumberland’s achievement was to provide a much-needed defense of the natural jurisprudential project while laying important theoretical foundations for the work of such later writers as Clarke, Shaftesbury, and Hutcheson.2Richard Cumberland (1632?1718)3
Cumberland was born in London, the son of a Salisbury Court tailor. He attended St. Paul’s School, and in June 1649, barely five months after the execution of Charles I, he entered Magdalene College, Cambridge. At Magdalene, Cumberland supplemented his regular studies with a rich diet of natural philosophy, developing the scientific knowledge that informs almost every page of the De Legibus. Cumberland’s interest in the new science was crucial to his natural law theory; the union of natural philosophy and natural theology created the basis for his science of morality and his logical demonstration of divine obligation.